Privilege and Paper Balls.

This story on Buzzfeed was going around Facebook today, and I felt that I needed to expand on the point it makes.

In short, it is about a social experiment that may or may not have actually occurred in a classroom. Kids were asked to sit in their seats and try to toss wadded paper into a bin. The kids in the back of the class objected, stating that it was unfair, but the exercise went ahead. Many of the kids in the front made their shot, though it is clumsily pointed out that not all of them did. It is noted that “only a few students in the back of the room made it.” It succeeds in painting a relatable picture of what privilege is, but it fails to point out somethings that people who have privilege often miss.

I think, as a story, it would make sense to point out that there might be someone in the front of the class with a visual impairment or a physical ailment or disability who still missed, but had a much better chance for being in the front of the class than the back. Others may not have taken the exercise seriously enough to make a solid effort. Privilege does not ensure success, just as some people with less privilege, through hard work and/or luck, might succeed.

It fails to point out that the people in the back probably noticed right away that this was unfair, because it was obvious from where they were. Many of them might not have even been able to see the bin from their seat, having to either count on a description, someone pointing at it, or being allowed to look at it from another angle before returning to their seat to make the attempt. Maybe one of them was brave enough to try standing in their seat. All of these are forms of affirmative action. They give a person without privilege a better chance at success, but they don’t change the factors that limited them in the first place, or not all of them. We can give a person a place in an institution that they could not fully earn, but they would have no role models, no allies, and the resources would not be in place to ensure that they could cope. We can give them some relief, but they still have to work harder.

The story fails to make the point that maybe even those in the middle of the second row who were still closer to the bin than those on the edges of the front row. Because privilege isn’t a straight line. It is a graph with a hundred axes. I score well on several important ones, like being a white, straight man in the United States. You may score less well, because of gender or sexuality, or better because you live in a country with universal healthcare and better market regulations. Your religion may be closer to the cultural assumption of mainline protestantism; Catholics have it better than Hindus through much of the United States. You may be a transgendered person who is lucky enough to rarely have that fact noticed, and therefore can live under the assumption of cisgendered privilege most of the time, or a person of Hispanic decent who looks white enough that people don’t discriminate against you for your race. Privilege is a tricky concept with a lot of variables.

I like the way this experiment sets up the discussion, but I think that it lacks follow-through in helping to go beyond the idea that “some people start closer to the basket”. That is essential in making it a discussion that reaches those people who need to understand it the most: the people in the front row who still see a challenge in getting that ball in the bin and don’t have to think about how much harder it is for the kid behind them because that is happening outside the focus of their objective. And we all need to be reminded, sometimes, that all positions in the front row are not equally advantageous, and it doesn’t illuminate every challenge that a person might face. If a person is struggling, we can acknowledge and hear that without diminishing the understanding that they might still have privileges we do not; it simply reminds us that, occasionally, perspective is also a privilege.

I am not a feminist, but you can call me that if you want to.

That’s right: I rarely refer to myself as a feminist. I don’t like the term. I don’t think it applies to me. This frustrates my significant other at times, and so I thought I might share my thoughts, because others might find them equally maddening, and that is good for page hits. Let me explain further with a comparison:

I am not gay, transgendered, or otherwise “Queer”. I don’t cal myself a part of the LGBT community, though I fully support their right to be heard and included and their civil rights. I do not have their experiences, and I cannot rightly claim to be one of them. I mess up all the time when talking about the issues of homosexuals, including the fact that many of them now dislike the term “homosexual”. I certainly mess up when speaking about and with transgendered persons and it is nearly impossible to speak about the gender-nonbinary without an introductory lesson in each person’s preferred lexicon.

I am, likewise, uncomfortable calling myself a feminist. I support equality and representation and empowerment, but I do not have the personal experience with discrimination to draw from. I do not have a connection with “feminism” that runs any deeper than my connection with the LGBTQ community: I love these people, and I support them, but it feels wrong to claim to be a part of their struggle. I am an ally for equality and justice, but that is the only label I am comfortable with. It is not that I am against feminism, or even just the word; it just doesn’t speak to who I am or what I am for.

I am an ally for all those people who need to be heard and who need to be treated better. I am strongly against gender bias, and actually against the concept of binary gender even as I am very happy and comfortable as a man. I want my penis to matter less in other people’s valuation of me than what I give back to the world. I want that for everyone no matter what their biology, how they dress, or how they identify. If you think that makes me a feminist, then so be it. I don’t call myself by that term except when it must be defended against people who use it as a slur.

Missional Unitarian Universalism: a layman’s persective.

At the turn of the 19th century, Universalism had a vibrant and passionate voice in Hosea Ballou. Having converted to Universalism in 1789, he also came to reject the concept of the Holy Trinity, making him a Unitarian Universalist long before the consolidation of the UUA. He wrote many sermons designed to empower Universalists to talk about the unconditional love of God. He also established Universalist publications, and was known to welcome public questions of his beliefs.

One of the constant questions he faced was along the lines of “How can you believe God saves everyone, no matter how much they have sinned. Ballou confronted the idea of damnation, saying that love required salvation at all costs. He asked, given the Christian assumption of a fatherly creator:

“Your child has fallen into the mire, and its body and its garments are defiled. You cleanse it, and array it in clean robes. The query is, Do you love your child because you have washed it? or, Did you wash it because you loved it?”

He did not make these declarations to shame people. He was not trying to lure them to his pews for prestige or tithes. He wanted people to feel loved. His desire was to save people; not from damnation at the hand of God, but from the condemnation of the society they lived in. He argued against Calvinism and the idea that bad things happen only to bad people, and good things only to good. He had more than faith, and more than a message. This was a man with a mission.

This is what Unitarian Universalism needs; not more “social action” or “welcoming” language. We need a mission to actually change the world, with our faith in humanity and the power of love and knowledge, as the core of that mission. We don’t need more people to join us because of how we do politics; we need people to feel compelled to activism by our message that people deserve to be treated with respect and empowered to live lives that make them happy.

To reframe the question posed by Rev. Ballou: Do we embrace our faith because it promotes things we want to do, or are we doing things to help the world because we have a loving and humanist faith? Do we love the world because we are making it better, or are we making it better because we first loved it?

There are people in the world who are lonely, who have been hurt, and who are angry. They don’t want to talk about religion, and they definitely don’t want to hear about divinity and love. They are the people who need us the most. We can reach them, because our divine love doesn’t come after you are dead. Our religion doesn’t even require that you believe in gods, much less worship them. We can offer them a community and a home for their spirit to heal, so that they can find the path that makes them happy and healthy again. We have that, and we shouldn’t be at all afraid to tell people about it. They may say no, but that isn’t a reflection on us, and it isn’t an insult. The insult is presuming that they don’t want the invitation or might not deserve one.

There are people in the world who have been oppressed. Our movement is overwhelmingly made up of people who are white, educated, and middle-class. As a group, we have a lot of privilege. As a religion of love and justice, we owe it to the world to use our individual privilege to work for equality and justice. In effect, our mission should be to leverage our political, economic, and intellectual power to reduce our own impact, much as Jesus said to his followers to give all their goods to the poor in order to follow him. If the poor are elevated, then poverty is eliminated; if cultural privilege is shared, then oppression can be eliminated. Both are essential to achieving social justice and giving everyone an opportunity to contribute their best back to society.

We need to love the world enough to want to change it. Too many Unitarian Universalists seem to come from the other end; operating from a place of dissatisfaction or even disgust and a desire to change things so they are tolerable. We need to care about more than what we can personally stand to allow. We need to make sure the mission is about making things as positive as we can for as many people as we can help. We need to make sure that we are building an all-inclusive community, that makes room for everyone who truly desires to join in our spiritual and social work.

I’ve previously argued that our creator must love us all, and must either have one final destination planned for all of us, or be a being unworthy of my personal reverence. Now I am making the point that our churches must do the same. We have to actively embody that belief, encoded in our Principles, that all people have an inherent worth and dignity that needs to be nourished, and deserve the chance to build a life that makes them happy so long as it doesn’t harm others. It needs to be rooted in our shared belief and a desire to build a better world. We also have to tell people about that mission, because there are people who want to help us, and we need them. There are others who just need the hope that they might have a place in the community; that we are working to have their dignity recognized and respected.

That is missional Unitarian Universalism, to me, and it leads me to be evangelical about our faith. Even those who have no desire, even those who truly have no need, for a religious community do need to know that we are different, and that religion can be a force that helps unite society and undo the idea that God has picked winners and losers and that the oppressed don’t deserve better from their society.

Equality of Opportunity: Raising the tide instead of the yachts.

American conservatives feel that they have to cut off benefits to the unemployed and the poor because they think very little of people, in general. They believe that many, possibly even most people would rather sit at home and watch television than work. They don’t care that there aren’t jobs (as evidenced by their failure to do anything about creating them). They don’t care that there are mothers receiving assistance because it would cost more to put kids in daycare than you can make at a minimum wage job. They honestly don’t care about the facts on the ground, as it were, because they believe people are making excuses to not work.

Now, they may, in fact, understand otherwise. They might just be playing to a base that like to hear such things, but this is too cynical, even for my blog, and I have to assume that they are acting in the best interest of the country as they see it. I will try, then, to educate the conservatives who find their way here.

The fact is that there is very little evidence of what people in a country with western culture would do if they didn’t have to work. What we do know is that there are a lot of mothers receiving government support for their families. According to the Census Bureau, SNAP kept 4 million people out of poverty last year. Two thirds of those people are children, elderly, or disabled, which is to say people who are not expected to work. Indeed, the GOP has made noise about rolling back child labor standards, but that is another post.

In fact, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities tell us “Contrary to “Entitlement Society” Rhetoric, Over Nine-Tenths of Entitlement Benefits Go to Elderly, Disabled, or Working Households“. 90%, for those who like numerical notation, of the money spent on entitlement programs in the USA goes to people who are working or who cannot work a full-time job because of age or disability. There is very little fraud, and most of these people are doing exactly what is expected of them.

So, what about those few people who are “gaming the system?” That surfer from California, for instance? Yeah… every system has some flaws and every program will be abused in some way. Isn’t it worth knowing that in the greatest country in the world, people aren’t starving to death? Is that really something to be ashamed of?

Finally, I did say that there was little evidence to show what might happen if people didn’t have to work; how society would look if people knew they would be fed and housed and that no entrepreneurial, educational, or artistic risk would leave them destitute. There is exactly one case that could be of real interest to us in the USA.

In Canada, in the 1970s, there was an experiment conducted by Canada’s elected liberals in Dauphin, Manitoba. They made sure that no one in that jurisdiction was poor. Called “Mincome”, every poor adult in the area was paid by the national and Provincial governments, to insure that no one lived below the poverty line. The participants were encouraged to work and earn for themselves, having their supplement reduced only  50 cents for every dollar they earned. The government wondered if people would keep working. Most did. Employment went down in 2 areas: New mothers and teenagers. New mothers spent more time with their children. Teenagers spent more time in school, as evidenced by higher graduation rates.

It allowed people to take the jobs that were available, based on whether they thought it would be good for them, rather than if it made the most money. People could wait for the opening they really wanted. It meant a lot more than simple employment, though. According to Dr. Evelyn Forget, a researcher at the University of Manitoba who is looking at the recently unsealed documents from the 4 year experiment, “We already know that hospitalizations went down and people stayed in school longer.” Hospitalizations went down? “When you walk around a hospital, it’s pretty clear that a lot of the time what we’re treating are the consequences of poverty,” she says.

Her research shows that “In the period that Mincome was administered, hospital visits dropped 8.5 per cent. Fewer people went to the hospital with work-related injuries and there were fewer emergency room visits from car accidents and domestic abuse. There were also far fewer mental health visits.” Those are some pretty impressive results.

In short, this program only applied to 1000 families, about 30% of the population of the rural town. It ultimately cost more than $17 million. It also resulted in an 8.5 per cent decrease in healthcare costs, which was be substantial savings in a country with nationalized health care. In short, people were happier, healthier and, at least arguably, more productive, not less.

Given the limited facts available on the issue, it is unconscionable to let people live in fear for their homes, their families, and their health. It is within the power of the American Government to create a country where every person is permitted to educate themselves to the full extent of their desire to learn. We could be funding the greatest inventors and entrepreneurs by letting even those born to poverty take the risks that the rich take for granted. We could live up to our presumption of superiority by funneling our resources into our people, all of them, to see what Americans can achieve when they live in hope instead of worry. There is a loud, but well funded, minority working to ensure that we do not. That is the privileged class, trying to hang on to their advantage. It isn’t American, and we need to put an end to it. It is fine to reward success, even to the 7th generation, but we need to equalize the opportunity and institutionalize mobility. Only then can we return to our history of advancement and leadership and pull out of the political and cultural nose dive we currently face.

“Mincome” sources:

Privilege: Oppression by Omission

“This is no simple reform. It really is a revolution. Sex and race because they are easy and visible differences have been the primary ways of organizing human beings into superior and inferior groups and into the cheap labor on which this system still depends. We are talking about a society in which there will be no roles other than those chosen or those earned. We are really talking about humanism.”
Gloria Steinem

That is the goal, isn’t it? People, all people, having choice and self determination? What can you do to help us get there? Well, if you are anything like me, then it starts with an admission that we have to participate in the process by getting out of the way. If you are a man by biology and personality, are of northern-European decent, or are attracted primarily to those of the opposite gender, then you have a cultural privilege. It isn’t your fault that other people have prejudice, but it is your responsibility to stand up to it and refuse to allow it to be part of your culture any longer. If you won’t do it, then the discrimination goes on until the discriminated are powerful enough to overthrow the system or are exterminated.  We’ve seen extermination in Europe, and we’ve seen both outcomes in various parts of Africa. We can do better, and we have to. We need equality, and it can only come peacefully if straight, white men (and everyone who fits into one or more of those categories) demand it of each other. We are the dominant groups in our culture, and like it or not, we are the problem.

People will tell you that their family isn’t racist, “It’s just my Grandfather and a couple of uncles, so we just don’t provoke them.” People will tell you that a political movement isn’t racist, sexist, or homophobic, or biased against minority religions if only some of the people it represents hold any or all of those views. People will tell you that they aren’t biased, but their company, their industry, their department, their culture has a problem, and they don’t want to rock the boat.

That is the defining point of “institutional” discrimination; a segment of the population, no matter how large or small, sees the problem, but doesn’t think that they can effect change because the problem is small, or wide spread, or any other of a number of excuses for letting it happen to other people. That kind of discrimination, whether it is sexism, racism, or discrimination against those with handicaps, requires a group with power which uses their power to oppress others. A person can be prejudiced, but only a culture can have institutional discrimination; it requires a group of like people who are empowered to protect their status, and who are allowed to do so.

That is the definition of cultural privilege. I can speak of privilege; I have plenty of it, and the places where I am an outsider are so far outside the norm that we aren’t even really talking about them. I’m white. I’m straight. I’m male. I am the default hero in a romantic comedy (most kinds of comedy, really), and I look a lot like the action hero, too. Since we don’t see religion as a major theme in a lot of movies, television shows, or books, my most prominent sticking point isn’t really talked about much. We talk about Islamophobia and antisemitism, but we don’t really have discussions about the privilege of being Christian in the US, and that is clearly one of the biggest problems I may ever face with discrimination in this country.

So, I am speaking from a place of privilege, to people with varying degrees of privilege. We cannot ignore our position in the dominant culture, because of gender, race, primary language. We have to be aware of the advantages that come to those in the US with fair skin or the appearance of male-ness, or simply a functional English vocabulary, or an understanding of Christian culture and symbolism. More over, we need to understand that any one of those things is still privilege, even if you only have one working in your favor. A Black man who is a baptist still has advantages over his sister or a black man of similar build who was raised Islamic, or to whom English is a second language, even where his skin tone causes him trouble. A white woman will still face less scrutiny than a black woman, or,in many cases, a black man. While it might not come up as often, I can tell you that a white man who has turned away from Christianity, even though he was raised to it and knows it better than most believers, will face discrimination over the choice. It has never cost me a job, that I know of, but I am certain that it would have if it had ever been known to at least one employer.

I don’t say this to compare my struggles with those of anyone else; I refuse to believe that we can compete for equality and I know I have it easier than most. I say that I have faced some discrimination in my own life to illustrate that I don’t take my privilege lightly. I try not to use it as a crutch, and I never hold it over anyone else. We cannot have an unequal fight for equality.

What I am saying is that Privilege is real. To deny that it exists is to literally deny the institutional nature of the discrimination faced by women, by persons of color, by those with disabilities, or by those from minority cultures or religions. It is fine to say that it can be hard to be a man, living up to expectations, but to do so must come with the understanding that those expectations are unfair to all genders and that it is still men who hold most of the power. Your ex-wife wins custody “because she’s the woman”? That’s not fair to her, either, because it presumes that she’s more willing to suffer in her professional life. It is the system punishing you for not properly owning your family, in a manly way, and letting your marriage “fall apart”. That isn’t women oppressing men, it is a male dominated culture claiming that women are better suited to raising kids. Feminists don’t want that, either.

You didn’t get the job you wanted because, all things being equal, a minority was hired instead? Or even someone who wasn’t quite as qualified, but had darker skin? Well, then let’s remember that the qualifications they have were harder to earn. Let’s remember that black and Hispanic students are far more likely than white students to repeat a grade, and that more than 70 percent of K-12 students who were arrested or referred to law enforcement were Hispanic or black. The people who make it through all of that deserve a little more consideration for the effort.

Ultimately, the thing about privilege is that we have the choice to ignore it. Being white factors into almost none of my decision making in a given week. Being a man, I can go to the store or for a walk and have very little concern about what I am wearing because anything it does say about me isn’t really going to bring me any real trouble. if I look good, then I just look good with very little chance of sexual assault. If I look like a slob, there is little chance anyone will feel compelled to comment. It is up to me to notice that my relatively positive treatment is a privilege, and to use it to stand up for those who aren’t being treated fairly. It is up to me to use my visibility, my better chance at an education, a job, or a television appearance, to speak up and demand equality for those who don’t have the odds in their favor the same way.

It is the responsibility of those who have privilege to reach out to those in need of recognition, because we need their ideas and we need their participation in our society. They have things to share and to teach us. They can help us be a better culture. It is up to those of us with more options to work to share those options with everyone, because equality isn’t equality if it only applies to some groups. It is, by definition, still privilege. You cannot refuse to believe in privilege without also disbelieving the underlying discrimination that comes with it. You can’t ignore racism, sexism, ablism, or many other forms of institutional discrimination without ignoring not just statistics, but millions of individual identities across the nation. When you say “That’s just Grandad” or “Boys will be boys”, what you are really saying is “I’m Ok with a little discrimination”. Only, discrimination is insidious, and there is no such thing as “a little bit”; it is always either being consciously fought with education and active changes to policy and practice, or it is hurting more and more people, denying them their rights and depriving us all of their full potential.

FYI: A reply to Mrs. Hall

As a father with 2 boys and 3 girls in my care, I feel I have to respond to FYI (if you’re a teenage girl). If you haven’t read it, and don’t care to click through, let me give you a quick breakdown.

This is a mother who loves her kids. She clearly understands that she needs to be involved in their social lives, and monitors their social media, looking with them at posts made by their friends. The thing is that she is putting on notice the young girls who are friends with her sons: if mom thinks a post is too provocative, the friend is blocked. No warning and no second chance. She doesn’t initiate a conversation. She doesn’t tell her sons that she has high expectations of them. She puts it on the girls not to temp her boys. And she does it in a post that features pictures of her sons, topless, in their bathing suits.

I applaud the effort. I thank her for being a concerned and involved parent. I question her assertion that a teenaged girl bares the responsibility for her sons’ impure thoughts. I disagree, strongly, with her assertion that one picture that she finds mildly offensive is grounds for ending a friendship, or even just an on-line connection. I dispute her claim that “once a male sees you in a state of undress, he can’t ever un-see it”.

Girls do not owe it to the world to hide their bodies. You are allowed to find it offensive or appealing, but they do not owe you their modesty any more than they owe the world their nudity. Each of us has a body, and it can be argued that it is the only thing that we truly own. I’m sure that you are teaching your boys to respect women, but they need to know that every woman, and every man, deserves respect. Even the scantily clad woman on the street corner could be an  addict in need of health care she can’t afford, a single mother trying to keep food on the table, or even an undercover police officer. Who are you to judge any of them? It isn’t the job of a woman to guard herself against the impulses of men. That is the job of society as sure as the need to guard one person against the murderous rage or the felonious greed of others. We teach that it is wrong, we instill responsibility and respect in our kids, and we prosecute those who act on their impulses.

As I have said before, though never written into a full post, this is the kind of misogyny that is as damaging to men as to women; it claims that men can’t help themselves, and that they shouldn’t be blamed when they act on impulses that they were never told to control. I can see a woman in a towel, in a hospital gown, or a burqa, and still get to know her as a person of inherent worth and dignity who deserves the chance to earn my respect. And a second chance. And if the second goes badly, there are always opportunities to earn another by embracing your inherent worth and being good for the world. But, unlike Mother Hall, I not only believe people can change for the better, and that teenagers can do so in a very short time, but that you can change the world for the better while wearing a bikini. That’s what I teach my kids, too.

If you just can’t get through those two points, though, please remember that people do change. People learn from their mistakes, and they do it faster and more effectively when the people around them help them, lovingly, to see the errors that they have made and support the effort to fix the problem. Everyone can be better today than yesterday, but they have to believe that there is a reason to try. We all have inherent value, as humans, to one another. Each of us has experiences that we can share with the rest of the world. When we recognize that and nurture it in those around us, we gain so much more than we ever could through shame or derision. These young women might be the ones most in need of good boys in their lives, who will value them for more than their appearance. They may be looking for validation, and by refusing to let your sons communicate with them, they might continue down a road of self doubt and manipulation when all they really needed was a good friend. Then again, they might just be that self-aware, which could make them excellent influences on your own kids.

In short, congratulations; you are a good mother who clearly wants the best for her kids and who hopes to instill in them a sense of self confidence and self respect. Your heart is in the right place, and I am sure that you are doing many things well. This policy, though, is not one of those things. I doubt you will read my reply, with over 600 comments on your blog already. I couldn’t ignore the core of your message, though, because I think the consequences of your actions will be at odds with the intent, and I hope that writing this will help someone, if not you, see that there is a better way to teach your boys to respect women than by telling them that these young girls are unworthy of their friendship.

Making the Personal* Political** – Andrew’s Top Surgery Fundraiser

An acquaintance, Andy, needs money to help to get the much needed “top surgery” that would allow simple things like swimming in a group or a public pool and shopping in the men’s section of the store. It seems Andy was born with fairly large breasts for a man, which is just one of the many problems that transgendered individuals face.

Even if you have no ability to help, or no interest in helping fund this, go and read some of his “frequently asked questions” on the personal need and the social impact of transitioning from the body you were born with to one that matches the person you were born as. These are the issues that people live with, both internally and from friends, family, and sometimes random strangers.

If you can help, Andy has rounded up some very interesting tank you gifts.

Making the Personal* Political** – Andrew’s Top Surgery Fundraiser.