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Posts Tagged ‘Privilege’

There is No Such Thing as an Isolated Incident

In PeaceAble on July 18, 2016 at 8:24 am

Nothing occurs in a vacuum. Life is an ecological system. And in the age of ubiquitous social media we are ever more aware of how events are interconnected.

Whenever something terrible happens we naturally look for causes; but there is a tendency, especially in the current atmosphere of divisiveness, to look for causes that suit our various agendas. And there are some usual suspects for us to assemble: racism, out-of-control police, protesters, “he shouldn’t have resisted, had a gun, had a record,” “she was dressed provocatively,” gun control, lack of gun control, and so on ad infinitum. And as soon as we get enough people to agree that something specific is, indeed, the cause, a chancy prospect at best, then we vow to do something about it; and sometimes something specific to the agreed-upon cause is in fact done. But the problems, of course, aren’t actually solved.

First, let’s try to be honest with ourselves. We have not solved or erased or outgrown or moved into eras of post-anything. Our culture continues to harbor and express deep systemic strains of racism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia, religious fanaticism, militarism, and economic inequity and oppression. And that is not an exhaustive list. And let us also recognize that these are the diseases of the privileged and the powerful, but the symptoms are most notable in their effect on the disenfranchised and disempowered.

So, when a Muslim gunman shoots up a nightclub that caters to homosexuals and we try to decide if the cause is “radical Islam” or homophobia or mental illness or the American relationship with guns, or whatever; the answer is “YES!”  And when a clearly disturbed white man shoots up a church full of people of color and the pundits weigh in on whether it is properly an instance of mental illness or racism or right-wing Christian fanaticism, or (again) issues of gun control, or a media narrative that is helping to create an atmosphere of violent rhetoric and violent action, or any of a dozen other proposed causes; again the answer is “YES!” What we are seeing are not isolated instances of any one of those things, they are the meeting points of them all, and a whole raft of others that we haven’t even thought of.

And the truth is, I believe, that we all know this. We all know; and our cultural messages through our media and our general behavior confirm it and reinforce it every day. The American culture, as defined by the norms it establishes, is dominated by a white, male, Christian, oligarchic, individualist, and nationalist voice. And all attempts to counter that voice are met with suppression, dismissiveness, deliberate misrepresentation, and polarized divisiveness. Because all of those problems are things that challenge the cultural norm, and cultures are built on power, and power does not yield itself easily, and cultures change only very slowly.

But cultures do change. And they change most rapidly (for good and ill) when the masses of people subject to them begin to make the changes and insist upon them.

But does that mean we should not try to determine proximate causes and correct them? Do we have to say to ourselves that none of this will change until we change the whole culture? Of course not. But is necessary that we be careful not to get too caught up in one or another cause; that we should be careful and deliberate in our analysis of every incident – both major traumatic and catastrophic events and the smaller events of our daily lives – and see the broader picture as well as the immediate exigencies.

Keeping people on a no-fly list from purchasing guns won’t by itself prevent future mass shootings (or at least we won’t really know if it does, since one can’t prove a negative), but without a careful look at the very existence of a no-fly list and its relationship to our collective fear and easy suspicion of the other and the erosion of our basic civil liberties and the reality of the risks and dangers that we face, both from “others” and ourselves, it has the potential to make things worse. What, in other words, will be the cost to all of us if we get it wrong?

Arming police departments like military assault units and deploying them against citizens not only doesn’t solve the problems of violent confrontations, it exacerbates them. “All Lives Matter” isn’t a statement of inclusion and acceptance, it’s a failure to recognize that “Black Lives Matter” identifies a particular area of special need, and it attempts to diminish the very real and special importance of that need, and in doing so it makes the need greater and the problem worse rather than better.

The positive aspect of all this is that cultural change is always within our personal grasp. It is, in fact, the only place it’s ever been. But it requires us to strive consciously to practice every day what we claim to want in the world. Do you want less violence? Avoid the use of violent language, violent metaphors, and even small violent actions. Do you want a more equitable world? Stop holding onto what you don’t need, examine the degree of excess and privilege in your own life and try to spread a bit of it around to others who have less. Do you want us all to “just get along?” Pay attention to how your own actions and language create or encourage or unintentionally support bias, prejudice and discrimination (including in what you find funny or what click bait you chase, for example). Would you like to see a healthier world, the end to the terrible diseases that affect people? Examine where in your own life you choose to support unhealthy practices, and give some of your junk food money to health-focused charities or to support legislation and legislators fighting for better and less expensive heath care. Do you want to reduce the effect of hate in the world? Examine your own feelings of hatred and look inward for compassion, acceptance, forgiveness and love. Ask any question about what change you would like to see and look first at your own life to make those changes.

Once we begin to realize how challenging it can be to make the small but significant changes in our own lives, we can begin to see what needs to be done to bring about those changes in our communities, our nation, and our world. Perhaps we will see that the answers aren’t out there somewhere in the hands of a super hero who has the power to change it all. And perhaps we can see that most of what passes for solutions is at best just using a teaspoon to drain the ocean, and at worst, throwing gasoline on the fire. Because everything is connected, everything makes a difference, there are no isolated incidents and we are neither alone nor powerless.

On Rights and What’s Right

In Politics on April 29, 2016 at 4:04 pm

What if there are no “unalienable rights?”

The first ten amendments to the Constitution outline some fundamental rights, but we should be clear that those rights are granted by the Constitution. And the idea of those rights, including the idea that our rights are thus limited and unless the right to something is in the Constitution somewhere means that it doesn’t exist (the ninth amendment notwithstanding), is a powerful one. But what does all that really mean?

Rights are a human invention. They are neither natural nor God-given. Rights can only be “natural” if we believe that nature confers rights, but the natural, non-human world depends on neither morality nor ethics for its interactions. In a world of prey and predators there can be no right to life. And the idea that God grants us our rights depends on whether we believe in a god, and what sort of god we believe in. Because humans create and endow rights, they are almost always limited and poorly understood.

There are two fundamental principles regarding rights. The first is that something may be the right thing to do, even if it isn’t a right. The second, its converse, is that just because something is a right doesn’t mean that it is always right.

On balance, I think that we spend too much time trying to define rights and too little time trying to define what is right.

I don’t have to believe that everyone has a right to a basic minimum living wage in order to be convinced that making sure that everyone has the ability to live a decent life and participate in the nation’s economic life is a good idea. . A nation which systemically denies large segments of its people equitable access to and participation in its economic life is headed for more than just economic trouble. If a society genuinely cares about the welfare of its citizens, about the health of its economy, and about the stability of its culture, then seeing to it that every citizen has the means to participate meaningfully in the economy, and to avoid the many ills associated with cycles of poverty, then a living wage makes good sense as a part of that. It’s the right thing to do.

I don’t need to believe that access to affordable, effective health care is a human right in order to believe that it makes a lot of sense to keep the nation’s (and the world’s) populace as healthy as we can and to make it the work of government to ensure that. With or without a right to it, people clearly have a need for it; and a healthy, productive society is preferable to one in which preventable and treatable diseases waste billions of dollars of both personal and public wealth. Also, a society that cares for the needs of its people is less vulnerable to political and social unrest and more likely to promote not just good physical health, but greater levels of creativity, innovation and productivity over all. It’s the right thing to do.

I don’t need to believe (although I do) that universal suffrage and access to the voting booth is a right in order to believe that doing all we can to ensure that every citizen has access to the voting booth is essential to the health of our system of government. When we disenfranchise any of our citizens we cheapen our democracy. A government of the people needs the participation of all the people.

I don’t need to believe that a quality education for all our children is a basic right to believe that having a well-educated citizenry, capable of cultural sensitivity, creative expression, rational discourse, intelligent problem-solving and critical thinking can only improve the quality of our lives.

I don’t need to believe (although I do) that every adult human being has a right to enter into a marriage with another adult they choose in order to believe that a society that marginalizes any group of people and excludes them from the normal life of the community and equal protection under the law is a society that has lost its moral compass.

I could go on, but the point is that we don’t need to reduce every issue to a question of individual rights. We need to decide not just what people have a right to, but what it is right for us to do for them and for us.

And it is equally true that having a right to something is not an absolute guarantee that we will always get exactly what we want. It is inevitable that our individual rights will come into conflict. And when those conflicts occur it is the work of government, through its laws, to balance out those rights. And declaring something a right doesn’t necessarily make everything we do in the name of that right a good thing to do.

We already acknowledge that we have a right to free and open speech and assembly; but we have long recognized that some speech is so harmful that it cannot be allowed. We acknowledge that we have a right to believe as we will, but our Constitution tells us that we cannot impose those beliefs on others or enshrine them in the law.

It is a basic tenet of our culture that one person’s practice of his rights is limited when that practice harms others or when there is a conflict between the rights of individuals with different needs and different perspectives. It is the purpose of law to reduce that harm and to navigate those conflicts so that all our citizens can live together equitably.

In the same way, it is possible to believe that every citizen has a constitutionally guaranteed right to bear arms, but also to see that unlimited and unregulated weaponry poses a significant danger to us all. This country did the experiment with an openly armed citizenry in the nineteenth century and it didn’t work. People were not safer; so cities and towns enacted limitations on open weaponry within city limits because they saw and directly experienced the danger. We are seeing that danger again now in far too many tragic and terrible ways. There is no reason to believe that we are more mature, more capable of using the weapons safely and responsibly now than we were then, as individuals or as a society.

It is possible to believe that each person has the right to earn what wealth he can, but to see that great income inequity is not sustainable, and that great harm is done to both individuals and the entire society when there is too great a disparity between great wealth and great poverty, and no strong middle class. Certainly, unlimited wealth is not itself a right.

All my examples ignore, of course, any moral arguments that might be made. But morality implies a common basis for that morality and common understanding of what the moral standards are. A complex and diverse society is going to have trouble finding that much commonality. Moral obligations are best left to the individual conscience, whereas arguments about what might be “the right thing to do” can be made more objectively and with clearer reason.

We sometimes get so tied up in arguments about our rights that we forget to see that all rights have responsibilities of equal power and importance. We are not simply a loose collection of individuals coexisting within defined borders. We are citizens of a community, a nation, and a common culture of great diversity, but with the need to work cooperatively and rationally to solve our common problems, meet our personal and common needs, to share our common resources and to manage our conflicts. Unless we confer our rights on each other, every day, in all our actions; and unless we are willing to allow for compromise and accommodation when rights conflict; and unless we are willing claim no rights for ourselves that we are not willing to grant freely to others; then we effectively have no rights at all, only the privileges that come with power.

 

The “Joke’s” On Us

In PeaceAble on February 29, 2016 at 9:56 am

It has always been true that a society’s entertainment is one of the primary voices of its cultural norms. As a society’s focus shifts, its popular music, movies, literature, television and advertising reflect that shift. The entertainment media reflect more often than they create the rise is certain attitudes and behaviors. When a society feels especially afraid, for instance, or defenseless against large, terrible, uncertain dangers, there will be a rise in super hero movies, in television shows about heroic police, and ads that use those fears to sell everything from home alarm systems to pharmaceuticals to bullet-proof backpacks; not to mention guns. Because normative cultural messages reflect shifts in how we see ourselves and reality, and because social media have become so prominent I the dissemination of those messages, I am disturbed by the appearance of certain memes on my Facebook feed. Two recent “humor” trends illustrate the problem, but they are only the tip of the iceberg.

The Blond “Joke”: I thought we had settled this 30 years ago. There is nothing inherent in being a young, blond female that makes you dumb. And there is no joke, whether basically funny or not, that is made funnier by making the central character a dumb blond female. Yet I keep seeing the “jokes” popping up as click bait. Many of them seem harmless enough in the few sentences visible before you click on them, but it quickly becomes apparent that the authors feel comfortable once again in using this sort of irrelevant, pointless and insulting image as a basis for “humor.”  At a moment in history when we have a woman as a front runner for election to the presidency we are also seeing a resurgence of attacks on women’s right and women’s health, and the return of the dumb blond female “joke.” This is not a coincidence.

The “Funny” Mexican: As Donald Trump has been fanning the flames of racism and xenophobia in his presidential campaign (and his success has led his rivals to head down the same pyromaniac path), I have been seeing a Facebook meme that consists of a picture of a grossly grinning “Mexican” in a clownishly stereotypical serape and broad-brimmed hat, with various punch lines about how “Mexicans” speak English. We are being told that it is once again okay to use racial and cultural stereotypes to get laughs at other people’s expense. Again, as we try to engage in a national conversation about immigration, this is not a coincidence.

The argument being made by those who post such things, of course, is that everyone is too easily offended, and they are not going to be “politically correct.” You can fertilize an 18-hole golf course with those arguments.

If we seem to be more easily offended it is simply because we are becoming more conscious of the offenses. Before people pointed out that blackface on white people was offensive, there were already people of color who were greatly offended. Long before the Washington Redskins were being told that their team name and mascot were offensive, there were already First Nations people who were greatly offended. Long before Reese Witherspoon was “Legally Blonde,” generations of young blond women had to endure the offensiveness of such jokes. The only reason the rest of us were not aware of these offenses is that those who were offended were also marginalized, discriminated against, and shut out of the cultural messaging that was creating, reflecting, and perpetuating the offenses.

“Political Incorrectness,” like religion, is a refuge for scoundrels. The truth is that political correctness is a Loch Ness Monster. There will always be people who will believe in it and others who will be sure they’ve seen it, but it probably doesn’t really exist. Asking that we, as a culture and as a society, not do pointless, insensitive things that are hurtful and offensive to others is not political correctness, it’s maturity. As individuals we are expected to grow out of certain behaviors. Things that are cute in a 5-year-old are disgusting and immature in a 30-year-old. A society that continues to think that stereotyping of entire groups of people, discrimination against the “other” of the day, and the perpetuation of racist, sexist, xenophobic images and ideas is funny isn’t “politically incorrect,” it’s immature.

Now let me ask you. Are you someone who has reposted these sorts of memes and materials? Did you do so because you found them funny? Are you now feeling uncomfortable and perhaps, dare I suggest it, offended? There are times when every one of us might be reasonably offended by something. There isn’t anything wrong with that. If I were poking you with a stick, you would be right to feel pain. And you will feel that pain even if I do not intend to be poking you and I am not aware that I am poking you. You aren’t being “too sensitive.” And if you tell me that I am causing you pain, you would be rightly angered if I kept poking you because I thought it was funny, and even angrier if I told you that it was your pain that was wrong, not my behavior and I refused to be “Painfully Correct.”

There seems to be a growing sense in this political season that being offensive is a sign of honesty, of “telling it like it is,” and “speaking one’s mind.” In reality, it is a sign that we are regressing culturally. And we are easily made complicit in this regression. When we long for simpler times when the stereotypes of non-white, non-male, non-heterosexual and/or foreign people were fair game; when the objects of our humor were expected to simply recognize that not being white, male, heterosexual or American was justification enough for us to make fun of them; when “I was just joking” was legitimate cover for our insensitivity and offensiveness; then what we are really missing is our own culturally normalized superiority.

And as I close this argument, let me say that I am equally disturbed by those who make jokes about Trump supporters or Tea Party supporters as “Southern Hicks” who hump sheep and marry their cousins; or any “humor” that reinforces the polarizing, prejudicial attitudes that keep us from finding common ground on the high ground rather than the low. We can make a point of not telling these kinds of jokes, not laughing at them when others do (not even politely), and speaking up in protest against them. We are all responsible for the voices that define and reflect our culture.

Five Reasons I’m a Feminist

In PeaceAble on January 28, 2016 at 3:15 pm
  1. Because claiming I’m a humanist isn’t enough.

Feminism is not a subset of humanism. And humanism is not an umbrella term that excuses me from taking a specific position of advocacy with regard to the particular needs and concerns of women. I can, and feel that I need to be both a humanist and a feminist. The former says that I value and honor the human experience in its many and varied manifestations. The  latter says that I recognize that there is, nonetheless, within that human experience a significant degree of inequality, inequity, discrimination, disenfranchisement, and abuse directed at more than half of humankind as a direct consequence of their sex and their gender; and if I genuinely value and honor the particular experience of women, I need to work to change those things.

 

  1. Because claiming that I am an ally isn’t enough.

When you are someone’s ally, you stand beside them, you fight with them against a common enemy. There is nothing wrong with that; though, as a male I might be more properly called a collaborator than an ally. But one is an ally for the “other.” Being an ally suggests that I will fight alongside you, but I am not like you. And that can only take you just so far. I will certainly be an ally for women. I will do what I can to further the causes of women in this culture and in the world; but feminism requires that I not only support those things that will benefit women. It also requires me to understand that I am not really separate from them or those causes. As an ally I can empathize. As a feminist I must identify. I must see that there is no “other.” We are all the “other.”

I cannot escape the fact that I am a man. I don’t want to escape it. My life’s experience is shaped by the perspectives and influenced by the privileges and responsibilities that that fact embodies. It is likely that, in trying to explain my feminism or practice it, I have gotten some of it wrong. I know that I have certainly at times gotten things wrong with respect to the women in my life and my relationships with them. Part of the task of being a feminist is to make the effort to become more aware of those things and sensitive to them; to work to change in myself what I would change in the culture.

 

  3. Because I know the difference between “feminine” and “female.”

Slightly more than half of us are females by biological birth. I have no idea what percentage are female by personal identification. I do know that no one is fully feminine or fully masculine. The qualities we associate with the feminine are not the same as being a male or a female. This matters because when we discriminate against women it is at least partly because we associate the female with the qualities we have chosen to identify culturally as feminine and we are devaluing those qualities.

When I identify as a feminist, I am saying that what we do to women, what harms or benefits them, what diminishes them or elevates them has the same impact on us all. To discriminate against women is to discriminate against that which is feminine in me. To devalue women is to devalue the feminine in me. To honor and celebrate and work for equality for women is to do the same for the feminine in me.

Ours is a male dominant, male normative culture. The male/masculine voice is the dominant voice of the culture. As a male, I benefit from the privilege that dominant voice gives me. It is my responsibility, therefore, to use that voice to change the culture where I see that it does not function for the best interests of all; and to encourage the elevation of the feminine voice to its rightful, equal, place.

 

  1. Because there is power in the words we use.

Language is important. When we talk, for instance, about the Academy Awards and there is a best actor and a best actress, we know which is the more important award, because the words themselves tell us that “actress” is the diminutive form of “actor.” But if we were to call them the “best female actor” and “best male actor” there is at least the opportunity to see them as equally valuable. An actor is simply one who acts, regardless of sex or gender; and designating separate awards for a female and a male simply recognizes that each brings something slightly different to the endeavor. When we allow the term “feminism” to be marginalized, to be made to seem as though it only represents a small, radical group, then we can also marginalize the very real problems faced uniquely by women. Claiming the title for oneself, therefore, constitutes a small, but important act of affirmation that those problems are real and in need of resolution.

I am a humanist. I am an ally. I am a feminist. Each describes some different aspect of who I am in the world. Being one does not preclude my being another. I am a feminist because the culture is masculinist. I will be a feminist until it is possible to be both in equal measure.

5. Because it’s personal.

I have had a mother and grandmothers. I have had wives and daughters and sisters and nieces. I love some amazing women. And I know that statistically far more of them than I am aware have been raped, abused, and harassed. All of them have suffered some kind of discrimination because they are women. I have seen the impact of these things in the women whose stories I know. I know that the pain this causes me is not even close to what it has caused them. I also have a brand new granddaughter and I want to see the systemic sexism and misogyny of our culture end, so that being a woman is no longer a disability or a danger.

‘Tis the Season

In PeaceAble on November 27, 2015 at 12:12 pm

Yesterday I went out for a Thanksgiving dinner to a very nice restaurant (there were a great many open, but this was the only one that said a cancelled reservation would allow them to seat our party of three), where every table was filled with happy patrons, and an excellent chef and kitchen staff prepared some wonderful food, a delightful waitstaff brought out our meals quickly and pleasantly, the service staff kept tables cleared and dishes clean, and the managers oversaw everything with efficiency, good humor, and a warm and welcoming attitude.

On our way, we stopped to fill up the gas tank; and passed doughnut shops where we might have gotten coffee, and convenience stores where we might have picked up a few things for later.  In an emergency, we knew that we could count on emergency services, hospitals, police, or firefighters to be available.  We briefly considered whether we might forego the big dinner and just get a pizza; but were a bit disappointed to find no pizza places open.

We also passed places where some people less selfish than ourselves were providing Thanksgiving dinner for the homeless or impoverished, or for those who would otherwise be alone and without family or friends to share a meal.

And I wondered why there is always so much controversy about which big box stores would be open that afternoon to start their Christmas season sales. Why do so many people care if WalMart is open, but simply expect to be able to find places to get gasoline or some last minute items for their own celebrations? Why do they worry that some people might have to work, but simply expect that others will? How do they sit down to all the things they say they are grateful for, but not understand that having a day off may mean for others that they don’t get a day’s wages or a bit of overtime pay, and that may make the difference in whether they make the bills this month; and others may want to work so that they don’t sit home alone wondering what to do with themselves? Why do they not see that such complaints are privileged, first world problems; that forcing big box stores to close would not do very much to solve the real problems that other people face? Why do we all take so much for granted on a day when we are proclaiming our gratitude?

Is it simply because if we don’t need or want something then we assume that it is unnecessary for everyone? Is it because we assume that if we don’t desire something, or dislike it, then that feeling must be universal, or at least the norm? Do we assume that if we have something, like a loving family and plenty of food, and we value those things, that we can speak from our position of privilege for the needs of everyone else? Or is it even more selfish than that? Are we afraid, perhaps, that we will miss out on something? Someone else will get the really big deal, save some money on something we might have to spend more for later if they go to the stores and we don’t. Someone else will beat us to the punch somehow. Are we afraid that if the stores are open we might somehow be unable to resist their siren song?

Like so many things we argue about, the arguments about shopping on Thanksgiving are really about choices: what choices are available to us and to others; who decides; who’s in control; and what difference does it all make? Is my Thanksgiving made less enjoyable, less festive, less meaningful because someone else chooses to keep a store open or go shopping; but not affected at all by the knowledge that I am consuming in excess of what I need while others starve, holding court in a warm and comforting home while others struggle to survive, enjoying the pleasant company of family and friends while others huddle close to keep fear and violence and despair at bay?

There is nothing wrong with celebrating our gratitude for what we have. We have no need to feel guilty about that. For all the things we have that we know are not guaranteed us, we should be thankful; and setting aside a day to make that thankfulness manifest is a good and honest and even honorable thing. So do that. Make it real. Make it your own. Choose to spend the day however you wish. And let the rest go. In your gratitude for what you have, why inject unnecessary outrage about things that really aren’t about you? Maybe spend at least a few moments contemplating what you might do to make things better for those who do not have nearly as much to be grateful for.

All through the long fall and winter holiday season, we see all kinds of pointless complaints and imagined controversies erupting. Halloween celebrates the Devil. People might have to work on Thanksgiving. There’s a war on Christmas. People are saying “Happy holidays.” Everything is so commercialized (When is it not in our capitalist economy?). When is Hanukkah, anyway; and what the heck is Kwanzaa? Why can’t we put a cross or a crèche anywhere and everywhere we want? And once we’ve spent weeks in anger and outrage and spewing violent rhetoric, we will all proclaim our desire for peace on earth.

Maybe instead of looking for things to get in a twist about, we could begin to celebrate the season by actually doing things that promote that peace we say we so fervently hope for.

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.

How To Tell If You’re Privileged In America

In PeaceAble on July 4, 2015 at 4:09 pm

(This may be the most uncomfortable thing I have written to date, and if it makes you uncomfortable as well, I apologize for that; but I hope you will stay to the end, regardless.)

There has been quite a bit of talk lately about privilege; and a lot of folks who have been privileged don’t necessarily understand what it means to say they’re privileged, so they don’t understand how other people can say that they are. Now, first of all, it’s important to understand that the privilege being talked about isn’t about any particular individual, it’s about classes of individuals who benefit in sometimes subtle and sometimes obvious ways from privilege they may not even recognize they have. So here is a list of basic rules you can refer to in order to decide if you are a member of a privileged class in America.

  1. You began to feel outraged and attacked as soon as you read the headline to this article, because you were sure it was going to be about you.

The truth is that most people who are privileged (as well as those who are prejudiced, though the two don’t necessarily go together) know at some level that they are privileged; but they are uncomfortable with the idea and don’t want it pointed out to them. The kind of privilege I’m talking about here isn’t earned, it’s inherited by those whose parents have it. We know how lucky we are not to have been born “the other,” but want it to be a good thing, not something for which we are criticized and attacked. But all this does is put us unnecessarily on the defensive and make it even more likely that we will be seen as uncaring, self-important, prejudiced and undeserving of the privileges we have.

  1. You have never needed to hyphenate your citizenship and no one else has ever done it for you.

In other words, you have a choice about your own identity. You can be simply an American; or you can choose to identify some other aspect to include, such as Irish or Italian or Polish. But you won’t have that identity superimposed over your American-ness by other people in order to classify you as somehow a different kind of American. You are the standard by which “the other” is measured and to which it is compared.

  1. If you accomplish something no one feels the need to qualify what you did by some unrelated detail.

You are the CEO of your company, not the female CEO or the African-American CEO; and no one even notices that there is anything missing. While it is true that if you do something others have done before you, you don’t get the chance to be the first, but at the same time there is no apparent surprise that you did it at all. And the barriers to your doing it are fewer and less systemic than those encountered by other people who don’t have your privilege.

4. You think that things you consider a right when you do them are a privilege if other people are allowed to do them.

Until the Supreme Court’s recent ruling about same-sex marriages, every straight person in America knew that they had a right to marry whomever they chose, based on whatever reasons they wished to use. They married to have children, or to get security, or to establish a social or even an economic bond. They married so as not to be lonely, or because it was expected of them. And they often married because they had a bond of love and sexual attraction with their intended spouse. But when same-sex couples asked for the same right, they were told that they were creating a “special privilege” to which they weren’t entitled.

  1. You think that “tradition” is an unassailable argument for continuing to do something.

This is actually a specific and very common logical fallacy. It is the argument that because something has always been, it is supposed to be and should continue. But that simply argues against all change and all progress. Tradition is always the argument of the status quo and the status quo is the creation of the privileged. Our culture is defined by norms that are defined by those with the most power and the most privilege, and when those norms begin to change, the powerful and privileged feel threatened. “Tradition” is a way of saying that regardless of the objective merit of a change it is outweighed by the need to keep doing it the old way. This also keeps us from simply no longer doing something that doesn’t work simply because “we need to do something” and this is what it’s always been.

6. You think that “privilege” means “never have any problems,” so you resent someone saying that you’re privileged.

Let’s face it, even within the privileged classes there are problems and not everyone is treated equally. Often this is because privilege is multi-layered. The very wealthy have access to privilege that others don’t have, for example; but poverty is more likely to be a problem, or a much greater problem, for those who also lack other privilege, especially as part of a class that they cannot choose to enter. It is possible to get rich through hard work or luck, but if you’re Asian-American (note the hyphenization mentioned above) you can’t stop being that. For some people it might be possible to hide an “otherness” for a while, but it exacts an enormous psychological toll and the risks involved when your “other” identity is discovered can be enormous.

  1. You think that “privilege,” means “always get your own way,” and you don’t; and when you don’t get your own way you don’t understand why not.

If you are a Christian in America today, you get to have the name of the god you believe in included in public life from the national motto to the nation’s money to the Pledge of Allegiance; and you can simultaneously claim that the term refers to some generic god while knowing that virtually everyone is imagining your god when they see it. As a result, it is easy to imagine that the god you worship is the nation’s god or ought to be, and when others stand up and say “no” to that, you feel attacked and disempowered; which is exactly the way non-Christians feel every time they are required to use the name of your god in a public way. One of the unintended consequences of Affirmative Action was that white people became convinced that every time they lost out on a job or a college placement to a non-white it was because of color alone, not other qualifications. But this assumed two things that weren’t true. The first was that the white applicant must be more qualified than the non-white, a claim that was made even by objectively less qualified people. The second was that they were only competing against the non-white. I once had someone tell me that he had failed to get into college because the system favored non-white applicants, even though the percentages of non-white applicants and acceptances werestill far below their representation among all applicants and the general population.

  1. You still don’t really understand why you can’t discriminate against others, but think it’s reverse discrimination when you’re told you have to stop doing it.

I once joked that it took white men hundreds of years to come to the conclusion that discrimination against others was wrong, but no time at all to agree that no one should ever do it to them. Affirmative action is not an assault on the rights of white people, but it is definitely an assault on their unquestioned privilege. If we say that a long history of discrimination has been a bad thing and we aren’t going to allow it to continue, we cannot just say that we will begin today and everything will be fine. What has gone before has created conditions that continue to create problems unless we correct for them. There is no reset button that erases the systemic effects of prejudice and the disempowerment, disenfranchisement, discrimination, violence and abuse that it caused. There were always consequences for those who were discriminated against, and the consequences of correcting for that are not anywhere near as terrible. Nothing that the privileged are being asked to suffer in order to give all people access to that privilege and those rights will ever amount to anything close to the suffering that the others endured.

  1. You have ever used the phrase “those people,” or something like it when an individual does something you don’t like, but when someone like you does something bad you rush in to proclaim that #notall(peoplelikeme) do it.

This is the confusion of the general with the personal. Most rapists are male and most victims are female. Stating this is not a condemnation of all males, but a recognition that women, in general, have to deal with something that men, in general, do not. It is also a recognition that the problem is one that all men have to confront if the situation is going to change. It is not enough to say that I, personally, am not a rapist; I also have to look at how I, as a male, in a male-dominant culture, have some responsibility for changing that culture. My maleness gives me privilege, and that privilege gives me power. I can use that power either as an ally or an impediment for change.

  1. You are a straight white male.

This is the toughest one for a lot of people, especially straight white males, and a lot of the other rules perhaps help to explain this one, but I’ll begin with some basics. Straight white male is the cultural norm in America. Everything is ultimately about you, both for good and for ill. Whatever anyone else does, it is compared to you. In spite of the fact that there are more people in this country who are not straight white males than are, most positions of power, wealth and influence are held by people like you. The laws reflect your needs more than the needs of others. Because people like you wrote the Constitution, it has had to be revised, amended and reinterpreted over the past 200+ years in order to specifically include and meet the needs of those who are not like you.

Plus: You get to be a hero for doing very little.

Are you a straight white American male? Want people to praise you and hold you up as a model of progressive thought? It’s simple. Write something self-deprecating in praise of women. Put on a rainbow-flag shirt and attend a Pride parade. Vote for a woman for congress or the presidency and tell everyone else to do the same. Proclaim yourself an ally and correct people who express prejudicial opinions. Or do what I’ve just done and explain just how self-aware you are about your privilege. It’s easy. The truth is that I am writing from the same privilege that I am describing and there’s nothing I can do about it except to acknowledge it. The privileged don’t actually deserve a lot of praise for doing things to extend that privilege to others. It’s really just the simple, decent, moral thing to do, and only the privileged can do it. The heroes are those who have fought for decades and centuries and longer to reach the point where the privileged can now have the additional privilege of being praised for simply offering to share that privilege. Don’t hate me for being a straight white male, but don’t make me a hero for it, either.

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