Tag Archives: prejudice

Wisdom from RuPaul

Time Magazine recently published an interview with RuPaul, the celebrated drag star, and one exchange in that interview struck me as particularly perceptive and politically relevant.

The interviewer had noted that millennials “take a harder line on issues of identity” and are “a bit more affronted by the sort of wordplay and free-associative identity play central to drag.” RuPaul’s response wasn’t only wise and adult, it also put into words the proper approach to an issue that has been increasingly nagging at me.

I think the Trump era will wipe that out. To be that particular about words, you have to be in a place where you’re not under attack. I believe that those same people, right now, are so under attack that ain’t nobody got time to be dealing with “Did you call me a he or a she?” That is going to change real fast. When it gets down to survival, you have to pick your battles, and you don’t pick battles with your allies. And I think, as the Trump era moves on, your allies and your enemies will become more and more evident. The people who are mulling over certain words will have to ask themselves, “Is that word coming from a place of love, or coming from a place of hate?” That’s how you differentiate. That’s the real thing.

Pick your battles. When you fight everything, you win nothing.

I am a “mature” (okay, old) Jewish woman. I went to law school and entered the profession at a time when women lawyers were rare and anti-Semitism (while somewhat more genteel than the “alt-right” variety that Trump has encouraged) was common. What I learned was what I will hereafter call the “RuPaul” lesson: there is a difference between unintended offense that is a result of being socialized at a different time, or into a different set of cultural expectations, and bigotry.

As the first woman hired at a large law firm, I experienced plenty of insensitivity–comments that today, those same people would see as cringe-worthy. I also encountered  misogyny. There was a difference.

The same distinction applied to anti-Semitism. Most people who used phrases like “he jewed me down,” for example, were simply unaware of how offensive that phrase was, how much it incorporated hateful stereotypes.

If I had failed to differentiate between behaviors and attitudes that were a result of ignorance or insensitivity and those motivated by misogyny or prejudice, I wouldn’t have been a very effective lawyer–or member of society. More importantly, I wouldn’t have been able to educate people who inadvertently gave offense–to explain, nicely, just why that phrase or that stereotype might be sending a message that I knew they really didn’t intend.

I mention my own experience, because I think it speaks to the emergence of what I would characterize as identity politics on steroids. Women and minorities of all kinds are increasingly quick to take offense, quick to lash out angrily against real or asserted examples of privilege, “micro-aggressions” and “cultural appropriation.” Often the criticism (if not necessarily its tone and volume) is warranted. Often it isn’t.

The issue of privilege is real and important. Pointing it out is legitimate. (My jury is still out on the contemporary frenzy over “micro-aggressions” and “cultural appropriation.”) But whatever their merits, I can’t help thinking that these battles aren’t the ones we should be picking while Trump and his enablers are looting our country and trashing our Constitution.

Here’s the thing: right now, nothing is more important than ejecting Republicans from Congress in 2018. If Democrats take the House in 2018, they can halt the daily assault on economic and environmental regulations and civil rights laws, begin to reverse America’s ignominious performance in world affairs, and elect a new Speaker to replace Ryan.

If that doesn’t happen, the damage done by 2020 may well be irreversible.

Right now, Democrats, liberals, moderates and sane Republicans need to focus on the big picture. We need to remember the old admonition not to let the perfect become the enemy of the good. We need to stop criticizing people on our side for inadvertence or insensitivity or less-than-perfect policy preferences, and save our ammunition for the people whose animus is intentional–people who pose a clear and present danger to American values and institutions.

We need to listen to RuPaul: When you’re under attack, when it gets down to survival, you have to pick your battles, and you don’t pick battles with your allies.

 

History, Cut to Fit

I have often used this blog to complain that Americans know very little about our country’s history and governing structures–not to mention science and economics. A couple of days ago, a friend shared an exchange that once again underscored the point.

One of my friend’s high-school classmates had responded to a Facebook post in which he had saluted Lilly Company’s support for Freedom Indiana, the group formed to fight the effort to constitutionalize Indiana’s existing ban on same-sex marriage. The classmate wrote:
 ”The Constitution is inscribed to articulate inalienable rights we already have by virtue of the Creator. It is not an instrument whereby we are given grant ourselves wishes, no matter how well-intentioned they may be; no matter how noble they may sound.”
Grammatical errors aside, this construction pretty much stands history on its head. As my friend responded:
“What you’re describing here is a theocracy. Because we live in a nation with people of many faiths and people with none, I’m glad we don’t govern ourselves that way. Also, the term “inalienable rights” is from the Declaration of Independence, not the U.S. Constitution. There is no mention of God, Creator, etc. in the U.S. Constitution or the Bill of Rights (except to say “the year of our Lord” near the signatures). Even if you want to talk “inalienable rights” with regard to HJR-6 in Indiana, two of those articulated in the Declaration of Independence are “liberty” and “the pursuit of happiness.” I would suggest that by banning marriage for a subset of our fellow citizens, HJR-6 tramps on both of those “inalienable rights.”
My friend shared this exchange as confirmation that our concerns about widespread civic ignorance are valid. It certainly provides anecdotal confirmation of that concern. But it also raises some disquieting questions.
Would his high-school classmate see the world differently if he understood the history of America’s constituent documents? If he were familiar with Enlightenment philosophy, the writings of Hobbes and John Locke, the separationist beliefs of early religious figures like John Leland or Roger Williams? Or would he stubbornly “cherry pick” history and philosophy to make them conform to his own worldview? After all, it is enormously tempting to sift through biblical and constitutional texts to find support for our own prejudices, and right wing religious literalists aren’t the only people who do so.
Would we be able to communicate with each other more effectively if we shared a common understanding of the system we inherited–if we occupied the same reality? Or are we all so emotionally invested in our personal belief systems that we lack the openness required for genuine communication?
I have used my columns and blog to hammer at the importance of civic literacy, and I have warned of the dangers posed by our “civic deficit.” The establishment of a Center for Civic Literacy at IUPUI was based upon a belief that better civic education will provide us with a common language that will facilitate better communication, that better communication will lead to better policymaking, and that a common understanding of our roots will help ameliorate our toxic politics.
This exchange  between my civically savvy friend and his old high-school classmate reminded me that my premise could well be wrong. It may be that our very human desire to confirm our prejudices– and to deny inconvenient facts that are inconsistent with those prejudices–will always trump evidence contrary to our preferred realities.
Does education matter? Does it make a difference? We have to hope so.