Monday, February 16, 2015

Caring Equally

Yesterday, I was preparing to write a Facebook status that would have said something like the following: "What I want is for everyone who posts about Copenhagen to also post about Chapel Hill, and everyone who posts about Chapel Hill to also post about Copenhagen." It was meant to be responsive to a trend I had perceived on Facebook, which is that people who were talking about one tended to have nothing to say about the other. Now to be clear, I don't mean that people who were on the ramparts about Chapel Hill were pooh-poohing the idea that there was an emergent anti-Semitism problem, or vice versa. For the most part, that wasn't it at all -- and I'm sure that if asked directly they would say pretty much exactly what one would want to hear. It's the silence that was the issue -- and it was an issue both sides picked up on. One person on Twitter noted what he perceived as the muted reaction to the Copenhagen attack and wondered if we've all just decided "this is a thing that happens now." Another person on Facebook complained that there was little attention outside particular social media circles to a series of anti-Islam attacks that had recently occurred in the West. And I related to that -- when I saw people who would post lots and lots about attacks on Muslims, but scarcely a word about attacks on Jews, it made me feel like I wasn't a part of their campaign -- that defending Jews wasn't something that motivated them, or worse, that they viewed it as a "hard case". I have to imagine the same thoughts go through the minds of persons in the Muslim community when they read friends who talk a ton about Charlie Hebdo and the Jewish deli massacre but have little to say about when Muslims are killed for their faith in our own backyard.

I never actually wrote the post. And even as I thought it I began to second-guess myself. Would I meet my own prescription? Technically no, but not for the reasons one might think -- I had put something up about Chapel Hill but not (that I recall) Copenhagen. Still, I think few people would accuse me of being too inattentive to global anti-Semitism. And in general, while I write and blog about a range of topics, it is obvious that I devote disproportionate attention to anti-Semitism compared to other issues.

Why do I do that? Is that because I think anti-Semitism is objectively "more important" than other like -isms. I don't think so, though if someone was to argue that I have a subconscious bias in that direction due to the fact that anti-Semitism threatens me personally I would not have much room to argue. Is it because anti-Semitism is the only anti-racism campaign I care to campaign on? I don't think so; and hopefully my academic work is enough to disabuse that. If I was to give an answer, it's that anti-Semitism is an area where I think I have something particular and useful to say. I have skin the in game, yes, but also expertise -- I feel (rightly or wrongly) like I can make a unique and helpful contribution here. Other issues I feel more confident that others can and will say whatever I would have.

It is a cliche, but an accurate one, to say that nobody can devote care and attention (much less equal care and attention) to everything. We all have to make choices. We all know that on the production end, and yet when on the (non-)receiving end we still feel that pang of exclusion -- that we're not important enough to rouse others to action. So what do we do?

I don't have a good answer. Certainly, I think we should all be curious consumers about what our fellows are saying. If a group in my society feels marginalized or scared or hurt or wounded, I want to know that because making our community -- our entire community -- a safe, welcoming and inclusive space is part of my campaign, and the only way I can know that there is a problem is listening to people talk about it. But listening, though well and good, is still a silent activity. As for speaking up, well, I'll try to remember that we don't always have to have cutting-edge commentary or novel insights to offer. When someone is shot in North Carolina or beheaded in Syria or stabbed in France, it is perfectly okay to simply acknowledge the horror of it. That's worth something too. It's not a bad thing that I have a comparative advantage in talking about anti-Semitism, and I don't apologize for leveraging that. But I will do my best to at least make clear to others that, yes, I have their back as well. Because I know how it feels when I don't feel that way about myself, and it isn't a good feeling.


Suzanne Siegel said...

Wow...I was just thinking about this this morning and trying to clarify to myself my feelings about it. Thank you, David...this post is very illuminating for me.

Richard Jeffrey Newman said...

Hi David,

I've been meaning to come back and post this here since you linked to it from my Facebook post about the French minister's speech. I just wanted to say that this is a well articulated position. We write about what we can when we can; we do what we can within our limitations; and as long as those limitations are not specifically exclusionary—by which I mean, as long as we allow ourselves to see and reach beyond them when we can/feel compelled to do so—well, I just don't think anyone can ask much more of us.