Well, I’m not exactly the same as Bernie Sanders, I suppose. He’s a US Senator, and I’m a Canadian scholar. He’s Jewish, and I’m Christian. He’s famous, and I’m not. And so on.
But over the last few days, I’ve felt a little kinship to the embattled Democratic hopeful. It hasn’t made any news, of course, but I, too, have received some friendly fire of late…and all because of the previous post about…people firing at Bernie Sanders.
Two of my former students, in fact, have chided me on Facebook for presuming as a white person, and a privileged white person at that, to tell black people how to behave in public. (See the previous post.) Worse, I’m criticizing activists from the comfortable armchair of the scholar.
Now, I like these two former students a lot. Beth was a fine theology student who, since graduating from Regent College, has come out, married her girlfriend, and dedicated considerable energy to at least the conservative end of the broad LGBTQ+ agenda. Dan was an equally fine student of philosophy and cultural studies who, since his time at Regent, has spearheaded activism among male and female prostitutes and other badly marginalized people in Vancouver and now in his new city of London, Ontario. I don’t agree with all of what Beth stands for, and I don’t agree with all of Dan’s tactics, but I respect them both as people dedicated to justice who put their time, effort, and considerable intelligence to work on behalf of the oppressed.
It is unpleasant, therefore, to have such good people take me to task for saying the sorts of things I say in the previous post. But I’m going to double down on what I said, because I think there are key principles at stake here, and maybe Beth and Dan…or at least others who are listening in and deciding what to think…will see things a little more my way, or I’ll see things a little more like theirs.
Let me start with a key concession. Psychologically, yes, it is hard to take criticism from people with whom you don’t feel strong solidarity. I get a lot of criticism, I mostly dislike it, and the criticism that annoys me the most is that coming from people I see as entirely uninterested in me or my concerns. So I grant the point that I would be much easier to listen to, for at least people on the front lines of activism, if I were more obviously active myself in those concerns. And I note that even Beth and Dan, with whom I have long relationships of what I trust is still mutual respect and affection, bristled at what I wrote. So I want to think about how to communicate more effectively with them, and others like them, if I possibly can.
1. Let’s note the genetic fallacy involved here: that the truth or value of a statement depends upon who is making it. These ad hominems—“You don’t demonstrate adequate involvement in the cause you criticize, so you should keep quiet”—ignores the fact that being involved in the cause is not a qualification to make these kinds of comments. If I happen to be right about suggestions I’m making, I’m right—regardless of whether I even know any black people, or have spent any time in racially charged situations, or have devoted any energy to racial reconciliation. It might be vexing to grant that someone like me might actually be making a good point, but why refuse to benefit from a good point just because it comes from an unimpressive source?
2. What, exactly, is so wrong about the previous post? The logic of my critics seems to run something like this:
Black people (proxies for “any marginalized people”) don’t need advice from white people (proxies for “the powerful”) as to how to speak in public. In particular, they certainly don’t need white people telling them how to convince…white people. Black people know better how to convince white people about the concerns of black people because they’re black.
Put this way, however, the principle seems absurd, and therefore counterproductive to the cause of black rights. Just try reversing the values of “black” and “white”:
White people don’t need advice from black people about how to convince black people. White people know better how to convince black people about the concerns of white people because they’re white.
We have a hermeneutical and rhetorical problem here, don’t we? And even though I’m not a race activist, I am a scholar of epistemology and hermeneutics, so such problems are in my wheelhouse and I’m going to talk about them a while longer here.
If people belonging to group A want to connect with people belonging to group B, why is it a bad thing for someone from group B who shares the concerns of group A to advise group A how to communicate more effectively with group B? What has been the actual historical success of people in group A connecting with people of group B who disregarded the sensibilities, even the dignity, of group B and simply shouted at them?
3. How is it condescending to say, “Look, if you want a different reaction than you got in Seattle—namely, the outrage of the very people who bothered to show up to a rally in favour of causes that are in the middle of your own agenda—then maybe you should listen to the suggestions of people in that target group as to how to communicate more effectively”?
Even more absurdly, since when did offering advice become “policing” the language of others? Especially in this context, in which real “policing” has included the shooting of civilians by cops, “policing” seems needlessly incendiary, if not in fact disrespectful to victims of actual policing. But even if we dial down the rhetoric, offering advice might be irritating, but it’s hardly coercive. And why isn’t it seen as what it seems to be: offering of help from a sympathetic other?
4. The retort has come back to me, “I really don’t think the priority for BLM protesters is to get white, straight, middle-class male Christians fully involved in The Cause…. I think the priority is to get them to stop killing [black people]. And to become more aware of their privilege in this conversation. Not for them to have a public opinion about this.”
Well, whether you want people like me to get fully involved in #BlackLivesMatter or just stop killing black people (Iet’s just pass over the implication that I’m somehow importantly implicit in cops shooting suspects, which more tender souls could find deeply offensive), the objective is to change hearts and minds, right? The objective is to improve the situation. So let’s just ask: Those people who wield power in America today, do they look more like you or do they look more like me? So why immediately deflect advice coming directly from someone in the target group?
It could be, of course, that some activists don’t really care about changing anyone’s mind. They’re right, they’re upset, and they just want to scream their rage. A lot of the Occupy movement seems to me to be simply that. “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.”
To be sure, articulating rage can be a salutary start to actual social improvement. But having gotten up a head of steam, then you need to channel that energy toward steps that might actually change the situation. Otherwise, you’re just indulging yourself…which is really, really not the same as actually seeking justice. I’m trying to help with that latter concern, with actually making a difference. So why blow me off just because I’m not an activist?
Other activists, however, really understand that if you don’t get the attention of people like me, and convince us to put your concerns on our agenda, things won’t change. So unless you think that annoying people like me is the best way to get us to change our minds…by grabbing a microphone, or trying to shut us up when we suggest that microphone-grabbing might not be an optimal tactic…you might want to actually listen to what we’re saying.
Otherwise, the lesson people like me learn from people like you is that the lines are already drawn, I’m on the wrong side, and until I meet your criteria of adequate goodness, I have no place in the conversation. And what is the natural reaction to that? Withdrawal, at the very least. Contempt and animosity, most likely. That’s what we heard in those ugly responses in Seattle. And they were entirely predictable. So cui bono, once all the smoke has cleared?
5. Bernie Sanders’s campaign apparently has responded to this kerfuffle with a higher prioritizing of racial justice. Success for #BlackLivesMatter? It remains to be seen, of course, whether this response is anything other than damage control and an attempt to forestall further interruptions.
And some of those interruptions may come from Latinos who might want to point out that there are now more of them in the US than there are blacks, far more, and they want their agenda featured more prominently. And some of those interruptions may come from…and so on…and so on…such that no one gets to hold any public meeting on an announced agenda anymore, but instead the agenda will be dictated by whoever grabs the mic. And the fragmentation of public life proceeds apace, and we refuse to listen to anyone who isn’t already and clearly and adequately on our side.
And that’s what I’m worried about.
We can’t talk about how black lives matter if we can’t talk at all.