Wednesday, May 25, 2016

"If It Had Happened To Any Other Group....": Looking for the Glass

Someone who does not see a pane of glass does not know that he does not see it. Someone who, being placed differently, does see it, does not know the other does not see it. --Simone Weil
Commenting on this passage almost a decade ago, I wrote the following:
The same reality can look quite different to those differently situated. When a person in a different social location remarks on an event or experience that we--despite living in the same "world"--do not perceive, our first response may be to deny or deride them as liars, charlatans, or fakes, for we do not see what they see. It is difficult for us to imagine that our vision may be constrained--especially if one is situated in a position that is treated as if its perspective is universal and whole. Meanwhile, the interlocutor is presented with a very similar problem. When an experience is right there in front of you, a fundamental part of ones existence that can feel, touch, block, or even slay you, it is hard to imagine that your partner cannot see it. The first person's objection is taken to be in bad faith, a manifestation of hostility. 
Ideally, both parties should recognize the limitation of their and their partner's perceptual horizons, adopting a stance of humility. She who does not see should nonetheless be willing to accept the other's sight, she who sees should be generous to those whose vision is lacking. The reality that our perspective is constrained by our social position affects us all, and that is something we share with every other body, no matter how far apart we seem on everything else. Thus, our demand should not be for others to see what we see. Rather, we have the right to demand a certain degree of wonder (to borrow from Luce Irigaray) on the part of our interlocutors in social discussions, "Wonder which beholds what it sees always has if for the first time, never taking hold of the other as its object. It does not try to seize, possess, or reduce this object, but leaves it subjective, still free." No matter how complete we feel our experience is, other people remain in some sense beyond us, and only they have the authority to tell the story of their own experience.
I was thinking about this in relation to two articles I recently read -- Yair Rosenberg's piece on "How Oberlin Has Repeatedly Failed To Confront Anti-Semitism on Campus" and Nathan Heller's profile (also centered around Oberlin) regarding "The New Activism" on college campuses.

Rosenberg's piece, specifically on anti-Semitism, documents just how hard it has been to get the Oberlin community to take anti-Semitism seriously. The initially tepid response of the university president to vicious anti-Semitic conspiracy theories peddled by Joy Karega, a tenure-track professor, was met with considerable frustration, prompting the Board to step in and issue its own statement. The sense among many was that this chain of events showcased just how marginalized Jews were -- "if any other group" had been subjected to such naked bigotry it would not have taken such herculean efforts to secure a meaningful condemnation of the idea that Jews run the media and are responsible for ISIS. It's not that other groups don't face serious wrongs -- the putative difference is that when something bad happens, a statement gets made. No muss, no fuss.

Heller's profile doesn't talk about Jews that much -- an interesting elision that I may write about in another post -- but he does gather the sense of several black student activists on the topic of the Board's statement on Prof. Karega's anti-Semitism:
Like everyone else at the table, [Jasmine] Adams believes that the Oberlin board’s denunciation of Joy Karega’s Facebook posts shows hypervigilance toward anti-Semitism and comparative indifference toward racial oppression. “We want you to say, ‘Racism is not accepted!’ ” Adams says.
When I first read this, my eyes nearly popped out.  "Hypervigilance"! As Rosenberg's piece documents, getting even a half-decent statement out of the Oberlin official was like an exercise in pulling teeth. And this view isn't just found at Oberlin. At Emory, students aggrieved at pro-Donald Trump chalkings contrasted what they took to be an indifferent administrative response to the supposedly quick action against swastikas defacing a Jewish fraternity. The university president had to correct the students by noting that the university actually took its sweet time issuing a condemnation in that case (it actually took a second case of swastika vandalism to prompt a public university response).

I've typically talked about this phenomenon -- the reflexive assumption that Jews are protected, if not overprotected, by powerful actors in contrast to the "real" victims whose plight is almost entirely ignored -- as the concept of Jews as "anti-discrimination winners." And I do think that's part of the story, particularly in explaining why the left's solidaristic impulses so often seem to be lacking when it comes to the Jewish case.

But I was also reflecting on the odd mirror image that has emerged: Both the Jews and the students of color contrast the innumerable hoops they have to jump through against the express-lane treatment the other group supposedly gets. Is it possible we're both right and both wrong?

What I suspect is going on is this: When your own group faces a case of oppression or marginalization or wrong, you see every step in the process: The community which seems indifferent. The administration which seems to want to sweep it under the rug. The critics who roll their eyes at your oversensitivity, or who outright accuse you of fraud. You go through all of that, and what emerges is probably a statement that feels half-hearted and pro forma. It's maddening.

But when another group experiences a similar wrong, you don't see the process. All you see is the beginning and the end: "Bad thing happens --> Statement gets made." It looks like they get as an entitlement the vigorous, robust university response that you had to scrape and claw to even get a whiff of. And that's doubly maddening.

But in all likelihood, it's also just an illusion. What's really happening is the shifting visibility of that pane of glass. It's in front of us, and we see it, and we find it incredible that our fellows don't see it staring us in the face. And meanwhile, they've got their own pane of glass that we don't see, blocking their way, mocking them in comparison to the free and clear (as far as they can tell) path before us.

What to do about this? I endorse what I wrote back when I was a precocious liberal arts college student: We should be humble about what we see, and in particular humble about what we imagine others to have seen. I know how hard it is for Jews to get anti-Semitism on the agenda in the institutions I care about. I also know that other groups feel the same about their own marginalizations. And so, I try not to presume that they've really got it easy. Solidarity starts with taking what other people say seriously, even when it doesn't immediately ring true to one's own view of the world. Because by definition we don't know that we don't see the pane of glass invisible to us. And equally by definition, we don't know that our fellow really doesn't see the pane of glass that's all too present for us.


Roy said...

Your thesis made a lot of sense but I think it's important to notice one difference between the behaviors of the two groups you mentioned.
The "Jewish side" (lacking a better definition right now), represented by Rosenberg, raised its concern about the hardship of getting a statement against Anti-Semitism compared to other groups, while probably, as you mentioned, unaware of the similar hardships other groups are facing in similar circumstances. This is a complaint about different treatment which does not minimize other marginalized groups concerns over what they perceive as racism or mistreatment.
In contrast, the black student activists whom Heller was talking with, claim Jews are acting in hyper vigilance, which suggests that Jews exaggerate their experience of Anti-Semitism. At the same time they accuse those Jews of being indifferent toward other racial oppression which, while may be true to some degree, is something the "Jewish side" does not do (and I'm sure it wouldn’t be hard to find many instances of black activists indifference to Anti-Semitism).
In short, while the "Jewish side" claims discrimination without trying to diminish and brush aside other marginalized groups, other groups who compare their treatment to the treatment Jews get do try to belittle Jewish claims.
Do you agree? And how those it fits your main thesis?
Have a great day

Roy Shani

David Schraub said...

I'm not sure I'm parsing this comment. Is the idea that while both "sides" minimize the difficulties the other "side" has in getting a real response, the Jewish "side" (exemplified by Rosenberg) does not also diminish the substance of the complaints themselves?

I think in certain circumstances that's true -- Rosenberg does not do any such minimizing, and these students do -- but in other circumstances it isn't. I wouldn't want to generalize. I'd note that I didn't see these students in particular "accuse those Jews of being indifferent toward other racial oppression" (the people they wanted to say "racism is not okay", as I read it, was the Board, not the Jewish community). Not that such accusations haven't been leveled at Jews, but as you point out this too is a vice that cuts across borders.

Roy said...

It is debatable whether or not the minimization of the difficulties of "the other 'side' has in getting a real response" acts also in a way that diminishes "the substance of the complaints themselves". Nevertheless, whatever your opinion, it is the same when people like Rosenberg do this and when black or Muslim or any other activists do this.

What I pointed out is something that, in my view, happens a lot when individuals and organizations from other marginalized groups compare their treatment to the one Jews get - Mainly, belittling Jewish claims of their concerns over Anti-Semitism itself (and not merely the claims of the difficulties of getting a response) and/or making those Jewish activists and organizations as part of the problem (a good time to clarify didn’t I didn’t think the black activists were accusing the Jewish community as a whole of indifference but only the board).

Let me put it this way, when it comes to Jewish activists against Anti-Semitism who are on the left, I can't recall an instance where they directly try to undermine others claims against Racism (or Sexism, or Homophobia or whatever) as the after mentioned black activists did. The only exception to the above is when claims of racism are used directly to excuse Anti-Semitism like In the case of Malia Bouattia.

While your call for people to accept that we lack the perspective to understand and recognize other groups difficulties "getting a real response" is reasonable (and in my opinion, productive), it is another thing entirely to accept activists from other groups belittling my oppression in order to further their own cause. As I mentioned earlier, I think that this kind of behavior is mainly directed towards Jews and not vice versa (at least when it comes to left of center circles) and therefor the equivalence you do between Rosenberg and the black activists does not stand in my opinion.