I’ve been reading Hidden Figures, in anticipation of the movie coming out next week. It’s a fantastic book, and I already have so much I want to say in the review. This is one topic that would be too much of a digression, so I’ve spun it out into an adequate starting place for my blog posts of 2017.
Throughout the book, Margot Lee Shetterly discusses the attitudes of people towards Black, female computers working at NACA/NASA. One thing that really got me was her descriptions of how these women were simply used to the discrimination and segregation foisted upon them by life in Virginia, how they might not like it, but they tolerated and accepted it. Moreover, Shetterly goes on to discuss the white people who would work with these women, even be congenial towards them, yet did nothing to stand up against these policies, to dismantle them, to protest them or support the fledgling civil rights movement. These well-educated, fairly progressive white people, who were happy to let Black women work alongside them, could not necessarily support these women using the same bathroom or living in the same part of town. That would be going too far.
Of course, in hindsight, these attitudes seem so quaint and backwards to those of us who call ourselves progressive in 2017. We giggle that people seriously advanced the idea that women were constitutionally unsuitable for education in math and science. We look back and ask how anyone could possibly be so stupid. And we often, somewhat smugly, think to ourselves that if we were living back in that time, we would be ultra-progressive, forward-thinking, on the front lines fighting for social justice.
Would we? Would I? I have to think about that, and if I’m being truthful, I’d have to answer that I don’t know. We are all products of our times. It’s really difficult to claim to know how one would behave in a different time period, because we would be such different people.
And that got me thinking: what is it about my time period that blinds me to issues of social justice? Privilege aside, what about our social norms causes me to stop short of embracing something, of calling it too radical? What views will make the next generation laugh at me (either behind my back or to my face) and label me backwards, decades hence?
I’ll give you an example: universal basic income, and the related idea that work is not necessary. A lot of people who are otherwise very socially progressive balk at this idea that people should not have to work for a living. These are people who will support universal healthcare to their last (government-assisted) breath, support welfare programs for the impoverished and marginalized members of our society—yet they draw the line at the idea that we shouldn’t need to work at all. This is a product of our upbringing, being raised in a society where “hard work” and a “work ethic”, the overflow of the American dream, predominates our personal narratives. It’s the corollary to the myth of meritocracy.
Or, here’s another example of a blindspot: polyamory. This was one of mine until recently. Once you dismiss the fairly silly moralistic arguments against same-sex marriage, what is standing in the way of accepting poly unions? For a long time, though, I was completely accepting of same-sex marriage but drew the line at polyamory. It was just “weird”. As Jesse Bering notes in Perv, however, that’s not really a compelling reason to legislate morality in that way. Maybe I’m personally not down for a polyamorous relationship, but what’s the social harm of such a thing? If we are (hopefully) entering an era where same-sex relationships become as normal and visible as different-sex ones, how long until poly relationships attain that status? I’m willing to bet this becomes an issue in the not-so-distant future.
One more to round it out: sexual orientation, gender identity, and fluidity. We are getting more used to labels like bisexual and pansexual, to thinking beyond the dichotomy of gay/straight. Yet—and again, I include myself at least partially in this group—many of us still view these categories quite rigidly and dogmatically. In this line of thinking, one does not “become bi” or discover that one is bi later on. Similarly, very often we forget that one’s sexual orientation has nothing to do with whom (if anyone) one has sex with. While I think it’s lovely that more and more people are becoming aware of the broad spectrum and diversity of sexual orientation and gender identity, we still have a long way to go acknowledging the complexity of these issues.
The trouble with blindspots, of course, is right there in the name: you often can’t see them. They are related to, and often symptomatic of, privilege. As a white man, there is just shit I don’t have to deal with every day. This blinds me to truths that people who live different lives hold self-evident. So while I call myself progressive and am able to acknowledge my complicity in many oppressive structures, such as patriarchy and white supremacy, this is not enough. Even unpacking my privilege and acknowledging how it blinds me to oppression isn’t enough, because it still leaves me to wonder: what am I forgetting?
Listening has long been a resolution of mine. I do this passively (by reading what others have to say) and actively (by asking, not to be educated per se, but when I want clarification or in lieu of making potentially harmful assumptions). Going forward in 2017, I want to listen even more, and while listening, try to find more of my blindspots. I want to try to recognize the frontiers of my progressiveness, and question whether those lines really make sense, or whether they’re the (irrational) product of my privilege and my upbringing.
However, I draw the line at small, furry creatures from Alpha Centauri. They have no business taking our jobs. That’s just wrong, and I will not welcome one into my house. Fight me IRL.