Monday, sidling up against me like a hungry cat. Friendly as long as i cooperate.
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.
“She is not gender nonconforming. She is gender role nonconforming.”
I know I am not in the headspace to write eloquently or even patiently about anything right now, let alone about this issue. The issue of gender. I am buffeted by grief and anger and belly-deep intolerance and frustration that makes me want to shake senseless the next person I encounter that doesn’t get it. That doesn’t get that we need to let people the f*ck alone and keep our judgements and assumptions to ourselves, and let people live their authentic selves however they are called to do so.
I find nothing objectionable to the author’s point in this piece. My anger flares because the responses she and her daughter face are just the flipside of the same unexamined prejudices that transgender people confront. The teacher, the doctor, the adults who inquire whether the author’s daughter isn’t actually transgender probably think they are being sensitive, welcoming, tolerant, and current. But actually they reveal themselves as biased and bound by traditional gender norms as the transphobic individual. The author’s “tomboy” daughter isn’t looking to fit herself into anyone’s boxes — no matter how progressive. She is just living her truth and should not have to explain it or make it work for anyone else. The point is, gender isn’t anyone else’s damn business. The point is that even transgender people remain trapped by these same onerous gender roles.
My transgender daughter is not a “girly-girl.” She does not wear makeup and does not wear skirts. And why should she have to? I am a cisgender woman who doesn’t wear makeup, rarely wears skirts, and has a life-long aversion to heels. No one questions my essential woman-ness, and yet my transgender daughter and I often feel intense pressure for her to “conform” to expected gender roles. To make it easier, more palatable, less confronting for others to accept her as a woman. And not because either of us are conformists, or timid to buck a trend or expectation. But because her ability to be successful in society, and in fact her ability to be physically SAFE in this world, might require it.
Her SAFETY might require it. Because our socially programmed responses around gender [and sexuality] are so volatile that when they are threatened, some people actually become violent. And those “some people” are so often cisgender men.
Her SAFETY might require it. Because our socially programmed responses around gender [and sexuality] are so volatile that when they are threatened, or upended, the discomfort, the pain, the isolation is so great, that some people do harm to themselves.
So, forgive me my anger to the well meaning and “open-minded” adults that the author’s daughter encounters who want to make sure she isn’t actually a transgender boy. What I want to say to them is, “F*ck you and your outdated, unexamined assumptions about who people need to be in order to make your comfortable. In order that you can put them into a box you can understand — even if it is a new box, you are just learning about.” These assumptions are no less harmful, no less potentially deadly, than the older ones.
Edited to add: as I have decided to publicly promote this response via Twitter and Facebook I thought I would explain the depth and heat of my current anger level. A family very dear to us just lost their transgender teen son on Monday. The social toxicity around gender norms is lethal
We did not have a Passover Seder yesterday. Because Jayla spent the weekend visiting our oldest in NY, it was better for family logistics to host tonight. So today we are busy preparing and tonight we look forward to hosting over a dozen friends.
Passover is probably the most important holiday in the whole year for me personally. Its themes and messages resonate so powerfully with things I care deeply about; I have decades of warm memories related to the food and traditions and the people I have been able to celebrate with over the years.
It is the one time of year I personally am committed to a formal dinner: matching tableware, fancy embossed white table cloths [which I actually ironed today], little vases of flowers on the table[s].
Having chosen a life partner who is not Jewish, I feel extraordinarily lucky that John has embraced the Jewish traditions that are important to me so wholeheartedly. It is truly a family affair: the cleaning, the cooking [which he does so much of], etc.
Perhaps my most significant personal joy is the years I have spent reading and collecting haggadot. 17 years ago I spent months reading dozens of them, and compiled my own haggadah that I thought reflected the values of our extended family. We are still using that one mostly, though I often supplement with other readings I find each year. Changing it up, depending on the age of the kids and how many actual Jews there are at our table. For over a decade, non-Jews outnumber Jews at our Passover table – a reflection of our choice to move to a rural community, not join a synagogue, and the fact that much of my extended family has chosen not to continue the tradition.
It does make me sad that there are few Jewish folks who were raised Jewish celebrating the Passover Seder at our table. There certainly is less singing than I would like. And less Hebrew. But my heart is also warmed by the fact that we have friends who care about us, and who find the themes of Passover compelling such that they want to share this very special holiday with us. And rare tears of happiness come to my eyes when I look across the long table and see my atheist, Catholic-raised husband recite most of the prayers in Hebrew along with me, without even referring to the text.
Our home is not kosher, not for Passover, nor year round. We did not cleanse our house of chametz, and tomorrow I won’t bat an eyelash if my daughters have toast for breakfast. But today all 3 that live under this roof worked with me to make the delicious and addictive chocolate covered matzah toffee that we look forward to all year. Leah can’t wait for the gefilte fish. And Jona decided at the last minute to invite one of her closest friends from school.
We will tell the story of Passover tonight; we will reflect on how its message is relevant to us all today. And, in our own way we will, authentically, carry on a thousand-plus year old tradition. Dayenu.
“I just found the goat standing on the table eating Skittles,” is not a sentence I ever expected to write, let alone accurately reflect a moment in my life.