I’m a white, straight, middle-class, American male. These demographic features have awarded me a lot of privilege and paths to success (even though I would not consider myself “successful” by society’s standards). These demographics have, by and large, led to a life free of any real persecution and hardship that many others who have different demographics often face.
That’s why it’s time for me, and others, to learn to shut up and listen more to those different than us.
I’ve learned and have grown a lot in the last two years, much of which is due to reading and having a community full of different demographics and experiences. And without proximity and closeness, and a learned ability to listen, some of what I know I wouldn’t have known. In fact, without exposure to different backgrounds and lifestyles, I’d probably still be largely dismissive to ideas that didn’t conform to my constructed sets of right and wrong.
As a philosopher, I’ve long been interested in epistemology, or the study of knowledge. My graduate studies pushed what many know as objective truths – things that can be known via reason. Take for instance the following elementary statement:
All you need to believe this is a learned knowledge of mathematics. My life, background, and demographics do not change and ability to see the truth in this basic formula. I could radically disagree with another person’s standards and still agree on this truth-claim.
Or, take the statement “the sky is blue.” This, like the first, has a degree of objectivity in it, but might depend on certain features of the knower. Perhaps someone is color blind and unable to see blueness. The hue of the sky does not objectively change depending on who the seer is, but rather the seer might have different interpretations of the sky.
Yet when it comes to social issues – be it political affiliation, women’s health, same-sex marriage, social welfare, etc. – the fact is there are many shades of grey (just not 50 ;))
As a white, straight, middle-class, Christian male, the privilege I have forces me to interpret social situations a certain way, and a biased way. The problem lies in that this privilege is so often associated with power to make claims and actions that impact others who might live a very different life than me by no fault of their own.
I remember early on in seminary reading James Cone, the great theologian specializing in liberation theology. I remember hearing such dismissive comments of this view of the Christ and narrative of redemption because it was “personally biased.” Yet these comments, some of which were made by me, came from a perspective of privilege. My past dismissal of liberation theology was primarily informed by my “whiteness” and an inability to see the value of liberation theology from a perspective of so many that have been subject to systematic persecution. This is why I get angry when I hear other white people have such a hostile attitude to #blacklivesmatter. Being white affords white people like myself to not be treated differently just because of the color of our skin. Yes, other white people, #alllivesmatter. The issue is in that by saying that in response to #blacklivesmatter we are dismissing a movement that is bring to light the voices of those historically ignored. It should be obvious that all lives matter. That’s what we need to move toward. But the issue is that many seem not to value all lives equally. So time to shut up and listen to those who are saying that they are being silenced and profiled. As a white person, I don’t experience that first-hand. The task before then, is to learn. And that means shutting up and listening.
The same for my experience with the LGBTQ community. I am so blessed to have so many in my community that are sexual minorities. They helped me see the value of God’s love in ways I could have never managed minus their role in my life. The narrative I heard growing up was that gay people are inherently sinful, that they can’t be real Christians. Proximity, and a willingness to listen to the stories of people different from myself informed my shift in perspective on sexuality in general and same-sex marriage in particular. The narratives about the LGBTQ community I heard growing up (and in seminary) are so far removed from the reality I know of loving same-sex couples.
I could go on with other scenarios and perspectives I’ve learned from. But I hope the point is made. It’s time to shut up and listen. This is the only way we can learn and discuss other perspectives. This does not imply that perspectives of people of the same demographic as my own are invalid. No. Rather, the point is that the demographics of my own often drown out perspectives of others trying to get their voices and perspective known.
It’s quite easy to sit and judge from a distant space, to talk about people as abstract ethical topics rather than subjective and valuable people to learn from. So it’s time to shut up a bit and listen. We cannot understand the perspectives of others until we do so. Listening builds empathy. Empathy softens hardened hearts. Softened hearts help pave the path towards a better understanding those who happen to be different from us. Understanding helps leads to peace. Let’s get there together. But first we need to listen.