Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Dear Anonymous,

I'd address this to you by name, except that you didn't leave one. So please know that I mean no disrespect by calling you "anonymous." It's the only name I have for you, so it's the one I'm using.

In one of my recent posts, I complained about the fact that some people are rude to Christians, and/or ignorant about Christianity, at WisCon (which, for those of you just coming in, is a feminist science-fiction convention held every Memorial Day in Madison, Wisconsin). Here's the comment you left:
The whining about not feeling comfortable as a Christian is disengenuous at best. Seriously, you can do better.

Here's what it's like to really be uncomfortable in Wisconsin:

Did the people of the state say they wouldn't recognize your marriage because you're Christian?

Did people follow you around threatening to rape or beat you because they thought you were Christian?

Did you feel unsafe at the local hospital because the ONLY place in the area that the ems folks take rape victims is a Christian sect hospital? A hospital where ONE person is allowed to prescribe emergency contraceptives? And if that person's not on duty or sick or something, no emergency contraceptives can be prescribed for you there. Period.

Feel safe?

How about if you can't legally marry your beloved because the loving Christians of the state of Wisconsin voted to make it illegal?

How about if you can't cover your beloved with your medical insurance as straight, married folks can, because the state doesn't allow it. Feel safe?

Thinking about adopting? Anyone likely to discriminate against you because you're Christian?

When's the last time you felt really threatened because you wore a Christian symbol? Men following you around threatening you because you walked with a friend?

The Episcopal Church in the US is way better than most Christian churches in the US about gay and lesbian rights. But pretending that you really feel unsafe in any way because you're Christian in this country is misrecognizing serious threats to other people.

The great state of Wisconsin may not have jumped up and down to welcome your Christianity to a convention, but they didn't threaten your basic civil rights, either, or did they? Did the state government come threaten you? The local police?

Get stopped for driving while Christian the way our black citizens in rural Wisconsin sometimes do? Get arrested for nothing because you're Christian?

The whining by Christians is dishonest. Freedom of religion doesn't free you from criticism or scepticism. It does free you from abuse and discrimination by the US government. When's the last time the US government discriminated against you because you're Christian?
You're right: the US government hasn't discriminated against me personally becaue I'm Christian. (Christians in other countries have been discriminated against, even killed, but of course, I don't live in those places.) But then, I never claimed that it did. All I said was that that some people at WisCon were uncivil on the subject. Whatever "whining by Christians" you're referring to, I wasn't doing it. I'm not "Christians." I'm one, specific, individual Christian who was kvetching about a specific, individual, localized situation. (Criticism and skepticism don't bother me, by the way: bigotry does. Let me define my terms here: "bigotry," in this context, means assuming that all members of a given group are the same, rather than being individuals. Jerry Falwell and I couldn't be more different.)

Is being treated dismissively and rudely as bad as being threatened with rape, murder, or denial of civil rights? Of course not. Does the fact that I wasn't, at WisCon, threatened with rape, murder, or denial of civil rights mean that I should resignedly accept rude behavior from people who are reacting from fear and partial knowledge?

As far as I can tell, you think that the answer to that question is yes. (If I'm wrong, please correct me!) I think the answer to that question is no.

I don't think it's ever okay to treat people as less-than. Your position appears to be that only people threatened with rape, murder, or denial of civil rights have the right to be upset about being treated badly, and that anyone else should be grateful to merely be insulted and dismissed, because things could be so much worse.

Seriously, we can all do better than that.

There's no doubt at all that things could be much worse, for both of us. Have you ever been a victim of genocide in Rwanda or Darfur? Been an AIDS orphan in Africa? Lived in a cardboard box in Haiti? Lived in one of the many countries where women still don't have access to education or political power, or where no one at all has reliable access to food, water, or medical care? According to this logic, neither of us has the right to complain about anything, simply because we live in the U.S. I suspect we agree that the conditions I've just described are hideous, and that we all need to do whatever we can to right and prevent them. That doesn't mean that we can't also be upset about other things and work for other causes (not all of which, of course, will strike our fellow citizens as important).

Part of the subtext of your comment -- and again, please correct me if I'm wrong! -- seems to be that as a white straight woman, I can't empathize with the terror felt by people of color or sexual minorities. For whatever it's worth, here are some of my own experiences of being terrorized:

* Being beaten up nearly every day in junior high school by black bullies because I was white. This didn't, by the way, make me hate or even distrust all black people, although I can't say I was fond of the bullies; it did make me very grateful to the brave, decent black kids who stuck up for me (the mostly-white teachers weren't doing zip). It also means that I'm not entirely clueless about what racism feels like, even if I haven't been on the receiving end of it my entire life.

* At age nineteen, being trapped in an apartment with a hallucinating alcoholic who was throwing furniture at me and howling, "I'm going to make you bleed!" I screamed for help; I know the neighbors heard me, but none of them even called 911. Luckily, I got away without physical injury: lots of other people -- of all genders, ages, sexual orientations and ethnicities -- aren't so fortunate. The laws against domestic violence, welcome as they are, haven't kept it from happening.

* Five or six years ago, having my house repeatedly vandalized because my husband and I had put up campaign signs urging people to vote against a proposed constitutional amendment defining marriage as being only between a man and a woman. Our first sign was stolen; we put up another; it was ripped down; we put up another further in our property, which was also ripped down; we put one on top of our garage, whereupon we heard a crash as somebody threw a ladder against the house to rip that one down, too. The woman from whom we were getting the signs -- who's lesbian and knows we're straight -- was concerned enough about all this to call the police, who called us to ask if there was anything they could do to help us. We told them we didn't think so, but thanked them for offering. And sure, it was only getting signs ripped down: but believe me when I say that we worried plenty about arson and rocks through windows. The police told us we were right to be worried about that. So even though I'm straight, I know what it's like to be scared while sticking up for minorities.

Oh: and, by the way, yes, I have been chased and threatened with rape -- merely because I was female.

I'm not saying any of this to try to make you feel sorry for me: I'm indeed very privileged, and have also been very lucky. But all of the incidents I just described were "really uncomfortable," as I define that term. Were they "more serious," in the sense of being scarier and more physically dangerous, than being snubbed at WisCon? Of course. Am I grateful that nothing worse happened at WisCon? Of course. Does all of this mean that the bigotry of a few people at WisCon is okay and that I should feel fine about it?


See, here's the thing. My experiences with terror have turned me into someone who never wants anyone to feel terror. My experiences being belittled and put down have turned me into someone who never wants anyone to feel belittled. My experiences being made to feel less-than have turned me into someone who never wants anyone to have to feel that way.

What this means is that I'm firmly opposed to genocide, hunger, poverty, sexism, racism, homophobia . . . and having people be snarky about my faith -- without having any idea how I practice that faith, how I define it, what it means to me -- at WisCon. I can be opposed to all of those things at once (indeed, my faith emphatically calls me to be opposed to all those things at once) because all of them are wrong.

But not everyone who's been terrorized or belittled responds this way. One response -- one I've seen before, and which your comment appears to fall into (please correct me if I'm wrong!) -- runs something like this: "Only people who've been terrorized or belittled the exact same way I have count, and they're the only ones who deserve support, and they're the only ones I'm going to support."

This kind of thinking is very human and understandable. It also has some unfortunate logical consequences: 1) It means that those who subscribe to it are in some sense actually invested in suffering, which has become the only way they recognize worth, and 2) It means that the very worthiest allies are those who've paid the ultimate price and have died for their positions or as a result of their identitities.

Martyrdom is heart-wrenching, and the martyrs who've been produced by too many causes -- the Martin Luther King Jr.s, Oscar Romeros, Matthew Shepherds and Teena Brandons of the world -- are heart-wrenching symbols. Their stories can, and often do, help rally people to action. But dead people, by definition, are really bad at the everyday, undramatic, behind-the-scenes work that goes into creating political change. They can't stuff envelopes, sign petitions, lobby their elected representatives, write letters to editors, have persuasive conversations with friends, put campaign signs on top of their garages, or vote.

This means that they aren't the most effective allies. The most effective allies are people who haven't been killed or incapacitated. The most effective allies, then, aren't always those who've suffered the most.

There are lots of different kinds of Christians. I'm one of the ones (and we're a sizeable group) who believe in separation of church and state, in civil rights for everybody, in feeding the hungry: in love, rather than hatred or fear. I'm one of the Christians who don't believe in burning witches. I don't believe that everybody has to agree with me to be saved: I think the world would be a really boring place if it worked that way, and I think God is far too big to be contained in any box constructed by humans.

In my work as a volunteer ER chaplain, I've advocated for homeless patients even though I've always had a place to live. I've advocated for patients who were sexual minorities even though I'm straight. I've advocated for non-white patients even though I'm white. I've advocated for prisoners even though I've never been in prison. And yes, I've also advocated for Republicans, conservatives, and fundamentalist Christians -- even though I'm a liberal Democrat and proud member of the Christian Left -- because their politics weren't the point. Their suffering was the point. I don't want anyone to suffer, and I'll try to alleviate suffering however I can. That's what being a Christian means to me. I can't do everything, and some of my efforts are undoubtedly pretty pathetic, and even the good efforts don't always work. I try anyway.

Some of the hospital patients I just listed, if asked, might say that I couldn't possibly be a good advocate for them because I myself wasn't suffering enough, or because I didn't share their particular identity politics. I advocated for them anyway, even the ones who clearly didn't like me. I'd do the same for the people at WisCon who were rude to me.

That doesn't make the rudeness okay.

(Because of my volunteer work, I was particularly struck by the description of the terrible hospital in your area. Is there nothing anyone can do to advocate for change in that hospital? Lawsuits, letter-writing campaigns, letters to hospital administrators? Is this a situation where the hospital feels it can do whatever it wants because it's in an isolated area without much competition? Has anyone talked to the media about this stuff?)

One of my goals in educating the rude people at WisCon is to make them feel safer. Christians aren't necessarily out to get you. You don't have to flee in terror every time you see a cross. We don't all burn witches.

And so forth.

My young female university students often comment that they aren't feminists. In response to this, I always ask, "Does that mean that you don't appreciate having access to higher education or being able to vote? Because, you know, earlier generations of women who called themselves feminists paid very high prices to give you the right to those things. Some of them went to jail; some of them died. So please never take your rights for granted."

That usually makes them think. I'm glad I can make them think, but I'm also gladder than I can say that we've made at least some headway on the feminist front, and that my female students can, at long last, take some of their rights for granted.

Won't it be wonderful when sexual minorities and non-whites and practitioners of every faith can also take things for granted? Human rights? Civil rights? Civil behavior? A certain level of personal safety?

Isn't a world where we can all take those things for granted the world that all of us should be working for?


  1. God yes. Thank you for this entire post.

  2. Wow. just wow.

    I mean, yeah, the Wisconsin legislation that passed a state constitutional amendment banning anything resembling a marriage (aka civil unions) was a horrifying gut punch. I think most of the bubble that is Madison took it personally, my partner and myself included. And the Wisconsin Focus on the Family played a major role in lobbying for the amendment. But that has nothing at all to do with you and your experiences at WisCon. I mean, really!

    It's just as unfair to treat you as lumped into some stereotyped group as it is for the legislature of Wisconsin to treat me as part of some stereotyped group.

    You've already made this point more politely and more insightfully than I ever could, but oh! it makes me cringe when this sort of commenting occurs - not just for you, but also for the clear place of personal pain that "anon" is coming from. Sigh. But to echo Jacob, this is a beautiful post.

  3. Anonymous9:40 PM

    Thank you Susan. Your compassion and articulation are both something that I want to emulate. I appreciate this very much.

    Krsiten Durbin

  4. Awesome post Susan! Beautiful beyond words. Thank you!


  5. OtterB6:51 AM

    Hear, hear! Truly excellent and obviously heartfelt. Thank you.

  6. Anonymous11:49 AM

    A classy response to a comment that didn't really deserve it because of the comment's own "snarkiness".

    I commend you for your compassion in replying to Anon. I would have given in to my anger and told him/her to get down off the cross, we need the wood.

    Your blog is almost always challenging and thought-provoking. Thanks for that.

    Jeff P.

  7. The older I get, the less I like tolerance and the more I like understanding. Too often in our society, tolerance means, "You have to put up with this thing you don't like and may even find threatening, because if you don't you'll be labeled an intolerant bigot." Seeking understanding, though, doesn't mean you have to abandon your intellectual and moral judgment -- just that you really comprehend what it is that you're judging. Often understanding leads to tolerance, in fact; a truer tolerance, I would say, than tolerance that's mandated from the outset.

    OK, I'll get off my soapbox now. Great post.

  8. Thanks, everyone. These comments mean a lot to me.

  9. John Wirenius8:41 PM

    Brava. One of your best.

  10. Out of pain and misunderstanding comes compassion and love. You mark the trail so beautifully, Susan.

  11. Wow! What a resume. What a good response. And what a challenge for some of us who have faced almost nothing so uncomfortable.

  12. Again, everyone: thank you!

    And Martin: if I were in charge, nobody would have to face anything so uncomfortable! But of course I'm not, and I have to have faith that it's better this way. One of the lessons of SF is that utopias rarely work . . . and that when they do, they're really boring.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.