Beyond Uncomfortable Silences

A couple weeks into the Spring semester and once again I’m enjoying exploring the concept of privilege with my students. I’m also very conscious of attempting to “hold space” as I teach this semester. I’m really fortunate to have smaller sections, so I can invest more deeply in cultivating mastery in my students and experiment more freely with different approaches to developing their own intuitions.

Recently, I came across this article on “whitesplaining” from the great folks over at Everyday Feminism. The article very clearly outlines the kinds of responses that (regardless of intentions) invalidate the perspective of people experiencing racism and reinforce white privilege narratives.

As I read, I kept on thinking of another article that has become a part of the way that I think about race. In “A Muscular Empathy,” the author challenges us to confront examples of historic and/or institutional racism not with the immediate assumption of our own exceptional opposition, but rather with the question of what would prevent our opposition? Even better: Why would I have likely gone along with injustice? Although we want to believe that we would be the one to speak out against slavery, against segregation, against prejudice, the truth is these injustices have existed and still exist because most people don’t speak out. Likely, I would have been, have been, sometimes still am numbered among the don’ts. The Everyday Feminism article invites us to a similar consideration. Putting myself in the position of the “whitesplainer” in the article, the informative question is not whether I would say things that attempt to explain away someone’s experiences, but why would I say those things?

For me, I think the answer is mostly embarrassment and shame. I am ashamed that racism is still a daily experience for people in America. I am embarrassed that people who I consider good people say bad things, revealing how embedded racist presuppositions are in our culture. I want to relieve the sting of racist comments, not only because I feel bad for the person receiving them, but also because I am really uncomfortable confronting the fact that racism is a persistent reality.

So I think the first step in avoiding “whitesplaining” is to be silent. Not necessarily to more fully listen to the experience of the person talking. At least, not at first. If my shame is what is compelling me to speak over someone else, then that’s the first thing I need to let ring through my silence. I need to sit in the uncomfortable silence.

But I can’t stay there.

That’s the point of the last article I want to bring into conversation today. It challenges what ally politics and activism should look like. I had to read the article several times (and yes, there were uncomfortable silences in between). Guilt and shame, if allowed to have the last say, can lead to immobility, specifically a refusal to take action under one’s own auspices. The article contends that sometimes even “listening” can amount to another abdication of responsibility even if done in the name of deference to the oppressed community. Although this seems at first to be the correct impulse, like the “whitesplaining” examples above, what results is re-entrenchment of racist and other authoritarian assumptions. The author writes, “For a liberating understanding of privilege, each of us must learn our stake in toppling those systems of power to recognize how much we all have to gain in overturning every hierarchy of oppression.” I understand it this way: in the same way I need to confront my own shame about racism, I also need to fully understand my own reasons for fighting for racial justice. Only then can we have genuine partnership instead of awkward paternalism, arriving at a place where those participating in racial privilege and those experiencing racism will end up as equals on the same side of action.

Please share your reactions to the articles above (my attempts to grapple with them included). If you are a teacher trying to bring these concepts into focus for your class, I’d love to learn about your strategies.

Word of the Day

Got to admit, sometimes I feel at a disadvantage writing and thinking in English. I study mostly French and German philosophers (Marion and Heidegger especially). Somehow those languages seem so much more hospitable (enter Derrida) to the philosophic project. Maybe in the case of Heidegger, the use of language seems more calculated and engineered (because it is). But French seems to effortlessly bend and twist to produce a subtly in thought that defies gravity. And easy translation.

Today I’m preparing a paper on Marion to present at a conference in March. I’m extremely humbled to be included in the program and very happy to be writing about work that on any given day takes up a good deal of my head space. In particular, I am writing on the way “vanity” in Marion’s account of the saturated phenomenon suggests the need to think beyond Self and Other to include Another, in this case the religious community.

“Vanity” is a pretty good word as things go. In Marion’s work, at least in my reading of it, vanity is the precipice at which the self comes to the end of its rope and becomes capable of the plunge into existential crisis. Vanity is a great word for this extremis because it carries with it both the self-absorption native to the self and, in the useage assigned in Ecclesiastes, its undoing, an exasperated admission of the futility of self-agency. That’s neat work for one word, especially one that retains the full connotation in English.

Writing on the subject today, I reacquainted myself with the word “deponent.” A deponent is both a person who makes a deposition and a passive verb that in nonetheless active in meaning. In other words, deponent turns out to be a handy word for discussing the self converted by the saturated phenomenon to witness. The witness is active in its capacity to register the saturated phenomenon, but is also passive in that the coming forward of the saturated phenomenon itself becomes the self which is attested.

Deponent is not at the heart of my argument (so much good has been said on that front by others better than I), but seeming as I so rarely find an English word (albeit one that is invoking Latin and Greek verbs) that fits philosophy so nicely, I thought I’d take the time to celebrate. Please feel free to share the love and list your favorite English philosophical phrases. In the meantime, keep writing.

The Leftovers Ends Perfectly Imperfect

The season finaleleftovers of the HBO series, The Leftovers, was not perfect in execution. But that’s exactly perfect.

In the apocalypse category, The Leftovers is original, hinging on a catastrophic non-event. The central event, which claimed a thoroughly random (Gary Busey!?) 2%of the world’s population, lacks any discernible shape at which the characters might direct (and therefore manage) their anger and fear. There was no calamity, no noise, no light. Just suddenly nothing where people had been.

Along the same lines, the non-eventness of “The Departure” left no mark on society apart from the absence of the persons it claimed. In many post-apocalypse stories, the main characters are preoccupied with adjusting to new realities: disease, shortage, flesh eating zombies. Any introspection on the nature of existence happens in the small space between life or death choices. In The Leftovers, the buildings are left standing, the TV is left broadcasting, the restaurants are left open and ready for business. And people are left free from distraction from the ultimate reality: non-existence attends existence. Always.

And this, apart from its beautifully sparse cinematography, apart from its actors’ brilliant performances, is why I love The Leftovers. It exposes truth. Human agency is fabulously effective, but ultimately limited. When life is perceived as a puzzle to be solved, as a race to win, there is only so much we can DO to attempt to make that happen. There are times in life when we have done everything according to the directions, when we have met challenges with stunning courage and competency, but we are deprived of a winning end result. We come to the end of our existant tether and experience existence in its bleak reality. If life is a math problem, then it solves for zero. But only at that summation is joy possible.

The finale of The Leftovers demonstrates this perfectly. I was disappointed with the way the Wayne story line was not played out in camera. I was disappointed with the disappearance of Kevin’s dog hunting “friend” in the last episode. There were pieces of the story that got smudged out of focus in the haste to gather it all back in frame for the last episode. However, the events of the last episode clearly demonstrate our inability to engineer ourselves out of confrontation with non-existence. The final act of the Guilty Remnant, so carefully planned, so meticulously (and maliciously) performed was not responsible for deliverance. In psychology, it would best be categorized as a extinguishing behavior, an elevation of antagonism that is a demonstration of its perceived futility. It was a temper tantrum that did not earn them an extra cookie, an extra hour of play time before bed. Because the reality is that what they were seeking could not, in fact, be earned at all.

Deliverance came in unlooked-for places. Nora, having decided to give up trying to move on by running away, finds a new beginning in an infant failed-savior on the front porch. Kevin realizes, in the relief of having his daughter restored, that life itself (not the portrait of life that he was tortured by) is all that is precious. Without any reform or obedience training, the feral dog presents itself as a friend. Lori sees in her son’s face the permission to let go of her need to overcome her first failed marriage. In the end, there was nothing they could have done to surmount the grief and anguish, except to accept that just as surely as existence is always attended by non-existence, so joy attends that tension. The acceptance is not an act of the will or a decision of the intellect, but a relaxing into our proper, human position.

So if the final episode of The Leftovers was not able to perfectly bring about its own ending, then I say, I can’t really think of a more perfect ending.