In His Church

A hell of a lot has already been written about the murder of Dr. George Tiller. I can’t add much more than an agreement with anyone who’s identified this as an act of terrorism, and an additional voice of incredible sadness for this man’s family and anyone who was affected by his life and work.

I obviously don’t believe that the location of an act of violence like this one makes any kind of a moral difference in the end, but I can’t help but come back to the detail that this happened while he was on his way into church for Sunday service. I would presume that the murderers profess a kind of Christianity that considers Tiller’s faith an abomination, perhaps worse than had he declared himself an atheist, which I guess would make this church space no longer sacred in their eyes. The terrorism here is obviously against anyone who would consider providing this kind of very necessary medical service, but I think it’s also an act of violence against this kind of church. I can’t imagine ever being able to experience worship in a place where I’d witnessed something like that.

I’m not trying to discount the main point here or somehow give murderers more credit than they deserve, but there’s a hollow, hateful callousness to the whole scene that makes it hit me harder.

The other reason I think this part of the story strikes me is that Tiller was still attending church, and likely regularly, which is why people who would have researched his habits would know to find him there. And I honestly find that remarkable. It’s an incredible testament to his bravery and personal commitment that he continued to provide these services despite years of threats and attempts on his life. Continuing to go to church is something else – it’s a recognition that the God he believed in wasn’t manifested in those people and a faith in his role in God’s community. I’m not much for the construction of popular martyrs and I don’t know enough about the man’s personal faith story to project any of that onto him, but I can imagine that kind of a struggle, and I admire what he did with it.

I can say for damn sure that I would want to be in his church rather than in the church of the people who killed him. And once again, I’m pretty fucking sick of only one of those churches getting to set the terms of life in God’s plan.

Bursting the Bubble

Points to both the Globe and Mail and the University of Saskatchewan (which has always been one of the best institutions in Canada when it comes to Indigenous peoples’ concerns) for this story here.   The quick summary of the situation is that a woman offered to donate a $250,000 scholarship to the University of Saskatchewan to be awarded on the basis of financial need, but with the condition that the recipient must not be an Aboriginal person. Her argument, of course, was your standard bullshit reverse discrimination claim, including the comment that Aboriginal people are “basically taken care of”, as well as a reference to her concern for “people like her”. I feel a little sick to my stomach at the irony in her comment about the ‘unequal playing field’ that exists, because I remain completely at a loss as to where a conversation can even begin with people who think this way (meaning, frankly, the vast majority of the Canadian population).

What I love most about this editorial is the way they present the statistics about Aboriginal underrepresentation in undergraduate programs, as well as the actual proportion of scholarship distribution – in case you’re not clicking through, the article points out that 18.9% of 18-29 year olds in Saskatchewan are Aboriginal, while only 7.5% of the university undergrad population are. Further, only 1.4% of scholarship funding was directed at this 7.5%.

What makes that 1.4% seem like a problem can only be flat-out white entitlement and racism. The fact that this woman received an outpouring of support and so much outrage has been directed against the U of S for this decision is really indicative of the mainstream perception of Aboriginal people in this country. I’ve said some of this before, but it bears repeating: to the extent that we talk at all about Indigenous issues and wrongs that have been done to the Canada’s Indigenous people, we tend to refer to it as something that happened in the distant past. Either it’s been corrected already (through reverse discrimination) or it’s so far gone that the status quo is the only option and it’s not worth considering making any kind of reparations. In either case, Aboriginal people would be best to quit complaining, accept the way things are and figure out how to move forward our way.

The only problem with that 1.4% is that entitled non-Aboriginal Canadians are keenly aware that it breaks into the 100% that has been theirs. It stands out. It bursts the nice clean bubble. This is Racism 101, and we in Canada are experts at this particular brand that does everything it can to create distance between ourselves and the problem.

Solidarity, Empathy and Compassion

I was reading through this thread at the Silence of Our Friends the other day, skimming the comments and thinking about what I might want to add, and came to this quote by Fire Fly:

The point of intersectionality is that we have a stake in each others’ liberation, the point is solidarity. And solidarity can’t be about who’s better at being a martyr. Sometimes it needs to go both ways.

And along with what Donna said in the OP there, I honestly felt like there was nothing I could add after that. That statement sums it up more concisely than I ever could.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately – even more than is my usual wont – about compassion and solidarity. The ridiculous backlash at Obama for daring to suggest that ’empathy’ might be a valuable trait to seek out in a Supreme Court Justice fits right in. It’s telling, to me, that the context of that thread is all about trying to communicate just how frustrating, ineffective and damaging it is to hear one’s own supposed friends and allies pass judgments without context and understanding, while the latest manufactured scandal of the US news media connects directly to someone whose job it is to pass judgments on people’s lives.

I realize that everyone recognizes that since Obama said absolutely nothing that reveals anything of substance about his potential Supreme Court pick, the procedures manual says that the pundits will have to find something that they can dissect and devour, and the word they happen to have chosen is ’empathy’. We can all mock that particular extreme manifestation of adventures in missing the point, but we’re also so prone to these every day failures of empathy and inclinations towards judgment, pressure and decontextualized categorization. Solidarity would obviously be a terrible choice of words to use with respect to the selection of a justice, but at the core, what we’re talking about here is how we can come to operate based on the connections rather than the divisions between us. I’m not even talking about connections emerging out of categories of oppression and means of marginalization (though I’m certainly not saying that those things don’t matter), but about the simple basics of mutual interdependence over isolation. I mean, again, that recognition of the fact that ‘we have a stake in each other’s liberation’.

While doing my best not to downplay the indisputable facts of unacceptable levels of violence, systemic oppression, poverty and exploitation that exist and that I fully believe in working to change, I’m finding I can’t use the language of ‘fighting’ and ‘battling’ to talk about it anymore. I can see the relevance of the metaphor, and plenty of the people on ‘my side’ who use it are doing damn good work, but I just can’t help but also see a kind of destructiveness and division that comes along with those images. The people who are freaked out about the idea of ’empathy’ guiding life or death decisions for millions of others are coming from a place that sees the world in terms of winners and losers, whether that’s in the ‘culture wars’ or in the economic competitions inherent to the achievement of the “American Dream”. And as I said a few days ago, I’m starting to think of this model of the world, in which we all exist on a massive playing field and life consists of a series of battles in some kind of perpetual steel cage championship death match, as lying at the heart of far too many problems. And I think that the pervasiveness of the metaphor means that it becomes really easy, even when the fight one is fighting is the one for social justice and increased rights and equality and non-violence and all of those beautiful things, to lose sight of the soldiers for the war. It becomes a question of victories and losses and allies and enemies, and it stops being about people.

‘Sorrow’ and ‘Sorry’ are not the same thing

This is one of those topics about which I have so much to say that I end up feeling like I can’t say anything at all. This was a few weeks ago now, but being as I was only semi-present at that point I didn’t post anything, and also, it’s one of those topics that I don’t think deserves to be subjected to the whims of blog/news cycles that suggest there’s only something to say about it when a big important thing happens, and then it disappears again three days later.

CBC Story: Pope expresses ‘sorrow’ for abuse at residential schools.

The title Chrome Beach uses here pretty much sums up my reaction to this story, with an additional mention of the fact that one of the reasons that this is so insufficient is that even if this were an apology, the whole thing fails to take into account that the consequences of these actions are still being felt in very real ways, not to mention the violence, abuse and assimilationist tactics that haven’t even come close to stopping yet.

The Radical Notion of Not Winning

Once upon a time, I was an extremely competitive person. I still can be when it comes to games, as I’ve repeatedly demonstrated with my pathological unwillingness to give up on a Rock Band song before someone else does, but for the most part, I’ve actually come to hate competition. I don’t mean sports or games or challenges, really, I mean the competitiveness that seems to characterize everyday interactions with others. I think for a long time that this was one of those flaws I almost tried to cultivate in myself, because obviously, there are plenty of cultural forces that are really pushing competition as a value that is necessary for success. Capitalist individualism pretty much depends on it, and the academic environment is obviously no exception. Since it’s also one of those traits that’s frequently coded as masculine when it’s seen as a positive, powerful thing, I felt justified in embracing it in myself, because it could be used to make a point. And to be clear, whatever ‘natural’ biological drive to become alpha seed-spreader supposedly emerges from the evolution of male psychology has definitely been a major motivating factor in my life, and I do still recognize the need to get away from the gender essentialist bullshit that keeps emphasizing how women don’t really push themselves to compete for the top positions because we’re too busy engaging our biologically rooted nurturing sides to become the CEO/president/provost/whatever. Existing social structures pretty much require competition, and the white patriarchal rules of the game have acted to continue to ensure that certain types of people almost inevitably win and can therefore assume that somehow they are inherently better.

The imbalance in victories is an obvious problem, but the frequently observed ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss’ phenomenon that characterizes the white feminist movement (and blogosphere) point to a quieter, deeper problem. It’s one thing to work towards changing the rules in order to create some kind of ‘level playing field’ that offers equal opportunity for victory, and another thing entirely to suggest that the game is stupid. The thing is, the game is everywhere. When I was applying for PhD programs, I applied to three different schools, mostly because I was afraid I wouldn’t get in anywhere and wanted to be on the safe side. I was convinced for a long time that two of the three were basically fallback options, and that if I were accepted at my top choice, I wouldn’t even think about the other two. When I ended up getting accepted at all three, a few things happened to change my thinking, one of which was a recognition of the atmosphere in the department I would be entering into. It became really clear to me that the originally-favoured school (the one that’s actually pretty well known around here as a lefty-type school with a decent social justice focus) encourages students to see each other as competition that needs to be taken out and defeated, because this will encourage each of them to do the best work they possibly can as they try to prove their inherent superiority to others. Honestly, while I recognize that getting myself into academia at this level and hypothetically assuming that a career in the university might be my long-term path implies the acceptance of a certain degree of fighting for positions and research money and name recognition as simply ‘the way things are’, I think both my sanity and the quality of work I can do will be vastly improved by avoiding that as much as possible. Another reason I’ve felt so fortunate in the program I’ve been in now has been that this battle just doesn’t happen, and we’re encouraged to see other students as people we can collaborate with and learn from rather than as barriers to our own success. I’m hopeful about the department I have chosen for next year, but this is another of those ‘not rocket science’ points that frequently makes people respond with verbal ‘oh you’re one of those idealists’ eyerolls and ‘yes dear’ pats on the head.

It’s not just in the area of personal career paths and life trajectories and actual individual ‘high stakes’ patterns that I’m finding myself moving away from competition. I was out the other night and ended up chatting with this guy I don’t know very well, but run into every so often, and we got to talking about activism, social justice, what’s wrong with the world in general and what can be done about it – you know, just the basics. We had essentially zero common ground in our thinking and attitudes, but I had all this time to kill before my night shift, so I kept talking anyway. Now, conversations like that used to frustrate the hell out of me – sometimes I enjoyed that competitive rush from the ‘debate’ or the challenge of convincing someone, but more often, I just found myself feeling heated and angry. And what frustrated me most wasn’t the sense of being right or being wrong or learning or teaching – it was the feeling that one of us was going to win and one of us was going to lose, because it wasn’t really about conversing or exchanging or discussing, it was about competing. I could justify it with high-minded excuses about the need to change minds, but so much of it was wrapped up in pride, and frankly, it didn’t really work anyway. It was during this particular conversation the other night that I realized how strange it feels to watch someone else engaging in a competition that I’m not even having.

I hate this idea that all human interaction can be reduced to competition, that in every encounter there must be a winner and a loser. It depresses me that collaboration and cooperation are so frequently seen as childish idealism and actually require some degree of imagination to employ. It’s not a matter of losing, it’s a matter of recognizing that it’s not actually a fight until we make it one, and as we make it one, we’re imposing so much destruction onto the relationship in question.

A little bit of navel-gazing, with apologies

For a good chunk of time, I wasn’t writing here or commenting on others’ blogs because there was literally no room in my schedule for the kind of reading, thinking and processing that it would have required. Within the past few months, my schedule has actually opened up substantially, but I still haven’t been writing. I’ve alluded a bit to some of the reasons that might be the case – mainly the feeling that I was struggling with some of the particular negativity that pervades the blogosphere – but I’ve also had in the back of my head the sense that there’s something else to be said. Be warned, this post consists mainly of thoughts about my own thinking that I seem to need to put out there for my own sake, and not much in the way of content I think may be relevant to others.

As some of you are likely aware, I went back to school last September for a second Master’s degree after a four-year hiatus from academia. This experience has been, in nearly every way, the polar opposite of my first time through graduate school. For tons of reasons both personal and institutional, that attempt was soul-destroying, whereas right now I can’t imagine a time in my life when I’ve felt more spiritual and intellectual enrichment. The academics are just one aspect of that, but the timeline conveniently correlates to when I started school again, so in reflecting on where I’ve been, some thoughts about this MA program keep coming to mind. First of all, as I’m sure I’ve said at some point before, I’ve been feeling really fortunate to have found this little enclave of progressive thought in the oh-so-corporatized academy (and I’m hoping against hope that I can continue to find those spaces when I start my PhD in September, despite the fact that I’m going to be studying at a reputedly much more conservative school in a much, much more conservative, business-driven city). I didn’t really expect to feel much of a political shift in my thinking from these studies, but somehow, I keep finding more and more boxes that are further and further to the left of the ones I’d already opened.

So what do those rather boring details have to do with this silly little blog of mine? Blogging, in obvious ways and among other things, is about voice and expression and identity. When I started this blog and moved away from the old livejournal I’d been periodically using, it was during a time when I was experiencing a major crisis in my personal life that had completely shaken the way I saw the world and myself in it. I wanted to find some new space to talk in new ways and think in different contexts, and overall, this has been a great place for me to do that. Before I went back to school, this blog was probably the primary place I could do that. I’m just now starting to realize that I’ve been shifting a lot in the past several months, in ways that have been far less dramatic than those I’m used to, and that one of the reasons I’ve been struggling to figure out how to write here, even when I do have time, has been an underlying sense of uncertainty that comes with that shifting.

The two-word version of myself that I’ve carved out in this space would be, I guess, the Christian feminist. This past year, I’ve felt my Christianity seriously challenged, in ways I didn’t expect. Obviously, I’m well aware of both the historical legacy and the ongoing present of misogyny, colonialism and violence within the Christian faith and the Christian church, and I certainly didn’t learn anything new in classes to mitigate that knowledge, but I also didn’t learn anything that made it worse than it already was. Some of the challenge has been largely internal, as I find myself drawn more and more towards non-Christian spiritual teachers and traditions and occasionally feeling pretty uncomfortable even identifying as a Christian. It was hard to figure out what the hell I would have to say in this space without feeling like I would just be coming in here out of left field with ideas that weren’t really making a lot of coherent sense even in my head.

In the end, I think, this program has actually deepened my faith, but it took me some time to get there, and in the meantime, writing as a ‘progressive’ Christian or a feminist Christian or from any kind of faith-based perspective felt like it could only scratch the surface of what I’ve been thinking and feeling. When I sat down to write this post, I didn’t really intend for it to turn into this kind of self-centred confessional on my personal spiritual identity and how it relates to this rarely-updated blog, and I did have some broader thoughts I was wanting to draw in, but, well, this is what came out. While blogging about blogging is, I realize, a legitimately mock-worthy phenomenon, the main point that seems to want to emerge from this particular post is that I find there’s an extra layer of challenge in recognizing and admitting to changes and shifts in positioning that comes out in blog-writing and that I’ve kind of been avoiding. Categorization and labels becomes somewhat more literal here. I’ve seen other people struggle with this before, when they get to the point of shedding the ‘feminist’ word or starting up a new blog because something has so fundamentally altered their perspectives and beliefs. I’ve been hesitant to use the word ‘struggle’, though, because it feels far too dramatic when I’m not really fighting anything or feeling any kind of frustration, but my night-shift addled brain can’t seem to come up with anything better.

I feel like this is something of a declaration to myself that I’m going to be writing differently again, but I actually have no idea what it is. Apologies for the navel-gazing, but it’s something of a barrier I’m needing to get past, I think, if I’m going to get anywhere with the thinking I’ve been doing.