I made a new friend while climbing to the summit of Mount Si, but the wizardry of Facebook revealed that we have other interests in common besides hiking. Three days ago we got together for drinks on Capitol Hill (the Seattle neighborhood, not the one where Congress holds session). Over beers we discussed the infamous and thankfully defunct “don't ask, don't tell” policy of the US military and other aspects of gender and sexual politics in our culture. The time flew; my friend had a date to go skiing on New Years Eve and needed to get to bed, and I had a party to get to myself. While waiting to pay the tab my friend surprised me with a question I was not prepared to answer.
“Why are you so vocal about this stuff?”
I was rendered uncharacteristicly speechless - surprised at my inability to answer such a seemingly simple question. My friend sensed my difficulty and tried to give me an easy out.
“Is it a sense of social justice... or what?”
I could simply have said, “Yes, I care deeply about social justice,” and that would have been that. It was too easy, though. Who doesn't care about social justice? Detractors of our positions on gay rights and feminism and whatnot also claim – probably sincerely – that they care about social justice, too. They just have different ideas about what is just. That doesn't mean their position is valid, and if valuing justice can inspire wrong positions on these issues as easily as it can inspire right ones, then “caring about social justice” isn't a sufficient answer.
It isn't that gay marriage supporters want social justice and gay marriage opponents want social injustice. The two sides believe different things about certain facts: what it means to be homosexual, what marriage is and isn't, the role of religion in politics, what happens to gay couples as a result of being denied this right and what will happen when (not if) it is finally legal in the whole United States. The key difference is that what they believe about some or all of these things is wrong, and what we believe is right.
I said I am vocal, “because we – progressives – are right about this stuff,” but I knew it wasn't a good answer as soon as it came out of my mouth. I care about being right, but so does everyone else, just like we all care about justice. Well, we all care about being perceived to be right, anyway. You can be right about something important and never share it with anybody, but who does that, really? I suppose I might be vocal about my ideals to make sure I am right – to expose my ideas to criticism and be forced to defend or abandon them. That might be true if my opinions were unique to me, but this is the 21st century. I have yet to form an opinion that I can't find someone else talking about with a quick Google search. Sometimes I have even discarded opinions because what Google showed me was not just expressions of those opinions, but also critiques of them, which I found more convincing.
So why are these people to whom Google has led me so vocal? Why do they have WordPress blogs and YouTube channels and weekly podcasts dedicated to these issues? Posed to many of them, the question would have an obvious answer, but it doesn't when posed to me.
Really, the question was about privilege - that which I have, and which my new friend lacks. It would never have occurred to me to ask her the same question. She litigated a case with the ACLU challenging the discharge of an Air Force officer under the provisions of DADT; she's done more in this fight than I ever have. Her motivation for doing so was never in question, though, because she's gay. Mine is, because I am not.
I am a strait, cisgender, young, white, able-bodied American man (not to mention charming and handsome). If I were a Christian and born to wealth, I'd be every kind of privileged there is – and even that betrays my first world privilege; by global standards I was born to wealth. The status quo is, by and large, set up to benefit me. That is not to say there are no instances of prejudice against white men anywhere, but by any reasonable measure I am much more “equal” than people who aren't like me. By championing social equality issues where I am not the disadvantaged party, I incite conflict that I could easily avoid by staying silent. I have, in fact, terminated relationships or had them terminated due to mutual disagreement on these issues. I suspect my passion for these issues has scared off some people who might otherwise have been my friends even though they might have no opinion on these issues, or even somewhat agree with me. Most people are conflict-averse and I invite conflict by loudly proclaiming my stance on these divisive issues, sometimes without provocation. I am, in a word, intense. If I wasn't vocal about this stuff, I might have more friends.
There I had my answer, or part of it. I am the everyman; the person our culture bends over backwards to appease. If I would just shut up and accept it, I could benefit from almost every injustice our society offers. Many of the benefits of my privilege I will receive whatever I do. I can't make cops pull me over for no reason, or make people assume my date is a man, but a larger pool of potential "friends" is something I can refuse. I am not ashamed of my privilege, but I will not be an active participant in oppression. Silence implies consent. I do not consent, so I am not silent. If I don't get invited to the party because of it, so be it. I told my my new friend that, “bigots, sexists, racists, homophobes – these people aren't good enough to be my friends.”
The other part of the answer is that our sexist, racist, homophobic culture has a very specific idea of what kind of person we are supposed to listen to and heed. My new friend does not look like that person. I do. A homophobe isn't going to be convinced she is in error by a lesbian and a chauvinist isn't going to change his attitude at the behest of a woman. Although the marginalized are the only people who can speak with credibility about the effects of marginalization, paradoxically, the marginalizers can often only be convinced to stop by one of their own. I can be that guy. I am more likely to convince others, simply because of who I am and what I look like. No, I don't want a feminist cookie, or a gay cupcake. I am doing it because it is right and I don't think my contributions should count more because I am not expected to do it... which leads me to the most honest answer – the one I didn't give.
The truth is, I'm not very vocal about it. I am vocal in the sense that I use my literal voice to advocate it, but outside of private discussions and posting some feminist and LGBT activism interest stories to my Facebook wall, I don't use the full suite of tools that my 21st century education and relative affluence have given me. The blogs and vlogs and podcasts about these issues I have populated Google Reader with... none of them are mine.
In 2012 I resolve to add my voice to the public discourse advocating for progressive causes, social issues and anything else I see fit. Atheist activism will play a prominent role, as that is the only marginalized group I am actually a part of. I also resolved to run the 2012 Seattle Marathon, and get into Master's League in Starcraft 2. I'll probably write about those things, too.
It is not often I am asked a question that consumes my thoughts for three days. Let's see how deep this rabbit hole goes! ^_^