Wednesday, June 06, 2007

So are we saying here that anti-Racism and critical thinking are mutually exclusive?

As y’all know, I’ve thought a lot about the Brown Bag debate. In truth, there are still some things I don’t get. I don’t have a dog in the whole “ministers publically criticizing each other” debate. After all, I’m a paralegal. Were I to call the competence of another paralegal into question on the internet citing subjective reasons, that would be frowned upon, to put my getting sued in the gentlest possible terms. Paralegals just don’t do that kinds of thing.

But that’s a ministerial politics thing that I don’t have to understand. I like people on both sides of that one, so I will let y’all argue it out.

That issue aside, I have to say that I think any of the snarky people, if approached by a guest speaker at their own church who said “Hey listen, since brown bags were used to exclude people from events at one point in history, I think calling my event a ‘brown bag lunch’ implies that people could be excluded on the basis of their skin color. I know you wouldn’t actually do that, but could we change the name of the meeting?”

Would ultimately go along with it. They might quietly think it’s a little much, but I think they would.

But I can’t imagine that they would stand up in front of their church and make a declaration that the term is racist, with no explanation, the way the SKSM folks did and then breeze on, assuming that everyone would simply accept a decree that if someone thinks something is racist, they must be right.

Several people, me included, have said that Mummert’s fear of speaking up was the real issue for them. It still is.

I address these questions to both sides.

1. What effect should it have when one person or a few people find a term offensive?*

2. What is an acceptable response when someone is offended by something and their offense seems unreasonable to you? (Let’s presume that you’ve asked for an explanation and the explanation still doesn’t make sense.)

3. Does our faith tradition of refining belief through reason have a place in anti-racism work? What is it?

4. What response should we have to people of color and others who feel that this sensitivity toward language actually does more harm than good? (I've been known to make this argument about gender-neutral language.)

5. Why is everybody so angry? Is there a reason our disagreements with one another have to be phrased the way some of the posts in this argument were? Is there a reason that so many UUs have stories of having been accused of racism for spurious-sounding reasons?

Answers to any or all questions would be appreciated.

CC

*And indeed, judging by the numbers of brown bag lunches on the TOPIC of racism one can find in a quick Google, criticism of the term on these grounds is not particularly widespread.

11 comments:

PG said...

Despite not being a UU and therefore being on neither "side," I find the questions interesting and will give my own Hindu agnostic answers :-)

1. What effect should it have when one person or a few people find a term offensive?*

Depends first on whether their offense seems reasonable, and second on what fraction of the overall group they represent. If there are only four Native Americans in my law school class, and two of them are offended by our having a Columbus Day celebration, I will take their offense more seriously than two Jews out of the hundred or so in the class who take offense at a flyer that mentions "Palestinians" (which some people consider a completely made-up designation, on the argument that there never really has been a "Palestine").

2. What is an acceptable response when someone is offended by something and their offense seems unreasonable to you? (Let’s presume that you've asked for an explanation and the explanation still doesn't make sense.)

Depends on how emotionally connected the person is to the source of what is offending them about it. Take the "Palestinian" debate: if the person who raises it makes a long string of connections to get to the point and the point still doesn't make sense, I'm more suspicious than of someone who has a gut reaction because his cousin's house in the West Bank was burned down and a Palestinian flag planted on it. I still might find that reaction *irrational*, but it will be sincere and get some small exemption from the general requirement of reasonableness.

3. Does our faith tradition of refining belief through reason have a place in anti-racism work? What is it?

Not being in the faith tradition, I can't speak to that, but I've been thinking a lot lately about the prioritization of reason, especially among liberals. Judge Posner isn't exactly a liberal, but his description of the seemingly-absurd difference between a "partial birth" abortion and a perfectly legal D&E emphasizes the gap between reason and emotion. If in some people's minds, starting to "deliver" a fetus gives that fetus the emotional status of an infant, even if it is no more capable of survival outside the womb than it was 10 minutes earlier, then the act of partial delivery is enough to make that abortion peculiarly horrible and wicked and necessary to outlaw. I have talked about this with a couple people who support some legal abortion but also support the PBA ban, and it really seems to come down to gut reaction. One of those people told me that if I couldn't speak to him on the level at which he was experiencing the issue, there was no point in having the conversation; I could cite law and medicine all day and it would not change how he felt and voted on the issue.
As something of a Rawlsian, I find it almost anathema to deliberately talk to people on something other than a common ground of reason. However, this can lead to insincerity; if I have a gut reaction against the hypocrisy of thrice-divorced Republicans lecturing the nation about family values and putting taxpayer money into marriage promotion, it's almost dishonest of me to pretend that my problem with it really comes out of a reasoning process. And I think Malcolm Gladwell is right that it's necessary at least to use the tools of discourse to which people are accustomed. If they are story people, you must tell them a convincing story.

4. What response should we have to people of color and others who feel that this sensitivity toward language actually does more harm than good? (I've been known to make this argument about gender-neutral language.)

We may disagree on the gender neutral language. I sincerely do think it is worthwhile to think of nurses as men, doctors as women, etc. because language frequently operates at a subconscious level. What you call and hear others call things makes a difference, even if you don't recognize it consciously. I do think our association of "black" with something negative can be unfortunate, though to me the easy and obvious work-around is to use the term "African-whatever" for people of that racial descent, instead of having to remember not to say someone's been "blackballed" and to redesign websites about the Communist "blacklist." Just remembering that black is a color and not a race shouldn't be that difficult, particularly given that most of the prominent "black" politicians I've seen were lighter skinned than I am.

5. Why is everybody so angry? Is there a reason our disagreements with one another have to be phrased the way some of the posts in this argument were? Is there a reason that so many UUs have stories of having been accused of racism for spurious-sounding reasons?

I don't know how much this is tied to politics. One of my Republican friends swears he got scolded on racism grounds for having used the phrase "chink in your armor." That is frankly imbecilic. I've never had such an experience, and I have a full vocabulary that gets used with abandon. I think people are quicker to criticize the potentially-racist words and actions of people whom they suspect are likely to be racist or sexist (white male conservatives being an obvious choice).

My rule of thumb is that if a word or phrase did not originate for racist or sexist reasons, and does not currently have a widespread association among people who are declared racists and sexists (if the KKK's every event is a "brown bag lunch," I might start suspecting it of having a racist association), it's perfectly acceptable and there's a heavy burden of argument on the person who wants the word or phrase not to be used.

revsean said...

just a quick answer to the question you pose in your title.

no. I'm not saying that. I AM saying that there are more ways to approach this than purely through the lens of "critical thinking." and that some of those ways might be just as valuable.

and frankly, that "critical thinking" is often applied to one side of an argument and not to another. especially when the argument makes us uncomfortable.

i'm also convinced that "critical thinking" is a construct that grew out of modernity and is itself culturally biased towards those who wield power in this culture.

so critical thinking is one tool among many, with strengths and weaknesses of its own.

Rev. Sean

CK said...

"critical thinking" is a construct that grew out of modernity and is itself culturally biased towards those who wield power in this culture.

I think this reveals a lot of the issue: Sean has said it in another place, too, I think. This is a highly postmodern approach, which many modernist UUs would adamantly reject.

At least in my opinion, while there are forms of critical thinking that have become associated with the dominant culture, I think it would be rare to find a "culture" that doesn't exercise that grouping of skills designated by "crtical thought" in some way.

I put "culture" in quotes because cultures aren't monoliths, and there will be tensions within them on this point. However, I think it is part of being human that we keep one another accountable for statements, make inferences, etc.

When it is exercised and considered appropriate, and what things play into it, to what extent (emotions, holy books, authority, etc) will vary between cultures and people. Too, what is subject to critical thought, or problematization, if I understand Foucault correctly, will vary throughout history and between cultures.

So... back to the topic at hand-- does that put someone like me and someone like Sean at an impasse? I'd say no, since he obviously engages in critical thinking (the statement in italics is an example of such).

That said, I'd really like to see specific responses to CC's questions. I think I've aired my own through various comments--and I'm a layperson on the side in this debate.

Any other takers?

Chance said...

1. If they are trying to be in community with each other, it should start a sharing of stories. Why, in your life experience personally, is that offensive? Or not offensive? Only then can dialogue begin. Otherwise, you're ramping up for an argument.

2. Maybe something like: Can you tell me more about how that's become important to you? (Trying to get at their experience again.) And then: I'm sorry, but that hasn't been my experience. And then say how your life story relates to it.

3. Tried to get at that here.

4. Believe they have good life reasons to say so. My best friend, who is a disability advocate and who lives with CP, hates being called "disabled." He prefers "crippled." He has good reasons for it.

5. I tried to get at this question in my post too. It comes down to whether or not anti-oppression gets to have priority of place when there's a conflict over what to do about human shittiness. Does it get to the the final lens we use to describe a situation? It seems some folks feel this decision has been made for them without their consent, and they resent it. And others feel like the value they place in anti-oppression work isn't being taken seriously.

fausto said...

Good questions. I don't have enough time to offer good answers to all of them, but I have a couple of quick reactions:

You've put your finger on a big shortcoming of ours in that we don't differentiate well between how to respond to systematic societal oppression and how to respond to the offense taken be those who see themselves as having been victimized. We also don't have a good way to discern whether or not they in fact have been victimized, and how to respond differentially. We also don't have a way to accept the reality and persistence of oppression in human societies, even while hoping to mitigate it.

I think your conversation with Revsparker also brings out an important nuance: Journey Toward Wholeness was done badly and alienated a lot of people. It goes beyond that, though, because the mistakes of the JTW program have not been widely acknowledged and corrected. If anything, the same mistaken assumptions persist in other directives and initiatives emanating from the denominational "hierarchy". This is why in some of my comments I have called AR/AO itself "oppressive".

I also meant what I said (but I suspect many may not know what I am talking about) when I said that much of our approach to AR/AO work is grounded in a false soteriology of victimization and resentment, rather than a valid soteriology of grace, forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing. Unless and until that changes, the anger will persist -- on both sides of the argument -- and that false soteriology is precisely why.

Chalicechick said...

((( It goes beyond that, though, because the mistakes of the JTW program have not been widely acknowledged and corrected.)))

Yeah. I hate to bring out my "Just a layperson" card again, but I had no idea that the problems with JTW were recognized by the Current AO/AR folks.

CC

fausto said...

Don't apologize. If you speak as the archetypal layperson, and on this point I suspect you do, your lay perception is probably more relevant than however the "current AR/AO folks" may perceive themselves.

CK said...

Is there a good place that someone who hasn't ever *heard* of JTW or AR/AO before this can get an intro? (A book? Series of articles? I'll browse the UUA site and look there, of course).

It's kind of interesting to me, because I go to a church in a city--Saint Louis--where racism is a problem, the city is split into two halves... and our church seems to approach it differently.

We have a largely white congregation, with a few black members here and there--which doesn't necessarily mean we're not engaging the city's woes, but it probably says something. (Our church is also the oldest in the city, and probably set in some of its ways--which as a newcomer, I'm not aware of.)

Anyway... I am very curious about all of this and wonder if my move to Chicago will enlighten me about some of these things. I'll bet the congregations there will be very different.

fausto said...

CK, just go to uua.org and do a search on "racism". You'll be surprised how much stuff comes up.

(Then imagine if we put half that much energy into other religious concerns, especially ones involving, um, religion.)

fausto said...

Heh. Took my own advice and found this.

CK said...

No way! I was *just* about to leave a comment with that same link! That speech gave me a lot of insight into the issues going on here....