A Surfeit of Judgment

I spent the first two and a half decades of my life learning how to hate myself.  I decided to walk away from that life, but learning to like myself took a few more years.

I spent the first two and a half decades of my life learning how to judge others.  I decided to walk away from that because I was never comfortable with the idea.

That’s why I decided to write yesterday’s post.  The story’s not over.  I despair of the idea that the story will ever be over.  I want to live in a world that’s better than the one we currently have and the only way I know of to do it is to find a way to tell the story or find someone who can tell the story better.

I don’t always know the words.  I don’t always know the story.  Sometimes all I have is fragments of thoughts.

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I grew up Evangelical.  I thought I was called into ministry, so for several years I poured myself into my church or into the Christian organizations I worked with and attempted to minister.  I wanted to make the world a better place and I knew that the way to make the world a better place was to make sure everyone knew and accepted Jesus.

What that meant, of course, was that the world would be perfect if everyone was exactly like us.  Well, it meant that the world would be perfect if everyone was exactly like what we claimed to be.

I don’t know about anyone else in my various groups of Christian friends, but I know that I was lying about who I was.  It’s sad, too.  I never did anything particularly wrong but I often did and thought things that I wasn’t supposed to do.  So all the stuff I was doing wrong in some tiny way overrode all the things I was doing right.

There’s a bigger problem, though.  Some of the stuff I was doing wrong was stuff that the Jesus I followed would have been on board with but the Christians I listened to thought was terrible.

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One of my best friends has been one of my best friends since we were in grade school.  He was never a Christian (that I recall, at the very least he was never a real, true Christian).  I spent years with him as my evangelism project.  We all had an evangelism project or three.  They were the person we brought up when it was prayer request time and we wanted to make sure everyone knew we were doing the whole making disciples thing.

I spent years making sure that he knew I disapproved of all the things he did that weren’t Christian.  I spent years making sure that he knew that I was not engaging in the same sort of thing because Jesus.

That sounds harsh, I suppose.  It sounds like I was missing the boat on the whole evangelism aspect of Christianity.  We talked about sharing Jesus’s love.  We talked about unconditional love and acceptance.  We didn’t actually engage in any such thing, though.  Everything was conditional on being like us.

That was one of the reasons I left Evangelical Christianity.  I saw that my friends were happy and couldn’t help but noticing that I wasn’t.  I didn’t want them to be like me even though I knew I was supposed to want that more than anything.

I spent quite a bit of time apologizing for being an asshole after I left Christianity.

The other day I was hanging out with my friend who was once my missions project and the subject came up.  I apologized again, because even now I feel bad.  He told me it was okay and he hadn’t really held it against me because I at least saw Christianity as something that held out an ideal worth aspiring to.

I wasn’t sure how to respond to that.  I had to leave Evangelical Christianity to find things worth aspiring to, after all.

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So about yesterday’s post.  I don’t know how to begin explaining why I really, really wanted to write that post.  I was re-launching the blog and I was going to write this post about Nelson Mandela and Ho Chi Minh and Communism and use that as a re-introduction to one of my history series because, dammit, this blog is called Accidental Historian and, dammit, an Accidental Historian should write about history from time to time, right?

Some things are more important than our little plans, though.  What the hell is the point of trying to claim that I’m a good person if I’m confronted by something that has increased the level of pain in the world and I don’t try to do something about it?  I’d already said that if something is worth writing about then it will be worth writing about in two weeks and that counts doubly for something I’d planned when something more important shows up.

Everything I want to write about Nelson Mandela and Ho Chi Minh and Communism will still be there next week.  That’s the great thing about history.  It will always be right where we left it.

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I’ve realized that writing about immediate issues revolving around social justice is fraught with peril for me.  I am a straight, white, college educated, cisgendered, middle class male in my 30s.  The entire world pretty much revolves around me.  I’m the target demo for pretty much everything short of tampons and denture cream.

I genuinely care about people who have been hurt.  My heart breaks when I’m confronted by tales of people who have been wronged.  My blood boils when I see evidence of injustice.  I genuinely believe that everyone should be treated as a person and that the person in question shouldn’t be considered of lesser or greater value based on the color of their skin, the people their attracted to, or their gender.  When I see injustice, then, when my heart breaks to learn of another’s pain, I want to do something about it.  For me, that means using the tiny platform I possess to stand and shout into the darkness.

I probably won’t ever have to face that kind of pain, though.  In my life I have been bullied.  In my life I have been told I wasn’t good enough.  I’ve never been told I’m subhuman, though.  I’ve never been told that my very existence is an affront to decency or that it will lead to the downfall of civilization as we know it.  I’ve always had the option to retreat into the privilege and security inherent in being a straight, white, cisgendered male.  I’ve been, to steal an idea from Scalzi, living life on the easiest difficulty setting.

When I say “fraught with peril” I don’t mean, “I will lose something if I talk about social issues.”  It means, “I run the risk of making an ass of myself.”  I guess it’s not really a form of peril at all.

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I suppose that what I’m working towards here is a sort of ethics of advocacy for those of us who see injustice and want to push for change but are outside the group currently under the thumb of that injustice.  It’s one of those unfortunate things I see on the internet a lot.  Someone — usually a straight, white, cisgendered male — sees something, says something about it, and in the process manages to step right in a mound of something brown and smelly that they didn’t even know was a thing.  Someone from the group in question shows up and says, “Please don’t say that,” the would-be ally gets pissed about the fact that the response wasn’t universal adulation and a chorus of, “Yay!  The straight white guy is here to save the day!” and then everything goes downhill from there.

what that would-be ally doesn’t realize, assuming good faith, of course, is that he may have just recognized the injustice in question, but he’s probably pretty late to the party.  Those of us on Team Straight White Cis Male have quite a bit of insulation from the shit people who aren’t on the team have to deal with every day.  If we go in looking to save the day and looking for a cookie for knowing exactly what went wrong and how to handle it we’re usually in for a pretty rude awakening.  There will always be someone who has been fighting that particular fight longer, harder, and with higher stakes.  So I totally get why the reaction is so often, “Oh, great, here’s another clueless dullard blundering in and getting his privilege all over the place.”

The temptation, then, as a member of Team Straight White Cis Male, is to not get involved.  It’s often easier to let other people handle the fight because, really, who wants to get yelled at for trying to help?  That’s the wrong approach.

As such, I would like to offer a few thoughts on how to thoughtfully approach alliance and advocacy from the perspective of someone who is on the privileged, insulated end.

1.)  Start, middle, and end with the realization that it’s not about you.

There’s a temptation to want to just say, “Hey, I did a thing, congratulate me!” but what you did was probably write a blog post, donate a few dollars, change your Facebook profile pic, or walk a 5K.  That’s great and all, but remember that the thing you did that for is what matters, not that you did it.  Also, too, if you changed your Facebook profile pic you didn’t actually do anything.  You deserve to be laughed out of the room when the adults are speaking.

2.)  Be aware of the size and reach of your voice.

By this I mean literally be aware of how far your voice carries.  To go back to the public figure with the, “But I have black friends!” response, be aware of the fact that what you and your friends discuss is not universal.  The things your friends are comfortable hearing out of your mouth aren’t universally accepted by everyone in that particular group.  There’s a reasonably good chance that those same friends just heard you say on TV or saw you write something on the internet that you said to them in the bar last night and are shaking their heads and thinking, “Oh, that moron, I can’t believe he just did that.”

This is most complicated with a blog.  The voice I have here at AH is tiny because my circulation is small, but my reach is vast, since anyone can pop in from anywhere.  As such, I have to make a conscious decision to watch what I say.  If I say something that gets a, “Hey, that’s not cool,” response than I should add that to my calculus of what is and what is not appropriate.  My reach takes precedent over everything else when I’m writing here.  It doesn’t matter if I don’t understand why something is hurtful, if I think that the whole thing is nitpicky, or if I do have a bunch of friends in that group who are totally okay with whatever it is I just said.  My experience is not universal and if I genuinely want to be and be seen as an ally to a cause from which I am insulated by privilege it is on me to avoid being a dick about the whole thing.

3.)  When it comes time to decide who should give and who should get the benefit of the doubt, always give.

There will be trolls.  There will be unreasonable people who are angry that you, the privileged person, has suddenly decided to play in their sandbox and will get mad at you for simply being there.

There will be tired people who have seen wave after wave of well-meaning but clueless people show up, offer to help, and then muck about and make things worse.  They have spent countless hours trying to sift the clueless dolts from the trolls playing dumb to derail the conversation.  They have heard any number of privileged people who want to make sure they knew it would all be okay if they would just quiet down and wait until the straight, white guys say they’re allowed to join the conversation.

There will be people who are happy to see a potential new ally, but want you to know that some word you’ve never thought twice about using can hurt or that your natural curiousity and exuberance is actually kinda objectifying and totally misses the point.

It is up to you to assume the best intentions on the part of anyone who tells you you’re getting something wrong.  Trolls will always reveal themselves eventually and unreasonable people will always be unreasonable.  If you want to be a good ally and a good advocate, though, the ones you need to listen to are the people who are sizing you up.  If you offer the benefit of the doubt and listen they will eventually extend the same benefit to you.

4.)  The onus for education is on you.

There will be people who are happy to help.  They’ll answer questions, they’ll send you stuff to read.  In the end, though, it’s on you to listen, to learn, and to search.  Just showing up somewhere, saying something stupid, and then demanding that everyone else tell you what you did wrong is the absolute incorrect approach.  They owe you nothing and you haven’t shown any good faith.  They’ve also probably dealt with a thousand trolls doing the same thing you just did, but for giggles and because trolls gotta troll.

5.)  Don’t expect a cookie.

There is no one, I repeat, no one who will respond to you blundering into a topic with, “Oh, boy, here comes the straight white guy to fix everything and tell us what’s what!”[1]  If you are privileged that means you’re accustomed to having a loud voice in a quiet room.  That means that you are accustomed to being the one with the power on your side.  When you decide to become an ally and an advocate on behalf of those with less privilege you put yourself into a position where you are not the authority, you are not the majority, you are not the loud voice in the quiet room.

Think about that.  Consider the feelings of rage and anger that boil up when you, knowing you mean well, say or do something stupid and suddenly find everyone else in the room shouting at you and telling you you’re wrong.  Consider how it makes you want to say, “Fuck this, I’m done, no one here is listening to me, I’m going home.”  Consider the way you feel powerless, belittled, and unfairly targeted.

That’s how it feels every goddamn day for someone else in that room.  For them, though, it’s not about voluntarily walking into a place and finding they’re unwelcome.  For them it’s about having to hide their true selves at work, at home, at church, or anywhere else.  It’s about having to laugh at crude jokes just to fit in.  It’s about knowing that the brilliant idea they proposed last month to absolutely no applause just got their white, male co-worker a promotion to Vice President of New Product Development and a $10,000 bonus.

6.)  Remember, “The world would be a better place if everyone just tried to be like me,” isn’t a solution.

You aren’t the world.  You might be accustomed to being the world, but you aren’t.  The absolute best thing you can do is acknowledge that and try to learn.

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So…yeah.  That’s what I’ve got.  I don’t pretend it’s comprehensive but it is at the very least a statement of purpose that I intend to follow whenever I decide to open my big, fat mouth (err, word processor?) and wade into something I know little about.

If anyone has anything to add, please do.  I’m sure that someone somewhere else on the internet has said or thought something similar.

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[1]Well, okay, maybe the MRAs or the KKK or something.

One thought on “A Surfeit of Judgment

  1. An impression I’ve got from outside the evangelical subculture is that, at least in parts of it, if you admit to having doubts you’re actively encouraged to commit yourself further. Seems to me that the end result of that is a whole bunch of pastors who don’t dare admit that they aren’t entirely with the programme. Does that sound plausible?

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