Would you believe that this is the first thing I’ve embroidered for myself, for my own room, ever?
I started it last January or February, and got about 1/3-1/2 of the way done in a year, and then the pandemic hit. Every night I would stitch for an hour, and count little colourful squares to distract myself from how strange the world became. It was both meditative and productive and would reliably take all the stress of the day and park it, at least for an hour.
It’s also been uncomfortable. 2020 has been a hard year to think about love every day. We’ve seen the best of it–society closing down the economy to try to protect vulnerable people–and we’ve seen the worst of it–angry entitled jerks demonstrating with guns to demand that those vulnerable people cut their hair, for instance. That hour of stitching was calming, but sometimes also heartbreaking.
In my family of origin, “love” meant letting someone hurt you without complaint. It meant no boundaries and no limits. It meant if someone punched you in the face, you would never bring it up, because that would be MEAN. (“Kindness” was the shorthand used for enabling; we must be “kind” to the abusers by never holding them accountable! Accountability is MEAN.)
You could boil down their definition to an equation:
Feelings > Lives
Or slightly longer:
The feelings of those with power/status > The lives, safety, or well-being of those without power/status
That my safety was continually jeopardized was an acceptable price to pay to take care of my mother’s feelings, who would have been sad if she were held responsible for her actions. Do you see? Love meant she could hurt me and I could not protect myself.
The same dynamic that results in abuse on a micro scale is at the heart of oppression and bigotry on the macro scale:
Feelings > Lives
Men’s feelings of entitlement to women’s bodies and services > Women’s bodily autonomy, freedom, and lives = Misogyny and Patriarchy
White people’s feelings of freedom, competency, comfort, and normality > BIPOC’s freedom, safety, health, and lives = White Supremacy
Abled’s feelings of normalcy, aesthetics, and entitlement > Disabled’s freedom, health, welfare, participation in society & lives = Ableism
Wherever you can see the feelings of a demographic group take priority over the welfare and lives of another demographic group: structural, systemic bigotry. This is how you end up with people reflexively and without irony complaining that if someone accuses you of sexual assault, racism, etc., “your life is over,” even though no one’s life is ever over and at most they have an uncomfortable year and some diminished income. All of the actual lives lost are the victims’, but they don’t matter as much as the feelings of the people who hurt them.
This will feel normal and be mostly invisible to the people in the high-status group. As Kate Manne pointed out in her amazing book on misogyny, Down Girl, misogynists do not think of themselves as bad people; their absorption of the message that their feelings and entitlements are naturally more important than women’s lives is so complete that any suggestion that women’s lives have value outside of their service relationship to men triggers a genuine moral outrage. I have no personal experience with this, but observing from the outside, white supremacy looks pretty much the same: How dare anyone suggest that black lives matter! You can’t call me a racist! That’s MEAN.
There would be no way, absolutely no way, to communicate with these people about the wrongness of their beliefs and actions that also takes care of their feeling, because the centering of privileged people’s feelings over everyone else’s lives is exactly the problem.
I remember watching United Shades of America a few years back, where W. Kamau Bell, a black comedian, visited KKK leaders.
Not a single one of these KKK members admitted to hating black people. Goodness gracious, no! I don’t hate them, why, I love them! I love so much in fact that I am going to forcefully push what I perceive as their best interests on them over their objections, their best interests apparently being to be as far away from me as possible. How can you suggest that I hate them? That’s so MEAN!
Feelings > Lives
Because of where I came from and my over-riding life ambition of Not Becoming my Mother, I try to flip the equation:
Lives > Feelings
Of course feelings are wonderful and it is a joy of human relationship to prioritize the care of feelings for those we love most. But that natural instinct has been hijacked in the service of bigotry in the public sphere for a long time: the powerful, those with status and privilege, have endlessly demanded that society cater to their (our) feelings. Don’t be mean!
I think about all of the times in my childhood when adults around me should have seen, or did see, what was going on, and looked the other way.
After all, they didn’t want to be mean to my parents.
They wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt. Surely my parents didn’t intend to cause harm (they did). There must be another explanation. Probably I deserved it. Maybe they’d had a bad day. My parents were very nice-seeming, respectable, upper-middle class white professionals. They could not be abusers. They were so polite!
They centred my parents’ feelings over my life. (And my dad centred my mom’s feelings over his own life. It was a choice with tragic consequences. He seemed to believe, right to very end, that if he only kept letting her hurt him without complaint, one day she would value him, and stop. That never happened. She just kept hurting him.)
If we are going to show up in the world today with love as a core value, those of us with structural power and privilege, it is going to feel bad.
It requires the opposite of self-care: the recognition that becoming a self worth being will require dismantling many parts of us that we were told were so natural to our entitlements that we don’t even see them.
It is not just marching in the streets for an end to police brutality against black people. It means understanding that we have received too much benefit of the doubt, that our sentences have been too short, our fines too light, because our white skin causes law enforcement and the justice system to see us as innocent even when there is substantial evidence to the contrary. It is not just advocating for fair hiring practices for people of colour; it means understanding that our own professional advancement has been artificially accelerated at their expense, that much of what we own is not rightfully ours, that opportunities we badly want would rightly go to someone else. That we are not as competent nor as qualified as we’ve been told.
It is not just advocating for accessible buildings for disabled people. It is understanding that the discrimination against disabled people is based on a hierarchy of bodies, with some bodies worth having and others not, and that your own physical advantages would become meaningless if discrimination against disabled people ended. Your body size would not matter. Your attractiveness would not give you an advantage. Your thick hair would not be a point of pride. Height would not earn you a better income. Youth would not have more status. Thinness would not equate with self-control. And yet you would have to advocate for disabled people anyway.
Our advantages, our own unearned privileges, would first of all, need to become visible to us: and that is uncomfortable because it challenges us to accept the extent to which our successes were unearned.
We would then have to follow through on dismantling those privileges, which is going to feel like putting our most beloved belongings in a pile and deliberately setting them on fire.
People like to argue that privilege is “not pie” and more for others doesn’t mean less for you/us, and to some extent, that’s true: there’s enough dignity, respect, kindness, food, water, air, and shelter for everyone to get a good piece. We can all have decent work and live in a society that sees our lives and our contributions as worthy and real. But in other ways, it’s not true: not everyone can be a CEO, not everyone can be president or prime minister, not everyone wins elections, not everyone becomes a movie star, and in those domains, more for groups that have been discriminated against will mean less for the currently privileged. It is pie. You still have to share.
It is going to feel like a domestic abuser who didn’t even recognize their actions as abuse because they so thoroughly internalized their entitlement, being told they need to go to anger management.
It is going to trigger a tsunami of moral outrage, a knee-jerk demand that people talk to you very nicely about all the ways you’ve harmed them. You will automatically and without reflex lean heavily on your privilege and demand that your intentions and feelings be centred and cared for, as they always have been.
It is going to feel like being an alcoholic or addict in the first stages of the 12 steps (privilege, as they say, is a hell of a drug; and most of us don’t realize how addicted we are), and you’re sitting in a room full of “real” alcoholics, telling yourself you’re not actually like them, you’re different, better, and your “searching moral inventory” and process of making amends won’t take too long, after all, because you haven’t hurt that many people.
It is going to be wanting to leapfrog right past the moral inventory and making amends and go straight to sponsoring a new member–because hey! You’ve got it! Alcoholism is REAL, you’re one of the good ones, gold star!
I’m beating this horse pretty thoroughly, I know. Believe me, it’s not from a sense of my superiority. What I’ve mostly gained from a few decades of reading about racism, for example, is a profound sense of my complete ignorance and how unlikely it is that I will ever fully address it.
Collectively, none of us will ever fully know. And it is from the position of accepting our near-total ignorance and searching out appropriate leadership that, I believe, we can begin to move forward in dismantling structural privilege.
The love in my family, growing up, never felt like love. But I had to pretend it did and act like it for the belonging that was available there. It was a kind of gaslighting: we are hurting you and denying it because we love you, and you will put up with it because you love us, and if you step out of line, you will lose everything.
I did step out of line, and I lost a lot, but not everything; there is always a world outside the fiction.
I don’t know what love means, or if it can be worth anything, if we can’t see what’s going on right in front of our faces and work to change it. Maybe love prefers to be gentle, patient, and kind; but when harm is being done, it can’t be cowardly; it can’t insist on one-directional patience and kindness based on lies.
I often say when talking about social justice that empathy goes up the social hierarchy: our culture routinely empathizes with men, with white people, with abled people, with straight people, and prioritizes that empathy over empathy with people who are marginalized or outcast. It was, for example, the empathy of bystanders for my parents that caused them to overlook the harm that was caused me. But it’s the same for all these social goods: empathy, kindness, generosity, and love, tend to go up the social hierarchy, and those of us at or near the top tend to accept this as our due. It is not only right and comfortable that others treat us as more worthy than we are, but in fact we deserve it, and will demand it when it’s not forthcoming.
Instead, we need to re-train ourselves, consciously work to send empathy, kindness, generosity, patience and love down the social hierarchy. We need to do this so regularly and so well that the hierarchy itself flattens. No one’s feelings should ever be worth more than anyone’s life.