Bubble, Bubble, Toil and Trouble

In Politics on October 8, 2015 at 5:38 pm

Let’s talk about bubbles.

I have been seeing a lot of talk about bubbles lately. Washington legislators and their minions live in the bubble of Washington politics. The wealthy live in the bubble of their wealth and influence. Gun legislation opponents live in a bubble created by the NRA and right-wing media. Liberals live in a bicoastal bubble of intellectual elitism.

I have just read an interesting article (“Yes, I know the context of this t-shirt and yes, it is still ridiculous,” by Shaun King, published on Daily Kos), which takes Meryl Streep and the cast of the movie Suffragette to task for wearing promotional t-shirts with the words “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave.” The writer is not alone in criticizing the particular quotation as being insensitive. Many people see the juxtaposition of the ideas of rebel and slave as offensive. And there is some evidence that Emmeline Pankhurst, one of the leaders and a public face of the suffragette movement, considered the conditions of women in Great Britain at the time to be worse than African slavery in America. And there is outrage at seeing the t-shirts on white-privileged actors.

The t-shirts are part of the promotional campaign for Suffragette, a new film that chronicles the early struggle over women’s right to vote in Britain in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The t-shirt quote is part of a longer, well known quote from Pankhurst. She depicts the struggle as a revolution, women as an oppressed minority, and the choice as one between rebellion and continued oppression and servitude.

But it is the writer’s core argument that has got me thinking. He argues that the privileged white women in the cast live in a bubble created by their whiteness and their privilege and they need to understand that their words and actions have consequences outside of that bubble. He argues that the fact that a great many people assumed that the t-shirt was a statement about slavery made by privileged white women outweighs the importance of considering the actual context of the statement.

I have two criticisms of this line of argument. First, living in a bubble of one’s own experience, one’s own communities, one’s own culture, is a basic part of the human condition; and it is one that applies just as much to the author of the article as it does to his subjects. Second, if we remove context from our consideration of what something means, then we take away one of the most important clues for understanding, and we make language entirely personal. Put those together and the author is essentially arguing that every message I encounter means what I say it means from my perspective, and it is unnecessary for me to consider anyone else’s perspective in order that we might properly understand one another.

Successful communication requires some work from all parties to it. It is not only the responsibility of the speaker to ensure proper interpretation of the message. The listener has some responsibility as well. People don’t seem very willing lately to do that work or take that responsibility. We declare that we know what something means and that’s all there is to it. We cherry pick the Bible and the Constitution. We choose the context in which we have decided the meaning really lies and proclaim that as the only important context. The important thing is that we are right.

This is especially dangerous in the context of the current polarization we are experiencing around what seems to be every possible difference, large and small, that might possibly divide us. The danger is further fueled by a bumper-sticker/meme mentality that encourages us to respond to sound bites rather than to consider even complete sentences and certainly not extended conversation. We’re in a hurry to argue, a rush to confront; and no hurry at all to compromise, understand, or reason. From “the right to bear arms” to “religious freedom” to “socialism” to “one nation under God” and a thousand other shorthand expressions, we speak to one another as though our first reaction is the right one and nuance is unthinkable.

But context is not fixed by either the speaker or the listener. When we claim that this or that is the only proper context in which to consider something, then we deny the reality of the depth and breadth of human communication and experience.

Consider some possible contexts for what the slogan is saying.

What do the words themselves actually say?  Taken out of any context except their literal meaning, what is the problem with proclaiming that “It is better to be a rebel than a slave”? Does the idea itself offend you? Do you disagree with it? I doubt that any reasonable person would declare that it is better to be a slave than a rebel. Yet it is the reality of the oppressed that they don’t see that it is possible to rebel, because the oppressor has taken steps to prevent it. The oppressor knows that slavery is subject not to the slave’s unwillingness to rebel, but by how dangerous the oppressor has made that rebellion. Isn’t this quotation essentially the same as “Give me liberty or give me death”? When the oppressed see that rebellion is the better choice, then oppression is in danger.

The quote is specific to the real life events and persons the movie depicts. Emmeline Parkhurst apparently did say that; and she was specifically referring to the very real social, economic and political conditions affecting women at that time. Is it really fair to take it out of that context and apply to it the nuances of contemporary sensitivities? We can look back nearly any historical period, event or personality and find things to be offended by if we judge them by contemporary standards. But what does that serve? Was Pankhurst any less a progressive and courageous figure in her own time because she doesn’t have the consciousness of ours?

The current ubiquity of public and social media means that we cannot control our audiences. This slogan and the photos of the film’s actors wearing the t-shirts are clearly intended for mass distribution, so there is certainly a need to consider multiple audiences. The message is almost certainly going to create controversy somewhere. I think we can be predict almost without contradiction that there are some white people somewhere who think that the slogan itself and the controversy around it is an attack on white people. I am sure that there are people muttering about political correctness, and others thinking that the t-shirts would look great while they walk around open-carrying their AR-15s to protect themselves from the tyranny the government. In a diverse culture there will be diverse responses. Some perspectives will have more validity, more importance, and more resonance than others. And it is fair to argue that our own perspective should take precedence. But if we want others to respect our perspective, then we ought to show theirs the same respect; provided that it is honestly presented, reasonable, and not ill-intended.

Comparing one oppressed group’s struggle to another’s is a common rhetorical technique. You may certainly quibble with the simile, but the suffragette movement would arguably have been less successful if its leaders had compared women’s suffrage to something less dramatic. Would the impact have been the same of “It is better to be a rebel than . . . well, something certainly not as bad as African slavery in the Americas, but bad enough nonetheless”? Currently there are certainly far too many attempts among certain groups to make out that everything they don’t like is the same as Hitler and the Nazis, or to suggest that slavery really wasn’t that all that bad, or to conflate every social program with a communist conspiracy of some kind. But this quote doesn’t do that. It doesn’t diminish the horrors of slavery, it simply refers to the idea as a benchmark for how bad things were.

Slavery continues to exist in the world, and women are particular victims of it. From international sex trafficking to third world sweatshops, and even to the practices of some unscrupulous employers of undocumented workers in this country, slavery is a world-wide problem that needs to be addressed. The slogan might certainly have resonance for millions of oppressed people. No one group and no single culture owns slavery. It wasn’t invented for Africans, nor ended when the American slaves were emancipated. If we see the words in the context of the lives of those who suffer even today, do they not have contemporary resonance? Could the slogan not easily have been the battle cry of the Syrian rebels?

The people wearing the t-shirts are all privileged white women. Yes they are. And they’re promoting a movie about mostly white women who were not so privileged, led by white women who, in their own time were also privileged by the standards of their society. But these aren’t a group of ignorant, insensitive snobs. They all appear to be intelligent, progressive, thoughtful people. One could certainly talk with them about the potential for offense and the need for sensitivity. It is certainly not necessary to condemn or vilify them. And it’s counterproductive. Disadvantaged and historically oppressed groups have recently been very vocal about the need for members of privileged classes to come out as allies in the fight for equality and acceptance for non-whites, for LGBTQ persons, for rape victims, for trafficking victims, and the list goes on. Isn’t there a real danger that those alliances get more difficult if we substitute outrage for reason?

We are currently engaged in a deeply divided debate in this country about things like systemic racism in the economy, in law enforcement, in immigration policy and in political representation, to name just a few. At a time when #BlackLivesMatter is seen as militancy and anti-white or anti-police, there is certainly a reasonable argument to be made that a greater degree of sensitivity to the needs and concerns of minority communities is required. But just as #BlackLivesMatter is not a statement that no other lives also matter, this t-shirt slogan is not a statement that the issues raised by #BlackLivesMatter are trivial or that we don’t have to work to resolve them. The slogan can stand as a statement about the themes explored in the film; and also as a statement about current economic, racial, gender and other inequities; and as a general statement about the need to help people to rise up against oppression wherever it occurs.

Like everyone else, I am reading the slogan and writing the response from within the bubble of my own experience, and I am a white male. If we are going to seek genuine understanding and real solutions to the issues that divide us, don’t we need to first acknowledge the limitations of our own perspectives? My knowledge and my appreciation of the experience of non-whites in America are limited by my own white skin. I can empathize but never really identify. I will, probably more often than I know, say or do things that make sense to me, but will cause discomfort or offense in others. If I do, then I am more than happy to hear how they have been affected. But I want to hear about their experience of my words, not their judgments about me or my bubble.

The author of the article is, I infer, male. Shaun would be an unusual name for a female.   Some language in the article suggests to me that he is not a white man. Beyond that I know nothing about him except that he publishes his writing on Daily Kos, a liberal website. So what are the bubbles within which he lives? Clearly there are things that seem self-evident to me that might seem entirely wrong to him; and yet we would probably agree on eighty or ninety percent of the positions we might take on important issues of race, equity, privilege, media and messaging, and a host of others.

So, from the parts of our perspectives that we do not share, we disagree about this slogan and whether these women ought to be wearing it on their t-shirts. But I think that in the larger picture we will find that our need for each other in solving the real problems is more important than our rhetorical disagreement.

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