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.

Still…

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 th