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.


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.


16 Responses to “I am Bernie Sanders”

  1. Julie

    Interesting, though, that when others suggest that it might be helpful for you to amplify the voices of those in the minority, rather than adding to the already overwhelming voice of the majority, you respond by publishing another blog post.

    • John

      This almost instant (I do not say “knee-jerk”) reply does rather confirm my point, doesn’t it, Julie?

      • Steve Wilkinson

        John, unfortunately you don’t have the qualifications to speak into the situation due to, ironically, bigotry of the ‘progressives.’ Consider this statement by the subject in question….

        “Well, when I think about who is running for president, most of them represent the system of white-supremist, hetero-normative, patriarchal, capitalism.”

        (I love that second new buzz-word, BTW.) So, you’re too white, straight, male, and possibly not socialist enough to have a voice.

        Only non-white, female, LBGTQQIAAP+, socialists can speak. So, aside from these few activists, everyone else must shut-up… unless you’re the POTUS, in which case, you can (effectively, according to main-stream-media) ‘shout-down’ a black-transgender-immigrant ‘woman’ and call security on ‘her’ while saying ‘no, no, no, no, no, no….. you’re in MY house… shame on you!’ 😉


        (At some point, I think we just need to start trying to enjoy the humor aspect to this lunacy… so we don’t all go nuts too.)

    • J.B. Frank

      Your point, Julie, might have been a bit more understandable (and hence, powerful) had you resorted to fewer commas….

  2. pmcdc

    i am SO glad you wrote each part of this. it is very, very necessary. thanks very much.

  3. J.B. Frank

    Dr. Stackhouse; Is there perhaps a chance that you have overlooked one possibility? That there is no interest whatsoever in actual dialog; that this is OWS 2.0 and that the goal is not evolutionary, but revolutionary? On one hand, this all could be quite disconcerting; on the other, perhaps it’s just the normal cycle of history (this all brings to mind an essay I read many years ago by Ayn Rand on global Balkanization). We survived that, perhaps we will this as well so that real, meaningful dialog can take place.

  4. John

    I’m a not an important person but I believe in and try to live a third way. For what it’s worth, John you are right.

  5. (Joe) Lynn Betts

    Well-reasoned and well-put. Thanks. Rage over Reason rarely results in real change.

  6. Steve

    Your mention of the occupy movement made me think of this (which may or may not be relevant):

  7. Matt

    Are Beth and Dan’s statements publically available so that we can put all the arguments in context?

    • John

      No: As I said, they were responding to me via Facebook.

      • Amanda

        Except your Facebook page is public, so the conversation is actually easily viewed by those who are interested.

  8. Beth

    John, I think we approach this very differently, and I don’t know if we’ll see eye to eye, no matter how many blog posts you write about it.

    You talk about being right. I don’t think it matters if we’re right. I think what matters most is if we’re in right relationship with others. If we’re not in right relationship, we’re in danger of becoming a clanging cymbal.

    Generally speaking, white people are not in right relationship with black people, because of injustices past, and injustices present. As the oppressors in this situation, the onus is on us to search our hearts, humble ourselves, and seek restored relationship.

    With this in mind, I believe the appropriate posture and role for white people is that of allyship. I’m still learning how to be an ally, but here’s what I’ve learned so far.

    You don’t have to abandon your calling to be an ally.
    You don’t have to spend all your time “in the trenches,” though you certainly could.
    I think you can start positioning yourself as an ally even from the “comfortable armchair of the scholar.”

    Allyship is about humility and mutuality, trying to see Christ in the other.
    Allyship is about posturing oneself alongside and behind, instead of above the oppressed.
    Alllyship is about getting out of the way, stepping out of the spotlight, ceding the podium, de-centering ourselves in this story.
    Allyship is about listening long and hard before we speak (or write).
    Listening to the intention behind the actions.
    Listening to the rationale behind the interruption.

    It doesn’t mean we have to immediately agree with everything done by the people we’re allied with.

    It does mean that we check ourselves before we push back, aware of our great temptation to yet again take up a position of power that people who look like us have exerted over and over through history with disastrous consequences… Is my privilege leading me to overprioritize my own comfort in this situation? Am I putting my own sense of propriety and politeness above the endangered lives of fellow human beings? Might I be wrong? How might I be called to lay down my power and privilege in this situation?

    Melissa is the BLM activist who initiated this action.
    You portray Melissa as self-indulgent and annoying, with a head of steam.

    I see Melissa as someone who has given up on the system. Four years with a black president hasn’t significantly changed the present reality of her people. The most progressive presidential candidate today has not been willing to explicitly commit to using his power to end this racialized violence, because it’s not politically palatable, even if it is morally obvious.

    As hard as it might be to believe, I don’t think Melissa cares about how to communicate more effectively with you or even with Bernie. She doesn’t want your advice. You are not her target group. She doesn’t want to get her concerns on some official agenda, to wait in line and play nice and continue trusting the same broken system to eventually come through for her, if she’ll just be patient while a bunch more of her people die. No, her goal is to disrupt that system, and she has done so, which may anger white people and make us nervous, but that doesn’t mean that she’s not pursuing justice, a deeper justice. I have learned recently that Melissa is a Christian. Could God be working through her? When the prophets spoke for justice, they didn’t add their names to a list, wait in line, or speak politely.

    So yes, I guess I do think there are, as you put it, “criteria of adequate ‘goodness’” for a place in this conversation, at least for a place in a conversation that matters. For white people, I think those criteria fall under the “allyship” heading. And even allyship doesn’t guarantee you’ll be part of the conversation – you may need to be silent for a while, for the sake of rebuilding that right relationship, for the sake of letting a long-silenced people speak. If that makes people defensive, it’s within their rights to withdraw and show contempt, as you predict many white people will do – concede that the lines are already drawn, and firmly set themselves behind them. But I hope they don’t, because I think there’s a lot to be learned when you cross over the lines and listen long and hard to those on the other side, those last who will be first, who will be leading the way into the kingdom.

    (also posted on Facebook, for those who are following the conversation there)

    • Steve Wilkinson

      What if allyship is speaking wisdom into the situation, even if it isn’t what the oppressed group might currently recognize as such? (I’ve often received – much to my dismay – wise advice that I didn’t necessarily want to hear at the time.)

      re: “Four years with a black president hasn’t significantly changed the present reality of her people.”

      Ok, this kind of ticks me off… as I know a good number of people voted for Obama *because* of his skin color (how racist is that!?). And why would having someone with a more skin pigment in a position of power mean better things for other people with more skin pigment? (Again, pretty racist assumption, no?) What matters is ideology, not amount of skin pigment!

      re: “As hard as it might be to believe, I don’t think Melissa cares about how to communicate more effectively with you or even with Bernie.”

      Very easy for me to believe. The target demographic for most of this kind of PR-tactic are people who can be swayed by rhetoric and emotion. The people who are actually thinking are going to come to their own conclusions, regardless.


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