Masterful Discourse

I had an opportunity recently to discuss questions of discrimination (racial and otherwise) with some quite intelligent people. The main thing I learned in that discussion is that some of the aspects of the ongoing cultural strife in the US are not obvious from the sidelines.

Since I have spent a substantial part of my life being immersed in that strife — due to my temperament and my identity — I hope I can shine a light on some things that might otherwise be opaque.

The particular conversation I was on focused on whether major universities in the US (like MIT and Yale, which are the two I am most familiar with) should rename the title of “housemaster” to “head of house”. This title refers to a staff or faculty member who lives in an undergraduate residence and is an overseer of the residents as well as a liaison between the residents and the school administration.

However, many of the same lines of thinking — as I hope I will make clear — apply to other topics of discrimination, such as women’s suffrage, same-sex marriage, and transgender access to bathrooms.

“Who cares?”

This position begins with the observation that the change being demanded is insubstantial. For example, as the renaming of a “housemaster” to “head-of-house” would carry no change in job description, it therefore follows that the name of the position is irrelevant.

The point missed here is that the debate is, fundamentally, not about a single (perhaps trivial) change.

The debate is about who is worthy of respect in our society. At the core of this debate are not voting rights, or right to marry, or access to bathrooms, or not to be required to call people in a position of authority “Master” — even though all of those are part of the conversation.

The core of this debate is whether some people are going to be given a greater degree of respect in our culture by virtue of belonging to a particular group. What is being demanded, in all those cases, is equal respect. The specific grievances being aired are merely specific examples in which disrespect is felt; fixing them is important — and may get us closer to equal respect — but they aren’t the end goal.

So, when someone asks you to change the society in a way, big or small, that seems insignificant to you, please consider the possibility that you are being asked to offer equal respect to a group of people who have repeatedly and systematically been disrespected (perhaps not directly by you).

”It’s a waste of time!”

This position builds on the previous; once an issue has been revealed as insignificant, debating it is deemed an ineffective use of time.

This is often true. Activism rarely operates at maximum efficiency, and cultural change often involves missteps and miscues.

However, if you understand that the entire debate is principally about mutual and equal respect, and your concern is with efficiency, you must conclude that the only reasonable way to proceed is to say “I think I understand what you are trying to accomplish here: gain respect. How can I be of help?”

The quest for respect will not end. If you engage with it at all, and efficiency matters to you, then don’t waste time trying to derail it — ask how best to contribute.

“There is too much outrage!”

You are right that there is much outrage. If you agree that outrage is a symptom of a failure of respect, then the amount of outrage you witness should tell you something about how often and how painfully some groups of people are given no respect at all.

It is entirely possible for many people in our society to live a lifetime in which they are never expected to have sex with a boss to keep their job, never refused service at a restaurant because of their sexual orientation, never given inferior healthcare services because of their race, and never murdered because they have undergone hormone replacement therapy. If you have lived shielded from those indignities, you may very well underestimate how common they are.

But for those who aren’t as fortunate, the outrage is an attempt at being heard. Outrage may be the only way anyone ever listens to them — and sometimes even that doesn’t work. If you want the outrage to stop, your best course of action is to do something about the root cause.

“All this outrage is fake!”

I have been outraged a few times in my life. For me, outrage happens when I feel powerless — when someone else’s actions have made it clear that they are in control of some important aspect of my life, and have no desire to give much thought to how that affects me.

Outrage is exhausting, and it is stressful. Outrage keeps me from eating well, sleeping regularly, and otherwise taking good care of myself. Nobody I can think of would fake their outrage; it’s way too much work.

If you think that any of this outrage is fake, try to get outraged about something in your life that doesn’t feel like an big deal to you. If you succeed, then try to imagine sustaining your fabricated outrage for days, weeks, months, or years.

Now consider which is more likely: that there are a lot of people faking a lot of outrage, or that you are — for what I assume are entirely non-malicious reasons — unaware of the threats they face, or the extent of those threats?

“This wasn’t a problem before!”

After observing that a new change is being demanded, here one argues that we’ve been just fine without it — whatever it is — in the past, so clearly we’ll be fine without it in the future.

You may be right. However, you can make the same argument for anything that is different today from what it was in the Stone Age — most of which, I would argue, is better now. Your ability to make that argument is a poor indicator of whether, on balance, a change would be beneficial.

You may also be wrong. Maybe the problem is truly new. Maybe it’s worsened recently. Maybe those affected by it were busy dealing with other problems.

One way or another, what actually matters is that someone in your community is telling you that today it is a problem — and remember, what they are probably actually telling you is that it’s a symptom of being persistently and systematically disrespected.

So let’s not argue it’s a new problem and, therefore, it’s not a problem at all. Let’s accept that it’s a problem, conclude it needs a solution, and see what we can do to help find it.

In short: people all around you are hurting, because every day they are told — in ways small and large — that they don’t matter. Their bladders don’t matter, their love doesn’t matter, their opinions don’t matter, their lives don’t matter. You may be protected from some this pain, but that doesn’t make the pain any less real.

The pain isn’t fake and it isn’t irrelevant. The pain is a blight on our society, and if you don’t want to spend your time fixing it, please don’t stand in the way of those who do.