“Deep down you may still be that same great kid you used to be. But it’s not who you are underneath, it’s what you do that defines you.” – Rachel Dawes (Batman Begins)
Yeah, yeah, I just started with a Batman quote, and I tried to make it look all important and flashy-like. It isn’t the first time I’ve stolen lines from Nolan’s film, and it won’t be the last (because…wait for it…).
This post is really meant to be about social justice (again). Batman and social justice sort of go together, or rather, in my comic-book influenced pop culture brain, I can make them go together because it’s my blog and I get to do things like that. The part of the quote I’m focusing on is the “what you do” phrase, as this is what I get asked most often: How do you DO social justice?
I also realize I’ve written on that theme in prior posts. So spoiler alert: this post concludes by stating in giant, bold letters that there is no magic formula for “doing” social justice. There is no step-by-step method, there is no correct action, there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Sorry peeps, that’s just how it goes sometimes. I realize writing the summertime blockbuster, 7 Steps for Dramatic Social Action, would probably be an easier and more lucrative way to make a living than what I do now, but it’s not going to happen.
There is, of course, a place and time for talking about specific action points – for example, when you have a Stalin-esque presidential candidate making a real bid for the White House, concrete plans need to be written. But this post is more about looking at the day-to-day work of social justice, the “behind the scenes” work if you will. The stuff some of us have figured out is essential to getting anything done, but also the stuff that many people overlook and even forget.
I’m talking about relationships here, the art of making connections, especially with people you might not like or agree with.
Recently I found myself speaking to a group of people in a workshop setting. I have been doing things of this nature for many years, which means I am no stranger to our version of professional heckling: the wide range of odd, unusual, and sometimes blatantly arrogant questions that can come our way. While all seasoned teachers learn various useful and not so useful ways to respond, most of the time what you don’t want to do is get into an argument. And I can say that as someone who got sucked into at least one argument in my greener years, and regretted it fully (another spoiler: the teacher always looks like an idiot when arguing with a student, even if the student said something remarkably stupid. Because you’re the teacher, and you will look like a raving adult lunatic who decided to yell at, say, a puppy).
The hard part is some people do seem to have it be their goal to generate the most irrational and controversial commentary to plop on your lecture doorstep, particularly during the last 5 minutes of your presentation because they know full well there will be no time for you to offer even a bemused grunt much less a thoughtful acknowledgement. Yet when the topic is related to social justice, it is also often the case that this curiously timed remark carries suffocating undercurrents of privilege which will also undermine and dismiss just about every other person in the room who isn’t, for example, a rich white heterosexual male. And let’s just say that in a room of thirty mental health professionals, there aren’t too many rich white heterosexual males running around, which means your educational train has just crashed Wile E. Coyote-style into a ravine.
This sort of thing happens to me a lot. But this is also supposed to happen, because if I’ve created a room where people can freely speak their mind, it means people will be able to disagree with me. So to shut down such comments contradicts my purpose, which is to open space for dialogue. However, I am also in a dilemma of how to permit comments that also have the potential to get a lot of people very, very angry in a very, very short amount of time. This is the balancing act that has no formula; it is felt and experienced and sometimes you tip the scale in the wrong direction. But balance is essential to creating any hope of the “successful resolution” we all crave at that moment.
So while my ego would prefer I say something along the lines of, “shut your face,” I know that would add a lot of hydrogen to this bomb. Instead I acknowledge this will take a few minutes, but would the speaker permit me a few questions in the hopes of understanding better the purpose of their message?
In other words, you took the floor, so let’s take a moment to find out what you are really trying to put out there. Are you feeling ignored? Are you trying to “level the playing field?” Are you responding to a history of being accused? Do you fear your voice will be diminished? Is this simply not for you? The point is, I have no idea what drives someone to do this, but I must attempt to find out – which means setting aside all the irritation, frustration, and even justified anger I may have at what they did. Because the only hope at that moment in returning the room to a place of understanding is to do just that – create a connection with the person who feels out of place.
Will this solve all the social justice problems out there? No. But does it work? Yes – well presuming I am trying to understand and not simply appease. But that’s the very thing we’re trying to get across in building community – I am baffled and curious at what is being thrown at me, and I am more interested in the person behind it than the weirdness of the words. I don’t want to reject the person, I want to connect with them, because perhaps in our connection there is more potential to recognize the many lies our walls have been built on; to see how our barriers were not erected by us, but rather by those who profit when walls are maintained.
That’s the moment in the room though. What happens next? That’s the work most people never see. The part where the person and I meet, have a conversation, get to know each other. The part where we share a joke. The part where we share about our lives. The part where we walk away knowing behind those initial comments rests a person, someone with fears and hopes, someone who is reconsidering their “certainties” now that there is a face to replace something that once existed only as a stereotyped caricature. The part where we ask each other for help. The part where we start working together because we want others to realize that it is through exploring our differences that we develop a true appreciation and interest for each other.
It’s social justice work, conversation by conversation. Yup, it’s slow. There is no magic formula for “doing” social justice. Go figure it out, one person at a time.