Sunday, May 31, 2015

"With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility" - Understanding Privilege and Guilt vs Responsibility

I'm sorry.

Anyone who knows me knows I utter those two words far more than is probably humanly healthy. Ordinarily, it tends to be about stupid things that I needlessly beat myself up over (since apparently while self love comes easily to adult me, I still have a tendency of holding myself to a ridiculously high standard). Tonight however, I'm saying it because I think I've finally had the concept of social responsibility driven home for me.

Before I continue, I'd like to reiterate that I have always had an understanding of this concept on an intellectual and moral level. I've always understood that it is the responsibility of those who do well by society's various standards to help those that do not. On a moral level, I've also always believed that while an individual member of a traditionally oppressive group may not hold any personal guilt in how the oppressed are treated by his or her peers, they do hold a responsibility as a representative of that group to at least attempt to make things better.

The thing much as I say truthfully that I've always understood this, I don't think I've gotten it more than I do tonight.

My lovely girlfriend this weekend embarked on what I've been told was an epic trip to the small northern town she calls home for the annual Pride festivities. As a fellow activist and believer in equality, my thrill at her going was only matched by my disappointment that I could not also be there fighting the good fight. The weekend was filled with fun and inspiring celebrations of diversity in all its forms, but one speaker in particular gave me knots in my stomach and almost made me tear up when my partner told me about it.

The speaker in question was a transgendered individual who transitioned from female to male. Anyone familiar with such things knows how difficult that can be, and how unaccepting society can still be to what many consider the most misunderstood and misrepresented members of the LGBTQ community. Apparently, the man spoke with much courage and light about his dark past and the difficult journey he faced in coming to terms with who he was. One period he mentioned that was especially dark was his time in middle school. Now, as I've said before, I also had dark times during that period of my life, but nothing I or many have been through can compare to the challenge of coming out as transgendered. This speaker mentioned how he had been bullied not only by peers but also by the administration at the particular one principal who made his life a living hell.

The kicker here is, he went to middle school at one of the schools a certain family member of mine was principal at, during the very time she worked there.

When I realized this, my stomach contorted in disgust and I proceeded to apologize profusely to my girlfriend. For her part, she was amazing and consoled me, telling me I could not control the actions of my family members. It was at that point that I came face to face with the concept of social responsibility. The fact remained that while, yes, I could not be held personally responsible for the actions of a member of my family (and thus could not and should not share the guilt), I do share in the responsibility for the situation because we are both representatives of our family.

I know what you are going to say dear reader, because its an argument that has been used time and again in similar situations involving racism, sexism and countless other judgmental isms. “You shouldn't take the blame for something that someone else did because you didn't do it yourself!” The thing is, this statement is both correct and incorrect. To understand how that's possible, one has to understand how we are all impacted by privilege in various forms. If you are a member of a traditionally privileged group, whether it be being male, straight, white, or any other state of existence that gives you an elevated status in the eyes of society, then while you are not guilty for the crimes of your fellow members of that group who may lack your level of enlightenment, you are nonetheless responsible for their actions.

Consider this example. I work for a medium-sized telecom company. Like most companies, the cost-service ratio is a mixed bag, and we naturally don't do well by 100% of our customers. When someone comes up to me at my workplace with a ridiculously high bill or another beef with some policy instituted by my superiors, the first thing they see is yours truly wearing his company uniform and standing behind the counter. In that moment, while I am not at fault for the particular policy that the customer has called into question, I am still responsible for at least attempting to help the customer in some way since I am still a representative of my company. Many people intuitively understand this in a retail or employment context, but find it more difficult to apply the same reasoning to issues of social justice because quite simply, it hurts to think that someone we may be connected to did something bad, and we don't want to be saddled with the guilt because gosh darn it, we are good people! This, dear friends, is emotion talking. Logically, the same argument applies in both situations.

So, to the awesome-sounding transgendered man who gave the truly inspiring talk at small-town Pride, I am terribly, humbly sorry from the bottom of my heart. In fairness, I don't know exactly what happened during those years, nor could I ever hope to understand how it must have felt. I will say that the member of my family in question is by no means an evil person, and has made great strides in terms of acceptance and belief in equality, but we are all of us human and prone to making mistakes and letting the dark sides of our nature through. I will not make excuses for her or anyone else, but I will take responsibility as a privileged member of the same family and say that I do apologize for what you may have gone through. While I have no doubt that the awesome person you have now become is due to both good and bad times, as is true for all of us, no one should ever have to endure that. You are awesome and beautiful just by virtue of being a human on this planet, and the fact that you have come through with such light just enhances your awesomeness by a factor of a billion. One human to another, even if I've never met you, I just want to say that dude? You rock!

I realize this post is not directly related to neurodiversity, but I think the underlying message is an important one for us all to consider. Every word, action and thing that comes from us directly impacts those around us. We must be vigilant and remember that, in the words of Uncle Ben from Spider-Man, “with great power comes great responsibility.” I am sure that my family member never intended to have such a negative impact, just as I am sure than many who are part of a privileged group do not intentionally want to seem arrogant as they attempt to wash their hands of the mistakes of their ancestors and fellow members. Unfortunately, it is rarely that simple. If it was, we would not have many of the complex social justice issues we now face as a society. While we do need to move onward and upward and leave the past behind us, we must also recognize that moving past the guilt often does and should involve embracing the responsibility of cleaning up the mess and putting the pieces back together. It's not an easy journey to make, but one I believe every member of our species capable of doing.

After all, if we want to build that better world, its where we need to start.

Yours in diversity,

Adam Michael

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