Saturday, May 23, 2015

On Privilege

I saw Chris Hedges speak again at the Tommy Douglas Institute / Community Worker Program followed by smaller discussion groups.  I was so pleased that he doesn't have a set speech for each book launch and that I was treated to an entirely different set of stories than the week previous.

Here's just a bit on the smaller discussion group that followed his speech.

I spent a 30-minute break deliberating which topic to choose out of eight possible offerings.  One was on Aboriginal Perspectives, and I'm teaching Native Studies next year, so I was leaning that way, but then I decided to go for a topic more generally encompassing:  Education, Engagement and Activism facilitated by Desmond Cole.  I expected something about how to engage students towards activism, which is my biggest struggle in the classroom.  Just yesterday a few grade 12s said of a project on social justice:  "What if we just don't care about anything happening in the world?"  I told them to act like they care, and the caring might come.  But it's THE pivotal question, and I ever fail to entice many of them towards a wider worldview beyond which dress they should wear to prom.  I suck at engagement, so I really needed this.

First a disclaimer:  Cole was a kind and equitable facilitator who made every effort to hear every voice in the room, and he was excellent at demanding a respectful environment.  I sat silently, patiently waiting for the topic to come up, but we didn't come close to hitting the topic I was expecting.  Hearing every voice sometimes means hearing a variety of ideas, which can be educational in its own right.

We got into a long discussion on teacher strikes and whose voices are left out on that, which I would have expected in the "Labour Perspectives" group, which I intentionally avoided because I'm so immersed in the issue at work, I'm weary of that conversation.  I get how it could be a way to engage students except that we have strict orders not to talk about it in the classroom.  

But the bulk of the conversation was about privilege, specifically Chris Hedges' privilege, and it was interesting to me how some people seemed to understand Hedges' position and how it differed from my own interpretation (as a white, middle class woman).

Here's what I heard Hedges say:
We can never allow the oppressed to become a distraction.  We must maintain vital human relationships with people who suffer.... We must build relationships with people experiencing oppression... to understand and learn so our actions are grounded in reality. Maintaining those relationships is vital.
He described the many journalists he knows who have been killed, the many friends he has in war torn places who are now dead, and how, at 40, as he helped carry a wounded boy from the street with gunfire continuing, and as he thought of his own son becoming traumatized by the psychological damage the job was having on his dad, he decided he had to stop taking these assignments.  And he told of quitting his job at the NYT when they asked him to stop writing against the establishment, and he shared the process of teaching in the prison system and encouraging his students to write a play together and then going the distance to get it on stage in NYC (Caged, coming here in January), and promising to take all their families to see it on opening night.

He spoke of growing up in a small town with a gay uncle and a minister dad who stood up against a homophobic congregation knowing it would cost him his job.  He spoke of the actions he took for the workers at Princeton, photographing their working conditions for an underground paper knowing he could be expelled for his actions.

Throughout his speech he gave credit to the many writers and activists who came before and during his time.

And in the break-out group, several people complained heatedly about his privilege and the fact that he doesn't know what it's like to walk down the streets in Toronto and be stopped and carded by police.

And I thought, quietly and a bit defensively - pretty defensively - that after all he lived through in other parts of the world, all he threw himself into in order to give marginalized people a voice, in countries where white journalists are routinely murdered, privileged is not the word that I would use to describe Chris Hedges.  I wanted to understand the anger some of the people in the room were feeling towards him, but it was a struggle.

Yes he's white and a man and necessarily privileged because of those facts, but how is it useful to rail against him for something he can't help?  And if we want to improve our situation collectively, who does it benefit to take down someone willing to risk so much for change?

Cole wisely turned it into a discussion of experiences and how difficult (or impossible) it is to share and know how another person's oppression works and how it feels, how it's hard to access that if it's not your own reality. Hedges can't speak to it if he's not experiencing it.  And one participant explained it in terms of macro and micro issues (paraphrased):
He's talking from a macro perspective, so it feels like he's not speaking to me.  But it's because he's not experiencing micro issues. 'Micro' makes it sound small and insignificant, but it's not.  So we have to find a place where the micro issues fit within the macro view.  
That helped diffuse the separateness I felt from the more vocal members of the group.  And I thought of the years I spent in training to be a sexual abuse counsellor, and one of the leaders reminding us over and over "pain is pain, and it can't be compared."  Similarly, we can't compare forms of oppression, and it doesn't do anyone any good to rank them.  Putting troubles on a hierarchy and complaining that others don't get it, or their issue isn't important enough, doesn't work to improve the situation.  It's a slimy way we've been trained to attack one another instead of looking to the real roots of the problems.

Similarly, during the labour discussion one participant suggested the solution is for teachers to give up some of their wages to people who have less money, as if a deduction in teacher wages would actually go towards helping reduce tuition costs.  That line reminded me of part of Diamond's Collapse in his chapter on Rwanda.
The people whose children had to walk barefoot to school killed the people who could buy shoes for theirs.
Instead of looking to the power source that is the heart of the problem -- and for us right now, that's the corporation/governmental policies that have removed the middle-class tax base (through outsourcing, technology implementation, stagnating wages) to the extent that there's not enough money for schools so class sizes have to get bigger and tuition has to increase -- we look to the group just a bit more comfortable than us, and revolt against them.  They're right in front of us, and it's simple and easy, but strikingly short-term and ineffective.

But some of the participants weren't done venting their anger about Hedges' privilege.

One was particularly upset that he had the forum to speak directly to the Dean, who was right in the room during his speech, about policies she implemented.  She seemed to be hoping for a bit of a telling-off to happen.

As an outsider to this school community, I had no idea what the policies were or that the Dean of a School of Social and Community Services would be anything but community minded and hyper-aware of social injustices.  So I question how fair it is to imply that Hedges should have known that, apparently, there's a problem at the school that he could be addressing.  Maybe I'm wrong and they're highly publicized and I was just unaware, but if they're not, then that's a lot to ask.

The idea that Hedges, as a white man, should step up to help the cause makes sense to me, though.  I sometimes show this video in my class because it explain that dynamic so clearly:

But this raises a different issue for me: the white man swooping in to save the day.  I used to show Power of One to my classes because it has some great bits for civics and history, but I stopped because it also has a narrative of a white man coming in to rescue the masses single-handedly. I despise any movie with women in need so grateful for the guy who can finally help, so I try to weed it out of my choice of films to show about apartheid or civil rights or first nation issues... But it is the case the a dominant voice can sometimes go further to help than a million marginalized voices, unless, of course, the dominant voice becomes seen as marginalized by association.

This idea was approached by a different participant who was concerned that Hedges didn't clarify that the oppressed and marginalized are the experts of their situation, and that when people want to help, they have to come in as allies, not as leaders.  He didn't say it overtly, so it's only because of my personal experiences that I heard it even though it wasn't verbalized.  But it IS something that needs to be made clear.

To really help, we have to get down on the ground to understand what the marginalized and vulnerable are experiencing and to find out what they need us to do, from our position in the world, to change the system.  But it's not always easy to figure out who needs help and who wants to help.  So we have to approach it all with the utmost care and respect for one another's lives.  And, a term we learned in philosophy courses when the readings were centuries old, we have to listen to people's stories and experiences charitably as best we can - especially when it's a struggle to understand a different position.  I'm not sure how well I'm doing on that one, but I'm still in the game.

Really simply, we have to stand up for each other and remember that the problem is where the power sits.  Hedges talked about rising up and using our bodies to stop the tar sands, and we can do the same for all the oppressing acts we might see, from hurtful words in the hallways to carding in the streets.

Something like that.


The Mound of Sound said...

Hi, Marie. If you aren't already steeped in them, Gar Alperovitz and Henry Giroux would make dandy bookends for your Hedges collection. Yes, Hedges can be said to take a macro approach but that's in keeping with his view that our problems are insoluble without truly overthrowing the existing order - revolution. He plainly believes that revolution is not simply a good idea but a necessity and he argues that we have to embrace it before it becomes an eventuality that erupts out of our control. He has a good grasp of the mechanics of revolution and is fully aware that they rarely turn out well for those who support them - Menshevik/Bolshevik, the French Revolution/The Terror and so on. Crane Brinton deals with the subversion of revolt in his 1949 epistle "The Anatomy of Revolution" another dandy read.

Marie Snyder said...

Thanks, Mound. I'll add them to my list!