on privilege: driving while hypocritical

Consider driving and what it demonstrates about privilege. When I leave my driveway, I sometimes pull onto a busy street, inevitably infuriating the guy driving way too fast who has to slow down to accommodate me.  I roll my eyes and think, “Chill!” even as I floor it to absolve myself of guilt.  However, when I am the person driving too fast (for a very good reason: I’m late. Always), and an unsuspecting person pulls out of their driveway, forcing me to quickly slow down, I think, “Seriously? Did you even look? Would it have killed you to wait for the huge opening behind me?” (Except that I usually don’t just think these words. I say them. Out loud. To my children or to my empty car. Because I am a very loving and healthy person. Clearly.) 

Spoiler alert: Most of us intensely privilege our perspectives, hardly giving a thought to our own changing standards, let alone the perspectives of others. 

When I drive, the only perspective I care about is my own, and I function as if my point of view is THE correct point of view.  Sometimes my hypocrisy is so obvious even I notice it.  Everyday, sometimes twice a day, I need to turn left at a very busy intersection.  The left arrow lane is sometimes backed up with 20 cars or more, and people, waiting is hard. But wait I must. When the arrow turns green, cars rush to make the turn (unless we are texting, in which case we don’t know if the light turned green, or if the sky fell, or if a dragon is approaching our car…but I digress).  Often a car cheats, merging in near the light, skipping the line.  Nothing is more infuriating: That driver thinks the rules of society don’t apply to him. I hate that guy. 

Until I become that guy. 

The line is SOOO long, and sometimes I decide to go straight to take another route.  The green arrow appears, cars start to move, and I happen to notice a person texting, leaving a huge gap in front of their car.  Is it so wrong for me to jump into that gap and turn left?! Technically I just did the thing that makes me hate people and think our society has no hope because everyone is so selfish…but I only did it because the Texter left all that space! It was a victimless crime. Right? 

The point is that I am an enormous hypocrite, with a huge capacity to privilege my own perspective at the expense of others.  One hundred times a day, we encounter situations in which we could consider only one instinctive perspective, or also consider the perspectives of others.  Without intentional effort toward curious observation, most of us privilege our perspectives to such an extent that we lose the ability to even recognize the existence of another point of view.  We justify our actions, diminishing or even dismissing the impact those decisions have on others in the process. 

This tendency to only consider one perspective can be frustrating behind the wheel, but it becomes problematic when it shapes the way we move through the world.  Perspectives are unique and are influenced by our experiences, personalities and position in life, making it natural to privilege one’s specific point of view over the views of others.  The danger occurs when we privilege our perspective to such an extent that we exclude, or even erase, the existence of differing perspectives.  In a society like ours, polarized on all sides by the fear and even demonization of  “others”, many of us tend to turn inward toward a tribe of people with whom we have a lot in common.  Social psychologists call this phenomenon a preference for our ‘ingroup’, and a denigration of all ‘outgroups.’.  Ingroup people are those with whom we share perspectives and life experiences, confirming that our way of thinking is normal, and the right way to think.  Outgroups, on the other hand, are people who differ from you in substantive or even superficial ways.  The more time we spend with our ingroup, the more we dismiss or suspect outgroups as a threat to our safety, or as illogical people under an absurd influence.

In cities like Nashville, where neighborhoods are mostly segregated, where schools are isolated by poverty or privatized by wealth, where communities of faith are often bolstered by insular and protectionist thinking, it is very easy to build a robust life interacting only within one’s ingroup.  Our level of comfort with these people is high, while our interactions with others can feel increasingly strained, as if we cannot find any common ground.  Interactions between outgroups are often negative because any sense of ‘normal’ is exposed as the simple privileging of one perspective at the exclusion of all others.  Having had a disorienting interaction with people whose assumptions and norms are distinct from ours, we retreat back to our ingroups, assured that we are the healthy, normal ones, and that diversity is not just uncomfortable but sometimes destructive.  Cultural norms—and conventional wisdom—get established when a group of people from similar backgrounds have similar experiences and then talk about them a lot.  If one learns to listen to both her ingroup and outgroups, she will quickly discover that ‘norms’ only exist in the community that established them.  In other words, life, like driving, teaches us to privilege our own perspectives, while viewing the perspectives of others with skepticism or disdain.

In the coming weeks, I hope to examine the way we come to privilege some ideas, and even people, over others.  Understanding the concept of privilege is crucial if we hope to learn from our past and strengthen the foundations upon which we build our communities.  We cannot discuss privilege if the word infuriates so many people, so I will try to unpack the concept of privilege, explaining why it exacerbates tension, makes people defensive, and yet remains a key for making progress in building a more perfect union.  In the meantime, notice yourself when you drive, and let the way you privilege your perspective behind the wheel illuminate the way you privilege your perspective in everyday life as well.

all for one, and one for all...does it work?

If you are looking for a long, fabulous book to get lost in, pick up something written by Alexander Dumas.  From an exploration of revenge in The Count of Monte Cristo, to ideas of loyalty and resistance in The Three Musketeers, Dumas studies the many ways we relate to one another.  Born in the 19th century to a French nobleman and a slave woman of African descent, his origin surely impacted his view of the classist, gendered and racist society in which he lived.  Perhaps his lineage influenced his view of belonging, of what it means to trust systems that are flawed, of how one asserts value in a society that shuns.  Perhaps his unique vantage point required him to study what it means to be an insider or one excluded, to find comrades through shared experience, to expose unjust power structures. When each of my children were infants, I read long, fabulous novels that could sustain me through late nights.  I read Dumas during the infancy of my second son, whose birthday is this week.  I found The Three Musketeers luxuriously entertaining, and incredibly helpful now for those of us concerned about how we live with one another.

Dumas’ Musketeers work together to save their Sovereign and kingdom from the evil wiles of a corrupt Cardinal Richelieu.  Their cry, “All for one, and one for all!” is part of Western culture, a cry raised by children and frat boys alike.  It offers an ethic of unity, a call for a purpose held in common, and a commitment to a cause manifested through relationship.  It is also really fun. It is fun to live in a community to which one is wholly committed but for which one mustn’t forfeit oneself.  The beauty of this phrase is echoed in the long held cries of patriots that go something like: “All for God and country!”, or even the more recent pledge of my Mighty VOLS: “I will give my ALL for Tennessee today.” For the musketeers though, the cry does not ask only for total sacrifice. Instead, it demands loyalty to a cause while promising loyalty in return.  Give your all to us and we will give our all to you. 

The best American causes require the independent integrated collaboration of all of us.  Our belief that when we all work together we create lasting equitable flourishing has been replaced by the idea that the status quo is good for everyone and anyone who disagrees should be quiet.

So often our commitments require us to lose our sense of self for a cause bigger than us, but Dumas reminds us that the highest causes ensure that our best participation comes when we are “all in.”  Any cause that encourages us to divorce ourselves from our highest ethics is not a cause that promotes common welfare.  If we cannot bring our whole, integrated selves to a cause, then I would argue it is not worth pursuing. Whether about the prosperity, health, equity, safety or belonging of all, we are having conversations about how we should live together in the shared space of America right now.  Who is responsible if a member of our community falls behind?  What does society owe me, and what do I owe society? Am I my brother’s keeper? Our rhetoric often reveals a belief that I can only look out for me, because we are playing a game with one winner.  If you are doing well, I must be doing badly.  What if we listened to our musketeers instead, and started to believe that in the best societies, we can be for others precisely because others are for us?  In Dumas’ rendering, causes that protect and benefit the welfare of all do require sacrifice, but the sacrifice is contextualized by the affirmation of our entire selves, not the diminishment of me to benefit you.

Dumas’ ideal is the premise of the American ideal of democracy.  In theory, America is by and for and of the people.  It is one out of many. E pluribus unum. The best American causes require the independent integrated collaboration of all of us.  It seems to me that we have lost our way here, however. We have begun to believe that, “One for all” can only happen if “all is for a few.”  Our belief that when we all work together we create lasting equitable flourishing has been replaced by the idea that the status quo is good for everyone and anyone who disagrees should be quiet.

Perhaps we would do well to remember that we, as a nation, have protected some pretty atrocious status quos in our history.  We have learned that expanded abilities to live and speak and resist and collaborate increase prosperity.  My right to belong is not diminished by another’s right to belong.  I think Dumas might have been on to something; perhaps I am my best self when I am rooting for the interests of others.

The kids in Parkland remind me of this truth.  They are taking a terrible experience that has given them attention, and are using it to elevate the thoughtful lives of others.  They are, “all for one, and one for all.”  Last weekend, they students met with students in Chicago, who feel overwhelmed by the violence they swim around in all day.  Emma González, a Parkland student who has become a leading spokesperson for the #neveragain movement, tweeted about their meeting:

Those who face gun violence on a level that we have only just glimpsed from our gated communities have never had their voices heard in their entire lives the way that we have in these weeks alone. We all share in feeling this pain and know all too well how it feels to have to grow up at the snap of a finger…People of color in inner-cities and everywhere have been dealing with this for a despicably long time...The platform us Parkland Students have established is to be shared with every person, black or white, gay or straight, religious or not, who has experienced gun violence, and hand in hand, side by side, We Will Make This Change Together.
— Emma González

Dumas believed that the hardest, highest work requires collaboration, and that sacrificial collaboration creates belonging and purpose for those willing to dive in.  These students remind us that collaborating to resist a difficult status quo is happening all around us.  Will you willingly suspend your disbelief that all of us could flourish together? Will you consider believing the idea that it is more blessed to give than to receive?  Will you look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others?  Will you join me in believing that it costs very little to be one for all, and that all for all could make America great again?

on 'free pass' people and what they teach us

Expand Your Us offers a different way to imagine ourselves and our connections to one another.  We live in troubled times, with palpable tension, easy binaries and divisiveness in the air we breathe.  Even those of us who recognize that defensiveness is destructive, that binaries destroy, or that our biases shape the way we see others fall into these traps.  If we celebrate the dignity of all others, we walk a narrow road of empathy, and the ditches of distrust on either side are large and strangely inviting.

Choosing to extend compassion and understanding to another human being is always a choice. Within our tribes, these choices are often instinctive. What if we chose kindness more often?

While this is an accurate description of who we are, it is not the full story.  We have become instinctively divisive in the way we consume news and engage others in the public sphere, and yet we continue to be good at loving our “us.”  Yes, we are often quick to demonize, caricature and misunderstand others; however, given the right circumstances, we are also quick to listen, extending grace to people who don’t deserve it.  I call them “free pass” people, because they are the select few who always get the benefit of the doubt.  Even though we are stingy with grace or understanding for people with whom we don’t agree, we all know how to care about our free pass people:

We know how to forgive instinctively, before we are asked. 

We know how to listen with empathy even when an action seems selfish or hurtful. 

We know how to lean in when we want to point a finger in judgment.

We know how to use our power to pull strings for a person who might blow the opportunity. 

We know how to be generous to people who haven’t earned it.

We love our tribe even when they are defensive, argue an irrational point, or make selfish choices.

Choosing to extend compassion and understanding to another human being is always a choice. For our free pass people, these choices are easy, even instinctive.  By observing these choices, noticing them when they happen, could we become better at intentionally choosing kindness to more people more often?  Could we realize we achieve very little when we refuse to access compassion for a large segment of society?  Could we widen our circles, extending the mercy and empathy we reserve for our tribe to others?  Could we recognize that we are part of the problem when we only value our us? 

If we blindly let our instincts decide when we choose compassion, and when we choose to demonize, we miss the opportunity to examine what empathy costs, and how it might heal.  Given our public discourse, it is easy to think we are devolving as a society.  Perhaps we need to be reminded that we already know how to care about people whose perspectives or choices infuriate us.  I have been delighted to realize that many of us are, in fact, expanding our us at an astonishing pace.

For instance, I see transformative reform in the way old divides are being erased through collaboration and resistance.  The last few years have witnessed the exposure of widespread injustice, but we are also witnessing game-changing reforms.  Black Lives Matter brought to light deep patterns of inequity in criminal justice and legal systems.  Brutality is not new, it is simply now exposed in the public sphere, and this exposure necessitated change.  While it is true that many deny injustice exists, even more law enforcement agencies are hard at work improving their relationships with ALL the communities they serve.  In fact, systems are reforming: from body cams, to prosecutors who examine their relationship to police and defendants, to engaging in restorative justice, to de-escalation training, to mental health awareness, to reforming unjust laws, to judges working with communities for fair sentencing, justice is on the move because we are listening to each other.

Similarly, the #metoo movement has exposed deep patterns of misogyny in almost every industry.  These problems are not new, they are simply coming to light in the public sphere.  Millions are teaching us that objectifying women in any way has consequences; there is no such thing as innocent locker room talk.  While some men belittle this abuse, many have listened and responded by examining their potential influence to improve the way we speak about and relate to each other.  Because of brave women and thoughtful men, behavioral norms are changing.  Children are taught differently, coaches coach differently, new staff orientations occur differently and mentors lead differently.  We are learning to honor one another.

This notion of expanding our us instead of demonizing those who dare highlight problems plaguing society is catching on.  In Nashville, a school that was chronically labeled as troubled is now being celebrated as a leader in forming community partnerships; across the nation educators have noticed the ways they collaborate with the city, families, teachers and students to reform approaches to education.  In fact, last week, the Director of Metro Nashville Public Schools and a Nashville Precinct Commander visited Pearl-Cohn, listening and partnering with school Principal Dr. Sonia Stewart, who replaces despair with hope and agency every day.  I am encouraged that our city and state officials are paying attention to our resilient students and the leaders who champion their voices!  This week, the State of Tennessee’s Commissioner of Education, Dr. Candace McQueen, publicly stated that resisting systems based on violence and fear is an important part of the educational process.  She therefore recommends that no student be penalized for participating in next week’s #nationalschoolwalkout protest.  Dr. McQueen understands that we can find hopeful paths forward when we listen to each other rather than demonizing any act of resistance.

Imagine how interconnected our society would be if we started to treat more people the way we usually treat our ‘free pass’ people.  What are the costs of expanding our “us”, so that we give others the benefit of the doubt, committing to listen, seek understanding, and extend compassion more regularly?  Granted, it might cost us our precious binaries, our approaches to others as Good or Bad.  It might cost us the chance to judge before we listen, and it will surely lower the number of people we ignore or even loathe.  I suspect that replacing judgment with generous curiosity will not just improve our connections to others, it might make hopeful peacemakers out of us all.