Quick thoughts on Racism, Safe Spaces, and Protest

I wrote this post as a comment in a Facebook conversation. However, I can't post it...probably because it's too long. So I'm dropping it here and I'll link to it on Facebook. I think readers of this blog can get the idea of what was being covered through my answer. I want to expand on these ideas later, and more clearly, but I have no problem sharing a raw version right now.

The article in question is here: Human Wall

I want to address some of the topics in this conversation directly, instead of as comments on other people's posts. As a Stoic who supports social justice movements, accepts and promotes the idea of safe space, and often participates in actions considered "rabble rousing," I just want to be on the record as to why a Stoic might partake in such things. This will be long and incomplete. I'll probably write an article on my website later.

 First though, there's a language issue. Racism, Whiteness, White people, people of color, etc...are often words/categories that individuals cross-talk about. We aren't speaking about the same thing even when we're speaking at each other. So the author of the Reason article says the students are being racist against White people. I can be rather certain that the protesting students would say that that is impossible, and I would agree. People of color (POC) can not use racism against White people. This is because racism is not equal to bigotry. Racism is a structure of laws, customs, beliefs, etc... that support a dominant group through the direct material oppression of other groups. Bigotry can be part of racism, but it is not even necessary for racism to have an effect. In the United States, historically and culturally, then and now, Whiteness is the category that is supported by racism. Racism can not be wielded against Whites by definition. People can be bigots towards White people, they can put up obstacles in their way, but this is not racism.

This is the context in which POC and others say that racism is impossible against Whites and that reverse-racism is ridiculous on its face. Also, you may notice I keep capitalizing White and Whiteness. In the discourse of racial studies, racial history, social justice movements, and the like, Whiteness is a social and political construction developed as a means of understanding who gets access to power in a racialized society. Whiteness was developed in direct opposition and for the oppression of "others" (those outside the system). When people are against Whiteness, as I as a White person am, they are not against Scots, Irish, Germans, and so forth. They're against a fiction that treats certain people as the default category of humanity.

Now, many people here may disagree with these definitions. However, these definitions are not new. They have been part of the discourse for decades. Blog posts, papers, and books addressing such things are readily available through simple Google searches. "Social Justice Warriors" (I consider myself a Social Justice Wizard) are speaking from positions similar to the ones I just laid out. If you're going to argue about beliefs or tactics, understand where we are coming from. Don't just say, "but that's not what racism is." It IS in our discourse. Has been for a long time.

So why would a Stoic support actions like the one in the article, or just the ideas behind them if not the particular action itself? First, Stoicism holds that all people are equals in human dignity. Second, Stoicism demands that we live out virtue as we understand it. Possibly a more controversial third point, Stoicism frees us from passions SO THAT we can live out virtue fearlessly.

 As I mentioned in statements about racism, racism causes real material harm to individuals. It displaces people, slashes wages, denies services, incarcerates, and attacks dignity and human worth daily. It is a system designed to oppress and it functions whether or not people are well-meaning or bad apples. When people seek out "safe spaces" they are looking for room to breath. On a college campus, they might be asking for one place, just one place, where their value as a human isn't up for debate. This is not a new idea, is is asking for the same sort of space that has been provided to others since universities began. The university system is a millennia long experiment in the creation of safe space for white men. Not only POC, but all women, people with different gender expressions, all marginalized groups, have been denied access to higher education and had their opinions, work, etc...dismissed out of hand when they have been allowed in. This continues.

I consider it a Stoic duty to use my place in life for the actual benefit of others. First family, then community, then world. I believe the freedom I gain from a Stoic outlook and the freedoms I have as a citizen in my own nation, should be turned towards making better systems. Acceptance of what is, with action towards what should be.

Which brings me to protest actions like the blocking of the movement of White people. It makes quite a point! White people, for a moment, confronted with a real obstacle, symbolic of the ones POC face everywhere. There's another term out there, "respectability politics." I'm going to straight grab an online definition for this one:

"Respectability politics or the politics of respectability refers to attempts by marginalized groups to police their own members and show their social values as being continuous, and compatible, with mainstream values rather than challenging the mainstream for its failure to accept difference."

Respectability politics, and the tactics of respectability in protest, don't work. In a world where a man taking a knee during a song solicits death threats, simply asking "please, see me as equal and listen to my concerns" is wasted time. Again, racist systems do not require bigotry to fuel them. Marginalized groups do not need to sit down with White people or cisgendered people for a neighborly chat, they need those people to stop supporting systems that kill and oppress them. Disruption protests are what works in the face of blindness to real problems. Disruption can, perhaps, alert an affected person to the issue at hand. If not that it will, always, point out the power that protesters can wield when they choose. In my own city, Black Lives Matter and aligned groups did not receive audience with the mayor by asking at community meetings or through his staff. They got his ear after we shut down a bridge.

Many of us are drawn to Stoicism because it is a practical philosophy. Practical in that it can have a real affect on practitioners. What is that effect for? Do we overcome anxiety simply for tranquility? Do we learn to by unperturbed by rude or dis-humanizing actions just to absorb them as if nothing happened? I suggest we look to Stoic exemplars. Hercules, Socrates, Diogenes, Cato. One myth and three men who are held up in the literature as exemplary humans. Hercules who actively overcame obstacles. Socrates who accepted death over shutting up about wisdom, Diogenes who lived his entire life as a stick in the eye to society, Cato who sought what he saw as the better world until it killed him.

I first put Stoicism into practice to overcome crippling anxiety and depression. The Stoic mindset helped me win many battles, ones that I still fight on occasion. Now, in general, I have solid emotional, mental ground to stand on. Am I done? No. Now I have energy to spare. I use it to work for real change in this world as best I know how. Aurelius once reminded himself to do the right thing even if others can see him doing it. Why would he even need to worry about such a thing? Because the right thing is often not the socially acceptable thing. Still, a Stoic isn't concerned with whether virtue miffs our opponents. We do it anyway.

So should every Stoic be a "Social Justice Warrior?" I wish, but no. We all need to live where we are at and act as our own understanding requires. Should Stoic SJWs stop calling themselves Stoic or do Stoics have to be civil? Well when society is uncivil, the civil action, the social action, will grate against it. One of my favorite Seneca quotes defines the outcome of the Stoic life :

No school has more goodness and gentleness; none has more love for human beings, nor more attention to the common good. The goal which it assigns to us is to be useful, to help others, and to take care, not only of ourselves, but of everyone in general and of each one in particular. -Seneca, On Clemency 3.3

We should live how we must live to make this outcome true.

Screw Up

Man, I really messed up at my job yesterday. I'm an instructor for the American Red Cross, primarily teaching First Aid of various stripes. Yesterday I had two classes, one at a business out of town which went well and one in Vancouver, Washington that did not. The Vancouver class went wrong mostly because I tried to run it from Portland, Oregon.

I wrote the wrong destination down, completely my own fault. When the courses' start time came around I thought, "this sudden rain storm may have bogged down traffic." When the call from a student came in asking where I was I thought, "Oh man, I'm an idiot."

Now, many times people sign up for my classes at the tail end of a deadline for work. There's a standard rescheduling/refunding method for classes but I knew many people could have a problem if they didn't get certified right away. I asked if people could wait for me. Google claimed it would take me forty minutes to arrive and then I'd have about fifteen minutes of gear set up to do. The students said that Southbound traffic is easier (Google claimed it would take them 20 minutes to arrive) and, since I was already set up, things would get started much quicker. More than half the class decided to drive down to me. Ten minutes after that decision I received another call.

There was a man threatening to kill himself on the Interstate bridge between Vancouver and Portland. Police had stopped traffic in both directions. All of the students were stuck on that bridge for an indeterminate amount of time.  The night continued to run just as smoothly as it began. I ended up training a few people in Portland, driving to Vancouver and training another man there, and then writing up an after-action report to document my foolishness for Red Cross records.

Why am I sharing this? Because I feel fine. When I received the initial call revealing my mistake, adrenaline flooded my body. In the past, that initial embarrassment would have blossomed into a panic and shame that would have crippled me in the moment and followed me for days. Not anymore (perhaps I should simply say, not this time?). I had, and have, genuine concern for my mistake and for those it affected. That's why I spent the evening getting as many people certified as I could. It was all I could do. The students didn't need me to feel bad, they needed me to certify them. I was very apologetic, sincerely so, but when it came to my job I was confident, instructed them without cutting corners, and just got things done.

It was Stoic practice that allowed me, a person who spent much of life crippled by anxiety and a resultant fear of embarrassment, to turn an unfortunate event into a somewhat better event. It was small daily attempts to not just read words but embody the Stoic mindset that allowed me to do what Marcus Aurelius advised and, "not...feel exasperated, or defeated, or despondent because your days aren't packed with wise and moral actions. But to get back up when you fail, to celebrate behaving like a human --however imperfectly-- and fully embrace the pursuit you've embarked on."

I know I'm writing like I triumphed over an invading army when all I did was clean up my mess as best I could. I just want it documented that Stoicism changed me. For all it's smallness and all the grace that other people are often willing to give, mistakes like yesterday's used to leave marks on me. Waking up unscathed is worth celebrating.

If you have similar issues with personal mistakes, Episode Eight of Good Fortune, "When We Stumble," might be for you. Podcast here. Transcript here.