Monday, May 18, 2015

I'm Not White

The Argument Sketch
The Argument Sketch (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Over the past couple of years, I've found myself at odds with a growing portion of people on the left as well as the right. Ironically, most (if not all) of the people on the left who have taken exception to my comments or arguments hold very similar (if not identical) views regarding topics such as civil liberties and social justice. This has placed me in the unenviable position of being vilified by both liberal and conservative crusaders when discussing things like the whole Ferguson debacle, resulting in me being simultaneously labelled as a racist and a cop-hater in the same day. No small feat, I imagine.

I'm willing to take the blame on this, mind you, but only as far as acknowledging that I know why I get this kind of reaction. The truth is that I have gone through some major evolution throughout my life when it comes to philosophical ideals and world views, having run the gamut from right-wing conservative to left-wing hippie. I now feel that I have landed comfortably somewhere in the middle, that "middle" dictated by a conscious effort to remain neutral or average, but merely based on where other groups or parties tend to fall in comparison. Okay, to be fair, I'm probably a bit more left from center, but you get the idea.

One thing that I have gained from this rather full-rounded personal journey is an appreciation for how membership to a group or idealistic movement can influence beliefs rather than the other way around, and so I make it a point to be somewhat skeptical of rationalizations and arguments regardless of where they come from or whether or not my instinctive reaction is to agree or disagree. A healthy dose of skepticism is more than necessary to get to the truth behind anything, including our own motivations. So occasionally I will question or disagree with some major (or even minor) point or argument put forth by someone, and since this is taken as a personal challenge of somebody's deep-seated ideological beliefs, I find myself attacked for being "insensitive" or "antagonizing."

Just so we're clear, I am not implying that I am not capable of the same knee-jerk reactions when my own beliefs are challenged, nor am I under the assumption that my way of thinking is the only correct one. This isn't about claiming that I am right and everybody else is wrong, even if that is how most belief systems tend to work. What we're talking about is the actual public discourse of debating or discussing how certain views or beliefs are being supported. You can believe in the right thing for the wrong reasons, and you can also question your behavior or understanding without decimating everything you believe in. Skepticism, if healthy and honest, is applied to not only to others, but to oneself. Which is, of course, where it all falls apart.

I personally think that one of the biggest mistakes being made by many of these civil rights and social justice movements is that they try to rectify the problem of people being dismissed or demeaned for participation in certain groups by defending the status and feasibility of the perceived groups. For me, the logical way to combat prejudice towards groups is to remove the focus on groups and place it on the individual, instead of lending credibility to the idea that membership in perceived groups should be the way we identify people, as collections of specific traits rather than individuals. The true fight, after all, is not to create equal groups, but to ensure that people are treated equal despite of any perceived group they actively or involuntarily belong to.

Let me take a moment to explain why I keep saying "perceived groups." My intent is not to question the credibility of any specific group, but merely to acknowledge that some groups seeking equality are more rigidly defined than others. In fact, sometimes I have found such lines drawn by groups with the direct intent to prevent other groups from sharing the victim spotlight, as it were. I've had it explained to me, for example, that you cannot compare the plight of "genetic" groups claiming prejudice to "non-genetic" groups complaining of the same, because the "genetically oppressed" cannot change their stripes, as it were. I reject this argument on the grounds that it assumes that people who belong to "non-genetic" groups are either not capable of experiencing prejudicial treatment to the same degree (or even worse), or are somehow more deserving of such treatment because they are technically capable of somehow avoiding that treatment. I find this argument detestable on several levels, including the fact that it implies the problem is whether you can avoid being mistreated, rather than arguing that nobody deserves such mistreatment in the first place.

So this is where I tend to piss people off despite our shared beliefs. Like the problems I mentioned having during the whole Ferguson thing; we would be in total agreement that there is clear evidence of institutionalized racism in the Ferguson police (and others) that needs to be addressed, and that the specific example of Michael Brown's shooting left way too many questions about how black people were being treated by the local police and how much cover-up took place directly after the shooting and throughout the trial of the cop that shot him. But then I would raise a polite objection when people said things like "It's hard to talk to white people about this," point out that it is an arguably prejudiced thing to say that does nothing but ignore the multitude of white people in agreement with their position on the Ferguson debacle, and POOF, now I'm the asshole.

And I'm not blind to where some of this reaction comes from. There are people out there who defend racist actions and attempt to deflect any attention to them by pushing the "Cops shoot white people too" argument, which ignores the specifics of the situations at hand by painting a broad enough picture to obscure any realities beyond racial identities. It's an underhanded trick using semantics, but it's good enough that people on the other side of the argument use it as well, so that anybody who does offer alternate viewpoints can be accused of not being the right color to have an opinion, or that they're blinded by "white privilege," which while is arguably a real thing, doesn't help further awareness of the direct problems of prejudice involved, especially when used as a blanket excuse to ignore or devalue the thoughts and opinions of an entire segment of society. See how that works?

But again, I think all of this stems back to the issue that people are adhering to the groups (and their dogmatic platforms) as opposed to the argument for the individual. We're so aware of the prejudices that exist against certain groups (be they genetically assigned or not) that we lose site of the true goal, which is to ensure that people are not abused or oppressed for ANY trait or allegiance or affiliation, no matter how large or how small. The more we argue who can or can't belong to which groups, or who is or isn't allowed to defend or support a group - which, honestly, has to be the dumbest side effect of this line-drawing - the more we're marginalizing anybody who doesn't fit into these groups based on whatever guidelines those shouting the loudest feel the need to impose. By trying so desperately to define these "legitimate" minorities or "underrepresented groups" or whatever we're calling them this week to try to fit yet another group under the umbrella, we're only creating more minorities, more groups of people being considered less valuable or less deserving of respect and kindness. The cause is just, but the argument ends up becoming circular.

I'm not saying we shouldn't recognize the origins of oppression and prejudice, or expose them when they take place. What I am saying is that if we cling to these groups as the ultimate definition of who we are, we are enabling the initial actions of those who chose to define us based on their opinions of whatever group it was they decided was less human than them. You don't abolish labeling by redefining the labels. You need to acknowledge that they are just that: labels. Otherwise, we stop defending individuals and end up defending our groups, and the individual we are trying to help gets lost in the worship of an ideal.

What it comes down to is this: I'm not white. I'm not fat, I'm not a man, I'm not Gen-X-er, I'm not an American, I'm not a race or a size or a gender or a demographic or religion or a political party. I can be described using these terms, but I do not let them define me, and I certainly don't let others who want to use them to define me do so without an argument. We are all more than the sum of our parts, and we are far greater than mere parts of some larger sum.

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