Monday, March 20, 2006

The Privileged Man's Guide to Life

Andrea Rubenstein has posted a very interesting outline for the majority set. It's entitled "How to be a Real Nice Guy," but I think it's better understood as a guideline for how people with privilege (Whites, Males, Christians, Heterosexuals, et al), should interact with those who don't. This is a topic that interests me, and I endorse most, but not all, of it. The blogosphere being what it is, I'll focus on my discontents, but don't let that mislead you--this is a valuable post and an important read.

My objection pops up along several of Ms. Rubenstein's points, but I think it can be grouped into a general point about intergroup relations. In several places, Rubenstein says (in so many words) that there are plenty of places in which to discuss "your" issues, so when interacting with minority groups, one should sit back and listen--hear their issues, concerns, opinions, and perspectives. I agree whole-heartedly that the minority voice is underserved and underheard in contemporary society--there aren't many soapboxes by which minority issues can get play amongst the mainstream. The problem is that I see a similar dearth of spaces to talk about how we interact together, across borders, as a community. In other words, the status quo already addresses "my" issues, and Rubenstein's plan would give space for "their" issues, but where is the dialogue on "our" issues--where minorities and majorities intersect?

This absence is important, and, I think, relatively unrecognized. We (by which I mean the majority) may, of course, discuss minorities in our own soapbox. But the opinions we express there and the information we gather there are qualitatively different than the insights and perspectives we'd synthesize in a truly multigroup discussion. This requires some tightrope walking--I don't want to make the discussion about me (there is indeed enough said about myself), but I do want to have at least some opportunity to discuss us. Any plan for majority/minority interaction that doesn't make some provision for the "inter" part of it is doomed to fail.

One might think that this synthesis will come naturally. Add the discourse about me, and the discourse about you, and you get "us." I don't think this is true. Look to academia. For decades now, we've adopted an academic model of ever-increasing specialization. Being a generalist is for chumps. Departments get smaller and smaller, articles become geared to an ever-shrinking pool of fellow travelers, trained in the (say) history of pre-Roman Iberian architecture. There is value to this, of course. But what we've discovered is that inter-disciplinary work can yield fascinating results. Think of what Jared Diamond has done, combining biology, genetics, history, and social science. I just took a whole class this last term entitled "Science & Society", exploring not how the two interacted, but how the two were inextricably intertwined. You can't understand either in isolation from the other. In other words, the product of a genuine intergroup dialogue is not the same as the product of the ingroup discourse and the outgroup discourse. If that's sounds familiar to leftist theorists, it should--it's closely related to the intersectionality hypothesis (the experience of, e.g., a black woman is not reducible to "woman" + "black").

The second issue I have is with the status of ingroup members in these conversations. I think there is a severe cognitive dissonance between what Rubenstein says our status is, and what ingroup perceive its status to be. She says, for example, that it is in fact okay for us to make mistakes, as long as we try and learn from them. But I think many ingroup members are under the distinct impression that one mistake can be fatal, and I think that folks versed in the literature of feminist, critical race, queer, and other related movements forget their own lessons when they dismiss these stories as a kind of "shrill craziness." Larry Summers, I think, might not be so quick to dismiss that some operate under a "one-strike, you're out" standard (recall that when he made his infamous "inherent ability" comment about women and math, Summers was summarizing other people's positions, not expressing his own, and that he promptly apologized when the uproar began). In Patricia Williams' superb book, "Seeing a Color-Blind Future: The Paradox of Race," she tells a story of just such a slip-up by a white friend, and her apology when it was pointed out. Williams uses the story to illustrate that a world of such apologies can be tiresome to those who constantly apologized too, and also that the apology that "she [the white woman] just didn't know" often comes off as a plea for Williams [the black woman] not to know either. However, in the midst of this critique, Williams stresses that she is not contesting the sincerity of the apology, "only its superficiality." But in her review of the book, Taunya Lovell Banks, another respected Critical Race Theorist at the University of Maryland, slams the white woman's "standard insincere apology." In other words, she takes Professor Williams' story, and replaces Williams' professed meaning with a contrary one of her own. In a paper I was writing, I rhetorically asked if this is how Professor Banks would treat a white student in her class: if she responded to a articulation of American racism by saying that "she just didn't know," would Professor Banks lambast her "insincere apology"? This is the fear the ingroups live in, and I think it's unfair to just assume they're hallucinating about its potency.

The point of all this is that there is a disjunction, I think, between how much forgiveness for errors that the minority group's say they are willing to give, and how much the ingroup members suspect they are likely to receive. In all likelihood, the chasm runs from both ends--minorities overestimate how forgiving they are, and majorities overestimate how much forgiveness they deserve. All of this, however, just plays into my prior plea for more intergroup dialogue, not less. We'll never bridge this gap without explicitly having a dialogue between the two camps. In isolation, the stories will never merge, and we'll never get anywhere.

Relatedly, ingroups have a right to know that in such conversations, they will not be ontologically wrong. Rubenstein says that when confronted by a member of an outgroup about one's behavior, the ingroup member should use the information to change his mind, not try to change the outgroup member's. I don't think it's fair to make that statement categorically. Simply put, it is quite possible that an ingrouper will be right about an issue, and an outgrouper will be wrong. There shouldn't be an obligation to accede to a viewpoint just because it's made from a disadvantaged person. The glaringly obvious issue for me is on Israel--if someone tells me that my support for Zionism makes me a racist, then you better be damn sure that I'm going to try and persuade them they're wrong. And I have every right to--differentiating my people's desire for full and equal membership in the international community in their native homeland from apartheid South Africa is crucial to my personhood and dignity as a human being. I think it is true that I should listen to such critiques with an open mind, and recognize that I may be hearing a perspective that I haven't heard before. But I can do that without having a prefigured opinion I have to come to. Besides, the standard is internally incoherent. If one black person tells me that my vocal opposition to affirmative action makes her feel like I think she doesn't belong at the university, and a second tells me that my now-vocal support of affirmative action makes her feel like a token at the university, I'm left without a platform to stand on. At some point, ingroups have to take stands--the litmus test should be hearing from other people, not agreeing with them. And of course, we all can learn from each other--the lessons a Palestinian could teach me about how the occupation negatively affects her life are undoubtedly many, as are the one's I could teach her about Jewish history, exile, oppression, and national yearning.

These suggestions shouldn't be seen as competitive with Ms. Rubenstein's, rather, they should be seen as to compliment it. I think that one can listen respectfully to minority perspectives, learn from them, agree with some parts of it, disagree with others, incorporate one's own perspective, and do it all civilly and productively, all at the same time. And I believe that we can do it now. In other words, I believe we can have a conversation. Let's start one.

[H/T: Alas, a Blog]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the link and the critique. I will defiintely take what you said here under advisement for my next update of the post. When I'm not so burnt out on the subject (my most recent revise was just a couple hours ago), I may return and ask some questions.