Social Justice Vulnerability

“Justice is what love looks like in public”

March 6, 2017
graphic with anatomical heart and the quote from dr. cornel west, "justice is what love looks like in public"

Dr. Cornel West said that justice is what love looks like in public. Some people don’t know what that means.

Behind closed doors, love looks like spooning and affectionate pawing first thing in the morning. It looks like cooking for your partner when you don’t like to cook. It looks like late night trips to the drug store when someone is sick.

In public, love looks like fighting for someone else’s civil rights. It looks like caring about the triggers that send people with genuine post-traumatic stress disorder into mind-scrambling panic and and tear-pricked eyes. In public, love looks like ensuring public events are accessible to people in wheelchairs, and that websites are accessible to people who are vision-impaired. People you don’t even know. In public, there are a lot of people you don’t even know. How can you show love to them without crossing social mores and boundaries?

Buddhists practice lovingkindness. The Bahá’í believe that existence stems from love from God and that we are called to love God and each other. In the Sahih Muslim Hadith, the Prophet Muhammad is reported to have said: “You will not enter paradise until you believe, and you will not believe until you love one another.” Søren Kierkegaard pointed out that in Christianity, love is a requirement. Jesus commanded that we love even our enemies and persecutors, and to be perfect at it.

So, why is there so much conflict, condescension, anger, and resentment coming from conservative—and largely religious—communities when it comes to laws and policies which cushion the blow of existence for as many people as possible?

Well, I think I can relate to it, actually, and will attempt to speak for it, if you’ll allow me to get quite personal for a moment.

I had to grow up tough. My family members were an angry, abusive bunch and once I stopped being so cute with my gigantic melon head and big eyes, once I started to have opinions, I was treated aggressively often enough that it’s coloured my view of my entire childhood. I was hit, I was given several swollen lips over the years, and I was called a “bitch” and “a shithead”. I was whipped with a belt until my stubborn, tough exterior couldn’t take it and I wailed, usually around the ninth or tenth strap. I was fed and clothed well for someone living in poverty but was otherwise almost entirely neglected so that I had to raise myself, teaching myself almost everything I know. I credit teachers, books, aunts, The Cosby Show, and Oprah for saving me.

While mine isn’t the upbringing of all men, they do experience relentless societal abuse. To be mocked for having sadness or any vulnerability is abuse. To be disallowed any vulnerability means that you have to store your pain inside your body forever. I’m as aware as anyone how much societal privilege and berth men enjoy. When they occupy all the positions of power and they use those positions to benefit themselves, it’s hard to feel sorry for them if they harbour some childhood sadness while they do it, because don’t we all? But if you’re female, imagine what it would be like to grow up not being able to talk to your best friend about your feelings because people like you don’t do that. Imagine that the only socially acceptable way that you have of engaging in friendship and play is to either bash your friends about in sport, try to best them in competition, or attempt to kill living creatures with them and when you need hugs or relationship advice, you’re out of luck. Boys are not inherently less tender and affectionate; they are raised to be so.

What about people in poverty? White people enjoy white privilege even if they’re poor but it’s very difficult for poor people to see that because class privilege scathes. And while some people manage to escape and climb social classes, they are as much the exception as people who escape prison. It’s difficult-to-impossible to care about anything but one’s own survival when financially struggling, so it’s easy to understand why so many poorer places are religious, searching for hope and meaning amidst hard living.

These are the two groups of people most vocally resistant to political correctness and other measures taken to advance equality and accessibility: men and patriarchal systems, and lower class communities.

And I get it. When you’re forced to be tough because your life depended on it, it’s really difficult to empathize with someone for being upset that you used the word futbol. If I was able to learn how not to be crushed and insecure when called a “little bitch”, you can learn to slough off a white person casually and mistakenly using the word “futbol”. You can absolutely learn to not make the worst assumptions, and to just not take things personally. It’s possible, lots of people have done it, and these are worthy goals which put happiness and even emotions within your own locus of control.

The problem, though, is that this is a lot of work. Arguably, a little girl shouldn’t have to learn to be able to withstand harsh parental insults, putting so much energy into believing she is nevertheless special and worthy. She should be playing and learning. Who could she have become if she hadn’t spent so much of her life dodging bullets and patching wounds?

Marginalized people are already wounded when they don’t have access to the same social, legal, educational, and financial privileges that white straight cisgendered men have. To then experience verbal or societal paper cuts every day… it’s difficult to become tough when you’re repairing the same wound like Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the mountain.

And is that what we really want? For everyone to be tougher and more callous, so that we can all behave how we want because total freedom is more valuable and fulfilling than close, tender, kind relationships?

If proponents for more emotional toughness had their way, we would not be a happier society. Intimacy is what keeps us alive longer, healthier and we lose this with our emotional toughness. Which would you prefer: A friend you can jibe and tease and laugh with over beers, with whom you never need to have awkward conversations about feelings and to whom you never need to apologize; or a friend whose neck you could bury your face in, crying, when you lose your parent or your partner; a friend to whom you can confide all your insecurities about work and whether you can really handle the big promotion, and they will point out with specificity all the reasons why you can do the big thing, and they’ll keep this meltdown between you and them?

People who don’t have these sorts of tender, giving, meaningful relationships don’t know what they’re missing, so their values are misplaced. It’s sad.


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