This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 11/8/15 and looks at our history of building up and breaking down; asking where does privilege come in?
For those of us who have been on Facebook for more than a few years, it’s begun this nifty little habit of taking us on a stroll down memory lane. One of the new features periodically reminds us of posts or photos from a few years back asking if we want to re-share them. They tend to be moments that had a lot of attention at the time. It’s usually marriages, or witty comments, or … well… cat pictures. (It’s still the internet after all.) One of the more serious memories that have been popping up for me this Autumn, are from 4 years ago and the start of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
I think I only re-shared one of the memories – and I did so mostly because I was shocked that it had already been four years since the “public-private” Zuccotti Park was occupied down by Wall Street. It got me wondering though, where did all the public heretics, camping outside the center for financial architecture, get us to – today? It’s not hard to recall all the media critique of the protestors: 1) They didn’t have a clear leader. 2)They didn’t seem to have a set of clear demands they were protesting. 3) They were mostly trust-fund babies playing homeless.
It’s interesting how despite the lack of clear spokespersons, and a real platform that lifted up problems without clear solutions, most of the Occupy talking points have become central to today’s political discourse: 1) Affordable health care for all 2) bringing our troops home 3) tackling critical student debt 4) transparency in political fundraising 5) environmental action and 6) an end to racist structures like racial profiling and for profit prisons (to name just two.) As a quick aside, not incidentally, our social justice team will be leading our Fellowship this year through a period of reflection and action toward the last issue – prison reform in our country. You’ll hear a lot more in the weeks and months to come. And if you missed our announcement earlier, many of us will be joining in on the UUA common read of, Just Mercy. You can purchase a book in the social hall at the book table.
But regarding the Occupy critiques, I want to focus on the third bit and see how this relates to our own UU history of building up the world we dream about. ‘The Occupy protesters were mostly trust-fund babies playing homeless.’ At the time, I heard this over and over again in the media. My first reaction was to point out how actually that wasn’t even vaguely true. I remember the clothing drives, and the food drives, and even the business suit and hair cut drives geared to helping the homeless be prepared for job interviews – or just feeling basic human decency. I remember meeting a lot of UU youth – or newly young adults – folks who were raised in our congregations – who came out to do public witness for their faith and their values.
All of that, is what I would think – at first. But then I began to wonder – even if we were all merely trust-fund babies – what would that change? Why is it that when a person with privilege bucks the system, they are smeared as naive, or idealistic (idealistic said with that disparaging tone idealistic) or somehow disingenuous? But when trust-fund babies run for positions of leadership in our government or are propelled to positions of power in our corporations, they are seen as entrepreneurial or the embodiment of pulling oneself up from our bootstraps. (And as a side note, in case anyone hears this as a critique of one political party or another, all political parties are heavily filled with former trust-fund babies. So this is an equal opportunity observation.)
I think the answer lies in our relationship to privilege. When privilege pretends it doesn’t exist, we get to celebrate the American Dream without anxiety, and all is right in the world. When privilege becomes self-reflective, we have to call into question our sense of self; our sense of personal success; and we might have to change our behavior. …And that can be quite painful. So culturally, we are more apt to paint someone naive who invites us to call into question how we see the world. They’re just trust fund babies after all, what do they know.
All this month we are reflecting on what it would mean to be a people of Ancestors. Our religious education program is inviting children, youth and adults to do some research into our religious ancestors and you can learn more about that in the Social Hall after service. In this spirit, I’ve been thinking about our religious forebears who have influenced me. As we consider today our religious proclivity toward building up and breaking down, I’m remembering one Unitarian lay leader, and social justice advocate, Dorethea Dix.
Dorethea was a nurse in the 1800’s who would some day come to serve as the Superintendent of Army Nurses for the North during the US Civil War. But she would even more notably change the entire landscape of mental health in the US and in many countries in Europe. She tirelessly campaigned for reform of our mental healthcare options during a time when many mentally ill people were literally kept chained in basements. Where today we may campaign for better coverage for various health matters, Dorethea Dix was active at a time when the mentally ill weren’t always treated as humans. She was essentially a human rights advocate for a group of people in our nation who weren’t always seen as people.
Ms. Dix was directly responsible for helping to build 40 such hospitals in the US, affect change in Europe, and even convinced Pope Pius IX to build such a hospital after meeting with her. She called our nation to our better selves, and left the world a much more human place for her being here. But I mention her today because of her interesting relationship to privilege. In her case, male privilege.
Ms. Dix never married, although she was briefly engaged. Considering gender norms and expectations of the time, she would be far afield, yet she was a deeply respected citizen. In her canvassing for mental health, she would visit state after state and lobby before the state congresses for funding and changes in the laws regarding civil rights. Now at this time, women did not lobby before any congress. It was improper for a woman to speak publicly in such a manner. She would tirelessly meet with state representatives in their legislative office – one by one – and sway votes of state congresses in her favor.
After so many states had followed her advocacy, she made a national name for herself and was finally offered a chance to speak before one state congress. One of her biographies notes that Ms. Dix refused the offer, and insisted on meeting with members of congress one by one. To paraphrase, she felt it wasn’t proper for a lady to speak publicly in such a manner, and despite the respect people held for her, she wasn’t going to win the basic human rights for people who were mentally ill by giving into impropriety for expediency. Dorethea Dix changed the face of health care in our nation while doing so in “a respectable manner” – even if it meant she had to work twice as hard to do it – and she insisted on doing it the much harder way because that was the normal way for women. She was bucking the system in a way that the system allowed. Essentially, she respected male privilege.
Now, to be clear, I’m not critiquing Ms. Dix for it. She knew what she was doing, and had a cause that she felt was her calling, and she thrived in saving the lives of the people under her personal and political care. She consciously understood her relation to male privilege and made choices she felt would lead to success. I applaud her understanding of the system, and we should revere her for her tireless ministry. But we can also learn from her awareness of the nature of privilege. When we challenge another’s sense of privilege, the road may be harder. So sometimes we can consciously choose not to challenge that privilege, in order to make other critical gains.
Can we be so conscious as our spiritual ancestor Dorethea Dix? Do we make the same choices? What was right for her, may not always be right for us though. I worry sometimes that modern Unitarian Universalism is too often reticent to challenge privilege where we may need to challenge privilege out of fear of being called naive, or idealistic or the reality that some doors will be shut when we do so.
I think certain forms of privilege can be easier to talk about these days than others. As a religious people of heretics and iconoclasts, for some time we’ve accepted the kinds of privilege men have as a real and negative thing for society. We can point to the real ways in which women are negatively and directly affected, and we generally understand that this also negatively albeit indirectly affects men too. We can look back on the 1800’s and easily say it’s not right that a national leader and reformer like Dorethea Dix shouldn’t be allowed to publicly speak before congress – and we can reflect on that with little personal sense of risk … now. But at the time, it would have probably felt like a much bigger risk.
Where do we fear to so tread today? Challenges related to gender are not gone from us – clearly. And sometimes those challenges are lifted up in a publicly predatory manner. Just this past election day, the city of Houston voted to end a piece of legislation that was designed to prevent discrimination in public places and housing based on race, sexuality, gender, gender identity and physical disabilities. But opponents of the provision zeroed in on bathrooms. Commercial after commercial would use cartoons to draw a man – vaguely dressed as a women – entering women’s bathrooms. Signs would insinuate the law would protect predatory men when they victimized helpless women. It was also a viscous caricature of Transfolk.
I usually talk about what kinds of actions we can take in response to this bigotry (and frankly, misogyny.) But today, I’d like to pause and reflect on how our own sense of privilege can feed this behavior. Privilege can teach us who are victims and who are victimizers – who matters and who doesn’t. In the Houston political attack adds: LGBT folks are caricatures of people, women are victims, and confusion around what maleness, or femaleness, or let’s just say gender – confusion around gender is terrifying. Privilege teaches us to say what’s normal and what’s not normal, and then we get to paint a picture that makes “not normal” really scary.
It’s also a pretty typical strategy of bullies – public or private. Someone with privilege in a certain area picks a fight with someone without the same power or privilege – the bully starts the attack and then when folks speak up against it, the bully claims victimhood. We see it in our schoolyards, we see it in our neighborhood circles and we see it in politics. A local ordinance designed to protect actual victims from bigotry gets subverted into a threat to those with more privilege and gets overturned. It’s like the old picture of a pie. If you’re used to getting the whole pie – if someone comes along and asks, “can I have a slice”, privilege teaches you to feel threatened. “Why are you taking something away from me?” When do we listen to that voice in our own lives? When do we fear scarcity when we have so much? When are we diminished by another’s addiction to privilege?
As a people of ancestors, what do our heretics and architects teach us? Our ancestral heretics amongst us teach us to challenge injustice where we find it, but our deep ties to a tradition of architects asks us to tread carefully whenever we seek change. Is balance really important when facing privilege? Or is it more important to try to see the places where we hold privilege, even knowing there are places where we hold vulnerability? Each of us, in our own ways, have one foot in both privilege and hardship. Both can be true for each of us. In better knowing ourselves, we can help to build a more just world. It’s probably just as important as all the action we take in the world – because truthfully – our inaction and our reticence speak as loudly as our actions for justice.