Friday, September 21, 2007

Why I Believe in Individual Action

Brian M., who always makes useful and wise comments here has a lengthy discussion of my previous post, which I hope you will all read. I actually agree with much of it, and appreciate it. Where we differ is in our assessment of the power of individual action, and as I was composing a reply, rather rapidly since Yom Kippur begins at sundown, it occurred to me that I have never told this story on my blog, and should.

My mother and step-mother are lesbians. They have been together since 1979, when I was 7 years old, and my sisters and I grew up in their household. By the time my sister and I knew what lesbians were and this was something unusual, we were made aware in a whole host of ways that this was a dangerous thing in society. My mother and step-mother were very cautious about public evidence of their sexual preference, from necessity. We kept an empty bedroom that was my step-mother's "official" room, so that no one who visited would know they slept together. When my parents divorce was being finalized, both father and mother warned us seperately not, under any circumstances, to mention my mother's sexual preference to the judge who decided custody - because despite the fact that both parents agreed with and had a mutually acceptable arrangement, the judge had the right, power and precedent to take us away from our mother because of her sexual preference.

When it became known at school that my mother was gay, this was a matter of some great violence - my sister and I were both regularly assaulted by schoolmates who had strong opinions on this subject. We got in more than a few fights, and got used to running home from school. There were children not allowed to play with us, or come to our house. There were occasional and frightening acts of anonymous homophobia. There was danger that either could lose their jobs working with children if the circumstances were known. In our religious community, there were dark comments about the inappropriateness of their participating in religious rituals, and no effort to make these comments out of their children's hearing.

All of this occurred in Massachusetts, which was and remains probably the most comfortable state in the Union for gay people to live in - which at the time was the only state with a publically gay congressman and other visible gay public figures. Being gay was dangerous, physically, culturally. It had, to a large degree, to happen in secret.

All this was true when I was 8. By the time I was 18, my step-mother had spoken publically at my high school on being gay, and there was a nascent gay and lesbian student's association, sanctioned by the high school. The acts of homophobia, casual violence and threat and the muttering in church went away, as though they had never been. Responses were positive. Both mother and step-mother were out at work and everywhere else. My mother and step-mother were permitted to raise foster children, and were overwhelmingly praised for providing them with a good and healthy environment to live in. It is hard to describe the difference in the culture, and this is not merely my personal perception, or the difference between childhood and near-adulthood. I know dozens of people who confirm that their world simply, deeply, changed for gay people.

A little less than a decade after that, my mother and step-mother were married in their church, and a couple of years later, they were married in the city courthouse of their community, and their picture appeared in the newspaper. All of this in 20 years. It was not perfect. It was not pure - homophobia still exists, marriage is not legal in most places, there has been backlash and there is still violence. But the difference between today and 1979 is the difference between night and day.

Brian is certainly right, it would be every kind of hubris to imagine that I could change the world alone, or that any single individual action could be the lever that moved society. And yet, societies change, often radically and rapidly. It would be wrong to identify one single mover that made that change - was it Oprah and Donohue who put gay people on their stages? Was it the Drag Queens at Pride? Was it the slow opening up of people to their parents and families in ways that made them think, "Oh, I cannot generalize on this subject now - it applies to me?" Was it Barney Frank or Roseanne kissing a woman on tv? Was it political action and marches or everyday things people did in their daily lives, when they turned to a colleague and said, "Meet my partner, James." I don't know. But I do believe that every person my mother and step-mother came out to, every time they insisted that we are a normal family, every time I said "my Mom's a lesbian - so what?" that made a difference too. It is not the difference of heroics, or hubris, or single actors. It is the difference of small things, and it was all the difference in the world to me.

When I came out as bisexual in college, I experienced difficulty and challenge, but the overwhelming support of a community, and nothing like what it must have been for my own mother at my age. She, after all, lived in a society where she could literally not know that she was gay, because being gay was so alien and unacceptable that she, like many people of her generation, married a man. I, thankfully, never had to live in that society - and yet she's only 22 years older than I am.

This was more than just that people did, as Brian put, the best worst thing. This was people doing the *RIGHT* thing, and transforming society to make it far better than it was before, and quite rapidly, too. And because I've seen this, I believe it possible. It is not possible to stop all the effects of climate change. It is not possible to do it without pain and discomfort - there was pain and discomfort in the change of society around gays and lesbians. It is not possible for me personally to change the world by myself, except in the tiny and incremental ways that ordinary people do by doing, to the absolute hilt, all the ordinary things they are capable of doing.



Anonymous said...

Oh Sharon, Happy Yom Kippur just can't be the right phrase, so uhm, I hope you face the days of awe with as much grace as you can muster, and beat your breasts for all of us out here in your community.

I too advocate individual action; it is good, but not enough. Collective action is also good but not enough. When the personal and the political merge, as in the homosexuality case, when action is individual and collective, personal and shared, this is the best I have seen, and sometimes it is enough, and sometimes it is not.

And I agree with you emotionally, that we must be proud of our successes as well as ashamed of our failings, and surely there are some impressive successes on the gay acceptance front in the US, to be proud of.

And I overspoke If I said we are always in the position of choosing the best wrong option. Sometimes we have a choice between right and right and our call is to choose the best right action we can - to be noble. Sometimes we have an option between right and wrong, and we are called to be righteous and choose the right, even if the wrong is tempting. Unlike pretty much all other theorists, I hold we are sometimes in the position of choosing between wrong and wrong, and are called on to display triage-savvy, to make the best of a bad situation by doing the best wrong thing we can.

Best wrong action usually happens when someone is caught in a moral double-bind, when our obligations conflict. And that happened even in the story you told. Consider when your mom tried to decide whether to tell the truth about her sexuality and risk losing you, or suppress the truth for the sake of her family and you. Surely, the elaborate charade of the other room hurt every time it was trotted out. What a betrayal to deny who she was and who she loved. And it certainly made things just a little harder for the next lesbian in line, it wronged all others courageously struggling for acceptance. But if she'd have told the truth that would have had some real wrong-making features too. It would have risked failing to do her duty to her family, to you. It would have wronged all the other lesbians trying to make a life for themselves in the closet. Back in 1979 many, many homosexuals lived lives of moral compromise, deciding when to be honest, when to be cagey and when to outright lie. They were trying to make the best of a bad situation, and they did wrong left and right, sometime lying, sometimes risking what was important. As things got better, the moral double-bind started to weaken. And it was weakened by the combined actions of the homosexuals who were outloud and proud, and the ones who were quiet and snuck into mainstream society under the radar often lying demurring and evading. It was weakened by individual and collective action together, and by both sides of the moral double-bind.

My Aunt Mary lived with her partner Susan for about 20 years. They raised Susan's twin kids together. They maintained this elaborate charade of "Susan's Room" too. I remember when I was 13, it seemed obvious to me that the room was not lived in. I asked Mary if she and Susan were lesbians, she denied it fervently. I couldn't believe that Mary would lie about something that important. They didn't come out to their kids until they were 18, and the kids took it hard, both that they were in fact lesbians, despite years of protest, and that they had lied so long and so hard about it. There relationship with Mary never really recovered and my impression is that there relation with Susan did only a little better. Perhaps things would have been different if Mary and Susan had leveled with their own kids at say 13. Then again, maybe that would have been enough for the father to take full custody, and he would have poisoned them against Mary and Susan anyway. What is the right thing to do in a situation like this? Tell the truth at all costs? Take any risk to keep a job or a custody that your family needs? Some balance or compromise? I'm not convinced Mary took the best wrong option, but I do think that every option was wrong.

And thoughtful homosexuals in the 80s wrestled with these decisions all the time. They especially worried about how there decisions effected the next generation of homosexuals. They were worried about the young 'mos just coming to terms with who they are for the first time, tentative and vulnerable.

Our moral double binds are not the same as theres, and not every situation is screwed up enough to require wise use of triage. But plenty are, and no one survives without doing wrong and negotiating moral double binds. Pay taxes and support the government's wrongs, or refrain and benefit for what your haven't paid for? Participate in the injustices of the economic system, or distance oneself from society so much as to be unable to effect it? Debate hard things on the internet, or save a little more electricity? What is the least wrong-per-calorie diet that you can manage to eat while still upholding your other moral duties and obligations?

Oh let us all do the best we can, and craft the best compromises we can and act well individually and collectively, and face whatever awes us morally with as much grace as we can muster. And let us do right when we can, even when the wrong is tempting. But let us not pretend that when we are caught in the grips of a moral double-bind where all options are wrong, that one option is wrong while the other is right.

-Brian M.

homebrewlibrarian said...

Actually, I think all of you have very excellent points of view - Sharon, Dewey, Brian - but I'm somewhat confused. It seems no matter what we do, it's not enough, so I guess my question is what WOULD be enough? Could individual human beings be able to do such things?

As a member of a Christian church I'm very familiar with the notion of having blood on my hands. The early church, once it gained political power, was not very kind and generous with nonbelievers. I do feel a certain responsibility for that even though it was centuries before I was around. I can't take back the horrifying actions done to thousands upon thousands of people but I can treat all people with respect. Yes, I know that's not helping the people in Darfur but it is helping my neighborhood and community. I can be an example for others and hopefully, others will reflect that example to yet more people. And maybe if my example of living lightly is adopted by others and so on and so forth, somewhere down the line, it could prevent yet more violence and climate induced trauma on others. This movement will be too slow to be much use to the people of Darfur but it just might help out the folks a hundred years from now.

Still doesn't clean the blood off my hands but I'm not trying to clean them. Nor do I try to rationalize as right one decision in a damned if you do, damned if you don't situation. I'm not perfect, I know I'll never be perfect but I can certainly aim in that direction. Best I can do. May not be enough but I refuse to succumb to helplessness. Instead I try to stay mindful and do what I can to end suffering, any kind of suffering whether it be momentary, big, small, catastrophic or whatever. Mostly it seems that the small, momentary stuff is what I can address, but it's still ending suffering even for a moment. There is value to that, particularly to the community around me, so it really doesn't matter if it isn't enough, what matters is that I do it. That we all do it.


Anonymous said...

Another powerful post.

Just wanted to say that I can't think of any real disagreement I've had with any of your columns.

Keep up the great writing.

Energy Bulletin

ByTheBay said...

Wonderful post - I hope you had an easy fast.

L'shanah Tovah


just ducky said...

Actually---individual action can be enough. There is an old saying (I first heard it from Mulan or Karate Kid or some movie like that)--you never know which grain of rice will tip the scales. All of the individual action added together is what finally tips the scales.

My nephew (13 yo) made some comment about homosexuals the other day. My daughter said "My mom has good friends who are gay." He then looked at me and asked "Really?" I said yes and inquired as to what he knew/was told about homosexuality. He said "Mother said it was yucky and not for me." I told him that what she said was ridiculous and that homosexuals are no different than anyone else on the planet. People are who they are--if someone is gay then so be it. Now I don't know if this conversation will have any impact on my nephew long term---but at least he has heard from one adult that we need to embrace acceptance and peace. This might be the one grain of rice that he thinks about when he is older---and maybe it will tip the scale...

I can think of lots of these "one instances" in my life that opened the door in my mind to acceptance, understanding, and compassion. I'm sure the other people involved never thought twice about the interactions, but I was changed forever by them.

jewishfarmer said...

Brian, I never claimed all moral decisions were easy, or that there was always a good choice. I do appreciate the depth of your analysis, and I always enjoy your comments - except, maybe this one.

That is, I was very much struck by how willing you were to theorize about the inner life and emotions of someone you've never met, and to use them to support your analysis. I'm pretty sure I'd remember if you knew me and my family - right?

I don't expose the inner life of people I love on the blog - I will talk about facts and actions, but I tend to assume that I don't know how anyone feels completely but myself, and I don't want people I know to feel that I'm using something complicated and important casually or for my own ends.

So I admit, I was really struck by how upsetting it was to have someone else describe the intimate feelings of my mother about past events in her life, and I came very close to deleting this post, so that she would never have the experience of having a complete stranger describe her feelings for rhetorical purposes.

I would prefer, if you want to discuss these matters - and I hope you will - that you stick to describing your feelings, or the feelings of people who you know won't mind the public exposure.

I will say that you are completely mistaken if you believe that my mother ever had any reason to worry about losing me by telling me anything.


Anonymous said...

homebrewlibrarian asks what WOULD be enough?

It doesn't work like that. Every mouthful of food that you eat could be eaten by somebody else, perhaps hungrier, perhaps starving. If you starved to death to feed them, would that be "enough"? Not really; that would be depriving the world of an aware person who can do some good.

The three rules of permaculture are care for the earth, care for people, and share the surplus. It is not a straightforward decision as to what is "surplus", and it can never be. We all have to work with the ambiguity. No black and white answers are available, or even possible. You just muddle through the best way you know.

--Lynnet in Colorado

The Purloined Letter said...

What a hopeful post! Realizing how much has changed in such a short time, on this issue and on others, certainly makes any changes we work on in our own lives seem profoundly more possible. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

ACK! I hate it when I wind up being rude even when I am trying not to be! I'm sorry Sharon. I. I even asked my wife to check over the post for ettiquette and tone errors before I posted it. And she didn't catch it either. I was genuinely not trying to attack or hurt you or your mom, or even my own aunt, but I can certainly see how it could come across that way.

Nor did I intend to expose anyone on your blog. I thought talking about what you had talked about in reply to you was fair. I was trying to follow the line of the conversation. You have always been such a gracious hostess, its annoying to me that I fail to be equally gracious as a guest. I'll try not to make that mistake again, feel free to delete the post if you want with my blessing.

I certainly never meant to imply that your mother might have feared loosing YOUR affection or support, by being honest with you. I easily see why you'd be offended if you thought I was trying to imply that. But that I theorized she feared losing your presence if a judge decided to take you away by court order, and that was why she was cagey with the judge and advised you to be as well. I wasn't even trying to imply that that was my aunt's fear, but I suppose I have already spoken too much.

I AM startlingly willing to theorize about the emotions of people I have never met. This is true. That's how I try to make sense to the world I try to understand how other people think and feel even when I have fairly little evidence. I don't know what other people feel, even those close to me, no one does. But I have to guess to make sense of the world. It seems to me that everybody does this. I don't know what it is like to be a lesbian in the late 70s and early 80s, and I never will, but I have to guess to try to understand those times, and the actions of people during them. I don't think I could refrain from that kind of theorizing if I tried.

The political and the personal are so intertwined. I don't know how to talk honestly about anything of importance without using both personal and collective ideas. I don't know how to talk of life without both feelings and actions.

If I have screwed up on ettiquette or tone again in my attempt to apologize, again I apologize. It is my experience that I tend to dig myself in deeper the more I talk. Have a better one, and once again sorry.

-Brian M.

jewishfarmer said...

Brian, thank you for the response, and I apologize if I over-reacted. We all have weird buttons, and this hit one of mine, without that necessarily meaning, in any sense, that by any absolute standard you were inappropriate. I appreciate the clarification - particularly from someone whose thoughts are so invariably helpful.



Iñigo said...

I believe in both individual an political action. The struggle of gay people for their rights shows us how bad we need individual action, but how in the end individual action falls short of having wider social effect.

A single person must fight, be sincere, true, be inspired, have courage and set an example. But that example will go no further than his community. If he/she is famous or has some power, the thing will go further. But it is the law, the regulations, that can make behaviours change or make them change. And those who want to oppose change will know that they are wrong and that their actions will be taken into account.

Politicians and institutions will not move lightly, they have to be made aware of problems and pinched to pay attention to latent conflicts. For that, we need individual action, but also the coordinated action of affected groups. Be it gays, afroamericans, gypsies, native, ecologists, feminists. Politicians can have courage and will, but also need support. We tend to believe that we live in a world that is more or less right. However, this is not so. Take the case of womens rights or the apartheid regimen that fell only 15 years ago!

Individuals will plant the seeds, but governments and institutions can make them flourish.

And going back to the gay example: the Spanish government allowed gay marriages in 2005. For that it payed a heavy political price, and in the next election it will probably have a political cost, because the political / religious right is very strong. Will all those who benefited from that corageous decision support the actual president? I doubt it. However, nobody will be able to change a iota from the law.

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