I was determined to get off of politics and back to theology, which I will do tomorrow, but the chaos of our current political environment keeps bringing up new subjects.
Once I had a colleague who, in every meeting about whatever public policy issue we were working, found a way to announce that “What you don’t know is… .” It was arrogantly rude, and slammed the brakes on useful conversation because the rest of the group was primed to resist, deny, or obstruct whatever pathway this bit of previously unknown information might open up. He never changed, and I’ve often wondered how much better things might have gone if he had said something like, “I’ve learned something that I’d like to share,” or “Here’s something you may not yet have heard.” “What you don’t know” said to a small group of well educated, well informed professionals was heard by them to mean “Not only am I smarter than you, I’m privy to essential information of which you are ignorant because, well, you are ignorant.”
That was a long time ago, but his method of asserting his expertise by demeaning the expertise of others lives on, and never more so than in the political discussions going on among those of us who consider ourselves to be progressives or liberals of some stripe. Framed in a slightly different way, it comes off as asserting the righteousness of one’s position by demeaning those of others as being critically ignorant or morally corrupt. I don’t mean those like my far left friend who can barely tolerate my center left pragmatism because it’s not liberal enough for him. I mean those who, using the newly popularized phrase ‘intersectionality,’ confidently assert that ‘what some entire other population doesn’t know is… .’ And what it is that they don’t know is what is undergirding the systemic racism or oppression of particular interest. It is a moral failure of those who don’t know for which atonement is possible, but unlikely and only through an acceptable form of groveling in the presence of righteous indignation where they admit their moral failure. Moreover, individual members of said populations can be accused of personal failure by virtue of being in that population. No more need be said. It sometimes looks like what I imagine a watered down Americanized version of the Chinese Cultural Revolution might look like. It also has disturbing similarities to the tea party movement, something others have noticed as well.
It’s a curious oxymoron, at least as it occurs in the online streams of discussion I’ve looked at. Intersectionality has been a topic in feminist thought for thirty years or more. It tries to describe systemic oppression as it is experienced by persons, and groups of persons, whose multiplicity of experiences and conditions in life mean that they cannot be lumped into generalized categories such as gender or race, but must be recognized for the unique ways in which many conditions of life intersect to create the experiences of systemic oppression that is itself a product of many intersections. More recently, it’s been used to help understand how bridges of cooperation can be built between persons and groups through more appreciative understanding of each other. So, using the tools of intersectionality to talk about systemic oppression while accusing entire categories of persons as morally responsible for it is just plain wrong. Moreover, failure to use the same tools to build connections for mutual benefit suggests that self righteous anger is preferred to progressive resolution, especially if it means having to give up one’s own deeply rooted prejudices.
It may be that there are essential facts and important understandings that are unknown by many outside a particular community of shared experiences and interests. Making them known in ways intended to build connections is how greater justice is gained. Can they be made known to everyone? No! Some have not yet learned to listen, and yelling at them is unlikely to help. Some are so loaded with their own prejudices that they cannot be moved. Some are so burdened by intersecting conditions in their own lives that they have no more carrying capacity. Some are distracted in another direction and aren’t paying attention. Some are not distracted, but intentionally focused on something else. That’s life. There are others ready to listen and learn, a process that always goes both ways.
It’s unlikely that any of those involved in the online streams I’ve looked at will ever read this short article, but I can imagine a few who would hop up and down like Rumpelstiltskin that an old white male would dare to speak at all.