Here’s a rad proposal
I don’t know how well you know my husband, but he is…well, I was going to say good hearted, I could say a lot of nice things but you can guess how I feel about him by the fact that I’m choosing to spend my life beside him.
Whatever else he is, he’s human. Which means there are a lot of not-great winds that pass through him. (Ha.) He’s done unkind things, embarrassing things been ignorant a time or two, or hurtful. Just like we all have. And you know what? He doesn’t linger over these things and neither should you or I. This is what he does, and it’s way more effective than shame, and lingering: He thinks about it. He might say “boop yourself, you’re wrong” at first (like I said, he’s not always the kindest), but he’ll keep thinking about it, and if there is truth to it, he won’t say anything but a few weeks later voila, his behavior has changed.
So he’s not afraid to be himself, and he’s not afraid of people reacting to him negatively, and because of this, people admire him. I know his mother, and he’s told me things about his childhood, and the way he thinks about the world, and suddenly it struck me why he’s such a prime example of fearless self-expression. He was never pressured to compromise himself. His mother taught him, first and foremost, to prize his intuition and never change for someone else without good reason. She taught him to prize his own integrity.
Easy for you to say, Janis.
Most of us start getting lessons about compromise early from our parents. It’s a loving impulse, their desire to soften the world for us in advance, but children are sponges. They don’t just absorb the good intentions. They take in the other messages right alongside it, one of which is “you are not sufficient, do not trust yourself, you cannot afford to be yourself.”
He never got offered the devil’s deal: betray yourself and those like you, become more identical to the dominant narrative, and your suffering will lessen. And he’s never needed it. For him, as for many non-queer white men, being treated respectfully is just how life works. It’s not something you long for; it just is.
Not so for most of us.
The more a woman is willing make her appearance and behavior appealing to men, the less awful she gets treated (by men and women alike); the more a woman protects herself like a hunted creature, the safer she is.
The more straight a gay person pretends to be, the less awful they get treated.
The more cisgender a trans person manages to appear, the less awful they get treated.
The more a black person is willing to conform their appearance and behavior to reassure white people–the more they’re willing to put their own experience aside to entertain and teach and offer undying, unquestioning, largely unreciprocated lifelong devotion to whites–the less awful they get treated.
The more a Mexican-American citizen is willing to denounce their fellow Mexicans for busting through the red tape, the less awful they get treated.
The more a Muslim is willing to hide the nature of their devotion to God, the less awful they get treated.
And there’s infighting because it’s hard to get everyone on the same page about what to do about the problems. And some people would rather just do what they have to do to make it right now. It’s sort of like when there’s a strike, and some people ignore the goals of the strike and the strategy and just barge in there because they really need the money. Individuals from each margin group will align themselves with the dominant group, often earning their loyalty in part by expressing open disdain for members of their own marginalized group. You can probably imagine how lame that would be, as a member of that person’s family, to be getting scorn from that direction too. On the one hand you can’t blame them, and on the other, it’s the deepest kind of betrayal.
…you see how this works. How does the world get to be this way? I guess it’s the natural state of man to try and take advantage of one another, to try and shame and bully ourselves and others into changing, to explore every avenue of success and opportunity, every possible mistake and bad idea along the way to what we really want, in short, to test out every possible route through life. Yes, I would call that the essential condition of being human. It has been for some time now, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to magically change any time soon.
So what do we do about it? Can I propose we finally play a different game than bashing each other’s heads in for picking the wrong philosophy of how to treat each other better?
Maybe you’ve been in places and situations where people met you right off the bat with disrespect and distrust.
That’s a great place to start. The feeling that people don’t like you just because you’re white, or because you’re a Christian, or because you’re rich, or male, or whatever. That they don’t listen to you because of it. That they don’t really see you. Take that feeling, sit with it. Use it as an access point. What does it feel like to move through the world like this?
What happened to you, exactly? Did total strangers greet you immediately with antagonism or violence? Open distrust and anger? Disgust and fear? Or was it more like thinly disguised suspicion and guardedness?
Did they make a crude joke or gestures implying something sexual or violent they’d like to do to you? Did they block your pathway or otherwise force you to engage with them after you’d already indicated you weren’t interested? Or did they just fail to extend you the usual kindnesses and civilities to which you’re used?
Did they begin friendly and turn ugly and start insulting you when it became clear you weren’t willing to cater to them? Did they openly wish for a world where they were allowed to violently disregard your will, treat you as they would treat any object in the way of their desires? Or did they just treat you like someone they don’t want to sit with at the lunch table?
Now imagine all of the stuff I just mentioned, all of that, has been happening to you in varying degrees and situations since you were very small, not just when you entered certain spaces, but as a possibility anywhere, everywhere, all the time. It could happen in the middle of something really difficult you’re going through, a romantic moment, an important interview. It could rear up while you’re standing before a jury, or when you answer a question wrong in school…
Imagine having to constantly watch yourself, because each of those oh-so-human moments we all experience inevitably becomes an excuse to vilify you, reinforce stereotypes about you, or patronize you. Imagine you could never escape those spaces. What if you were born into one of them and never allowed to leave it? What if you ran away from one unsafe place to another that promised to be safer, and when you got there all hopeful, you realized it was better, yes, but not by nearly enough. Like a transplant for a slightly-less-messed-up organ.
Someday, the tables might be turned completely, you know. The pendulum swings. It seemed like it was going to be the logical outcome, eventually. Christians, men, white people in general were starting to feel the burn of the public’s critical eye and they were not okay with it! Until thankfully everyone got distracted by the strange new reality show, King Trump the Babyfingered.
Could it someday be so unacceptable to be a Christian that your family pressures you to hide it in front of certain relatives? That they offer advice about how t rid yourself of it, suggest counseling, not even seeing why this is insulting?
What if parents force their children to undergo electrotherapy to try and free them from it?
Could wearing a cross someday invite the same harassment, violence, and scorn as wearing a hijab? Could Christian churches and Christian travelers abroad be
come a constant target for the much of the world’s anxieties over a changing economy?
Will white people someday get approved for a loan, or welcomed to check out an apartment online or over the phone, only to show up and suddenly everything is taken already, or there’s a problem with the application?
Will men one day be in constant danger of having their bodies engaged with in ways that they didn’t want or agree to? What if society at large behaved the same way about men coming home from war as it did about women recovering from rape, or a black child playing with a gun? Well, you invited it, wearing that outfit. Shouldn’t have been messing with that, should have put it down when the other guy said to.
Well, you know what, we do need to treat our veterans better. The only tables I like turning are the kind that play music. I don’t want the things I described for you. Neither do most people who have lived it. We may want it sometimes, like when we’re like “this sucks” and you don’t even know what we’re even talking about but you say “no it doesn’t” as though saying we aren’t hurting makes it true, or as though it doesn’t matter whether we’re actually hurting so long as you’re not expected to do anything about it.
Who wants this for anybody?
The world you’re so frightened of, the one you’re trying to prevent. What I’m trying to say is a lot of people have been living in it since birth.
Already living there, in that world you fight so hard to forestall.
Many of us don’t get very much time or space to heal, or grow a stronger sense of self, or learn how to stop being so incredibly hurt by and angry at the people who hurt us, the ones who say the world is fine the way it is, or that it was better, when people were even crueler to others.
We know membership in the various dominant demographics does not automatically make one a bad person, but when the majority of our bad experiences are with white/male/Christian etc, and a majority of our experiences with them in general (maybe a slim majority, maybe a large one) have some negative element to them, and when members of these groups, more often than not, think not-so-secretly that they’re better than us, and not only that, they have the means to get us to participate in that fantasy of our own inferiority, we feel it.
Yes, we do.
And maybe you can be understanding when some of that rage becomes your problem by association.
Remember that bully who took your lunch money, who made you feel small and powerless over and over again, not just in your heart but in front of everybody? Okay, forget that person, they’re like eternally ten years old, we’ll deal with them later.
Now remember the toady who did their dirty work for them? The one who wouldn’t stop with the “why are you hitting yourself?” The one who the bully was slightly less mean to than everybody else, but often openly disdainful of?
A toady isn’t as cruel as a bully. They don’t seek out targets, necessarily. They maybe wouldn’t be hurting anyone if there wasn’t a bully around to direct them. But once they’re given a target and a task, they set to it happily. Whether it’s over someone’s religion, race, sexual orientation, age, gender, level of education, the toadies will turn their anger, and street-level punishment, on whatever group the bully points a finger at.
And there are a lot of people the bully doesn’t want you to be nice to. There are a lot of people, if you believe the bully, that Jesus says we should punish, as he would punish us.
Look around. We live in a culture created by bullies, for bullies. Unless we’re willing to be full-blown bullies ourselves, (or our lotto numbers hit, or we ignore them, follow our intuition, and do what feels right in our hearts,) we don’t have even the slightest chance of ever succeeding.
You know it’s true.
So here’s what we do.
We ignore the bullies, stop doing what they say, stop treating them like they’re in charge of the group’s decisions.
We vow to each other “I will never be less nice to you just for being yourself.”
And then we all keep becoming nicer and nicer, and more and more ourselves.
And helping one another be nicer and nicer, and more and more ourselves.
Because Native Americans and peaceful protestors from around the country who have seen fit to stand up for the integrity of the treaties and the rights of the Native Americans and clean drinking water for our children are getting sprayed with fire hoses at night in sub-zero weather. They’re throwing tear gas and sound cannons at them. Law enforcement is doing this, not because of the law but despite it, on behalf of corporate interests. Not sacrificing things on behalf of humans in need: abusing humans on behalf of greed. There is a very dark thing at work here that has many, many people deaf to the suffering of others.
Please at least consider the irony as you sit down to celebrate this Thursday, of the way that United States law enforcement are choosing to “protect and serve” these brave souls protecting their sacred land.
Consider what our Founding Fathers taught us to do when we have tyranny’s boot on our neck. We have the whole world at our disposal. We have the ability to communicate with experts and invested citizens all around the country. We have the ability to determine the will of the citizenry without using their structures at all. Let’s work together to create a skin-and-bones government, the very minimum government with the maximum democracy, a government of the people, by the people, and for all the people.
Not just the ones who look right, act right, and strike us in just the right way.
God bless us, every one.