The difficulty of trying to talk to people

I was thinking today about something that’s occupied my mind many times in the past: namely, the differences between people, and how they can be bridged (or can they?). On our last day in Seattle we were taking a food tour around downtown, and the guide said something obliquely referring to gayness, and followed it up with something like, “But never mind, folks! Not a political show!” He was being jokey (why are US tour guides always jokey?) but I didn’t like it, this reducing of a whole body of struggle into a glib word, “political.” I saw this again today on Facebook, when in a discussion about whether a particular incident was racially motivated, someone suggested that this was not the space to discuss “hot-button issues.” While I had a lot of sympathy for that user — I’m doubtful whether Facebook is ever the space for serious discussion — again I didn’t like it, this reduction of racial consciousness into “hot-button issues.”


The thing is — and as someone who has feet in many different worlds, I’m ever conscious of this — one person’s “politics” is another person’s life-or-death, and on the flip side, your life-or-death is someone else’s wink-wink ha-ha “whoops, guess I’d better be ‘politically correct’ when I talk about this!” Which is to say, regardless whether you are a caring person or a self-centered one, an engaged activist or wilfully oblivious, we are not all affected by the same things to the same extent. Racism affects me more than it does my white male friends, but it touches me far, far less than it does my black friends. I’m upset by the news of Israeli airstrikes in Gaza, but on an immediate, material level, my life doesn’t change. Obviously an unjust world hurts us all, but we can’t all care about everything equally, and so, inevitably, we meet others’ outrage with only mild regret, and grieve and rail over our own sorrows while others look on with disinterest.

I wrote a post years ago asking “why aren’t we all revoluting?”, and this is, I believe, one of the answers: we can’t get it together enough for us all to revolute about the same thing at the same time. I suspect this is just a fact of humanity, exacerbated perhaps by our increasing diversity and lack of clear central allegiance (to culture, state, country, etc). At the same time, though, it bothers me when people don’t recognize that what they see as “politics” or “hot-button issues” are actually central to other people’s lived experience. That is what privilege is, right there: the ability to easily ignore something that other people can’t escape no matter how hard they try. And yes, of course, we are all a mixture of privileged and marginalized, but it doesn’t do to get too comfortable within our own privilege. You lose your humanity that way. You think you earned things you did not, and from there it’s only an itty-bitty step to believing that those who have less must somehow be less deserving, must not have tried as hard, must have made more or dumber mistakes.

It’s so painful to be on either side of this kind of discussion (regardless of whether you’re participating or merely observing). People feel attacked, misunderstood, dismissed, unseen, and it is so hard not to form allegiances, real or imagined: us versus them. We build bridges every time we get to know someone enough to transfer “them” into “us”, but nevertheless, real differences will always remain.

Not sure I was going anywhere specific with this, just wanted to write it out. If you have thoughts on this, I’d love to hear them.