On Reversing the Tide
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the word and the concept of privilege: what it means, how each relates to real and perceived racism, sexism, and anti-semitism, and the way that the word is often used by people on social media. As well, I’ve been spending a lot of time asking myself what is offensive and what isn’t, and to what degree being offensive is a thing best avoided. It’s all a stickier wicket than you might think. And it’s one that I think liberals would be wise to give serious thought to going into future elections.
Surprisingly, however, the reasons for my recent pondering have nothing to do with national politics.
A few weeks ago, we performed the second of our ongoing 7 Deadly Sins shows. 7DS is a live storytelling show, which for those who have never heard the term, is exactly what it sounds like. People get up and tell true stories about themselves on stage, and usually all the stories center around a common theme. Each 7DS story centers around a different sin. For example, our first show’s theme was Pride, and each story showed how giving in to pride can dramatically affect one’s life — in some cases for better, in some cases for worse. You get the idea.
Our last show was about everyone’s favorite sin: Lust. One of our storytellers was a man who had a fantastic story about Lust gone wrong, but there were parts of the story in its initial telling that we worried might turn the audience against him. It was one of those cases where we knew that he didn’t mean to say that non-white, non-straight, and non-physically fit people were icky, but we recognized that it might well be heard that way by people who didn’t know him. He was receptive to our advice and made the changes we recommended, but when he was on stage he reverted back to the original version of the story. (The combination of nerves and being on stage can do this to a person who hasn’t been sufficiently coached well.) The result was as you might expect: Many in the audience didn’t notice anything off, many did but didn’t really care that much, and many later complained that they felt offended when they heard the story. Not really a disaster, but for an ongoing show looking to continue selling out shows it’s less than perfect. There was no question that there was a coaching failure on our part, and I wanted badly to make sure that it didn’t happen again. As it happened, we had invited a woman we wanted to tell a story at a future show to be there so she could get a feel for 7DS. In addition to being a great storyteller and a fantastic presence on stage, she’s also a Cultural Competency Consultant by trade. So we hired her to help us figure out what changes to make to help ensure we didn’t fail in this way in the future. 1
This whole process has raised a number of difficult issues that I am still trying to work through. Some of these issues are unique to our show, some are more broad in that they deal with the purpose of art, and some reflect conversations we are having on a national level, especially in the wake of Trumpism. As such, some of this may be relevant to a larger discussion; some may not. You can decide for yourselves which is which.
One issue we were faced with is the question of offending others, or not. You would be excused if you had read this far and thought that I don’t want people to come to our show and be offended. But that’s not true. I very much do want people to be offended — but only on my terms.
For example, our Pride show featured a story from a priest who, just out of seminary, was sent to counsel a woman at a hospital who was eight months pregnant. Because of medical complications, she faced a very real choice about who should perish: herself or her unborn child. What I call the “True Story behind the anecdote” was one about a cocky young man who thought he knew all the answers and talked with God’s voice, being thrust into a situation where he suddenly was less sure about what was right or wrong, had no idea what God wanted him to say, and had not one clue as to what to even say to the person he was sent to give counsel. But the “True Story” aside, it was also very much a story about abortion, even though that word doesn’t occur in the priest’s story. If you were in the audience that night, and you were hardcore Pro-Life, my guess is that this story being told on my stage likely offended you to some degree. Similarly, I am hoping to someday get Kyle Cupp to tell on stage the story about his first-born daughter that he recounted in his astounding book Living In Faith. Dwelling In Doubt. Like the priest’s story, Kyle’s is one that both is and isn’t about abortion. As such, I have no doubt that it would likely offend some number of people who were Pro-Choice, by the very nature of the choices he and his wife made in the face of a terrible decision. Two stories, each potentially offensive to different audiences.
But both of these stories, Kyle’s and the priest’s, are very much told from the heart, and rather than pointing fingers at those who disagree with them, they allow those same people to look at difficult, tragic events through the storytellers’ eyes. To hear either of these stories probably isn’t enough to get anyone to change their position on a litmus-test issue like abortion, but it is enough to have someone — even someone who finds the very idea of disagreement offensive — to have real empathy with those who chose a different path, even if just for a moment.
As well as wanting to have the freedom to offend on my own terms, I don’t really want my show to be a “safe space.”
One of the best stories from our young show was by a woman who, when she was very young and for a variety of reasons including a rather harrowing childhood, found herself working as a sex worker. Though quite funny in places owing to her remarkable sense of humor, it’s an especially dark story — to the point that we actually gave a trigger warning, and invited people to take a walk around the block and come back if they thought it might be too much. We purposefully put her story right before intermission, because we knew that people were going to need a moment (and perhaps a drink) after hearing it. And while the story ends on a redemptive note and the storyteller’s very life is proof that it all worked out in the end, the story is anything but safe. But safe or not, it was a powerful story, and it’s the one people I run into who have seen the show invariably bring up as the one they found the most moving. Making our show a “safe space” means that we can’t tell powerful stories like hers.
Which, as we work our way through the hierarchy of Social Justice cliches, bring us to the Rule of Punching Up Not Down.
The Rule of Not Punching Down comes the closest to describing why our errant story missed the mark of what we are trying to do, and at first blush it seems like a good rule of thumb to follow. But it too, has inherent problems, the biggest of which is this: most people assume that they are punching up, and that people who are punching them are punching down. A long time ago, we had a straight, white, male commenter say something that’s really stuck with me. 2 I’m paraphrasing from memory here, but what he said was basically something like: I’m lower income, I have serious chronic health issues, I don’t have a personal-support network, and I can’t seem to come out ahead — so why do I have to be the one who checks my privilege and stays silent when disagreeing with someone who is healthy, financially successful, and has a wide network of support, just because that person is a woman, or gay, or a person of color?
My guess is that if you’re liberal you’re already getting ready to explain in the comments section why that person needs to check their privilege and hold their tongue. The problem is that while that makes sense on an institutional level, it’s never going to feel that way to someone who feels like they’re being punched down on. It’s going to feel petty and mean-spirited. Which is great if all you’re looking to do is pown someone on Twitter or a comments section, I guess. But for those looking to build a coalition to win elections — or, better yet, to change hearts and minds and make the institution itself better to some degree — it’s problematic at best.
During our first session, our Cultural Competency Consultant mentioned having seen someone wearing a costume a few days after Halloween that, as a person of color, she found offensive, and noted that if she hadn’t been tired and in a hurry she would have stopped and talked with that person. I wondered aloud what on earth she could possibly say that woundn’t achieve the opposite of she was hoping might happen. She granted that such a response is always a possibility, then walked me through what she normally does in such situations. She pulls the person aside, so as not to publicly embarrass them. She lets them know how she reacted and why, rather than tell them what kind of person they are or what doing or saying that thing makes a person in her eyes. She allows space to hear them out, and for them to disagree. Her goal, in other words, is that when she walks away, that person might have greater empathy for her and others like her — not that the person will suddenly realize how racist they are or might be.
It seemed good advice there and then for me personally, from that vantage point of a coffee shop sipping cappuccinos in the November sunshine. And it occurs to me now, having now pondered it this past week, to be good advice for those wanting to reverse the tide of Trumpism.
Since the election, there has been a lot of worry by women, people of color, Muslims, and other minorities about the direction in which our country is headed. After the campaign I’ve witnessed, I believe that such concern is warranted. But where our side has fallen down, I believe, is in our inadvertent fanning of flames. There are deplorables out there, yes, and those people must always be opposed with all of our might. But I worry that in our attempt to do so, we’ve publicly branded huge swaths of middle Americans as being no better than the alt-right, for the crime of not agreeing with us fully about everything.
We might well say, “if they weren’t racist, they would have chosen to be with us no matter how we treated them.” And indeed that may well be the case on some drawn out logic matrix, but that’s not the way people work. If you lash out at people enough, they’ll oppose you and your ideas no matter what they are. (As those Republicans currently attempting sincere outreach with minorities will surely attest.)
Don’t misunderstand. This is not a call to acquiesce to racism, sexism, or anti-semitism. Nor is it a call to stop protesting, and letting your voices be heard. Nor is it a call to give President-elect Trump or his improbable staff a hall pass to do whatever they want on the basis that they won this round. It’s merely a strong recommendation of what we should do if we want to win the next one.
I say this not to the Trump supporters or the people who take pleasure in either the bashing the concept of diversity or seeing Democrats lose no matter the result, but to my fellow liberally-minded allies: If we really want to change the direction this country is going, we’re going to need a much bigger coalition than we have right now. We can’t do that by communicating self-righteousness toward and disdain for those not already on board. But we might be able to accomplish it with empathy, and faith that there continues to be more that binds us than separates us.
Go build that coalition.
[Image credit: Still shot of Samantha Bee on Full Frontal, via YouTube]
- It was a really good move on our part. Our consultant is amazing, and more helpful that I’d even hoped she might be. I don’t think it’s fair to drag her name into this discussion, but if you’re looking for such a person for your organization email me and I’ll hook you up.
- I’m not going to mention who it was, partially because I doubt he’d want his name drug into things here, and partially because I don’t think it’s important to the point he was making.