Getting Beyond the Rhetoric

authenticityYesterday, Clare and I went to a high school in the city to give a training session to a classroom full of 10th grade girls.  We have been doing a teaching series at this school, and because we only have two sessions with each class, we chose to focus on the core concepts of dignity and freedom.  We’ve been tweaking our presentations a bit as we go, based on the feel of the classroom and the responses we receive.  That’s the thing about teaching: in the end it’s really the students who are teaching you.

We spoke about the difference between subjects and objects, as we always do, and the importance of recognizing that human beings are the former and should never be treated as the latter. At one point we used examples from popular culture to illustrate how easy it is to forget this, and how cognitive dissonance on this issue is so ubiquitous in our culture.  We’re loud with our protests about the Boko Haram kidnappings (because, after all, it’s Africa), but after we’ve done our duty of hashtagging #BringBackOurGirls, we go back to playing video games like Grand Theft Auto, wherein the gamer takes on the role of the protagonist and racks up points by using and discarding the women he comes across.  We used an image from this game alongside a separate photo in which Snoop Dog brought two women along with him to the MTV music awards in dog chains.  We asked the girls to look at the two photos and identify who were the subjects and who were the objects in these scenarios.

Each day, the classes are different.  Sometimes the girls want to talk about how women are portrayed in media and advertising, some classes want to discuss human rights, and some want to focus on the daily challenge of respecting the dignity of themselves and those around them in a world where this can be pretty confusing.

In one class, a girl raised her hand and pointed out that in both of the images we used, the perpetrator was black.  Her contention was that in discussing issues of injustice and abuse, groups of people tend to use narratives where the guilty party is an outsider, a minority belonging to a group different from theirs.  In trying to come against violations of dignity, it’s easy to speak from a place of privilege and propagate the very trends of inequality we want to oppose.

Of course, she had a very valid point.  In no way do we want to paint overly generalized or simplistic pictures of the world that relegate people into boxes.  For example, it is easy for us to safely come against atrocities in Nigeria from a lofty and removed position, and in doing so, further the broader narrative of a primitive and barbaric African continent.  True honesty requires us to be nuanced and careful with our words and our stories so that we are able to look at the whole picture, and be aware of the limitations of our own platform of perspective.  Openness to people necessitates a certain amount of self-awareness.  Assumed knowledge about people or circumstances that we have no real encounter with, gives us a sense of power that enables us to make assumptions from a place of superiority and ignorance.

The student’s concern was that we were missing this self-awareness in the images we chose; we categorized groups of people in the process of making our point.  Although her argument was a fair reminder, it brought up another problem in contemporary academic settings regarding how we are taught to process the information we receive.  We are coached in schools and universities, to criticize everything, to deconstruct the information we hear and find the hidden fallacies and the political incorrectness and stereotypes.  Is this a bad thing?  Not necessarily, but it can be if it means that we no longer know how to listen.  I thought of all the countless lectures I had attended in which I pinpointed one phrase that I decided was too simplistic or generalized, and was then unable to hear the rest of the speaker’s message.  I enter into conversations with people from different political and social persuasions, and I immediately qualify them as rigid or narrow-minded, or lacking a certain amount of understanding of the larger picture.  This deconstruction allows me to bypass any real engagement with the “other,” and instead sit on a pedestal of condescension.

Yes, it is important to be careful with our words and our message, but it is equally important to be careful about how we criticize the messages we hear.  If criticism allows us to enter into constructive dialogue, then it places us all in the position of “student,” and allows us to learn from one another.  If, on the other hand, it becomes a form of cynicism that gives us license to ignore and look down on those we do not really wish to engage with, and then laugh about their foolishness in our superior (and insular) little circles, well this is just an ugly cowardliness in disguise.  It is important not to allow our egos to compromise our earnestness.  Real recognition of the dignity of the person demands risk, an openness and availability to people that may make us look foolish or place us in a vulnerable position.

In an age of accelerated intercommunication, we have a greater capacity to make our voices heard and come against instances of injustice, but we need to do so in humility.  If we are to criticize, we must also be willing to listen and accept criticism ourselves.  Otherwise, our voices become stale, antagonistic and unbearable to anyone but ourselves.

By Marie Murray, the Director of Operations for WYA North America