Saturday, July 11, 2015

Making Grievances Worse

Have you ever had one of those days where something is bothering you and no matter what you do it just seems to get worse? Maybe your boss is bothering you and every time you see him he seems to be piling on more work, berating you, bullying you, whatever? Perhaps you have even had a problem that went on for some time, that kept bothering you, giving you time to mull it over, to think about it, maybe even obsess a bit. And, perhaps, after some time considering it, the problem began to take on a life of its own. You began to see it wherever you looked, it began to grow, to loom larger, to become the single most important thing in your thoughts, to start to appear to be the root of everything wrong in your life, to grow and grow until it seemed overwhelming, so huge and all pervasive nothing could ever make it better.

And most of the time, the only thing that allowed you to snap out of that funk, to stop obsessing, to see the problem with a little objectivity, was someone else pointing out just how unrealistic you were being. It often is uncomfortable, in fact most of the time you argue tooth and nail with the one who points out how much of the problem is in your head, but, in the end, it frequently takes someone from outside, someone unrelated to the problem, or at least with a different perspective, to keep us from seeing things in an unrealistic way.

It is this experience which causes me to argue with those who believe that, among groups facing discrimination or other social ills, only those who suffer can speak on the issue. For those who do not regularly frequent such sites, this is often seen when, for example, a man tries to discuss discrimination against women and is accused of "mansplaining", that is trying to minimize the true scope of discrimination, or to make the women feel their reaction is unjustified, and so on. And, in one way, perhaps it is understandable. After all, it does seem sympathetic to tell those who have a bad experience that whatever they feel is valid. And, though I disagree strongly*, it is a common belief in our society that one must experience something to truly understand it. But, despite these ideas, I would argue the idea that only the victim can speak about discrimination is a dangerous approach.

As I said above, it is human nature to brood over problems, especially those which are ongoing, more so if they are not easily solved. And it is also human nature for those things which are foremost in our thoughts to seem more prominent than they truly are, for those things that bother us to seem insoluble, to seem more pervasive than they are, to lie behind every problem we experience. How much more this is the case when not only is a problem ongoing, but one is part of a group which all experience the same problem, all think about it, talk about it, allowing it to become a large part of one's experience, reinforced by many of those one meets? Is it not probable that, at some point, those in such a situation might come to view matters unrealistically? To become overly focused on the issue, to see it as larger than it is? That it is to blame for more than it is? That the solution is harder than it truly is? Or that more people are to blame than truly are?

It is precisely for that reason that we do need to sometimes hear the voice of an outsider. Of someone outside of the problem**. For when we choose to live in an echo chamber, to surround ourselves with only those who speak of the same problems, who see them the same way we do, it is very easy to slip into an unrealistic view of things. And thus, despite the complaints that those who do not experience discrimination cannot understand it, I would argue that, whether they understand it or not, they may still be very valuable in providing a perspective from the outside, or, if not the outside, then from a different point of view. And many times, we need that corrective. It is often not comfortable, it can seem to be saying our concerns are invalid, but at times, that is precisely what we need to hear. An thus, I would argue that the supposedly proper approach to discrimination espoused by many sites focused on social justice is, not a productive one, but rather a recipe for making problems seem larger and more difficult than they truly are, and that -- while it may serve the political ends of some, and may make some happy by providing easy justification for every grievance, and a handy justification for every failure -- is a very bad way to approach life.

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* I have never believed the idea that one must experience something personally to understand it. I know many writers ascribed to this philosophy, as do many social justice proponents, but I would argue, even if one has not had the precise experience of another, there are enough analogous experiences to provide one with understanding. After all, if we could not truly understand anything we did not experience personally, no sort of empathy or understanding would be possible. Why, if we took this view seriously, I would argue communication itself would be impossible, as my word "dog" would signify something so different from yours they would not be useful to describe as a single word. The fact that we can communicate and understand one another seems to me adequate proof that understanding is possible without direct shared experience.

** This is not necessarily limited to discrimination or other experiences, all groups that tend to have shared complaints are at risk of reinforcing one another in unrealistic exaggeration of those grievances. From politics to social ills to homeowners' associations and so on, those who come to focus on a specific problem, and exclude those who have a different perspective, have a very real tendency to exaggerate their grievances.

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POSTSCRIPT

There are several other items of conventional wisdom concerning discrimination, equality, social justice and the like I want to examine in the near future. However, as should be evident by my rather tardy replies to comments lately, I am short of time last the few days, and so I will have to wait until I can find some time to properly address these topics.


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