Monday, July 31, 2006

From Way Back

This is a repost of an old (December 2003) post I wrote for my original blog at Journalspace finally deleted the damn thing, which is GREAT because boy howdy, did my writing smell, and now I never have to look at any of it again unless, as I did to retrieve this piece, I nerve myself to go edit-finding through the enormous .txt file I made of the blog.

I'm reposting this piece because there's a concept (that I take roughly 900 more words to articulate than necessary) within it that I want to reference for something later. I've eliminated some dead links, left some others, and killed the parts that made me cringe all the way down my spine, but 95% of it I left as originally written.

I would ask you to please forgive the pedantic, preachy tone but I don't believe in asking others to do anything you wouldn't do yourself.


Both/And Versus Either/Or
posted Mon, 29 Dec 2003 07:58:09 -0800

One thing I think all people, myself included, are often prone to is confusing that which is binary with that which is not. This causes a lot of problems.

The classic binary example is pregnancy. Either you are pregnant, or you are not. Don't get all up in my face about ectopic pregnancies, either--those still count. Either your hCG is positive or it is not. Either you're pregnant, or you aren't. Whether the pregnancy results in a viable delivery is a whole other issue, one that is both/and rather than either/or. An ectopic pregnancy normally is not viable, so now you're both pregnant and not going to have a baby.

In fact, the question of whether something is limited to two states or not is itself binary. Either there are two possible states or there are not; there may be one, many, or none (i.e., a male pregnancy).

Which brings me to what Andrea Harris calls "You Can't Possibly Understand" juice (to be employed in washing down your generous serving of Misplaced Anger Pie).

What I think has happened is that the ability of human beings to understand and empathize with each other has been cast as a binary issue. Either we can understand any experience outside our own existence, or we cannot. I'm specifically referencing this part of Andrea's post:

See, maybe I can't "understand" what Jews go through, not being Jewish myself. But, you know, by that criterion I can't understand what it means to be Chinese, or Yanomamo, or male, or a victim (yet) of a suicide bomber, or anything but Andrea Harris. This is an absurd attitude, which assumes that since no one can truly know 100% the experience of someone else then you can't possibly have anything to say about that other person's experience. If people were truly this way, we'd have no novels, no poems, no marriages, no.... anything.

I've added emphasis to the part with which I'm in complete agreement. I dislike it when people play the You Don't Know What it's Like card; my instinctive response is always, "No, but I can imagine."

The problem is, my imagination has its limits. So does yours. I can understand what some things are like via my imagination, but the set of things I can understand about you and the set of things you can understand about me do not overlap completely. The sets form an intersection, but I will always retain a part of myself that you cannot understand and you will always retain a part of yourself that I will not understand.

(Note that we're also confusing imagination with understanding. The two are not equivalent; you employ one to achieve the other.)

So my point is I both agree with Andrea and with Meryl, who argues:

You cannot possibly understand our anger, Michele. You cannot possibly understand our anger, Andrea. And I say this knowing full well what stalwarts you are in rejecting all Jew-hatred. But you're not Jewish, and you don't get what it feels like. Lair and I feel it in our guts.

My personal experience with, for lack of a better term, minorities, is that one annoying thing nonminorities can do is pretend to understand completely what it is like to be discriminated against.

Some things are only understood through direct experience. Yes, I can imagine what it's like to be pulled over simply because a police officer thought there was something "suspicious" about a black woman driving a Mercedes-Benz--but I can't know. I am able to imagine how events like that might shape my world view and my subsequent interactions with others, but even so, what I imagine will be partially informed by my current, actual background, which is not that of a black woman--no matter how much I might try to imagine that it is.

I was actually thinking of this when I read this post at Healing Iraq:

I stared hardly at [Saddam's] eyes and tried to convince myself that this was the same man who destroyed Iraq and sent millions to their deaths. I found myself talking to the screen "Why did you have to do this to yourself?", "Why did you have to put us into all of this?", "Why didn't you fight back or at least kill yourself to spare us these images?".

I had no reason to, but I felt humiliated. I sank into an overwhelming depression and sadness, and I had a desperate need to get terribly drunk. I should have felt joy but I didn't. And I'm still dissapointed with myself.

Leave the "Oh, it's Stockholm syndrome" statements aside for the moment and imagine, if you will, that Bush and Ashcroft have gone mad with power and instituted martial law and Bush has declared himself President for Life.

Chaos ensues. Secret police are everywhere. Public executions replace Monday Night Football. In whispers, people hiss that they hate the tyrant and want him gone--but everyone is too terrified to plan anything. It's too dangerous to attempt to overthrow him. Life continues this way for, oh, let's say 'bout 30 years. Everywhere people are being tortured, dying if they're lucky, scraping out pitiful existences amid the rubble if they're not.

Now imagine that Canada comes to the aid of the American people and, after months of combat, captures the Chimp of Evil.

You'd be damned glad he was gone, and plenty grateful for it, but I guarantee you, you'd still be muttering to your friends, "Fuckin' Canucks need to get back over the border where they belong. Just damn. This is our country and we want it back."

You might even feel a tiny bit sorry for Bush. Yes, he was a brutal dictator, a thug of the lowest order--but he was your dictator. He didn't eat his fries with vinegar. He was one of you. He was a really, really craven and disgusting version of you, but still . . . .

So I can imagine what it's like to be in Zeyad's position, but even so, I can't know. There may be a whole host of other thoughts and feelings reeling around his mind that I do not have direct experience with, and my imagination is limited.

It does not mean I should give up trying to see where he's coming from.

Likewise, just because Meryl says there are things I'll never get about being a Jew doesn't mean I should quit trying to understand that, either. Do I think what Laurence wrote was childish and, frankly, shitty? You betcha . . . but I can see how maybe, if I were him, I might write the very same thing--and while I might later be ashamed of writing it, my point would still be, "you don't know what it's like," and this would also be true. You'd know what some things were like for me, but not all.

You can both understand and not get it. It isn't a binary issue.


Darleen said...

This is where it is encumbent upon both people to attempt to understand each other.

Sure, I may not fulling "get" what it is to be a one-legged, gay, unemployer sheepherder immigrant from Spain, but that doesn't mean said minority gets a pass to act as if said minority is a member of an exclusive and superior caste who can never be questioned or criticized.

We either try to approach each other in good faith, or dialogue and understanding will be impossible.

Darleen said...

Oh, totally OT, ilyka, but YUMMMM!

ilyka said...

That blog is just decadent and I mean that in the nicest possible way. Thai Tea Cupcakes? Damn, I'm not much of a baker, but I could see hauling out the muffin tins for those. Oh, most definitely.

belledame222 said...

whoa. slobber.

--uh, I meant to say something relevant to this post, but it's late and it's hot and whatever remained of my brain cells were taken away by CUPCAKE LUST. mebbe tomorrow.

Betty Cracker said...

I have some sympathy with the "you don't understand what it's like" card because there is one issue on which I deploy it myself: abortion. It's not that I don't think men are entitled to an opinion about it -- they are.

But I feel a special contempt for male pro-life activists, and I say that even as a woman who has never personally experienced an unwanted pregnancy. The issue touches on a vulnerability only women can experience. So in a way, I wish men would just shut the farg up about it already. Fair? Probably not. But sometimes I can't help but see it that way.

Rob said...

I also have some sympathy for the you-don't-know-what-it's-like card. My latest issue is post-Katrina New Orleans. People reading a few stories or watching a few bits on TV and then having the audacity to say something like, "You still whining about that? It's been almost a year. Get over it.". I might say you-don't-know-what-it's-like but that's not always what I'd like to do.

belledame222 said...

fwiw, we were just discussing these issues over at my place. more subtlety in the comments than in the actual post, which is mainly rantage:

belledame222 said...

...and betty cracker and rob, I agree with you on both of those.

per the male- pro-life thing (my own aggravation lately has been male "radical feminists" of the Dworkin persuasion), I do always wonder what makes people passionately attracted to a cause that's not, strictly speaking, their own?

I don't mean people who have positions, even--much as it might make me grit my teeth, I could listen to a guy's reasons for agreeing with a pro-life position or Dworkin about some particular thing, I suppose--I mean when people make such and so their primary cause. The guy who chains himself to the door of the Planned Parenthood clinic and is screaming and sobbing when they drag him away.

Or, less dramatically, the people who make fighting on behalf of a particular country or cause the driving passion of their life, when they're not from the country/region, have never actually been, have no immediately obvious connection to the cause; and when you ask them why, they tend to give a vague non-answer, or go back to the cause itself ("Because this is how things are over there, and here are some facts I bet you didn't know...)