Perception is Nine-Tenths


You can’t go anywhere without meeting clever people. The thing has become an absolute public nuisance. I wish to goodness we had a few fools left.

– Oscar Wilde

I find that, no matter the situation in which I find myself, there is a Wildeism that applies. Today, this one’s mine.

Simply put, I’m often too clever for my own good. I’m often overly convinced of my own vision and acumen, of my own position in the master-student hierarchy. Convinced that in a kingdom of the blind, I’m the only one who can see. In short, as was pointed out to me rather bluntly a few days ago, I am often an arrogant bastard.

On one hand, I’m not persuaded that this is necessarily a bad thing. The very act of writing something down for public consumption entails a certain “humble arrogance”: to think that something one has to say might actually be of benefit to others. To hope that some pearl of dim wisdom, derived from the relatively quotidian experience that is the average human life, might in the end shape the essence of things, might change the world as we know it. This requires a special kind of arrogance indeed.

On the other hand, though, there is the sometimes overlooked fact (at least by me) that the experience of average human life is quotidian precisely because it is shared. I am not the only one watching the world through perceptive eyes; although I may have something of value to contribute, in that I am surely not alone. Failing to acknowledge this entails a not-so-special kind of arrogance.

There are two sides to every coin. And my coin, much to my chagrin, seems to be rigged. It’s a trick coin, a Harvey Dent coin, a coin with a mind of its own. In other words, in the battle between arrogant bastards, the humble guy generally gets his ass kicked.

A few days ago, I wrote a post about gender and race relations. I tossed the coin, aware of the risk I was taking, but not as prepared for the fallout as I thought I was. Like I told a friend, my skin is never as thick as I think it’s going to be. I tossed the coin, and it landed pretty much right on its edge. Which didn’t work for me. So I knocked it over. The wrong way.

Let me be clear: I still believe what I said is in many ways correct. I’m not the type to grovel and scrape, and I don’t feel any need to here. That being said…it has become clear to me that a) I didn’t say it nearly as eloquently or innocuously as I thought I had, and b) what is more important by far, I am perhaps not the right person to say it in the first place.

I want to revisit the Alicen Grey quote that started me down this argumentative road in the first place:

It’s painful when I hear/see quotes from men, waxing poetic about how violent and inhumane “we” “humans” are “to each other”. When historically and globally, males account for the vast, vast majority of violence. Mostly against women. I used to wonder, how could these men – fancying themselves profound and in-on Truth – possibly call “humans” violent when they are technically the source? But I guess that’s what happens when the only people you consider humans are other men.

(I’m going to borrow a bit from a recent e-mail to a friend, sent in the aftermath of the “post-ocalypse,” in the hopes of explaining myself a bit better. I hope she doesn’t mind.)

I believe Alicen Grey is justified in her feelings in ways that (as I said) I cannot understand, being neither Black nor a woman. I’m telling you that I believe her (yes!) imperialistic language is used in this case in an attempt to right wrongs in a system in desperate need of righting, but in a manner that sells itself short by angering the people (men) she holds responsible rather than inspiring them to self-reflection. Not unlike my own reaction. Sometimes people who have a point worth making make it in unfortunate and counterproductive ways. Again, not unlike myself. I can’t hold it against her, because I wouldn’t want it held against me. So, yes, given the opportunity, and given the benefit of the doubt, I would gladly work alongside her. I’m not just saying that. Once I’ve gotten over myself, I truly believe there is no one on this planet with whom I could not find some common ground somewhere.

You see, I forget sometimes that perception is nine-tenths of the truth. I said what I said, convinced of its accuracy, with little regard for the ways in which it might be taken. In other words, I did exactly what I was suggesting Alicen Grey shouldn’t have done. So…shame on me.

Whatever else you take from what I write here (and I’m stealing from the e-mail again), please take this:

I truly desire nothing more than to make the world a better, more equitable and just place for all of us. But at the end of the day, I’m human; I can’t be more than that. No one can. And my humanity, as everyone’s, is the thorn in my flesh. It allows me to soar, and it causes me to crash back down to earth when my wings collapse under the weight of my own hubris. And it always will.

According to Oscar Wilde, the world needs a few more fools. In my case, perhaps an acknowledgement of my own episodic foolishness will do, as a step toward a more Wildean equilibrium.

I will write on. And stumble from time to time over my own wayward ego. And then, get back up, dust myself off, and write on further.

It’s the best I can do…

Sins of My Fathers


Without ash to rise from, a phoenix would just be a bird getting up.

– Schmidt

I want to talk about race, and gender, and some of the other things I’m not supposed to talk about because I’m white and male. Which characteristics I of course chose for myself when the gene genies contacted me for that traditional prenatal identity consultation. This was after the prenatal press conference in which I explicitly endorsed all the injustices committed by all the white males before me, throughout history.

I have news for you: Hogwarts is not real, and there is no such thing as a Sorting Hat. I was born, and I have acted (for better and for worse) on my own account and no one else’s; my impact as a person can be judged fairly only by that rubric.

But that is not the rubric against which I find myself measured. I am told that, regardless of who I am or what I have done, I am complicit in a multitude of previous sins. I am presumed guilty, and am placed beyond proof of innocence. And anything I say can and will be used against me in the court of public opinion.

I’m told that men shouldn’t be involved in the gender debate, that they should just listen quietly and be educated. Fair enough: quiet listening is necessary to education, and speech before learning leads only to Fox and Friends. But there is a time for quiet listening, and there is a time for taking what one has learned and getting into the conversation, respectfully but actively. Otherwise, there isn’t much point in learning in the first place.

I’m told that Black Lives Matter. And they most certainly do. But I’m also told that this is a claim that must exist in isolation; that to suggest, as a member of the white community, that my life also matters, that indeed all lives matter, is an act of imperialism and violence. I am told by those speaking out for their own worth and meaning as people that if I do the same, I am worthless and meaningless. Meanwhile, on many levels, the whole argument misses its own point, given that we are prosecuting it as a multitude of refugees stands helpless and homeless at our borders, hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens stand helpless and homeless on our street corners, and all the rest of us stand idly by demanding more attention for ourselves.

I refuse to accept this. I will not play this game nor will I acquiesce to these rules, any more than anyone should give in to the arbitrariness of socially-imposed classes and categorizations. Justice is never about taking dominance away from one voice and giving it exclusively to another. Justice can only come about by way of dialogue; it must involve both the wronged and the perceived wrong-er.

The debate over feminism cannot thrive if it is framed in a such a way as to intentionally alienate or shut out the male voice, not because women are incapable of solving their own problems, but because men are a fact, unfortunate though it may be. We exist; we are everywhere. And if we’re the problem, then we have to be a part of the solution. Otherwise, you’re repairing the roof by tearing down a wall.

Black lives matter. White lives matter. Middle Eastern lives matter. Unborn life matters. Life matters. Wherever it is found, behind whatever sort of face it hides. This is the underlying problem: we think that in order for one group to matter, another has to matter less. This misconception of meaning has provided the framework for every violent human arrangement in history, from slavery to the Cold War to the War on Terror. Black Lives Matter vs. All Lives Matter is but one more example of this false dichotomy. If we are to reach a point at which either black or white lives truly do matter, then it must be in tandem with one another, and alongside all other life. This is a zero sum issue: either all lives matter, or none of them do.

Recently, I read the following quote by radical feminist Alicen Grey:

It’s painful when I hear/see quotes from men, waxing poetic about how violent and inhumane “we” “humans” are “to each other”. When historically and globally, males account for the vast, vast majority of violence. Mostly against women. I used to wonder, how could these men – fancying themselves profound and in-on Truth – possibly call “humans” violent when they are technically the source? But I guess that’s what happens when the only people you consider humans are other men.

In other words, it doesn’t matter what I say, or in how many positive ways I contribute to the quest for social justice, gender and racial equality, or anything else. I am, in the most literal of senses, worth-less, beyond any possibility of betterment, trapped in the web of my original sin: the penis. I am generational evil incarnate. Regardless of my individual character, I am defined by my class and, consequently, disenfranchised. I am refused the right to contribute on the presumption that anything I say is by definition suspect. I am barred, not just from the conversations surrounding gender and racial issues, but from any conversation at all. How’s that for violent, imperialistic speech?

I hear her, and I appreciate (if I cannot fully understand) the pain that animates her words. Women have been sorely mistreated by men, African Americans have been devalued by white America, and ethnic minorities the world over have been abused and murdered by majorities the world over, for far too long. But anger, while a powerful and constructive tool, becomes merely destructive when wielded as a weapon. This may be temporarily satisfying, but it is not ultimately productive. Alienation as a response to alienation only creates greater alienation.

I will not apologize for things I did not do and have not done. No one should have to. What I can (and will) do is my best with my life to ensure that the unjust actions and words of my predecessors and contemporaries are, through my own actions and words, to some measure counteracted. I will honor, respect, and speak out for the rights of women, African Americans, and any others to whom they have been denied, and I will fight alongside anyone (Alicen Grey included) who is interested in bringing about a more just social order for all people. I may not move mountains, but I’ll go down swinging. I will be your ally.

Assuming, that is, that you’ll let me…

Book Review: Queer (In)Justice

Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United StatesQueer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States by Joey L. Mogul, Andrea J. Ritchie, and Kay Whitlock.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The authors of Queer (In)Justice set out to prove two complementary theses. The first deals with the tendency of the “criminal legal system” to deal more harshly with LGBT citizens than with others, and to assume guilt or criminality on the basis of that orientation/identity. It is difficult, based on the evidence they produce, to disagree on this point.

The second thesis is equally compelling, although less thoroughly argued or defended: within the LGBT community at large, LGBT individuals who also belong to minorities are both more persecuted by the legal system and, largely, ignored by LGBT rights groups in favor of the more easily defensible white gay male. In fairness, this second point is harder to demonstrate due to the susceptibility of minority status in general to such discrimination, but even so, the authors choose somewhat weak targets: for example, increased violence toward LGBT Muslims in the aftermath of 9/11 may have little to do with their LGBT identities and much to do with their overarching religious or ethnic backgrounds. There may be a case here to be made, but a choice of less ambiguous examples would be warranted in order to make it.

In any case, whether or not the second hypothesis is warranted, the first in itself demands attention. The authors highlight specifically the weaknesses inherent in the dominant “hate crime” approach to dealing with anti-LGBT violence: giving enhanced punishment capability to law enforcement is pointless if it is law enforcement that ignores these crimes in the first place.

They conclude:

“The choice to pursue strategies that rely on increased policing and punishment to produce safety for queers requires a leap of faith that the system can and will be able to distinguish between the “good” or reputable gay, lesbian, or transgender victim and the “bad,” presumptively criminalized queers. Such faith is deeply misplaced” (p. 146).

Since the LGBT community cannot rely on legal institutions to provide for their security, the authors argue, it is necessary for the LGBT community to create innovative ways of protecting (and policing) itself. They point to action groups that are networking with local businesses to establish Safe Spaces and Safe Havens as unofficial refuges for victims of anti-LGBT violence, and developing HIV/AIDS education and support mechanisms within the American penitentiary system. The only way to get out of the box LGBT individuals have been placed in by the structural deficiencies of the criminal legal system, they argue, is to think outside of it.

Queer (In)Justice is a fascinating and extremely disturbing, yet totally indispensable read, and gives important insight into the plight of the LGBT community in the United States and the extent to which they continue to struggle for equality before the law. As the authors seek to illustrate, LGBT inequality goes far, far beyond the issue of marriage; in many ways, they argue, that is the least of their concerns.

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