In response to: Fighting All the Battles at Once
Oy. Where to begin with this one? I could take the time to try to read and re-read and digest it slowly and compost inside over days and weeks until I could sit at a keyboard and a garden of eloquent syllables spewed forth. [How most of my essays occur.] But I don’t have time for that. I want to respond now. So, I think, in this case, I will try a point-by-point retort.
Faux mea culpa at front
At the onset, the writer confesses to what he knows will be the fundamental problem with his essay. That it is a “white man’s writing about social justice movements.” He knows, “I’m going to get shit wrong and probably piss people off.” So you’ve been warned okay? Okay. I’ll just stop writing this essay in response then? No. I won’t. Because this mea culpa actually misses the point. He thinks a mere acknowledgement of his (implied) privilege is sufficient to inoculate him from a kyriarchal critique of his argument. It is not. The fact that you know your point of view is inherently limited does not protect you from folks pointing out the ways that your analysis fails because of that limitation. I just end up thinking, “Dude, maybe you should have had someone with a less privileged lens read and comment on your post before you published it.” And, “Just because you acknowledge you might piss people off doesn’t excuse you from actually doing it.”
Cursory [mis]acknowledgment of kyriarchy
In the second paragraph, the author similarly thinks by acknowledging kyriarchy*, it excuses him from meaningfully wrestling with how to address it. YES, dismantling an overlapping system of oppressions and biases is an enormous challenge. YES it is a huge messy knot and you cannot start everywhere at once and you do, of course, have to start somewhere. But just acknowledging that does not excuse you from the messy difficult work of moving forward in a way that doesn’t perpetuate the problem.
But there is a larger problem: a fundamental misunderstanding of kyriarchy and truly progressive work. And that misunderstanding is actually rooted in the gap between the author’s proforma acknowledgement in his “white maleness” and his inability to deeply grasp its implications. He writes:
Basically, we need to advance specific causes in order to create a better society, and while doing that we need to specifically spend attention, effort, and money on correcting disparities between citizens in how those causes’ benefits and participation are distributed. This means that every progressive movement has a cause, and a meta-cause.
The author believes that any “specific cause,” (in this case science, but one assumes climate change, or poverty, or money in politics, or gerrymandering, or any other progressive cause would do for his analysis) is somehow addressable, solvable, critiqueable, advanceable in isolation from an analysis of class, race, gender, etc. That “correcting disparities” is a separate (“meta”?) issue and not intimately, inherently, intrinsically linked to the actual root causes of the issue he is trying to isolate. This is begging the question; there are libraries of writing and analysis by people far more knowledgeable than I that unequivocally dispute this assumption.
The author again acknowledges this in theory, placing himself on the “side of progressives” and pays lip service to these intrinsic connections. Why do I dismissive it as lip service? Good question.
The “Gingrich is a gonad” argument
Now the author gets to specific examples. The author suggests that if one is going to approach Newt Gingrich to support scientific funding, one might want not to discuss the other complicated messy things like race, and class and gender issues in science. “it is probably worthwhile to pretend social justice issues aren’t relevant.” And this is where the author’s blind spot as a white man betrays him. So many unacknowledged assumptions in this paragraph of five sentences. So much operating in denial of actual fact. First, the author assumes that any kyriarchal analysis of science funding would essentially boil down to “affirmative action or civil rights ‘overreaches.’ (Yes. I understand the ironic use of the author’s quotation marks on the word “overreach.”) The reality is that 20 mins of googling reveals that gender, class, and race bias in the sciences is actually a fundamental structural problem that contaminates the integrity of scientific research. This is not a new problem. Twenty years ago in Psychology 100 I learned that all of the major psychological scales, indices, and theories used in the field were based on research that had — since the inception of the field of psychology — been done solely on men. Yet the conclusions were applied unreflectively to the other 51% of humanity as well. In fact, this morning’s google search revealed that this gender bias is still so prevalent that it extends to drug testing in animal research! Check my footnotes** for some more easy to find examples in the fields of medical research and psychology.
Let me repeat my key point here. A kyriarchal analysis of scientific research indicates that bias in the sciences is actually a fundamental structural problem that contaminates the integrity of scientific research. There is no “cause” and “meta” cause distinction to be made here. If you are passionate about protecting the integrity of science, of ensuring public support and funding for meaningful scientific research, an understanding of the ways race, gender, and class impact and are impacted by scientific research is intrinsic to the success of that effort.
To go back to our Newt Gingrich example, the author assumes Gingrich is incapable of understanding that quality, scientifically valuable research that will advance our medical and technological priorities as a nation must allow for the contribution of a diverse background of scientists with the mandate to study diverse populations. I do not make this assumption.
The author continues to try to straddle what he already suspects is a hard to defend distinction when he writes:
But I fear that always leading with disparity and participation leaves us all flailing to do science with fewer resources than we might have. I suspect there is room for a phalanx of influential policy lobbyists for science for whom their sole advocacy is funding and policy, leaving social issues of race, gender, and other identities entirely to others. But the rest of us, and the masses of us, need to stand for the eradication of disparities.
Strange [and undefended] assumption that we are “always leading with disparity and participation.” In my brief and amatuer research this morning, I have already demonstrated that this is a false dichotomy; excellent science requires from its inception, in its theoretical foundations — when hypothesis and test subjects are first selected — an awareness of cultural, gender and race bias disparity. One who advocates for funding of quality, meaningful scientific research must be clear that by definition this includes a kyriarchal critique of that science or it doesn’t pass the test of being quality, meaningful research. The author’s statement that, “I suspect there is room for a phalanx of influential policy lobbyists for science for whom their sole advocacy is funding and policy, leaving social issues of race, gender, and other identities entirely to others.” indicates clearly that he doesn’t understand this.
Silence in not golden — nor pragmatic
The author writes: ”I think there is good reason for us, when we see influential policy lobbyists who leave disparities off of their list of advocacy priorities, to pause and refrain from vilification. We should not assume hostility to a social agenda simply because a person is tactically silent about it.”
Again, he reveals the degree to which his mea culpa about being a white man is superficial and belies a real understanding of what that means. Any person anywhere who has actually experienced the impact of white privilege knows that silence is deadly. Silence is consent. Silence conspires with the oppressor and with instruments of oppression. Silence emboldens the oppressor and invigorates the institutions of oppression. I do not need to “assume hostility to a social agenda” from your silence; your silence is hostility to a social agenda, whether you actually feel hostile or not.
The author writes, “Progressives lose, often, because we fall upon each other for perceived insufficiencies of commitment to the cause.” Do progressives hold one another to what seems to be impossibly high standard of ethics? Do we fight amongst ourselves because we do not seem to accord one another’s causes with sufficient priority? Yes of course. But that observation is a far cry from the assertion that this is why we lose. (If, in fact, we are losing, from the larger, longer perspective.) I could argue that it is because each of us, as progressives, do not fully enough understand or embrace a kyriarchal lens that we distrust each other’s mutual commitments to our causes. If we all understood how intrinsically, fundamentally, the causes and effects of kyriarchy impacted each of our own “pet” causes, we would finally, deeply, perceive the degree to which we are all on the same side, fighting the same essential battle and that cross-issue respect, collaboration, strategy and mobilization is actually the only way to victory.
* The author doesn’t use this word. The essay would be more credible and stronger if he did. If you don’t know what if means, please look it up. It may sound technical but it is a key word that encapsulates an important concept that needs to be added to all our vocabularies. You can’t think or fight a concept if you don’t have a word for it.