(Note: This is from a post I made on Facebook. I thought I’d share it here as well, as it touches–as most things do–on the concepts of rhetoric and dialogue.)
I’ve been seeing a fair amount of posts from people who are out-and-out outraged at those who are “making the Trayvon Martin case about racism when it’s clearly not” (or variations on that basic idea). I even saw one person say (and I’m not making this up), “Racism won’t go away until you stop talking about it.”
Now, I do understand (and, to an extent, sympathize with) the general sentiment of feeling like particular movements or groups of people with passions you don’t necessarily share seem to make every single story about whatever issue they’re passionate about. I understand how exasperating it must be to hear people go on and on about a particular problem they see in the world when you don’t necessarily think that, a) the problem exists, b) the problem is as bad as they say it is, or c) the problem, while certainly existing, is at all relevant to a particular issue. I can certainly imagine a situation where I might feel the exact same way. After all, human beings are selfish creatures, infinitely capable of distorting reality to match their particular needs. And if I felt like someone was muddying the conversation about an issue by drawing focus away from its relevant dimensions by lobbying for their own, less relevant priorities, of course I’d feel frustrated.
But here’s the thing. Most public conversations function not only as dialogues about a given policy or issue, but as sites for metaphorical (and often physical) displays of–and struggles for–power. For the power to have one’s voice heard and one’s concerns significantly considered and addressed. And the nature of power, as it is arranged in our society and in most of the world today, is one of inherent imbalance and inequality.
And whether you’re aware of it or not, and whether of your own volition or not, you are–we all are–invariably embedded within certain power structures that dramatically influence how we see, interpret, and experience the world. I don’t want to oversimplify this, because it’s incredibly complex and multidimensional, affected by everything from class, gender, and race, to age, appearance, and physical ability, to any number of intersections among/between those elements and countless others. Mapping these sorts of power relations–becoming aware of them, figuring out where they come from, how they work, how they’re maintained, what purpose they serve and how they might be altered if necessary–is an endless process, if only by virtue of humanity’s endless capacities for selfishness and domination.
So when you think some group is trying to “domineer” the conversation with what you consider to be their personal vendettas or special interests, take a serious look at the landscape. Not just the landscape where the issue is playing out, but your own landscape, your own vantage point, and the vantage points of everyone involved. There are necessarily and invariably some voices in society that are heard more than others. And it’s not just a matter of frequency; it’s a matter of the quality, seriousness, and outcomes of what’s being said as well.
For example, take this Zimmerman/Martin case. I understand that the people I mentioned earlier feel like certain groups, including the media, “made the case all about racism” when it didn’t have to be. And I understand that a lot of people feel like that happens over and over again in society, so that, what might have started in the 20th century as a legitimate fight for equality and civil rights, has somehow swung in the opposite direction in such a way that leftists and liberal activists now have all the power (e.g., “the liberal media”) and are making up, or blowing out of proportion, a non-existent problem by harping on it over and over again regardless of the issue at hand.
But just because the media might be babbling on and on about racism in a given issue, doesn’t mean the voices of those who are actually affected by racism are actually being heard. Just because you feel like racism has become a topic that’s somehow “in vogue” with mainstream liberals, doesn’t mean that the dialogue has reached the level of insight, seriousness, and effectiveness that the problem demands and that those who are trying to understand/fight the problem continue to call for. In fact, if anything indicates that things like racism and sexism and classism are still problems in desperate need of attention, it’s the pervasiveness in the media and in the culture at large of talking points that barely scratch the surface of the power structures that affect and delimit us.
Do I think there’s value to being able to discern the relevance of one particular issue to another? Of course. But I also think there’s value in trying painstakingly to understand power, to uncover oppression, and to allow the voices of the marginalized and the silenced to be heard as much as possible. And before we jump to dismiss a particular voice as just another misguided battle cry, we first ought to humbly and honestly examine our own voices, and remind ourselves about what privileges we might have that others might not.
Throughout history, progress has always been accompanied by a multitude of voices. And the reason progress is often so slow is because the voices that are already empowered have the resources to drown out all the others at first. It is only through a concentrated and passionate attempt to honestly understand and loudly, vocally confront inequality and oppression that progress is made.
We each have a choice about what kind of voice we want to be. About when we talk, and when we listen. We can choose to either be sincerely and compassionately open to learning about our own privileges and hearing out those who genuinely and painfully feel that they lack those privileges; or we can roll our eyes, chalk it all down to a cacophony, and let those who are suffering go unheard in the process.
I know which choice I’ve made. How about you?