Why Conversations About Privilege are Clumsy

In short, most conversations about privilege boil down to trying to ‘school’ other people with one’s own perspective.

Attempting to impose one’s understanding and will on others like this is itself most often clumsy, and we’re only getting started!

In this topsy-turvy era, an accusation of privilege can be a way to subvert it, and declaring one’s own powerlessness is an act of power.

Bottom line: the conversation is clumsy because it’s handled too simplistically. Here are two factors which would mature this dialogue:

Privilege is Contextual

The label “white privilege” is a misnomer, which attempts to keep this about race. Race is an important aspect, but in this conversation, it’s missing the real point. We should start using the phrase majority privilege. In a democracy, majority means power. If we don’t want democracy to become a monolithic juggernaut, we need to be aware of its margins, its cracks and its gaps — real people live there! Additionally, every demographic or subgroup has a different internal majority, which brings me to the second point.

Privilege is Never Static

Privilege is power, and like power, privilege is dynamic. It’s the ability to make autonomous decisions, without having to face needless pressures or prejudices that result from being different. The thing is, there is a lot of ‘different’ in our world, and what becomes popular — and by extension, unpopular — changes all the time. Privilege and power move unpredictably, and they can be subverted unpredictably as well.

Heedless of these complicating factors, the level of the current discourse attempts to reduce the whole issue to a supposed binary:

“You’re either with the propagators of privilege. Or with the victims of prejudice.”

And each turns into an accusation by the other. Which becomes a counter-accusation. And then a counter-counter accusation.

How can you defend yourself against an accusation like this?

For example, if someone of a different race called you a racist, how would you deny it? Do you think those denials would stand up in your accuser’s mind? Honestly?

Having seen a lot of people’s attempts, my determination is, generally speaking, denial doesn’t cut it.

Making an accusation is taking power.

Accusation is violent communication. It tends to spark a violent response, and the level violence often escalates, quickly! Effectively, accusation narrows your options of response to three:

  1. Fight. Argue. Deny. Defend. Counter-attack.
  2. Withdraw.
  3. Ask questions.

None of these options are particularly great. Asking questions is really the only one with a shot at a productive outcome, because it has a chance to keep the conversation going. The problem is that you have to forgive or ignore being labelled — no matter how unfair you think that is — before you talk.

The point I’m making is that accusation itself thwarts generative conversation. If our predisposition didn’t start with a combative posture, we’d have a better chance for change. This doesn’t mean we have to ignore the feelings built into this. Fear and anger are real!

I’m not saying “Be calm.” I’m saying “Be smart.”

Let’s just knock it off with the accusations, altogether. I think the true goal here is actually more nuanced. Despite what’s happening in popular culture, we are not looking to grow the ditches, and try to catch more people in them.

That’s a counter-productive goal.

Instead, I believe in trying to grow the road between, until it’s wide enough that we can all walk together.

Barrier-breaking conversation just doesn’t happen in a toxic environment. The goal cannot be to provoke shame on either side of the privilege divide. It should not be to hone our weapons of accusation and denial.

The exercise is to lower barriers and foster understanding within the diversity that would strengthen us…if we let it.

Can Rescuing a Word Reclaim Hope?

Everything I’ve ever done
Everything I ever do
Every place I’ve ever been
Everywhere I’m going to
It’s a sin
— Pet Shop Boys

“Mentally ill” is used so often for people who do bad things because we’ve lost access to the real word:

Evil.

 

There is a reason for this. Evil has become over-used. When “evil” hides under every doily — as per my example from the Pet Shop Boys, above — then the word is quickly sapped of all power, and even meaning.

To coin a cliché, when everything’s evil, nothing is.

It’s time to reserve evil for when we really, truly mean it.

There is another reason we may be tempted to use “mentally ill”. It is othering: “I could never do anything like that, because that person is fundamentally different than me!”

However those who have been diagnosed with a legitimate mental illness are taking umbrage with the default assumption that a mental illness is behind mass violence. It sets up further fear and prejudice, which can cause massive damage to already compromised mental health.

Additionally, trained psychologists are telling us that despite our desire to give something this antisocial a label, mass-murderers don’t necessarily qualify as mentally ill.

“Mentally ill” is both too broad and too narrow.

(There are, I recognise, different definitions of mental illness being used by trained professionals than what is in the common parlance. Considering the sweeping implications of prejudice, labels and policies, perhaps it’s time to be responsible and precise with our language, over being witty, flippant or glib.)

So, evil it is, then.

Using evil is scary, because there is actually nothing holding any of us back from it. Like blowing through a red light, there is no cosmic or physical restraint.

After every mass shooting in the US, I’ve seen religious people claim that it’s because of the nation’s godlessness and embracing moral relativism. But very, very few people’s definition of moral relativism extends to mass-murder. This is once again irresponsible speech.

We each have impulses to be evil. What holds some people back, and causes others to act on them? That’s a scary question, because the answer is scary: not much.

We are each capable.

I can’t make policy for America. And obviously I can’t change its violent history or even its current culture. So I won’t try.

I will suggest something different: instead of futilely wringing our hands in fear, we need to really begin to formulate robust answers for what evil is (without overreaching), and how it applies to us.

And in order for that, we need a robust understanding of the value of life.

Relying on intuition & instinct isn’t working, and the inevitable shocked gasps, and predictable “thoughts and prayers” aren’t solving anything.

By “a robust understanding of the value of life,” I do not mean mere words and ideas — there is too much intellectualising going on already.

I don’t even mean action, exactly.

I mean lifestyle.

Live your life as a constant testimony to the value of life. If you’re living deeply, richly, as in-tune with the greatest human values you have available, that is a dream worth cherishing.

Certainly worth living for.

And, as the name of this blog hints at, perhaps even dying for.

The Brave, Perilous Act of Communicating

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place. — Oscar Wilde

When we think about communicating, we often think in terms of transferring ideas. But in real human communication, there is no transfusion, or transplant or hard-wired data link.

Using the word ‘transfer’ conjures an inaccurate and indeed deceptive conceptual model. It suggests a perfect copy. But that’s never how communication works.

Rather, in communication, new ideas are formed in another person’s brain.

This is critically important; it means that the process is not as simple, tidy or controlled as our language insinuates.

The brand-new ideas we’re forming in each others’ brains are not necessarily aligned with the communication being received.

  • First, there’s environmental noise. We may not actually receive the communication clearly because it’s interrupted or interfered with en route.
  • Second, there’s internal noise. This describes the clutter of thoughts in the mind of the speaker, and in the mind of receiver. A thought might be expressed poorly because it’s rattling so hard against so many other thoughts. And it could be interpreted poorly for the same reason.
  • Thirdly, there is interpersonal noise, which boils down to the relationship between the sender(s) and receiver(s). There are all kinds of unpredictable aspects of this that we cannot control, and often aren’t even aware of. They all influence us in how to believe, position or prioritise the incoming communication.

And even in the absence of noise, we may still arrive at a disagreement — there is a huge spectrum between agreement and disagreement that we often fail to acknowledge. (Especially in the apparent contemporary quest to impose polarisation to absurd extremes.)

This doesn’t necessarily mean that communication failed.

It might just mean that people are different.

And we have to learn to appreciate the diversity with curiosity, grace and tact.

Yet to assume that people disagree with us because our communication is poor is a tragedy. When — with a little awareness, care and humility — we could do so much better.

The Unexamined Want

It’s glib. But it happens. A lot! Conversations deteriorate quickly based on this simple assumption:

“You just believe that because you want to.”

This is cut from the same cloth as the Courage Fallacy.  It opines that others’ beliefs are easy, perhaps systematic but above all convenient. The truth is that we humans believe a bunch of things we’d rather not, and do not believe a bunch of things we probably wish we did.

There is no more confusing place to examine desire than when it comes to beliefs.

There is a mysterious division between what we think and what we want to think, and how we know the difference. Being that this is delicate and confusing internally, it is disastrous when it is reduced to simplistic accusations externally — for example, when preachers accuse each other of only preaching for what “itchy ears” want to hear (as per 2 Timothy 4:3).

Nearly every side of every issue could turn that into an indictment against the other, and there’d be a ring of truth to it. But how do we ever know that what we’re saying is not for itchy ears?

  • Because it’s somehow harder to believe it?
  • Because it just makes sense?
  • Because it matches intuition?
  • So we always trust our understanding?

It isn’t at all easy to parse this out.

Yet all too often, this is the level of discourse that exists between ideological camps right now:

Not only can I declare my speculation about your beliefs as fact, I can declare my speculations about how your arrived at those beliefs as fact.

Our world is full of this phenomenon, across the gamut of arbitrary aisles we’ve built for ourselves. In this we have yet another level of depth that the Golden Rule gives us. If we don’t want our beliefs sneeringly guessed at and dismissively gainsaid then, well, we probably shouldn’t do that to others.

We can’t change everyone’s minds, and we can’t fix terrible reasoning that abounds in our world. But each of us can make small differences among those close to us. Each of us can be a bastion of wonder, curiosity and peace.

We don’t get there by projecting what we think we know about each other.

We get there by asking.

And listening.

The Continua We Join

Congratulations!
A catch-all word to cover over our messiest reality
You’ve arrived, you’ve made it.
It feels…
Nice, briefly.

Too briefly.

Like the mid-air stop between the up and down flight of a tennis ball
Arrival lasts for such a tiny instant
It doesn’t really exist at all.

Journey is our destination.
All we will ever really know is the going.

How strange to join the pre-established continua of life;
Of redeemed horror and twisted love
Of thwarted means and miraculous ends
Of whispered fears and secret hopes.
An alien, crash-landing in an unknown scape of here and now
By which we try to eek out a sense of before and to come.
With ever-increasingly sophisticated story-telling tools
Which cannot allow us to escape our immediacy,
Though they trick us into believing they can — they have!

We are each contained in a journey.
This is a constraint, indeed, but also a blessing
For understanding illuminates truth

The journey is neither your choice,
Nor is it chosen for you.
Rather, there is an interplay between fate and will
Which seems to be a unique construction for each person

Just knowing that we are going somewhere seems important somehow
Vitally important.
But we will never know where until/unless we arrive.

To find ourselves in another continuation of the journey.

The Transfer Model is Flawed

We often imagine that education or communication is the transfer of an idea from one person to another, or others.

That’s not accurate — there is something far more complex going on.

Communication creates something new. It actually forms a new idea in someone else’s mind. The new idea is not a pure carbon copy of the original idea — while hopefully similar, it is literally an entirely new thought.

This is critical! If we have the concept of communication wrong, we’ll cause ourselves all kinds of problems.

Just as we can never tell for sure if everyone sees green the same way, or if we’ve just each independently learned what “green” is based on our own individual colour reception, so it is with ideas.

Ideas don’t exist in isolation.

They interact with the self that hosts them. Just for starters, they are influenced by mood, memories, associations, relationships, fears and hopes. The more complicated the idea, the more connections it provokes.

Beginning to conceptualise communication as something new may begin to heighten the respect and care we give to it, rather than tacitly assuming “we told them so they know”.

Without dialogue, we can never know if the ideas that our ideas inspired are compatible, or even similar.

So then, we should always strive to be clear from the outset. But we also need to realise that the beginning is only the beginning. We can only be sure that we’ve been clear when we start to recognise the ideas which come back to us.

A Radical Welcome — Part 2

Radically welcoming isn’t a phrase used by the churches I’ve attended. They’re mostly earmarked marked by a selective, cautious welcome. People are watched warily to see if they agree/disagree with various truth claims, or align with certain behavioural standards, before they’re called insiders.

Jesus’ welcome blasted right through people’s sensibilities and identities. He challenged their rules, traditions, expectations, affiliations and experiences.

Churches now often use a marketing approach to fine-tune their welcome:
“People who look like our current demographic(s) would love to join us.”

It’s easier to form and express solidarity with a group who looks, thinks and talks like each other.

But that wasn’t Jesus’ words or practice.

And if we’re following Jesus, that should at least give us pause.

 

The Mainstreaming of the Niche

The rallying cry for arts to be in church is being heard in many places. It has become (almost…?) mainstream. Even saying that the church used to be a centre and a patron of the arts — and should be again! — is mainstream.

We can’t get anywhere productive until we consider the reasons why the church doesn’t have this place in the arts now. (And perhaps the reasons why it did –some of which aren’t so pleasant.)

Here it is: faith has been reduced to a set of premises. It’s been boiled down to a (supposedly) logical argument. This is “preaching”.

It’s not just words. It’s a certain genre of words.

And then along comes art. Art doesn’t interest itself in logical arguments. It explores life on a much bigger canvas. It reflects on the absurd, the grotesque, the unpredictable, as well as the noble, the beautiful and inspiring.

Feeling and thought; real and imagined.

This isn’t where the established church loves to camp. The church, in its current iteration, still loves to make sweeping declarative truth statements. Art doesn’t fit easily into propaganda. Not for long, unless an artist is getting paid somehow.

If we think that we can solve the divide by upping the appreciation of art, and purchasing a handful of art pieces, that will only make the divide deeper.

In the broad strokes, art is exploration. 

The church hasn’t (re)discovered that this is its purpose. At least, not yet. It’s still stuck trying to do stuff which is concrete and tangible.

This isn’t to dismissively imply that there aren’t artists in church. Or to imply that what a church does is somehow not “real” art. Rather, it’s to recognise that the church isn’t typically warm to the concept and process of art, just its fruits.

The church cannot be a patron of the arts if its artists are still largely misunderstood and unwelcome.

If art is merely another way to express the same tired, superficial, certainty-infused messaging of the church, most artists will not participate. Those messages are old. They do not reflect the growing clamour of perceived and intended meanings within our culture. Therefore they cannot speak to our culture’s needs.

These are aspects of art we’re going to need to be comfortable with:

  • Not every artistic endeavour is worthy of attention.
  • Not every journey arrives at an important or even meaningful destination.
  • Nothing is guaranteed to have a singular interpretation.

Indeed, we’re going to have to get comfortable with this unsettledness regarding many aspects of human creativity.

I think we can. And I think we will. But only if we begin to grapple with truth in a deeper, more candid way than we’re currently known for.

“Winner Take All” Doesn’t Solve Anything

Watching the US election 2016, I’m surprised at the level of surprise.

The way Americans debate is infused with force. I’ve noticed this in every forum I’ve encountered. Over the past few decades, the US has declared itself the arbiter of democracy, and yet it has civil war in its own past. This should not be understated — it has unresolved, deep issues with race and reconciliation that go all the way back to slavery. It was forced to resort to blatantly non-democratic way to try to fix them. That is its history. Did it work?

Look at examples like the persistent existence of the KKK, the troubled history of the Black Panthers, the entirely fractious efforts to end segregation and the viral nature of #BlackLivesMatter. America still has a pretty serious racial chasm.

Additionally, no race is a monolith; there are conflicting perspectives within races, which complicate the tensions between them.

And that’s just race. Now apply that same phenomenon to every imaginable demographic and issue, and you start to get a clearer picture of what’s going on.

Everyone seems surprised at the level of animosity and fracturing. But I’ve been watching this unfold for some time now. You may think that the way people talk to each other online is just a twisted representation of their much calmer, real-life selves. I do not — I believe it truly represents the way they think and feel. People are scared and angry, and especially after the election result, this needs to be taken seriously.

A common refrain is “Haven’t we solved this already?”

The problem is that war doesn’t solve anything. It just pushes the problems off for a bit, and give the victors false confidence. Then the problems manifest another (likely far more subversive) way.

The way the 2016 election went, it was very like a war, at least rhetorically. There isn’t just a winner and a loser. There is dancing and rioting in the streets — to the point where it’s hard to tell the difference. There is an outpouring of vitriol from the winners, and mass-anxiety of the losers. The country is not united.

Truth is the most bloodied casualty in the streets, and now laying shell-shocked and disoriented in the infirmary. Some are suggesting it may never recover. Indeed, it may not.

Affiliations of all kinds are caught up in this, trying to sift through the rubble to figure out what to be confident in, and what to be afraid of.

A large number of values that were thought to be shared are being discovered to wildly one-sided.

Starting long before this election, every social issue is being fought with this “winner take all” attitude. Any group’s “thems” are not just different, they are strange, dangerous and most likely evil. From same-sex marriage to climate change, the rhetoric is all designed to quickly and simplistically write opposition off with caricaturing labels — as hopelessly prejudiced against “the facts”. When every group is adopting that language and strategy, the only solution is war.

“Them’s fightin’ words!”

The better argument will not prevail. Rational, intelligent appeals to empathy and a shared understanding will not work. When one side is determined to win at all costs, and the ends are casually assumed to justify any means, then you either join that game, or you lose.

When faced with confusion, we’ll concede to the promise of power.

I hope that America will discover why democracy needs to have philosophers and lawyers in its highest offices. It isn’t to restrict access to narrow professions. Just the opposite: they’re the people who have the largest view of human history and thought, who can be counted on to keep the country open. They’ve studied law. They’ve experienced it.

Giving a cut-throat, unfiltered, fickle, business-savvy mouthpiece the presidency over a poralised, fragmented population, isn’t likely to get a more stable, unified and contented nation.

Surprisingly, some people may indeed be surprised by that.

Surprise!

Donald Trump is president-elect. Wow. I never saw that coming. But even more surprising, based on his acceptance speech, he might turn out to be a good president.

I definitely never saw that coming!

He gamed it — he gamed the whole election. I don’t mean he controlled it. I mean he played like there was no possible way he could lose. (And to a certain extent, that’s true.) It makes some kind of sense that a population who loves reality TV found its hero in an aggressive, flippant gamer of systems. Perhaps now that the election is over, it’s the beginning of a brand new game.

But there’s a lot more to consider.

All of his crass posturing flipped over every imaginable rock, revealing the hidden nastiness beneath.

  • That’s not pretty.
  • That’s not politic.
  • That’s not the established practice.

Whether or not you believe he’s complicit in the nastiness, or even an agent of it, he has undoubtedly provided the country with a mirror to itself.

There is no way to ignore that now.

I mean, people can try. People *will* try. People will protect themselves from feeling their guilt and misgivings with accusations and counter-accusations. For the foreseeable future, rhetoric wars will wage white-hot between all the polarised factions zig-zagging through the country like fault-lines.

  • What happens to all of this anger?
  • Where does this fear lead?
  • How does character factor in here?
  • What about expectations of quality leadership?
  • Do the ends even come close to justifying the means?

There is a considerable number of echoing, foundational questions which can’t be answered easily.

But, as is demonstrated repeatedly throughout history, the voter base’s memory is very short. Therefore, through the force of self-fulfilling prophecy, and a first-hand understanding of the country that I have no doubt the election run gave him, Trump might find a way to lead well…if the majority who voted for him (and at least a few who didn’t) are willing to pivot with him.

If people get busy accomplishing a goal, their personal differences won’t be as stark or meaningful.

Despite all the grumbling, outrage and false-nostalgia, “Make America Great Again” may actually be a prophetic rallying cry — not least because its citizenry gets to (re)define ‘great’ on its own terms.

Trump might turn out to be a good president. And if he does, then the American people are wildly, unimaginably and unbelievably lucky. Because in all honesty, that isn’t anything like who they voted for.