The Tendency to See Only What We Want to See

I’m white, straight, male, able-bodied and cisgendered. While I’ve been in debt (still am, and probably always will be), I’ve never been poor. I have a college education and an underpaying but still middle-class, professional-level job. I live in the United States. I have never known oppression or poverty. I have never been subjected to discrimination on the basis of my race or gender or sexual orientation. The closest I’ve come is a couple of times when I was a teenager, where I was followed around a store by an employee, and in one instance, forced to talk to a manager because of a baseless accusation of vaguely-defined wrongdoing.

The fact that I was a white teenager meant that such treatment was rare enough that I still remember both instances; the fact that I was a white teenager means that such treatment stopped when I grew older.

Being a part of the majority means that I can turn it off. All the injustice and discrimination, all the mistreatment and institutionalized bigotry, I can tune it out. It never affects me, at least, not directly. I’m insulated–so insulated that even now, when I try to force myself to see it all, I can only get glimpses and best guesses.

We talk about imagining what it’s like to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. It’s a neat metaphor, and one of the most memorable bits of one of my favorite novels, but it’s still just a metaphor. I can try on someone else’s shoes and walk around for a bit, but they’ll never fit me right, and I have the luxury of taking them off and wearing something more comfortable. For minorities? I imagine it’s a bit like having Barbie feet:

barbie_feet2

Destined only for heels and wedges.

Or, perhaps more accurately, bound feet.

There is only one axis I know of where I fall out of the majority, and that’s religion. I’m an atheist, and I have been for some time now. And since I’ve adopted that label and outlook, I’ve noticed all the little things. All the times I’ve had to bite my tongue at work or at family gatherings or at my own wedding. I’ve panicked about people finding out, and wondered what effects that would have on my life. I’ve noticed all the little ways that my culture legitimizes and benefits religious ideas and people. I’ve seen the assumptions that people blithely make about the religious and nonreligious, the stereotypes and myths they repeat and spread–“you don’t have the right to push your atheism into government and schools” or “if I were an atheist, I’d just rape and murder people” or “aren’t you sad that your life has no meaning” or “what’s the big deal about the Pledge of Allegiance? It’s just tradition.” And I’ve let those slide rather than potentially ending up in arguments or revealing too much about myself. Mostly I’ve seen how blind most people are to all of it, never considering that the Pledge of Allegiance or tax-free churches or “teach the controversy” might be a problem.

I couldn’t turn that off. It affected me, even if it was mostly because of minor annoyances stacking up over time. And noticing that, noticing that society was structured in ways that inherently privileged religions and the religious, was what got me to start noticing that other groups are privileged in similar ways. And that I belonged to most of those groups. And just as I know how hard it is to get religious people to consider things from my perspective when they’ve absorbed all manner of misinformation from society, I can see how hard it would be for a person of color or woman or trans* person or disabled person or non-heterosexual person to explain to me what it’s like and how it sucks for those little annoyances and injustices to stack up on each other. I know they hear the same kinds of myths and questions–“Black History Month? How come there’s no white history month?” or “what if I go into the girls’ bathroom or locker room and just say I felt trans* for the moment?” or “if I were on welfare, I’d just sit around and have kids too–who wants to work?” or “how can you change the definition of marriage? It’s tradition!”–and I know that those come along with a lot more discrimination and disenfranchisement and danger than I’ve ever felt for being a nonbeliever.

Which is one of many reasons why it’s so weird to be accused of seeing only what I want to see. Because as a straight, white, able-bodied, cisgendered, educated middle-class man, I have the luxury of being able to do just that, if I want. I can tune out the bigotry and the discrimination and believe that the world is a just place. I can believe that equality under the law means that social equality has been achieved, that minorities are just looking for extra rights above and beyond equal treatment, and that the worst injustice one might face now is a single-gender gym or hearing a prayer at a high school football game. I can go about my life assuming that I got where I am because of my own skills and talents, and that affirmative action and social safety nets are just ways of lowering the bar for the inferior and promoting generations of lazy drains on society and criminals. I can trust in the powers that be, secure in my knowledge that even the smallest crime which victimizes me will be treated seriously by the police, and that regulations are burdens on businesses that force them to do things which aren’t popular or profitable–because if they were, the businesses would do them already. I can watch TV and movies and never worry that I’ll be unable to identify with the characters, never worry that every straight white guy on TV will fall into the same stereotypical mold. I can walk home alone at night, or go out drinking and know that the worst consequences I’ll face are a hangover and maybe some crude drawings in Sharpie on my face, and that I’d hardly be blamed for either one happening. If I tuned out all the stuff I’ve begun noticing and reading about over the last several years, the oversimplified, black-and-white, “just world” that in some ways I’m programmed to see.

But that’s not the world that actually exists. And as a skeptic, I’d rather face a harsh reality than a comforting truth. I don’t want to see people I admired doing terrible things. I don’t want to see people in power abusing that power at the expense of the less powerful. I don’t want to see my bookshelf increasingly clogged with tomes by people I no longer respect. I don’t want to see the ways that I’ve contributed to and benefited from a system that harms people who aren’t like me. I see those those things not out of some perverse wishful thinking, but because they’re real.

And I wonder about the people who reject complex, ugly reality for facile faith in an oversimplified perception of a just social order, who still call themselves “skeptics.”

4 Responses to The Tendency to See Only What We Want to See

  1. quequoi says:

    Bravo.
    I hope this post makes it to every corner of the internet.

  2. JSN says:

    - Thoughtful piece… Useful as a “commencement” exercise for my college students to introduce them to issues of gender, race, privilege…and reflective critical thinking… Thank you!

    Note: Contrary to ordinary, every day common sense, “Commencement” is NOT the end of education… “To commence…” means “to start” (look it up!) and academic “commencement” ceremonies at Harvard used to happen at the beginning, not the end of the school year…

    Hopefully, your essay can be the beginning of thoughtful consideration of these issues, for if we don’t truly understand them, their root causes, purposes and the benefits they offer to some, we will not be able to take responsible actions to deconstruct and renovate the social systems by and through which we live our lives.

    FWIW, take another step… Google “Who designed Barbie?”…Explore that a little…and apply your skeptical mind and heart to what you find… Write another essay – and make this an ongoing series…OK? People of goodwill and good faith will follow you and perhaps… Well…who knows what might follow…

    All the best,

    Emyth

  3. Tony says:

    Tom,
    After reading a recent post of yours at Gretas (and having read other posts by you across FtB), and now this one, I just want to say you rock!
    It took me time to “get it”…to think outside myself. As a gay man, I have experienced little homophobia that I was aware of, but enough that I would get pissed off. Imagining people with physical disabilities, other PoC, and people across the gender spectrum (is trans* people the appropriate term?) dealing with their oppression became much easier once I became aware of some of the biases I have and how their struggles mirror mine.

    So thanks for this post and your great comments.

    (The radio station I am listening to is playing Sir Mix A Lot’s “Baby got back” and it is making me cringe with its sexism. Like you, I cannot turn off this awareness. But I do not want to either. I took the red pill. There is no turning back and I would not go back if I had the choice.)

  4. Pingback: Lessons from #AtheismPlus | Reality Enthusiast

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