Tuesday, August 22, 2017

I Don't Hear You

So I was reading a post about dealing with issues of race, and the poster ended it thusly:

"White people need to talk to other white people about this shit if it's ever going to change."

And I wonder if that will actually change anything. Because perhaps part of the problem is that we live in a society where you can actually be that selective about who you listen to.

When I was growing up, I was taught that not listening to White people was dangerous. Not in the sense that I always had to be attentive to what they might ask of me in a "do as they say" manner, but in the sense that I couldn't simply ignore them and go about my business, because I would miss the subtle cues that indicated that they might be moving against me somehow. And it lead me, for a long time, to be more comfortable with overt expressions of racism. "I'd rather be shot in the chest," I would tell people, "than stabbed in the back."

But as I grew older, I learned that I could ignore them. That in 99.99% of cases, I didn't have to care what neatly anyone, whether White, Black, Brown or Purple, thought of me. And so, I didn't. I decided that what other people thought of me was none of my business, unless they were offering something useful. And so I come out of job interviews as hopped up on adrenaline as if I'd just faced down an angry bear, but can't be bothered to know who now lives next door to me.

It's kind of liberating, really. And I think that's one of the nice things about being in the majority in one way or another. You don't have to ever listen to people you don't care to, because their opinions of you just don't matter. Because they don't have the social capital to back them up, and if they resort to violence, it does as much harm as good.

And so White people have to talk to White people, because Black people don't have the social capital to require that a White person listen to them. Men have to talk to men, because women can safely be ignored. And straight people have to talk to straight people, because queer people can be simply blown off. Und so weiter, und so weiter, as we used to put it in German class. (Somehow, it sounds more... resigned than saying it in English.)

Humanity doesn't scale well, a wise friend of mine told me, and I think that this is why. If we can band together with enough like-minded people, what other people think simply becomes immaterial. And even existential threats have a hard time changing that, unless they last for generations.

"White people need to talk to other white people about this shit if it's ever going to change," wraps the hopes and fears for the future into one package, tied with a bow. It recognizes that change is possible, but concedes that it isn't necessary. And I think that's the fear that the Others have learned. That in some sense, they're unimportant. When Richard Spencer talks about the idea of White people separating themselves from non-Whites, there is a worry that it will work. A worry that in walling themselves off from everyone they don't want to deal with, that they're not risking losing something important.

The fight over Confederate statuary strikes me as being a manifestation of this conflict. Because it boils it down to a zero sum game. Are society and the powers that be going to listen to us or to them? Because it's not just about being listened to - it's also about other people not being listened to because there's only so much attention to go around. And this puts those not listened to into crisis, because the nature of our society and economy can mean being ignored, being forgotten, being invisible can be a fate worse than death. When it isn't simply a miserable way to die.

But we all need the ability to ignore. We all need the ability to determine who we are going to attend to, and who we are going to put off, either until later or forever. Otherwise, we'd never have any rest or peace. But we don't make that choice randomly. And therein, lies the rub.

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