Monday, December 30, 2013

The Grace to Become our Better Selves

I believe in something greater than myself.
A better world.
A world without sin.

So me and mine gotta lay down and die...
so you can live in your better world?

I'm not going to live there.
There's no place for me there...
any more than there is for you. Malcolm...
I'm a monster.
What I do is evil.
I have no illusions about it, but it must be done.

Serenity (2005): the Operative calls Mal

The remarkable thing about self-justification is that it allows us to shift from one role to the other and back again in the blink of an eye, without applying what we have learned from one role to the next.  Feeling like a victim of injustice in one situation does not make us less likely to commit an injustice against someone else, nor does it make us more sympathetic to victims.  It's as if there is a brick wall between those two sets of experiences, blocking our ability to see the other side.  Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me), page 192¹

"We back people into corners, and don't give them the grace to become their better selves." ~Me²
"Oh, that is just so cute!"  ~James Croft

I have no interest in being one of the Good Ones.  I'm not your model minority.  This terrible bargain I have regretfully struck often leads me to situations where I don't have any beneficial doubts left to give.  So how then did I arrive here in this space, contemplating the ways in which the social justice community has utterly let us down?

I have had to block a grand total of 3 people on Facebook for harassing me in private messages which they initiated.  I consider myself lucky that it's only 3, as I know of people for whom that is their daily minimum.  One was a guy who said he had a crush on me, and when I didn't respond quickly enough³, he gave me a lecture on how I owed him a response.  Another guy I had to block was actually e-stalking me, after I posted a smart-ass comment on his blog where he declared his intent to quit blogging if one more feminist complained about "sexism in atheism" [spoiler: he didn't quit blogging].

But the one that actually made my jaw drop was no entitled jerk-butt dude, she was a social justice activist.  I had shared two things on Facebook which she objected to.  I understand why she objected, and I myself would not share them today.  What happened with her was such a flurry I could barely keep track of what was happening at the time, but I still remember it vividly.  I had been working, and when I got the time to check back into Facebook, there were 75 comments on the offending post, and half of them was this woman calling me (and anyone else who wandered in) a bigot.  There were also several private messages from her that were taking me to task.  I tried having a conversations with her about the matter over the following day or so, but I quite obviously didn't have the time or energy she did to keep up with the vitriol she was throwing at me and everyone else on my page, so I blocked her too.

What really stuck with me though was the way she made it quite clear that she saw her role in all of this as being my punisher.  She wasn't trying to educate me or anyone else there about why Everybody Draw Mohammed Day can be Islamophobic, nor did she ever ask whether I knew RadFem Hub⁴ was transmisogynist (again, things I now know better about).  She put minimal effort into showing concern for the harmful effects our actions would have on actual Muslims or trans people.  She didn't even want an apology or for me to make a good-faith effort toward fixing the situation or changing my ways for the better.  No, what she demanded most was for us adapt her perspective that we are bad people.

I don't share this story so that you feel sorry for me, or outraged at Those Social Justice Activists™ (after all, I did eventually figure out what she was ranting about, and learned a thing or two).  The reason this sticks with me even today isn't for throwing a perpetual pity party⁵.  It's that I realized through her behavior I was being granted a vision of my own SJ future; there, but for the grace I grant humanity, go I.  And much like Ebeneezer Scrooge, I saw how easily I could become that person myself.

This isn't to say that I can just blow smoke up my own ass and everything will be okay.  Obviously, if all it took for us to be granted our equal rights in society was for us to ask politely, we'd have equality by now.  But I also know that the act of expressing anger is not without negative health effects on my own physical body.  As a humanist, I know that I only get one life.  This is it.  I want to spend it making the world a better place for others, but I am unwilling to destroy myself in the process.  Self-care is not selfish.

This is where the social justice community has failed me, and many others like me.  There are entire guides to calling others out and checking your own privilege and being a good ally.  I do not, however, see a doctrine of transformative grace.

What I need, what so many of us need, are the tools to become our better selves, and the social support to explore what this means for ourselves without being cut down at our first faltering steps.  For example, even though there is no obligation for anyone to forgive their oppressor, some of us may want access to and support using the tools we need to let go of bitterness before it burns us to ashes from within⁶.  But when we speak out about this aspect of our mental/emotional health, we're quickly shot down with reminders of how our needs aren't politically convenient to the social justice narrative.  We're told that we're accepting blame on ourselves as individuals that should be placed on society, that we're reinforcing the status quo - a perversion of "the personal is political".

I keep holding off on publishing this, waiting for inspiration to recall that perfect real-world example from my past that will bring tears to my readers' eyes, or write that perfect closing paragraph to revolutionize the social justice community.  And of course I won't, because I'm just some humanist with uncomfortable ideals and inconvenient life experiences, and this is a blog with 3 followers.  So to all 3 of you, I leave you with this quote, which I rather like, but couldn't quite find a way to insert it into the blog post without an awkward transition, thusly:

Clinical psychologists Andrew Christensen and Neil Jacobson described three possible ways out of the emotional impasse.  ...    If it is only the perpetrator who apologizes and tries to atone, it may not be done honestly or in a way that assuages and gives closure to the victim's suffering.  But if it is only the victim who lets go and forgives, the perpetrator may have no incentive to change, and therefore may continue behaving unfairly or callously.  ...  The third way, they suggest, is the hardest but most hopeful for a long-term resolution to the conflict: Both sides drop their self-justifications and agree on steps they can take together to move forward.  Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me), page 210

Let us grant each other the grace to become our better selves.

Edit 1/26/14: I figured if I kept my eyes open, I'd find some other people saying similar things to what I'm saying, and sure enough here are a couple good blog posts:

Calling IN: A Less Disposable Way of Holding Each Other Accountable by Ngọc Loan Trần

On cynicism, calling out, and creating movements that don’t leave our people behind by Verónica Bayetti Flores

1. I highly encourage you to click that link and continue to read, as they describe an experiment wherein people generally rate the pain caused to themselves as more severe than the same degree of pain they themselves cause to others.
2. Regarding the Ron Lindsey mansplains the entire Women In Secularism 2 conference incident of June 2013.
3. I didn't save the convo, but here's one a friend recently had that was rather similar, except hers was even worse than mine.
4. That's a no-follow link, I'm willing to increase their hit counts.  Fortunately, the original RadFem Hub is no longer on the internet, but they managed to save plenty of their horribleness in their new archives.
5. Referencing note #3, I have friends who experience worse on a daily basis. Fuck yeah, Patriarchy!
6. As always, the person who wrote the CNN headline didn't bother to read the article.  But you should read the entire thing through.