When I was a very young woman, I was a card-carrying member of the ACLU. Really. It was during the 70s, and the Neo-Nazi party was demonstrating (or trying to) in Skokie, IL. There was a huge outcry, because (you probably don’t know this) more than 1/2 of Skokie’s population was Jewish. In addition, a large number of the Jews who did live in Skokie were Holocaust survivors. In other words? A tragically incendiary situation.
I was a journalist for years. And as a radical liberal — if there is such a thing! — I defend freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of assembly. They are building blocks to a liberal democracy. So I sent money to a financially strapped ACLU; liberals weren’t happy to see ‘their’ organisation defend Nazis, and there weren’t many donations coming in. My friends were horrified.
But I remembered someone had told me, in a class I had once on ethics in media, that freedom of speech wasn’t about defending the things we agree with. It’s about making sure that even the things we HATE are also given the right to air. Even things that make us crazy angry.
I still believe that.
However, it’s just not that simple anymore. There are, of course, limits to free speech: you can’t yell fire, as we know. And you can’t incite riot. And yet… Surely this political season, we have seen many ‘leaders’ fomenting hate: saying that entire groups of people should be deported, even (possibly) executed, if ‘necessary.’ We have seen jokes made (in verrry poor taste) about guns and various candidates, followed w/ ‘wink/nudge’ that ostensibly excuses the ‘joke.’
We’ve seen people with, ostensibly, the same political goals make accusations without any basis. Families (once safe from mud-slinging) are fair game, and spouses are attacked w/ impunity. A man’s father has been impugned as an accomplice to murder, a woman’s husband’s affairs alleged to be ‘her own fault.’ Debates have disintegrated into finger shaking and eye-rolling.
And it’s not just ‘them.’ It’s all of us. We’re all angry.
Yesterday, my younger son sent me a link to an article I’m posting here. It talks about ‘in-groups’ & ‘out-groups,’ & how we range ourselves against the ‘out-groups’ of our choosing. It’s not a new (or even overly recent) article: Scott Alexander, the author, posted it back in 2014, almost exactly 2 years ago. But it’s never been more relevant. For the next week or so, I’ll be referring to it more than once. Alexander so neatly articulates the tension these days: liberals are just as apt to forget freedom of speech as someone from the ‘other’ side.
As a Buddhist, I know about ‘attachment.’ Upādāna (it literally means ‘fuel’) is the fire that arises when we cling fiercely to a longing, a wish for things to be different. Maybe it’s a desire for $$, or freedom from pain. In my case? It’s a visceral ache for justice for all: equity (which is NOT the same as equal treatment, per se: equity is levelling the playing field — quite different). I want that kind of ideal fairness to EVERYONE. And so those who work towards that goal are my ‘in-group.’ If you’re not working for equity? You’re in my ‘out-group.’ And I’m almost certainly angry about it.
Equity also means that you can’t be a racist, or a homophobe. You can’t be a misogynist, or indifferent to your own privileges, racial or class or gender derived. I don’t think I’m any of those. But as Scott Alexander notes, I get no ‘virtue points’ for being ‘tolerant’ of differences like race, gender, class, religion. Unfortunately, I also get no virtue points for being tolerant of my out-groups(s), because I’m not. Instead, I’m angry. Almost all the time.
I”m leaving this here for now. Next blog? More on trying to live a Buddhist life of non-clinging while remaining socially engaged, and activist.
For all its frailty and bitterness, the human heart is worthy of your love. Love it. Have faith in it. Both you and the human heart are full of sorrow. But only one of you can speak for that sorrow and ease its burdens and make it sing word after word after word.
~ Roger Rosenblatt, Unless it Moves the Human Heart: The Craft and Art of Writing
Today, as I took my beloved in for his weekly lab work, I watched a young man intimidate his girlfriend. He pretended to be playing — perhaps he thought he was ‘playing.’ But his girlfriend obviously didn’t. And neither did I, nor the other young man watching with me. Bully pushed his girlfriend out of the way of the car door, after she gave up on him opening it. Perhaps he realised I was watching, or perhaps he just wanted to mess w/ her (I vote the latter). He shoved her further away, as she tried to open the door herself, then stood in her path as she tried to get around him. Over & over he laughed at her, pretended to playfully smack her, and generally intimidated her. He was a big guy; she was a pretty small woman. And did I mention there was an infant seat in the car?
I wanted to smack him. I at least wanted to let him know that he was seen, that there was someone watching, and that this behaviour wasn’t acceptable. And here’s where I failed: I only glared at him, because I’m white & he was not. Please note: I live in one of the most segregated towns in the US. We’re the town of the 1921 race riots, one of the America’s worst massacres of African Americans. We’re the city w/horrific health gaps between brown & white citizens. It’s here that we recently saw police refuse to become involved when a Lebanese man implored them to do something about his racist neighbour. Who minutes later shot the (browner) man to death.
I try daily to be an ally. To live an example of active, engaged anti-racism. To interrogate my own privilege(s), my own attitude(s). But I didn’t speak up. And I have no excuse, really. But I do have reasons. In retrospect? Probably not good ones. But here they come, and I would sooo appreciate it if you’d let me know what you think, as well:
- I didn’t want him to think it was a race thing (both he & his tiny girlfriend were black). I didn’t want him to be able to write off my interference as racial ~you just hate black guys. Because it wasn’t. I absolutely WOULD have spoken up to a white guy.
- I didn’t want to make it any worse for the young woman, or her baby. She had enough on her plate — did I mention we were at the infusion therapy lab? And since the baby wasn’t in the carseat, I assumed it was in the lab, being treated. It certainly was in the hospital.
I did turn to the young man beside me (another African American), & said, Sometimes you have to wonder why folks stay together. He nodded, and said Yep. I added, Would you want your sister treated like that?? And he said No. No one’s gonna treat my sister like that. That guy… And he shrugged. I said, He’s a jerk. We exchanged wordless looks of frustration.
So there you have it. I failed. Maybe from cowardice. Although I know I would have buttonholed a white guy treating his child’s mother like that. But I didn’t this young man. And I will always wonder if I failed the frail young woman with him, and her unknown child. She could have been my sister (sans child), 30 years ago. We know about domestic violence, in my family. Thankfully, only one of us has had to live with it, and she no longer does. It kills. Daily. Three American women die each day, at the hands of their ‘beloved.’ If this young woman does, am I complicit through my silence?
What should I have done? Because I agree with Rosenblatt, quoted at the beginning of this post: the human heart is worthy of love. Perhaps, as my own beloved said, this young man was overwhelmed himself. My response? NO. NOT ONE of the men I know, of any colour or background, would treat a woman that way. Period. But still… And perhaps he too was once a victim of abuse — by a parent, a step-parent, a family member. And yet… It is almost impossible (actually? it is impossible) for me to love this bully’s heart.
I remember what a dear friend once said, when I was trying to get my head around the cruelty in the world. Britt, it’s not your job to love the evildoers. It’s your job not to hate them. They turned from go(o)d; go(o)d did not turn from them.
So here’s my question: what would you have done? And how do YOU deal w/ ugliness when it shows up right in front of you?