On Forbearance and Listening

My wife once brought me up short, years ago, by suggesting that a man telling women to calm down when they wanted to express their pain about sexism perhaps wasn’t the optimal situation to encourage honest conversation. Other wise women have said the same thing to me: “John, it’s easy for you to say ‘calm down’ when you’re not the one who has been interrupted, silenced, or even kept out of the room altogether.”

Fair enough. If we are going to talk with each other about difficult matters, especially those involving injustice, oppression, and violence, not everyone is going to be able to keep his or her composure, and we all need to allow for that. Pent-up rage doesn’t usually get expressed in measured cadences.

I’d also say, however, that not everyone should have to keep his or her composure. It is good for us to see and hear, so we can begin to feel, rage…and frustration…and fear…and sadness.

These issues are not, after all, solely about the correctness of concepts, or the accuracy of analyses, or the plausibility of proposals. They are also about solidarity, connection, empathy. They are about “getting it” so we then can “get with it.”

That’s why, in other writings and speeches, I have advocated for women to tell their stories of gender discrimination so as to help the rest of us feel the way we need to feel, as well as think the way we ought to think. That’s the only way authentic gender equality will fully arrive.

And those stories won’t always be easy for people like me to hear, nor will they invariably have happy endings. But, as Aristotle told us, to be persuaded we need to be impressed by ethos (the character of the speaker) and pathos (the feelings the speaker arouses), and not just logos (the quality of the arguments).

I’ve done some listening and some advocating over the years—perhaps more than some of my readers would expect. My family took in poor young people on three separate occasions to live with us—for months—while their families were in turmoil. I was a teenager, and it was my bedroom that they were given. I didn’t like having to move rooms and bunk in with my little brother, but I was glad we could help. That was in the early 1970s.

I watched, aghast, the racist treatment of blacks and Mexicans in West Texas and remonstrated with my white bosses as far as I could (as a summer employee) in 1979.

I conversed with black people in my church, and interviewed some clients in my church’s emergency food bank, in the early 1980s in Chicago.

I listened to the pleas and arguments of lesbian feminists at the University of Chicago as early as 1983.

I studied the history of race relations and civil rights movements as a function of American and Canadian religious history between 1980 and 1985.

I participated in dialogues with native leaders, native women (many of whom feared some of those leaders), and others concerned about aboriginal self-government in the early 1990s as part of conferences on Canada’s national future. I taught native students at the University of Manitoba, taught native religion there, and engaged in dialogue with those students and my professorial colleagues in aboriginal studies throughout the 1990s.

I also became good friends with the head of women’s studies—an out lesbian, living with her lesbian partner, who studied lesbian domestic relations—in the later 1990s.

I heeded the testimony of nurses working at Vancouver’s safe injection site and became persuaded to advocate for InSite in the next decade…as well as meeting and talking with native leaders in Vancouver and elsewhere in that decade as well.

I have learned a lot by this listening, and I have a lot more to learn. “You’re not as feminist as you think you are,” my beloved sometimes reminds me, and I realize that I will never be as feminist as I would like to be because I will never live life as a woman.

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I am Bernie Sanders

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.


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Grabbing the Microphone Is a Violent Act…

…and therefore should be considered as such when it comes to the ethics of “direct action” in activism.

Some of us are discussing the recent seizing of the microphone at a rally in Seattle by women on behalf of #BlackLives Matter. Yes, even from my relatively distant vantage point across the 49th Parallel, I can understand and sympathize with those who want the American election to pay much more attention to the ongoing agony of race relations. I claim very little knowledge about this vast and vastly important zone, but even only a couple of years living on the South Side of Chicago, while I was studying American culture, raised my consciousness a bit.

The legitimacy of #BlackLivesMatter and of the larger issues it evokes, however, is only part of what’s going on here. And the seizing of the floor by these two motivated women seems to me (as it seems to many others) dangerous indeed.

It’s the playing with fire that scares me here, the resort to a (small, but genuine) form of violence. And this incident is part of a larger pattern of increasing freedom many North Americans seem to feel–and especially those in their 20s (on university campuses especially, but now in other spaces as well)–to commandeer or shut down political speech they don’t like.

That scares me. Not just because this has been the tactic of reprehensible movements in the past. (Let’s just acknowledge Godwin’s Law and move on.) But because this kind of shouting is becoming increasingly the norm: at political rallies, yes, but on MSM “news” as much as on social media. How are we going to convince anyone who isn’t already convinced, let alone mollify our opponents, if we just throw fire at each other?

Worse, these activists are trading on the good will of people with whom they can understandably feel impatient, as MLK did…but by riding roughshod over those people (“I have decided what we will all do now…because I happen to be black and feel strongly about BlackLivesMatter…and that trumps everyone else’s agenda here”), well, what do they accomplish? Read the rest of this entry »