Tuesday, June 16, 2015

On Being an Ally

I'm not sure how to say this without being blasted, but I'll try:  I might understand a little piece affecting Rachel Dolezal decision to present as black rather than be a white ally.

I just have one story.  It was about ten years ago.  I had just finished reading The History of Mary Prince: A West Indian Slave Narrative and was floored by it.  I couldn't believe I had never heard of her before.  The story is compelling, and it's a good length to offer to high school students.  I was curious if anyone else had tried teaching it to that age level, so I searched for forums where it was being discussed.  Then I unwittingly threw myself to the wolves by suggesting that I'd like to teach it in an English or history class.

The others on the forum were black, something I didn't think necessary to consider until they got very angry with me:  how DARE I consider teaching a book about a black experience when I'm white?

It was all kind of familiar because I've been in the middle of discussions about men teaching books about women - is it possible that men can understand the female experience enough to teach it?  Women can teach books about men because the subordinate group always knows about the dominant group.  Canadians know more about the U.S. than the other way around.  But I contend that it IS possible to look at life from an alien perspective.  It can't be done arrogantly, however, but must come from a place of respect and acknowledged ignorance, read charitably.  Like you can't really get Plato without an understanding of what Athens was going through at the time, we sometimes have to do extra research around people's environment and history to really feel their stories and understand the logic of their ideas.

I'm game to do the work, but I was so strongly dissuaded by this one black community, that I tossed the book aside believing I'm not worthy to teach it.

So it went untaught.

It's a double-edged sword.  If women think men shouldn't be teaching women's experiences, then, since most English profs are men, we might not have books by women on the syllabus.  And then we'll complain about that.  And if people of non-white heritage don't think white people can teach their stories, then they won't be taught - not because teachers don't care about those stories, but because they're afraid of doing it wrong.  And of course it's a problem that this part of the world is dominated by white men, and whites in general, but that's what we've got to work with right now.  Having the stories out there, taught by allies is one way to eat away at the system.

I know there are feminists who don't believe men can be feminists, but I'm not one of them.  I think it's important to get dominant voices (male voices) involved in the cause to help us get anywhere.  Similarly I think environmentalists have to approach big businesses as potential allies rather than threats.  I believe in intersectionality; I believe we can't undo the oppression or exploitation of one group without getting at them all.  Sexism, racism, LGBTQ issues, ablism, poverty, environmental destruction - it's all so clearly interconnected.

But, back to Dolezal.  I don't condone what she did at all, and I think she's got bigger issues under the surface there, but the one little piece maybe I do understand is that it can be hard to be an ally of a group you don't belong to.  People don't always trust you to speak for them if you haven't lived their experiences.  But I'm not sure we have time to do it any other way.

Monday, June 15, 2015


I read some review somewhere of the first episode of Orange is the New Black on the weekend before I dove into a marathon session of the entire season.  It suggested that the reason people like the show is because it actually shows real relationships between real women.  The context is divorced from most viewer's experiences, but the conversations are similar.  And we rarely see that elsewhere.

No spoilers.

Okay, sure.  It's nice that it's a show about women, for sure, and the dialogue is fantastic - especially between Big Boo and Pennsatucky.  But I don't relate to it because of the conversations and relationships, but because of the individual experiences.  I can relate to the experience of not having my little one with me on Mother's Day, or being trapped with some slime ball "friend" and hoping to find a way out, or watching someone getting away with crap because they're good at playing the system.  Those are universally frustrating and heartbreaking situations.  And the peek into the background of each character individually gives us a three-dimensional understanding of their motives and beliefs and longings - and their development of various coping mechanisms to deal with the world.

But beyond the personal, this season gets into privatization - how it works, how to try to stop it, why we can't win - so well that it could be mandatory viewing for a unit of one of the courses I teach.  And, at the same time, it gets into faith - why we crave it, the need for totems, and communal belonging.  And, as always, it gets into the injustices of the world.  Sometime jerks win, and good guys lose, and vengeance feels good even when it feels a little bad.  And we don't ever know people as much as we think we do.  We just barely know ourselves.

You don't have to be a woman to connect with that.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

On Measuring Well

In Plato's Protagoras, Socrates and Protagoras argue over the language Protagoras uses to explain what happens when, as he describes it, pleasure overtakes reason and people make horrible choices.  Socrates insists that it's not pleasure that overtakes reason, but ignorance.  Here's some key bits of the passage:
They maintain that there are many who recognize the best but are unwilling to act on it. It may be open to them, but they do otherwise. Whenever I ask what can be the reason for this, they answer that those who act in this way are overcome by pleasure or pain or some other of the things I mentioned just now...  
He sets out the problem, and questions how something can be a pleasure if it causes greater pains and deprive us of future pleasures *coughclimatechangecough*.  And he explains the problem like this:    
The same magnitudes seem greater to the eye from near at hand than they do from a distance. This is true of thickness and also of number, and sounds of equal loudness seem greater near at hand than at a distance. If now our happiness consisted in doing, I mean in choosing, greater lengths and avoiding smaller, where would lie salvation? In the art of measurement or in the impression made by appearances? Haven't we seen that the appearance leads us astray and throws us into confusion so that in our actions and our choices between great and small we are constantly accepting and rejecting the same things, whereas the metric art would have canceled the effect of the impression, and by revealing the true state of affairs would have caused the soul to live in peace and quiet and abide in the truth, thus saving our life?' Faced with these considerations, would people agree that our salvation would lie in the art of measurement? ... 
What would assure us a good life then? Surely knowledge, and specifically a science of measurement, since the required skill lies in the estimation of excess and defect... 
...when people make a wrong choice of pleasures and pains--that is, of good and evil--the cause of their mistake is lack of knowledge. We can go further, and call it, as you have already agreed, a science of measurement, and you know yourselves that a wrong action which is done without knowledge is done in ignorance. So that is what being mastered by pleasure really is--ignorance...

"The required skill lies in the estimation of excess and defect."

The entire dialogue has Socrates questioning Protagoras, a sophist, if how to act, or virtue, can actually be taught to people.  Socrates is skeptical.  But then he argues that since being virtuous is contingent on knowledge, and knowledge can be taught, then virtue must be able to be taught.

The fact that this very behaviour has been on trial and discussed and debated for thousands of years and still we haven't found a solution makes me skeptical that it's teachable.  Not to mention the fact that people can know right and still do wrong, as Plato outlined in his Republic during a later period of writing, so people need to be made to do what's right under threat of punishment or exile for the benefit of society as a whole.

So we're horrible at measuring current pleasures against distant pains.  But even if we could, we enjoy doing wrong too much for knowledge alone to lead us down the right path.


We've been over this for thousands of years, yet we still value unfettered lives that lead to unspeakable tragedies, which we call evils, over some measure of restraint which could provide some current deprivations but lead to greater pleasures later.  That which we call the good.

So it goes.