Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The fight for "space" and open discussion

I haven’t been able to shake off a recent NYTimes article titled, “Why Donald Trump has done worse in mostly white states.” The answer to the title’s question is that Trump does best in high diversity areas. Given Trump’s blatantly racist rhetoric, this might come as a surprise. But the explanation is simple, albeit perverse. Trump appeals to those “who feel a resentment toward racial, ethnic and religious ‘others.’” As the author notes, “An appeal to white identity tends to work better in areas where that identity is felt to be under threat.” Trump’s racist and sexist rallying cry serves as “an authoritarian voice of the voiceless.”

The notion that racism flourishes in areas of greater diversity is disturbing. I’d hope that, if anything, the opposite would be true. But the reason I can’t shake off the article is because it also indicates some other level of failing—failure to create an environment where people forced to confront their prejudice actually resolve to become more tolerant, rather than becoming more entrenched in hateful beliefs.

In the presence of white patriarchy, it’s hard to stomach the idea that white men are voiceless. I don't intend to make the matter of whether or not white men actually are voiceless the subject of this post. And let me make clear, I think we have to confront prejudicial beliefs head on. But how we do so, and how we have or have not done so, is up for discussion. By bringing everyone into the serious conversations we’re having about things like race, gender, and class, we might better address prejudice rather than push alienated groups toward further extremes.

A breakdown in communication is at least partially responsible for the current wave of extremism we’re experiencing—a breakdown recently experienced at Harvard Law. According to one Harvard Law student, a recent campus protest involved putting up posters around Harvard as a way to reclaim public space. This tactic of occupying physical space, in recent years popularized by the Occupy movement, is a way for marginalized groups to engage the public and make their voice heard. According to the Harvard Law student, this protest devolved into a poster tear-down contest between Reclaim Harvard Law students and a conservative student group. Although each group had a different set of priorities (you can find Reclaim Harvard’s demands here), each was also fighting for a place to be heard. One Harvard law student observed:
It is disturbing to see one of our neighbors videotaping another one so as to provide clickbait for his political tribe’s media outlets. The events of the last two days may have created new heroes and villains, may have scored a few points for a few folks within their respective filter bubbles, and may have made most of us — and the distant readers reading about us — angry. But what these events did not do was build understanding. This is a shame, because if we are to build a moral community together, we must work to understand each other.
These fights for physical space stem from frustrations with entrenched racism and patriarchy that have silenced people for far too long. But what we sometimes fail to openly acknowledge is that these fights for space are also waged by newly alienated people facing challenges to the traditional power structure. Look no further than the success of Donald Trump’s (racist and sexist) rhetoric in more racially diverse areas.

At Harvard, a well-intentioned movement became mired in catching students in a bad act, as opposed to fostering an environment where people could talk about racism and find ways to combat it. All over the country, public discourse often devolves into a back-and-forth, tit-for-tat, he said-she said display that ignores content and focuses on shaming and spectacle. This squeezes out space for discussion that might move an issue forward and causes people to dig their heels in further.

While many—probably most—prejudicial acts go uncorrected, other statements are publicly singled out as bigoted, not to force the person to acknowledge their own prejudice, but rather to enjoy the subsequent public shaming. While I’m not trying to be an apologist for those who hold or act on bigoted beliefs, I do recognize that many thoughtful people have been shot down for well-intentioned statements (sometimes taken out of context), or have chosen to say nothing at all—and neither of these scenarios provide any meaningful challenge to prejudice.

What’s missing from this picture is empathy. To facilitate better conversations about prejudice, we must recognize that people aren’t born with prejudice. Prejudice is a cultural byproduct. Racist or sexist beliefs stem from certain places, communities, and experiences. Recognizing the societal root of these ills should inspire a sense of empathy in addressing people who hold such beliefs—rather than disdain, exclusively.

I’ve experienced first hand the power of empathy in facilitating better conversation around sexism. In one such experience, a male friend (let’s call him Chris) and a female friend (let’s call her Sarah) fell into the unproductive back-and-forth described above. Sarah commented on the American male tendency to ogle at women’s bodies, making women feel uncomfortable and even harassed. Chris was offended by her comment, claiming it was unfair to make assumptions about all men. In doing so, he entirely ignored (and implicitly shut down) Sarah’s gendered experience. Sarah claimed his comment was proof of sexist attitudes, but didn't explain why she felt that way.

Seeing this breakdown in communication, I told Chris that he may not identify with outwardly misogynistic men, but that he should also recognize that as a white, heterosexual male, he will likely never experience what Sarah described. Chris immediately had an “ah-ha!” moment and apologized to Sarah for ignoring her original point—that patriarchy plays out in society in harmful ways. He actually understood where Sarah was coming from, but needed space to acknowledge her point. Without that space, both sides would have left the conversation frustrated and unmoved. Opening up the conversation allowed for a positive outcome.

I may be more amenable to calls for empathy given my white privilege. But my empathy also stems from growing up in a culturally conservative area where most people openly held intolerant beliefs. I realize that I didn’t develop a more tolerant outlook because I was born with a bigger heart. I developed values of tolerance because I was fortunate to have parents and friends who encouraged tolerance and questioned prejudice. Much like current calls to recognize crime as the product of systemic problems and one’s life circumstances, so too should we recognize that intolerance also stems from one’s surroundings. Prejudice isn’t just a symptom of “bad people,” it’s a symptom of societal failings.

At some point during an open conversation about racism or sexism, or any other systemic prejudice, someone will say the wrong thing. If we want people to change, we have to accept that the process of change exposes some problematic beliefs—the exact beliefs we're hoping to confront and transform. If we don’t create a space to work out these issues, they’ll continue festering in the dark. No person, and no cause, benefits from that.


Sonja said...

"Prejudice isn’t just a symptom of “bad people,” it’s a symptom of societal failings." This is such a powerful observation. Your post, to me, reinforces the need for us to address our own prejudices, and prejudices in our immediate community. Holding our loved ones and friends accountable doesn't have to be done disdainfully, it can and should be an act of love. I have heard these acts referred to as "calling in," as opposed to the more common "calling someone out." By calling someone in, you can essentially say, "I love you and value you in my life and community, which is why I want to talk about the _______ thing you said."

I think it's also useful to remember that prejudice literally means to pre-judge, which literally everyone does. It only becomes problematic when institutional power and privilege are tied to such prejudices. As you said, this is a symptom of societal failings and cultural constructs.

Kate said...

I really appreciate your post, because it highlights how difficult it can be to engage in productive discussion while also fighting back frustration and judgmental attitudes. Coming from a small, rural community, I am constantly reminded of this when I visit home for the holidays. Many of my friends and acquaintances are accustomed to accepting narrow minded views on any variety of topics, including gender roles, poor minorities, and religion. It can be infuriating to bite my tongue when someone makes an offhand comment that I find offensive, but I am also aware that my move to California and continuing education makes me come off as "elitist" and "stuck up" if I challenge their views. I've had this either said to my face or overheard people saying this about me enough times to know that sometimes directly confronting ignorance and hurtful rhetoric just makes the situation worse. I'm not sure what the answer is, but maintaining an awareness of how my words impact others at least gives me pause to choose them carefully.