Sunday, September 11, 2016

Fear and Free-Speech: A 9/11 Reflection

"I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear.I will permit it to pass over me and through me.And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain." - Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear, Dune
“Fear is the path to the dark side...fear leads to anger…anger leads to hate…hate leads to suffering.” - YodaThe Phantom Menace
"Fear not." - God's message to humankind, as recorded over and over in the Bible

The the phone woke me up on September 11, 2001. I had worked a closing shift at Freebirds the night before and groggily picked up the phone beside my bed. On the other end of the line, I heard my dad's voice and did my best to sound as awake as possible.

"Happy birthday Pop!" I said, doing my best to not mumble.

"It's not very happy," he said. "Turn on the tv, buddy." I switched the set on in time to see the second plane hit. 

I don't remember if we exchanged any more words, but I do remember walking down my hallway to stand in front of our icon corner, weeping. My prayer was, "please don't let us respond in hate."

I'm gathering with my family today to celebrate my dad's 60th birthday. He died just a month ago, after battling cancer for about eight months. His co-workers at American Airlines put on a wonderful memorial service for him. Through the recollections of the people that he worked with in his role as a union steward for TWU Local 513, we learned about how my father had worked to represent his co-workers over the last 20+ years though his meticulous organization, thorough writing, and personal connections. I'm just six years younger now than my dad was in 2001. I'm trying not to let that scare me. 

The world has changed dramatically in the last 15 years, not only objectively for all of us, but subjectively for each of us. We've seen stories of courage and patriotism that inspire. We've seen examples of fear and hate that shake one's faith in humanity. If the object of terrorism is to change our way of life, I'm sorry to say that I think it's been successful. So far. Don't agree? When was the last time you waved at a plane as it pulled away from the gate with someone you loved on board?

To distill a lesson on how we reverse this course from thinkers such as Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, and Salman Rushdie: we need to stop feeding the terror through our participation. The erosion of our civil liberties thanks to the PATRIOT Act has, I think, coincided with an erosion of social civility. The social and political conversation has become more strident and polarized in the last fifteen years. This kind of binary thinking was effectively articulated by Bush43 addressing Congress on September 20, 2001 when he said "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists." This logical fallacy, known as a false dilemma, precludes the multidinal positions that might be taken and-if accepted uncritically-removes the agency involved in choosing a position. Interestingly enough, Hillary Clinton used almost the exact same phrase a week earlier. 

I reject the notion that there is a single way to appreciate the freedoms afforded to us as Americans, and I think we do a disservice to those who have laid down their lives for those freedoms to suggest that only those who agree with us deserve to have them. I believe that the principled exercise of dissent in the service of making the promise of American freedoms more true and justly distributed is a true exercise of patriotism. 

A lot of political hay has been made over the last week about Colin Kaepernick's national anthem protest and those that he has inspired. While I may not choose to express my dissent in the same way, I fully support those that choose to do so. 

Justice Louis Brandeis articulated this is a particularly seminal way in his concurring decision in Whitney v. California (1927):
"Those who won our independence by revolution were not cowards. Tnhey did not fear political change. They did not exalt order at the cost of liberty. To courageous, self-reliant men, with confidence in the power of free and fearless reasoning applied through the processes of popular government, no danger flowing from speech can be deemed clear and present, unless the incidence of the evil apprehended is so imminent that it may befall before there is opportunity for full discussion. If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence."

The Seattle Seahawks had hinted at some kind of collective action during their game today. The Root published a story today suggesting that the collective action does not appear to be particularly progressive (and perhaps will be regressive). This comment seems particularly on-point:
"[I]f social protest has to be scheduled based on what makes people comfortable, those aren’t really rights, they’re more like frequent flier miles."

I'm hopeful that, whatever exercise of speech we see today, it will be a reminder that there is not a single narrative about what it means to be an American, and those of us that are interested in seeing justice for all Americans should understand that the best way forward will be one in which all of those perspectives are included in making decisions about and building the future. And, as my dad demonstrated in bridging gaps in his work, this will take effort, organization, depth, and personal connections. 

Monday, July 25, 2016

Considering the Language of Privilege

Anna Kegler's (@annakegler) HuffPost piece "The Sugarcoated Language of White Fragility" ( has produced good dialogue among my friends this week. I was particularly happy to see it because her discussion of how the language of social-justice movements lose efficacy over time was a perfect counter-point to another conversation I'd been having in which a self-described "conservative who is sort of on the BLM side" told me I was making a "tactical error" in using language such as "white privilege" because that causes conservatives to tune-out who might otherwise be allies against injustice. 

My incredulous response was to assert that it is a reification of white privilege to insist that the conversation be had in terms that wouldn't offend. Kegler's piece, had I been able to share it in that moment, would have provided me better language to explain that "white privilege" is already sugarcoated. Like Aslan peeling Eustace's dragon skin in Voyage of the Dawn Treader, I think that addressing our complicity in racial injustice is an issue that requires more force of will than most of us can muster on our own. 

Kegler describes the linguistic gymnastics that white america performs to distance, deflect, and dismiss our responsibility for racial injustice. She makes the point that her article is not proposing new language, but instead seeks to address underlying causes. Like Kegler, I think that the issue is deeper than the language we use to talk about privilege, and a true solution needs to address underlying white fragility. I think that language can be one avenue to call attention to and galvanize peoples' will against injustice. 

A familiar refrain in discussions of white privilege is the counter-example: in this-or-that situation, I do not enjoy privilege; or, such-and-such is white and also poor and disenfranchised. To me, what these counter-examples lay bare is the fact that privilege, like identity, is intersectional, and requires a language that is flexible enough to account for power-shifts between and among facets of identity. 

Unlike Kegler, I do want to propose language. The term I'd like to propose is "prerogative from power." The term "white privilege," as proposed by Peggy McIntosh describes a set of "unearned assets" that a white person could more-or-less count on having at her/his disposal. Recent discussions of racial injustice with white friends has reinforced for me that using privilege to point out injustice is a prerogative; a white person may choose to actively take advantage of their power to ignore injustice, be tacitly complicit with that power to ignore injustice, or use their privilege to actively work against injustice. The point is that they have that choice-or prerogative-as an asset, where a person of color cannot escape the additional stress and complexity of racial injustice. What I think works particularly well about "prerogative from power" is that the same idea and term can be applied to privilege related to religion, class, ethnicity, gender, ability, etc., as well as the intersections of these identities. I also think "prerogative from power" addresses Kegler's criticism that "white privilege" is too soft. Moreover, I think "prerogative from power" provides a way to call attention to choices that people make (or don't) based on their privilege.  

What are your thoughts on the term "prerogative from power?" Does it capture the meaning of "white privilege" for you? Where does it fall short?