“Christian Privilege: Not Being Allowed to Dominate Others Doesn’t Mean You’re Being Oppressed.”

I loved this post on Christian privilege and marriage equality by Mike Gillis. It’s a very succinct explanation of the problem with religious arguments against civil recognition of same gender marriages: i.e., limiting the rights of others based on the tenets of one faith (really one interpretation of a faith out of many, in this case) unjustly privileges that faith and its members over all other members of society. And as Gillis notes, Christians who believe their religious opposition to marriage equality should be enshrined as law are also discriminating against other Christians who support marriage equality – insisting that only their interpretation of Christianity can be the basis of general laws. That’s some kind of privilege.

If your religious beliefs condemn marriage between two people of the same gender, then you shouldn’t marry people of the same gender. While you have the freedom to limit your own behavior in matters of sexuality, diet or religious observance, you don’t have any power to limit the rights of other people, particularly those in other religions or with no religion.

If someone else is allowed to marry their same-sex partner, the anti-gay marriage advocate is affected in no way, oppressed in no way, their right to hold those beliefs is violated in no way.

Just as orthodox Jews aren’t victims of oppression when other people are allowed to legally watch television and use electric appliances on Saturday. Just as Muslims aren’t victims of oppression when other people are allowed to legally purchase alcohol. Just as Hindus aren’t victims of oppression when other people are legally allowed to eat beef.

You are expecting a level of cultural dominance that is completely unreasonable. You are expecting the right to to demand that your religious practices be taken as civil law and that the prohibitions of (I assume) Christianity be enforced on everybody — including non-Christians and Christians of denominations that accept equality in gay rights.

Read more here.


Libraries are not Luxuries (Guest post)

This post was written by Saetia and is also posted at Gender-NOS.

A post on libraries might seem out of place given the usual focus of this blog.  I’d argue, though, that this is an issue that intersects with issues of religion and gender in ways that may not be immediately obvious. Saetia raises some of these points re: gender below, so I won’t belabor those.

With respect to religion, the religious right is in general a strong voice in favor of classist policies that harm the poor. Many white conservative American Christians buy into the idea that poverty is the consequence of bad choices or sinful living and hold a philosophy of “personal responsibility” that ignores how class oppression and systemic inequalities limit people’s options and entrench people in a cycle of poverty. There’s also a deep hostility towards broad education, and towards the idea that such an education is a basic human right. These attitudes contribute to evangelical and fundamentalist support for policies that punish people for being poor, and for policies that underfund, defund, or severely limit educational services and curricula.

They are the books, the arts, the academes,
That show, contain and nourish all the world.
– William Shakespeare, Love’s Labour’s Lost

It is a summer morning in the mid- nineties.  I am seven years old.  I had a hot dog bun for lunch.  I’d toasted it in the oven to try to make it seem more exciting.

My knees are bandaged, partly because I’d fallen off my bike the previous day and partly because kids use bandaids at every opportunity, like accessorizing.  The way girls that age want braces or crutches.  Same deal.

The library carpet is ugly and familiar, an expanse of that scratchy ubiquitous blue-grey industrial kind.  I am folded into a corner and I am absolutely absorbed.  A little handful of pilfered candy sits tucked into the pocket of my shorts, like Francie’s bowl of candy so essential to her library ritual in A Tree Grows In Brooklyn.

In defense of libraries I am obligated here to mention that I came from a busted up home like the rest of us.  Yawn.  So cliché.  I hate talking about my fucked-up childhood.  But it’s important to mention that things are kind of shitty right now for that little girl in the shorts with the skinny legs and bandaged knees.  The projects are tough.  The night before the police came and searched her closet for bodies.  Her mom is in the hospital.  Her dad lifts her into the air to make her laugh and teaches her to play cribbage, but his eyes are bleary and alien by three in the afternoon.  His roommate beats his dog and gets into brawls while she watches silently, something she will continue to do for the rest of her life.

But the library is cool today, and quiet.  There are no clouds in her sky.

The library I went to as a child shut down this year, one of several in the district’s poorest areas that went under after taxpayers decided there were a million more important things to throw the public’s money at.  This year, the library where I spent so many hours in middle and high school changed its policy – library access is now restricted for patrons who do not own their own home.  Library cards, once a thing that helped children feel empowered – their very own card!  For free! – now costs a HUNDRED DOLLARS.  (http://arapahoelibraries.org/ald/content/get-a-library-card)

There are “limited” library cards for poor kids in Aurora.  I assume they are stamped with the words “You are not good enough to read all you want.”

Libraries should not be luxuries, reserved for those who can afford their services.  Libraries were meant as an equalizer.  Knowledge is an industry nowadays, where valuable information is apportioned out for heinous fees for those lucky enough to be involved in institutions of higher learning.  Is that the problem?  That the self-taught and the poor geniuses have access to these free universities, which makes them a significant danger to those who oppress them?  That sounds pretty paranoid, but we have to consider it.  I think the real reason is that people who obsess over high taxes cut first the things that don’t apply to them or their own privileged offspring.

Shutting down libraries and restricting access on the basis of income has sweeping consequences for children, especially those from low-income and single-parent households. The implications of shutting down libraries are racialized and anti-woman.  Of course they are.  Any attack on the poor is an attack on women and people of color, and their children.  Children who cannot afford a home computer use libraries to prepare themselves for the increasingly difficult and digitized research projects they will encounter in high school and college.  There is a digital divide for poor children, and libraries – which account for the sole source of public internet in 71% of lower-income communities – are essential in closing that.  There is an obvious link between literacy and poverty.  Libraries pull kids off the streets and out of jails.  They give them a place to go and learn and be safe after school.  But there is an implication many people might be missing.

Psychologists going to public libraries to find books on childhood physical or sexual abuse will often find themselves shit out of luck.  They will find nothing.  Those sections are where the shelves go slack.

It’s not because these books do not exist; they do, and there are quite a few of them.

These books are all checked out by kids.  Little girls and boys who are experiencing these abuses find these books, sneak them under shirts or hide them behind larger ones and squirrel them away to corners.  They check them out or they hide them or steal them.  They are desperate to discover that they are not alone.  That is what that little girl with the bandaged knees was reading in the corner, and it helped her realize that she wasn’t alone either.  They saved her life.  This is a nationwide trend.

That is what libraries do for all of us.  They provide us access to a community outside our immediate vicinity.  They hold the keys to pieces of our identity only accessible through relation with the outside world.  They aren’t only about books.  They’re about literacy and community programs and the big wide important world of the Internet.  They’re about a place to go.  But they are definitely about books, too.

Books are buddies for kids that, for whatever reason, don’t have any.  Books are bombs.  Books are windows to climb through.  Books are curiously shaped unidentifiable objects to hold in your hands, turning them around and around while the world spins and you try to make sense of the microcosms they reveal.  Books take you apart and realign you in new and exciting ways.  And In some cases, books are bricks which you stack around yourself, a psychic Fort Knox which shelters you from a vicious world.

Libraries are important.  They are life rafts.  They are where the self-taught geniuses that will save us tomorrow find their tools.  They are where those in pain may bury themselves in the safety of alternative worlds.  They are where poor, hurting kids walk through the sliding doors and dig up the keys to the treasure house.

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”

Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, everyone!

These days, MLK Jr. is popularly seen as a romanticized, everyman’s hero. His message is presented as a call for “colorblindness,” and appropriated by the likes of Glenn Beck and other extreme conservatives in support of their arguments against the so called “reverse racism” of affirmative action and other institutionalized attempts to address racial disparities. His activism has been sanitized and romanticized in the public consciousness, stripped of any real controversy or challenge to the status quo. As a result, a lot of people buy into the argument that Dr. King would have championed a radically individualistic understanding of issues of social justice – including the “if everyone just stopped noticing race, racism would go away” argument, a pretense that everyone has equal rights and opportunities, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Dr. King’s work was much more radical and complex than the simplistic, trite sentiment about everyone getting along we’ve reduced it to. We’ve forgotten – chosen to forget – that at the time of his death Dr. King wasn’t a nationally admired visionary, but rather a deeply divisive and, for some, very threatening figure. This was a man who was spied on and threatened by his own government, because he was seen as dangerous. And he was, in fact, a danger to a society in which white supremacy and other forms of injustice were enshrined in law and endorsed by the government.

He was not only an activist for racial justice, but also for economic justice, and against the Vietnam War, nuclear proliferation, and American militarism and imperialism. He didn’t see these issues as a distraction from the struggle for black civil rights, but rather as interconnected parts of the same larger struggle to create a more just world. And he made quite a lot of enemies as he spoke out against all forms of oppression. Edited to add: Socialist Worker has an excellent article on the Martin Luther King we don’t celebrate.

Martin Luther King, Jr. passionately believed in the common responsibility of all of us to fight all forms of injustice and suffering, and to be in solidarity with all who are denied their rights and their dignity. We can’t know for certain what he would say today about trans liberation, about gay liberation, about ethical consumerism, environmentalism, or any number of social justice issues that continue to face fierce opposition and oppression today. But what we can say for certain is that if we take up his clarion call to see all humans as our family, if we take seriously the call to stand against any injustice or suffering, we’ll care about trans rights, and LGB rights. We’ll care about the poor, and those without access to basic health care. We’ll care about literacy and the rights of all people to a decent education. Because injustice and inequality anywhere are a threat to justice and equality everywhere.

“I still hear people say that I should not be talking about the rights of lesbian and gay people and I should stick to the issue of racial justice… But I hasten to remind them that Martin Luther King, Jr., said, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere’ … I appeal to everyone who believes in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream to make room at the table of brotherhood and sisterhood for lesbian and gay people.”

“We are all tied together in a single garment of destiny… I can never be what I ought to be until you are allowed to be what you ought to be,” she said, quoting from her husband.

Coretta Scott King

I am in Birmingham because injustice is here . . . I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly . . .

Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail

slacktivist: “Pro-Family” means anti-families

Great post by the slacktivist on the anti-family agenda of conservative “pro-family” groups:

This abstraction — “The Family” — does not actually, tangibly exist in any meaningful way. All those verbs they pile on in front of this abstraction — strengthen, defend, support, etc. — require a direct object. They require a direct object that actually is an object, a thing, something objective and real. Strengthening the abstract concept of The Family doesn’t really mean much of anything.This would be a purely semantic complaint if it were a purely semantic problem, but it’s not. It’s not simply a matter of these groups saying “pro-family” and speaking of “The Family” when what they really mean is that they are pro-families or that they are in favor of helping families. The track record of these organizations shows the opposite. When it comes to policies, regulations or legislative proposals that will actually, tangibly help actual, tangible families, these groups are almost always opposed to such proposals.

That suggests to me that this semantic slipperiness, this elusive abstraction is deliberate. It is a feature, not a bug. It allows these groups to avoid any accountability for the consequences of the positions they advocate. Their effect on or effectiveness on behalf of The Family is, like The Family itself, hopelessly abstract. It cannot be measured or evaluated.

And I think that’s intentional. Or at least suspiciously convenient. Because after decades of work, the impact of these pro-The Family groups is clear. Their efforts to strengthen The Family have weakened families. Their efforts to protect The Family have attacked families. The result of their work is, quite simply, pro-Family and anti-families . . . .

If those pro-The Family groups really were pro-families — if they really were in favor of strengthening, supporting and defending actual families of actual people — then you might expect them to support efforts like Oportunidades or Bolsa Familia.

But they don’t. They view such real, tangible assistance for real, tangible families as a Bad Thing. Those programs empower poor women, and empowering women, the “pro-family” groups say, weakens The Family. Those empowered poor women are more likely to use safe contraceptives, and the use of contraceptives, the “pro-family” groups say, threatens The Family. So in the name of The Family, the pro-family agenda opposes policies that help families.

They’re pro-Family and anti-families. So if you’re a part of an actual family, anywhere, of any kind, they’re anti-you. Keep that in mind.

Update: For one of today’s examples (there are multiple examples of this every day), read how Concerned Women for America protected The Family by helping to torpedo the Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking Deterrence and Victims Support Act of 2010. They argued that the “victims support” part was anti-The Family because it didn’t call for the arrest and prosecution of minors enslaved in the sex trade. Prostitution is against the law, after all, and if we go around not enforcing the laws when they are broken by children forced to break them, then we erode morality and weaken The Family. The Family cannot abide allowing these children to be restored to their families. The Family requires that these children be incarcerated.

Read more: slacktivist: “Pro-Family” means anti-families.

Good people do terrible things (further thoughts re: Fred Phelps)

As I was writing the previous post, I kept wondering if I was being overly harsh in comparing mainstream conservative Christians to Fred Phelps – who is, after all, universally disliked, unbelievably odious, and, in my opinion, downright evil.  The man is by all accounts a controlling, angry, and extremely abusive husband and father, who has brainwashed his family into thinking he is practically God, and who believes some very strange and dangerous things (the documentary Fall From Grace gives a pretty chilling picture of Phelps and the WBC – also on Netflix streaming.  If you’re beginning to think that everything I watch is on Netflix instant watch, you’re not too far off).

Obviously not all conservative Christians are like Phelps in these respects – and I’d venture to say most are not.  Most have good intentions – like most people in general.  Many conservative Christians I know are loving parents and spouses, good neighbors, great friends.  So I’ve been pondering whether the comparison was hyperbolic, or unkind, and pondering how it would come across to the people in my life – friends, family, all of whom I love, many of whom are lovely people whom I trust and respect – who are conservative Christians.

When I criticize conservative Christians and their beliefs, I’m not claiming that they are all or mostly evil people, nor do I believe that.  That goes for any major demographic, really.  But I hesitated to add a bunch of disclaimers about how Christians can be nice people to my previous post, because I didn’t want to water down the power of my point.

On further thought, I think this is actually quite an important point to address.  In way it’s the central point: good people can, despite good intentions and sincere beliefs, despite doing much good in most other aspects of their lives, believe and say things that have horrible, awful implications.  They can do terrible things that have devastating effects on others without intending to.  Hardly anyone is mostly or all bad, much less consciously or deliberately evil; most people, I believe, are just trying to do their best to live decent lives.  Most people don’t set out to do evil.  Yet hardly any of us manages to avoid doing or enabling evil in one way or another.

Fred Phelps hates gay people.  He makes no secret of that. While there are mainstream conservative Christians in this country who share his overt, conscious hatred of gay people, not all do.  Probably most don’t.  Many truly believe they are being loving by telling LGB people their orientations or lifestyles are wrong, by opposing marriage equality, etc..  But people don’t have to be conscious of hatred (or fear, contempt, self-loathing, and any number of other emotions that can fuel homophobia) for their beliefs about and actions towards LGB people to be hateful.

When I say conservative Christian beliefs on homosexuality are no different from Fred Phelps’, I’m not talking about the conscious intention behind those teachings.  I’m talking about their implications.  Their practical, real-world effects.

This is how oppression works.  Systemic oppression cannot be sustained without the complicity of otherwise good people – through beliefs, actions, and inaction.  And it cannot be sustained without the myths about human nature and behavior we buy into as a culture.  We pretend that only bad people do evil things, and that it’s really easy to spot such people – as if there were some obvious marker distinguishing evil people from good.  We desperately want to believe these things, because the reality that we’re all capable of doing and enabling evil is frightening, and requires that we scrutinize ourselves more closely than we’d like.

We all want to believe we’re good people who do good things, myself included; that’s understandable.  But the idea that “those people” over there are the real bad people, and we’re all good, is an incredibly dangerous one.  It’s what allows systemic injustice and inequity to survive and flourish.

This is what Christians who are puzzled and offended by accusations of homophobia and comparisons to people like Fred Phelps need to understand.  Sure, it’s a good thing that you don’t picket funerals or scream at people about how they’ll suffer an eternity of torment in hell.  But in the grand scheme of things, your beliefs about LGB people aren’t made any less harmful or hateful by the fact that they don’t act on them the way Westboro Baptist does.  Your beliefs still fuel homophobic speech and behavior, and enable and support wide-scale denial of rights to LGB people.  This is why claims that you “love the sinner and hate the sin” ring hollow.  The implications and effects of your beliefs are not loving.

And really, this is what anyone called out for enabling oppression of any kind needs to understand.  Being called out is not a comment on who you are.  It’s not a comment on your intentions.  It’s a comment on what you said, and what you did.  We’re all capable of doing and saying things that support and even promote oppression without intending to do so, and without being evil.  It’s unjust and enabling of oppression to demand that people evaluate us based on what we intend and not on the actual, tangible effects of what we do.

Petty cruelties

From Ta-Nehisi Coates’ post on Tyler Clementi, a reader left this comment:

This strikes me as a rather typical college prank gone horribly wrong. Unlike Laura Ingraham, it doesn’t sound like the roommate planned out the event in a calculated way. It’s easy to imagine a college kid spontaneously thinking, “Hey, I can see my roommate’s hookup through my webcam, I could stream this live for kicks.” It’s not a nice thing to do, but by the standards of 18-year old kids it’s not exactly Hitleresque. He could very well have done the exact same thing if it was an opposite-sex hookup.

I don’t want it to sound like I’m empathizing with the wrong guy in this story because it obviously is just terrible. The guy should bear the consequences of his actions, but I don’t imagine it occurred to him, or would occur to most people, that the roommate could be ashamed to the point of suicide. Maybe this will be a teachable moment and people will realize that embarrassing someone like this isn’t just fun and games.

Uhhh. I don’t know what to make of the claim that this was a “typical college prank.” Kind of alarming.  Maybe I didn’t know typical college students at when I was an undergrad (ok, this is definitely the case, but still!).   And I don’t think this would have been as likely to happen if Clementi had been hooking up with a girl – and if it had, the effect would have been much more likely to shame the girl, not to shame or make fun of Clementi. In any event, I loved this response to that comment:

That’s much of the problem. Bigotry (and this *was* motivated by bigotry, I have little doubt) is seldom of the variety where you beat someone to death, burn a cross on their lawn, or similar violent acts. It’s the accumulation of petty cruelties that everyone seems to have no problem with. They don’t feel malicious, so they don’t seem to care that what they’re doing is hurtful, and when they get called on it, they claim it’s all in good fun.

What Tyler Clementi’s roommate did to him was cruel and dehumanizing. It was inexcusable.  And in all likelihood, Clementi had probably endured years of smaller humiliations and “petty cruelties” leading up to the violation that ultimately drove him to suicide.

In public discourse we tend to focus our attention on the most blatant and obvious incidences of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. – with the notable exception of transphobia, which, sadly, remains a perfectly acceptable bigotry except sometimes in its most violent forms.  And it’s right and necessary that we denounce and fight to end obvious demonstrations of bigotry.  This is especially true with raising awareness about transphobia, which has led to the deaths of countless trans men and women through suicide, denial of necessary medical services, and hate-motivated murders.

Fighting oppression, though, also means educating ourselves about the more subtle, and insidious ways hatred and bias manifest on an individual and systemic level.  It means learning to empathize with the lived experience of marginalized people – the regular, often daily humiliations, jokes, suspicions, ignorant or mean comments, insulting assumptions; the systematic lack of representation or negative representations of people like us in media and entertainment.  Things that in isolation might be no big deal, but together add up to a steady stream of little indignities, a lifetime of constant messages that we’re worth less, or nothing at all, compared to the people who really matter.

Being a good and effective ally to marginalized groups requires listening and taking seriously the perspectives of marginalized people when we say, “that was racist,” “that was sexist,” or “that was transphobic.”  Those of us who are marginalized in one or another are the experts on our own experiences of oppression.  So when a marginalized person says a comment or action was offensive or hurtful, as allies our response shouldn’t be “Oh, I’m sure they didn’t mean it that way”/”I didn’t mean it that way” or “It wasn’t that big a deal, you’re just being sensitive.”  We should understand that it’s probably far from their first encounter with the behavior they are calling out, and that things might appear to us as minor or isolated incidents because we don’t have to deal with them every damn day.

Good ally work also means learning to check ourselves – to acknolwedge our own bigotries and privilege.  When (not if) we’re called out for doing or saying something offensive, are we more concerned with the fact that we’ve caused hurt or offense, or with defending the illusion that we’re incapable of ever doing or saying something offensive?  Good ally work requires us to evaluate ourselves not by our intentions, but by the effects of our speech and actions – not so we feel guilty (which helps no one), but so we can do better.  We also need to own whatever privilege we might have at the expense of others – whether that’s based on skin color, sex, gender identity, sexuality, socioeconomic status, body shape, mental and physical health or abilities, religion, etc.  We need to acknowledge how our privilege has given us access to opportunities and resources that others don’t have, and use our privilege to make those benefits freely and equally accessible to all.  We also need to recognize that both privilege and discrimination are intersectional, not one-dimensional.  As a woman of color I deal with misogyny and racism, but I have privilege with respect to my class, my gender identity and expression, my body shape, being in a straight partnership, and so on.

My experience, and I think this is the experience of many people who are marginalized in one way or another (or many ways), is that these lifelong petty cruelties add up.  They kill with a thousand cuts.  If we really want to make our society more just and equal for all people, we need to stop treating these expressions of bigotry as banal or acceptable.