I don’t talk about it much, but for a brief period during high school, I called myself “Born Again.” One of the benefits was that it was a safe space where I felt like I belonged. And with that, one summer Sunday evening, the memories of being molested by a man who worked for my father some six years before came back. Overwhelming me, I cried and tried to explain what had happened to my youth group leader. The sudden on-rush of shame and confusion was really overwhelming, and I struggled to understand it. In my memory, I felt I’d done something wrong.
I hadn’t. I’d been tricked, coerced into letting this man do things that no one, up to that time, had done. I was only twelve and a late bloomer, but somehow the fact that it happened was my fault (or so I thought). And in youth group, the memory of it, the shame of it came rushing back.
After telling my parents and listening to their sincere apology for putting me in that position (I’d spent the summer at a hot springs resort with my father and had very little parental supervision for most of it), I begin to kind of piece it together. This was the ’70s, which was still a relatively innocent time, so it didn’t seem strange to my father that a grown man would show some sort of passing interest in me. And it wasn’t my fault.
But it was also in this Youth Group that I begin to understand the rhetorical trap that Christianity uses to keep its followers in check. In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he states, “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” (13:13). On its face, there is nothing inherently problematic with that verse, but situating faith as one of the core tenets creates a bit of problem, a rhetorical trap.
As a young man questioning my faith, the reason I begin to doubt its truthfulness could be simply explained away with the “I just don’t have enough faith” trap. Even though I was having a hard time with my own dogma around Christianity, that doubt was evidence of my lack of faith. I was in a no-win situation.
And I lost. By the middle of my junior year, I was no longer attending youth group. I was hanging out with friends from work and no longer claimed being a Christian. If I didn’t have enough faith, I wasn’t going to accept any of it or use the label. It was a bit dogmatic, I admit, but I still don’t think you can just selectively believe and borrow doctrines from a religion that has such a well-established pedigree. Sure, some things can be emphasized of de-emphasized over time and leave a sort of modern or post-modern spin, but the core tenets: belief in the divinity of Jesus, belief in the imperfection of humanity (sin), and belief in Jesus being the only one who can account/redeem that imperfection, seems rather fixed. And ultimately, because I didn’t have enough faith, I didn’t belong. The rhetorical trap pushed me out of the religion to such a degree that now I have a hard time seeing any value in religion.
A few months ago my wife begin an unstructured, fairly intensive deep dive into how her Jewishness fit into the narrative around privilege. In many contexts, especially in a geographic location where all fair skinned people are seen as white, she benefits from white privilege. Much like I do. The idea that we occupy a position and look at the world through that strikes me as rather uncontroversial. Instead, what I want to look at is in what way has the narrative around white privilege used the same rhetorical trap that I saw Christianity use?
Yesterday, we were walking to a show and I was talking about some of my more nuanced views of White Privilege; she stopped me.
“I just have a question. Are the people you are reading white men?”
The implication was a familiar one. Critiques of White (and male) Privilege from white males may not be as salient as other critiques because white males can’t escape their white privilege, and they also have the most to lose.
Yet I see that as a version of the rhetorical trap. I, ultimately, can’t help but look at the world from the standpoint as a white male thus my critiques of the way we talk about white privilege are suspect if not downright invalid.
I assured her that I was being diligent in my adopting these critiques and making sure I was not just being resistant because I didn’t want to change, wanted to hold on to my privilege. I get that; I really do.
Unlike when I was younger, I want to be able to understand and use the framework of white privilege as a way of seeing and understanding some of the problems but not have to accept that I can’t be critical of it because of my white privilege.
In other words, there has to be a way controlling for my standpoint. There has to be a way that people outside of our standing can understand, empathize with our experience without having to live our experience, or to borrow from feminist theory: Standpoint Epistemology.
Loosely, in Standpoint Epistemology, people who are situated within a category have claim to a certain privilege or authority within that category. Thus, because a person is a woman, an African-American, or a Trans-person, etc. it means they have a privileged authority on issues of being a woman, an African-American, or a Trans-person. And while I agree with that in principle, it doesn’t mean that someone who doesn’t occupy that standpoint can’t also be an authority. For example, there are many doctors who are of the opposite sex to their patients, yet we wouldn’t argue that all females should have only female doctors? That is not to say that we shouldn’t encourage more diversity in medicine because we should. But we aren’t going to stop treating illness and injury because we don’t have that diversity yet?
Taken to an extreme if we use standpoint as the most important qualifier, and the person who has it being the best authority then how are we going to live in community. Logically it leads to situation where no agreement can be reached because every conflict can be boiled down to springing from differing standpoints. If you only understood my standpoint you’d know why I did such and such and thus there’d be no right or wrong only standpoints. For example, (to use an extreme example) if you only knew what it was like to be an alcoholic you wouldn’t punish me for drinking to excess or driving drunk. If we aren’t able to take another person’s standpoint, then how can we possibly ever live in community? My living in community with a person of another viewpoint is dependent upon my ability to believe they can understand my position, perhaps even empathize with my position so that we can make decisions that mutually benefit us both?
Which brings us back to my wife’s question and why I’m still troubled by it several days later. While I agree that I need to look at my standpoint when viewing issues around white privilege, I don’t think because I have a lot of white privilege (and I do) it means that my critique isn’t valid. It does mean that I need to be very careful that my standpoint doesn’t shape or distort my critique. And my critique is that if we fall into the rhetorical trap of saying, for example, “Your white privilege means you can’t critique the concept of white privilege” then we are no better than the Christians who say, “You just need to have faith” and then follow whatever impossible facts or dictums their religion demands.