Happy Readings While Wishing for More Time

Even when this post was just a wee little comment, it rung with me and I’ve been hoping since I read it to blog about it, but time just doesn’t seem to be getting any more plentiful these days (what’s up with that?). Kay Olson on bastard.logic:

In being effective allies, I don’t believe empathy can get us where we want to go. It’s a good place to start. Probably the best and only place to begin, but even with a generous definition of empathy as something that encompasses all manner of attempt to put oneself in another’s shoes, it still relies on the limits of an individual’s imagination. One has to be able to think of whose shoes to stand in and have some inkling of how they might feel. And privilege limits imagination.

Privilege is the ability to look around a room and not notice who is missing, because they weren’t invited, couldn’t take time off work, didn’t have the means to get there, or weren’t allowed in the building because of, oh, dress code or lack of ramps

Pretty brilliant stuff, actually. Because isn’t it nice when you’re in that room with all your friends, and you guys all manage to find warm fuzzy consensus on what the media is treating like some kind of “difficult” topic? I think I was in first year university when I actually, right out loud, said “You know, I think ‘my friends all think this is true’ is a really crappy logical argument, because if my friends were a representative sample of the population, the NDP would be running this here show”. I was 18, so it was a pretty earth-shattering revelation at the time.

If you look at the fact that statistical analysis suggests that people have a lot more difficulty espousing homophobic beliefs after a friend or family member comes out, Kay’s point becomes even stronger. While I’ve certainly met people who can listen to the voices of marginalized people and still scoff, ridicule or attack, those people, fortunately, have been few. I’ve met more who can listen to these stories once, then conveniently forget them once their privilege hat is back on, which is why I am infinitely grateful for the education I have received from bloggers like Kay, who have made that hat feel much less comfortable as the stories have gotten louder. The point is that most people can empathize when you put a story right in front of them. Most people can see a human being on an individual basis, and can understand that the feelings being expressed are real. This is why the feminist movement focuses so much on telling our stories, being allowed to and feeling strong enough to tell our stories, however individual they may seem. It generates empathy, and gradually, painfully slowly, but progressively, people might start to expand their sphere of empathy.

But if they don’t see you, they can’t start. The Feministe thread that Kay references is an absolute horror show, in which the bulk of commenters are able to take an academic distance to the issue of forced sterilization of women with disabilities and contemplate the theoreticals and the intellectualizations and anything but the people.  She’s right; it doesn’t seem to occur to them when they’re speaking that the hypotheticals aren’t hypothetical, they’re real and they’re listening, and if you can’t stretch your imagination to assume that possibility, then you probably shouldn’t be surprised when real people tell you they aren’t confident you’re going to be able to stretch your empathy, either.

Apologizing

This has been a really difficult week in my personal life, and as such, I haven’t had the time to really be following the ever-multiplying posts on the subject of the incredibly racist imagery contained in Amanda Marcotte’s book. Holly and many others have addressed the core issue far better than I ever could, and all I can say is: what she said.

It seems a breaking point has been reached, and apologies have been issued by both Amanda and her publisher. I’m trying to avoid, as much as possible, talking about the specifics of the question at hand, and focus on something related that has been on my mind in a number of contexts: the meaning of an apology. I wrote a few months ago about forgiveness, and noted at the time that it has been extremely important for me not to base my ability to forgive another person on whether or not that other person requests my forgiveness. I can’t make my healing contingent on the actions of another – I need to heal too badly, I can’t wait until that person is ready to understand, and I sure as hell have no ability to make them understand.

The flip side of that is what it means to apologize. For me, it has been absolutely vital to recognize that my apologies have to fully respect that I have hurt the other party. I have damaged her. I have left her less than whole, less than she was before my actions, and my apologies may not bring her back to wholeness. She may not accept them at all, or she may accept them and choose nonetheless to say that she can’t trust me again, and I have to appreciate that this is her healing. My harmful actions were human actions. They were actions based on my scars and imperfections and limitations and non-wholeness. Apologizing is not, can never be, about excusing the actions for those reasons, whether they’re universal or specific.

When I become seriously, legitimately conscious of the ways I’m harming another person, it causes me pain. That, to me, is basic empathy. That’s humanity. If I’m able to continue hurting someone, it’s almost inevitably because of ignorance, either honest or willful. Defensiveness, for the most part, is willful ignorance, willful refusal to step outside my self. It’s easier that way for a time, but when I’m at a point of apologizing – for real apologizing – it’s because I seriously cannot be that way anymore, for my own sake. It’s disjointed, it’s out of line, it’s cognitively dissonant, and I can’t tolerate the tune in my head anymore. So I am apologizing as part of saying “I can’t be this way anymore, I need to be, and I will be different. I want to be whole, and I want you to find your way to whole again as well”. Guilt, shame, defensiveness, deflecting, citing the counterpoints of “good” I’ve done, explaining away – traps. Illusions. Excuses to not change, excuses to stay exactly the way I am, decisions to be okay with my own stagnation. Contributions, ultimately, to my own misery.

So in that way, apologizing is all about me. Again, as I said in that forgiveness post, my apology can’t fully heal the other. I don’t have that power. There’s too much other stuff there, and I’m just another person. That’s why it has to be done without expectation, without assumption, without need for reciprocation, without need for acceptance, in order for it to be “sincere”, in order for it to matter. Just as I need to heal from the actions of others too badly to await their apology, I need to heal from my own past actions too badly to require the granting of forgiveness from some human source. I’ve said this before, but it always bears repeating: as soon as my apology is issued with an expectation of a return, with a requirement that something will be granted before I can become capable of change, then all I have done by issuing this apology is returned the burden to the arms of the person I originally hurt.

Whenever I think about forgiveness and the destructiveness of too much guilt/the wrong kind of apologizing, I keep coming back to the Buffy episode “The Wish” (before the alternate universe part of it). Willow, having been caught cheating on Oz with Xander, is textbook on “All About Me (In All the Wrong Ways)” apologies, and Oz calls her on it, in that way that only Oz can accomplish:

I’m sorry you’re having a hard time with this. But I told you what I need. So I can’t help feeling that the reason you want to talk is so you can feel better about yourself.

And that’s not my problem

I’m really bothered by the idea that we should offer a “safe space” in which to allow someone to apologize. Granted, this whole blogosphere thing (hell, this whole mass media communication thing in general) means that suddenly, apologies are not just between the original harmer and one, easily identifiable harmee. Any number of other parties come into play to judge the sincerity of the apology or the appropriateness of the reaction among those who choose to accept or not accept the apology. If I’m apologizing, however, and I mean it, none of that can matter. I have to want to apologize for it’s own sake – I have to want to be different just because I do, not because I figure it’s the best way to get me something. And that can never be easy. It should never be easy. It shouldn’t be safe. It should be change, and change is fucking scary. Change that lets other people change or not change, forgive or not forgive, move on or not move on, heal or not heal, as they see fit – change that requires absolutely nothing of the other – is inherently unsafe. It’s uncertain, and that makes it risky. You can’t predict the result, you just know you have to do it anyway, because the way it is just won’t do anymore.

I’m not trying to be self-congratulatory here, because dude, I fuck up all the time. I fuck up big. And sometimes, I fuck up because the kind of attitude I’m displaying in writing this post leads me to take myself far too damn seriously and to develop too much of an all-or-nothing attitude toward whatever the hell it is I’d rather not be doing anymore. While I write pretty abstractly, a lot of my thoughts are based on stuff I have recently fucked up or that I’m fucking up in my life right now, and I’m trying to convince myself as much as anybody else. And note, I’m not making any specific assessment on the sincerity of either of those apologies. The only way I want to tie this to that issue is to say that I’m frustrated by those who would consider themselves the universal arbiters on whether or not an apology should be accepted even if it is sincere, and what that acceptance should entail in terms of behaviour or further discussion.

I’ve spent a damn long time on this post, and I have another point to make about how this individual concept translates to the concept of racism and privilege, but I don’t know that I’m up for bringing the words right now.

How Not to Have Honest Negotiations

Again, in the Caledonia land claim dispute, the rhetoric being used by the government ensures that honest negotiations will not be possible. So now, the use of land that is under dispute is being subjected to fee requests. One may even be justified in saying “demands”. Local MPP Toby Barrett, however, said recently:

From the beginning they have collected fees under duress…We define that as extortion.

It’s not extortion if the fees are part of a treaty. That’s an agreement. Duress does not extortion make. Duress is happening because the government side is refusing to believe that it might be wrong, and is operating on the assumption that the other side should put aside all demands, all interpretations of the issues, and wait to hear what they will be graciously given not because the government has to, but because we’re such nice people and they’re being so polite about it.

There is a treaty. A contract. The parties of the contract do not agree on the interpretation of the terms. If I have a disagreement with my employer about the terms of my contract, and I take that employer to court, demanding that he pay me the money that I think is owed to me under the contract, that’s not extortion, even if he’s under “duress”.

You can’t have an honest negotiation if you’re assuming you’re right to the extent that you won’t even admit that there is reason for this dispute. Just because your constituency, which you have allowed to continue to believe that there is no reason for this dispute, almost uniformly accepts your line does not make it true. Saying that you’re the calm, reasonable, detached party at the same time as you engage in heavy-handed tactics, pout and refuse to even begin to discuss the terms that you should be considering, the reference points that you should be using is a lesson plan for how to make sure things will never be resolved, barring capitulation to your bullying.

You can’t have an honest negotiation of you don’t believe the other side is operating as rational, mature, non-criminal members of society with the actual ability to read and interpret treaties that pertain to their lives. You can’t have an honest negotiation if you don’t believe you’re dealing with legitimate people. See how this works?

(Not) Talking About Genocide

It’s not “breaking news” anymore, but there was an announcement last week of the discovery of mass graves of First Nations children who died at residential schools. It was coupled with an announcement of an independent inquiry called The International Human Rights Tribunal Into Genocide in Canada.

When we talk about the history of white-native relations in Canada (which we rarely do at all), mainstream Canadians have two pictures in their heads of the nature of the wrongs done to aboriginal peoples – the first is ancient history, the smallpox-infested blankets and the wars and the actual killing that the original European settlers perpetrated centuries ago. And that doesn’t really matter, because it was so long ago, and can’t we just forget already? Or, occasionally, we’ll talk about residential schools, in existence until the 1960s all over Canada, and into the 1970s in some places. If we’re talking about that, we’ll talk about sexual abuse, about lawsuits against the churches and government and what the settlements should be, about the death of languages and culture and the violence done in order to ensure assimilation. All of that is bad enough, and we’ll occasionally start to use words like “genocide” to describe the ways all of those actions were designed to erase peoples, history, difference, which will be questioned, because, after all, we’re not talking about actual murder.

Except that we are. We’re talking about recent murder, the murder of children whose families are still alive. We’re talking about children. Mainstream Canadians cannot handle the word “genocide”; there is a constant aversion to recognizing what we’re really talking about here. Like it doesn’t count because it’s continued over 500 years instead of being carried out in one sharp, punctuated burst of violence. As if the fact that we, white European settlers, never really sat down and wrote a manifesto that included the desire to exterminate all aboriginal peoples implies that there’s something questionable about the use of the term “genocide”. We’re quiet, calm, rational Canadians – we don’t talk about hate, so we can’t have hate crimes.

With respect to residential schools, people are still making the argument that “folks back then didn’t really know any better” – because when we’re talking about “folks”, we gloss right over having to think about the many, many people who actually did the violence, or the worst of it. We end up talking about how it’s somehow understandable for “folks” to have set policies that take children from their parents, that include the official goal of getting them to forget their native languages (including the use of beatings and threats to enforce that regulation) and learn proper, Christian teachings. They didn’t know any better at the time.

Mass. Graves.

What we’re essentially saying, when we say that, is that “they” didn’t know these children and their parents were people. Not for real. And if we won’t use the word genocide, then we’re still not admitting that, and current events, as per usual, get filtered through a distorted, rosy, sugary-sweet maple-syrup coloured lens.

Ignorant Comment of the Day (So Far)

The CBC has a story posted today addressing the question of why only half of the girls who are eligible for free HPV vaccination in Ontario have actually gotten the vaccine. The answer, of course, is that under the influence of Catholic school boards and the like, parents are choosing not to have their daughters vaccinated in order to avoid the horror of teen female sexuality.

 

I read the article early on, when there were few comments, and most of them were in support of the vaccine, but I found even those ones telling, because several commenters seemed to think that it was worth pointing out that these women should be vaccinated, because even if we made good and sure to keep them virginal, they may end up infected by their husbands following marriage. While this point is of course true, the uncritical attitude toward male sexuality and the underlying assumption of the value of female virginity was pretty heavily present (I’m always struck by this kind of thing from those who seriously believe that they’re making new, persuasive and revolutionary arguments through the use of these kinds of sound bytes, even though I know it’s a really uncharitable thought).

 

The ignorant comment of the day, however, comes from a Mom concerned about her three daughters becoming sexually active (which, in her mind, is of course inevitable, or at least more likely, following this vaccination), who says:

For my girls to engage in sexual activity before marriage would almost certainly increase their risk of death from STD’s and abusive partners

(emphasis obviously mine)

 

It would be tough to argue that those who remain abstinent until marriage don’t carry lower risks of death from STDs, so I’ll give her that one (how much their risk of such drastic consequences as death would be increased might be a conversation worth having, especially given the availability of health care following contraction of the disease in addtion to, oh, I don’t know, vaccines). But abusive partners? I’ve done some work with women’s shelters and sexual assault centres, and I’ve read quite a bit of research on intimate partner violence, and I’ve never seen a reference to any evidence that suggests that abstinence until marriage decreases the likelihood of a woman ending up in an abusive relationship or ultimately marrying an abusive husband. Google searching risk factors turned up no reference whatsoever to abstinence before marriage as a factor that has ever even been studied.

 

It’s possible there’s a correlation, but to say “almost certainly” and to throw your protective resources behind encouraging your daughters to stay abstinent instead of becoming educated and educating your daughters about the actual dynamics of abuse demonstrates an insane amount of ignorance. This assumes first that the daughters won’t end up married to (and presumably sleeping with) an abuser, and second, that somehow, not having sex makes all relationships non-abusive. And when I really start thinking about what that implies, I wonder how much it speaks to an attitude that “Yes, well, you can’t expect a man to respect your body (by not beating/raping/murdering you) if you don’t respect it yourself (by not having consensual sex outside of marriage).

 

When you’re telling your daughter that if she’ll just keep her legs crossed until the ring is on her finger like a good little girl should, then she’ll be better able to avoid being murdered by an abusive partner, not to mention suggesting that you would rather she didn’t get vaccinated against a potentially fatal illness in case she misinterprets this as a shiny new license to have all the sex she wants in Grade 8, then I have to think that the handle of “love2learnmom” was a really poor selection on your part.

Axis, Allies and Switzerland

Like most white people, I’ve got serious issues with my privilege. I can be completely oblivious to the normalization of whiteness, to the meaning of racism, to the impact of “intersections of oppression” in lives, even as I know about “intersectionality” in theory. There is a distance accessible to me in conversations about race and the experience of racism – I can make the concerns academic, I can step back and think “hmm, isn’t that interesting” and wonder about how (or whether) the stories I hear should affect my philosophical approach to the world.

As a white, straight, cisgendered, well-educated, middle-class raised woman without any disabilities, I get to pick and choose my battles. That’s a privilege in and of itself. As I said in my last post, I don’t get to pick the battles that affect me as a woman. Rape affects me because I’ve been raped, and even if I hadn’t, I would have been conscious of the possibility of rape as I debated whether to walk home alone, whether to leave my drink unattended in this-or-that context, and how to set sexual boundaries with new partners. I didn’t choose that fight, it pretty much chose me.

War metaphors being pretty much par for the course in activist work, it’s not surprising that the term we’re looking at is “ally”, but because this metaphorical discourse is so common, we also tend to lose sight of its symbolic value. People hear the term “ally”, they learn a little more about it, and they figure it’s something they should be. Sounds like a good thing. Sounds like good people. It’s the kind of term (like either of the pro-life/pro-choice options, or like sex-positive etc) that makes most people cringe at the notion of being its opposite. The assumption is, then, that they’re an ally because they say they are, because they want to be, because, well, they’re not the enemy.

Allies, however, fight. They throw resources, energy, life to combating the problem. When the group with whom they are allied is in serious trouble, when the people are facing a real threat, when the land has been invaded, allies reprioritize, put aside their own present concerns and focus on this immediate issue facing those that they would help. Why? Maybe because it’s politically beneficial in the long run, and they know that if the situation were ever reversed, they would have the same support. Maybe because they’re conscious of the ultimate purpose of the fight, and they recognize that what their allies are facing is the most important front on which to fight that fight right then and there, because if that one falls, there will be a weak spot, there will be a victory, and it will affect the whole damn war.

Lots of people who are in positions of relative privilege call themselves allies. If you dare question them on that choice of self-identification, they are shocked – shocked – to hear such slander coming from your mouth, saying of course they are concerned with the issues you raise, just not right now, and can’t you see all the work that they’re doing to fight the enemy on their own front, and why are you focusing your energy on them when the real battle is elsewhere, and how dare you, anyway? They are good people. They are feminists. They are liberals. They are on your side. All this “infighting” is counterproductive.

And, okay, these people aren’t the enemy, per se. If you’ll continue to forgive me my grandiose metaphors (and if you got past the title, you’ve probably done so), there’s an axis out there, and those in it are the ones that are attacking, the ones that are out for world domination, the ones that are doing the violence. These people aren’t in that axis. But they’re also not allies. They are (as I’m sure you’ve seen coming) Switzerland.

To unpack that metaphor a bit more, Switzerland is well known for its official neutrality in the wars, and in casual conversation, this is often invoked as a positive comparison, a good place to be. Choosing to stay out of the fray is associated with pacifism, stability and independence. Historically speaking, this is pretty clearly an erroneous representation of the role of that country – refusing to support either side meant that Switzerland could exploit both when it suited, including making money from riches stolen from Holocaust victims. There’s nothing peace-bringing about seeing threat and danger, even possibly admitting that one side in the fight is clearly the aggressor, and putting one’s hands up, stepping back and saying “I’ll just let that one play out, I need to take care of myself first”, then watching as the stronger party emerges victorious, whichever one it may be. You’re still standing, your borders are still intact, and you’ve likely even made some money off of the deal, though you’ll always be able to say that since you weren’t really the one who stole it in the first place, it’s not like you’re really at fault just for using it to your own advantage.

I’m making a couple of points here:

  • Not being the worst of the worst doesn’t mean you’re not hurting. “Balance” or “neutrality” is never either balanced or neutral.
  • You’re not an ally just because you say you are. The people you say you want to help may damn well turn down the kind of help you’re offering and ask you for something else instead, something they really need, possibly even something that requires sacrifice on your part. If you’re making the conversation all about the quality of your allegiance, an expansive rundown of your resumé of past support, a repetition of demand after demand after demand that they accept your help, accept the form in which you will provide it, and be fucking grateful for it, instead of about the actual fight in which your allies are engaged, then you’re getting in the way.
  • You may not be the enemy, you may not be the axis, the patriarchy, the right-wing war mongers that we all see at the top of this horrible, horrible food chain, but you are, in fact, eating at their table, eating food that was picked by those at the bottom, eating food that got to your table as a result of violence, and you are, in fact, profiting from gold that was violently stolen.

Am I saying anything new, here? No. I’m certainly not saying anything that I haven’t heard said over and over and over by women of colour bloggers who have been feeling, pretty clearly, that they’ve now got this other front that requires fighting. And when I hear a lot of it, I’m often inclined not to say anything – I’ve been afraid of saying it wrong, stepping on someone’s toes, being, well, mighty white. But now, The Angry Black Woman has started a chorus of voices asking about ally-work, saying that, yes, it’s useful to jump in to a discussion to say that you’re on the side of the anti-racists rather than the white supremacists or race deniers or shouters of “reverse racism!” who have shown up, just because it’s comforting and strengthening and helpful to know you’re out there, and just because it’s not okay for these people to think that all white people think like they do.

I don’t think like they do. I’m not okay with silence being interpreted as “being on their side”. I also can’t dismiss the fact that sitting back “neutrally”, presumably even profiting from the battle and the losses of others, actually is, on some level, helping them win.

Back when I first started this blog and had essentially no readers at all, I wrote a series on “Action Barriers” going into detail about the basics of why these conversations are frustrating. Since it fits with the theme, if you have some time on your hands:

Action Barriers, Part 1: Defensiveness
Action Barriers, Part 2: Guilt
Action Barriers, Part 3: Blame
Action Barriers, Part 4: The Good Person

Sorry to Let You Know, But…

I was raped.

abyss2hope had a series of posts a couple of weeks ago detailing the problems with the criticism people raised against some t-shirts that say “I was raped”. This one is takes apart a particularly egregious comment, the salient point of which is: “Be rational, silly women. This is only going to turn people against you because you’re making them uncomfortable by letting them know you were raped”.

Marcella focuses on the hubris inherent in the assumption that he’s in a neutral position here (I’ve discussed before why this is bullshit, and of course it’s also classic male privilege to come in to a topic to which others have devoted years of their lives in studying and considering, both from a societal and personal perspective, and assume that they’ve all just been waiting around for him, the voice of truth, which they could not possibly have seen without him. Sorry…end rant). But the comment gets at something I’ve been thinking about with respect to privilege – our friend James here seriously thinks that when we’re talking about rape, those of us who’ve experienced it should make sure we’re polite about sharing it, because it’s unseemly and makes people uncomfortable. What he’s missing, of course, is that the reason the shirt is revolutionary and can be seen to challenge things is because of exactly that mentality, not to mention that none of us ever got to decide that we weren’t going to think about it. Didn’t exactly come up politely, you know?

Now, I’m not confident as to the purpose of these t-shirts, myself, for one thing because I’m very, very wary of trigger issues, and I know I wouldn’t wear one myself. The point is, it is insanely self-centered and myopic for someone who has never been raped, never really dealt with the fear of being raped, and never even had a friend disclose rape to him (and honestly, I’m immediately apprehensive of most people who say this, with few exceptions) to turn the focus back around to how thinking about rape makes him feel icky, so he’d kinda just rather not.

I was going to try to draw a whole bunch of connections to recent events, and to other thoughts and other kinds of privilege, but I’m just too tired. I do like that I came up with a pithy new category, though. Pithy categorization makes my day.