I know what you’re thinking. Dear Magic California Roll, not another philosophical post. Please make it stop. But this one is different! I promise. I’m leaving the world of high philosophy and returning to world of getting shit done. Or at least the world of how shit gets done. By people with privilege. Okay, I lied, its another philosophical post. But I tried and that must count for something right?
Working towards social justice (however defined) can be tricky business if (like me) you’re swimming in a boatload of privilege. The problem is that oftentimes when we try to *help* someone, we end up doing what we think is best for them in the way we prefer rather than what *they* think is best for themselves in the way they prefer.
I saw this most profoundly when I was young. Each summer I was required (as part of the Christian sect I belonged to) to volunteer with various chartable organizations. One summer my parents thought it would be an “object lesson” to send to me volunteer at what was called “a home for unwed mothers” but was really where pregnant teenagers were sent to give birth. The young women there were given a room and food (often after being turned out of their own homes for becoming pregnant), but only if they “repented.” Repentance to the sect I belonged to meant humiliating “confessions” to the full congregation of everything they’d done; admitting that they were sinful, disgusting and weak; giving birth even if they preferred otherwise; and giving their child to a “good” Christian family that would prevent that child from repeating the same “mistake.” These homes may have provided basic necessities, but they in no sense *helped* the women unfortunate enough to walk through their doors.
Let me clear, the social organizations I work with today are miles apart from that hellhole.
And yet. I still see the same worrisome perspective. We’ll help, if you accept drug treatment. We’ll help, if you seek counseling. We’ll help, if you choose to leave your abusive partner. We’ll help, if you go back to stay with a blood relative. There are conditions on giving people access to the bare necessities of life and those conditions are connected to what the privileged people in charge think are *best* for those in dire need.
In post last week, Jadey quoted Rachel Naomi Remen’s notion of “fixing” from In the Service of Life:
When I fix I do not see the wholeness in the other person or trust the integrity of the life in them…There is distance between ourselves and whatever or whomever we are fixing. Fixing is a form of judgment.
I don’t think we are seeking justice and equality when we attempt to *fix* one another. Instead, I think we need to radically alter our institutions of social justice to listen to people who are asking for assistance, to meet their needs as they define them, and to meet those needs in the way that respects their perspective.
Failing to listen. Believing we *know* what people are asking for can be oppressive. My first DV case as a lawyer is illustrative of the damage you can cause. A woman came into the clinic covered in obvious bruises with a broken arm. When she told me what had happened I was full of righteous anger. I had internally begun to outline the case for a TRO, divorce, and custody hearing in my head. But that wasn’t what she wanted. She wasn’t ready to leave her partner. She almost walked out of my office without receiving the help she *needed* because I was too much of an ass to stop and listen.
Meeting needs as they define them. She needed a bank account that was not traceable to her. She’d spoken with several other people at the legal clinic and a few people at a couple of different banks, but everyone had tried to convince her that it didn’t *need* to be untraceable – there were bank privacy laws. They failed to respect her understanding of her own needs.
Respecting their perspective. This to me is the most radical shift in how most organizations do social justice. Its most noticeable where clients have an entirely different perspective from my own. For example another DV client did not think her husband was a bad person and she didn’t want her daughter to hear horrible things about him. When we were preparing the divorce papers, she asked for a no-fault divorce and sealed custody record. I respected her perspective and refrained from saying anything about the abuse she suffered during her marriage even when it would have been beneficial in negotiations over spousal support. Her perspective was paramount even when it contradicted my own.
Its hard even in the context of trying to make the world a better place to unpack that invisible knapsack and see where we’re imposing our own perspective on others in a way that oppressive. I think skepticism/fallibilism helps and points to these three ways in which people (myself included) are sometimes doing it wrong or could be doing better. What do you guys think? Are there more items you’d add? Am I completely wrong? Are you tired of philosophical bullshit and just want me to post pictures of Chi already?
(The clients mentioned here as well as in any other posts I put up have consented to the use of their stories sans any confidential information).