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QCQ 11: Rawls’ Theory of Justice pt. 1

Quotation:

“The basic structure is the primary subject of justice because its effects are so profound and present from the start. The intuitive notion here is that this structure contains various social positions and that men born into different positions have different expectations of life determined, in part, by the political system as well as by economic and social circumstances. In this way the institutions of society favor certain starting places over others” (Rawls 7). 

Comment: 

This quote comes from the second section of the first chapter in Rawls’ A Theory of Justice. In this particular paragraph he introduces social justice, which focuses on the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society. Problems arise when “major institutions define men’s rights and duties and influence their life prospects” (6). Rawls therefore writes that one’s identity or starting place can have a large impact on their life. 

As I read through part one in Rawls’ book, a major issue I was having was with his two conditions of a well-ordered society: that everyone can accept what justice is and act on it, and that institutions will honor those beliefs. This quote calls both of those conditions into question, and implies that they cannot be fully possible or realistic. 

It can be said that a large group of people being born with an inherent ‘free ticket to ride’ is unjust, because it goes against Aristotle’s pleonexia. Sure, those people couldn’t control the situation into which they were born, but they were still seizing advantages from others in a general sense. They have a great deal of privilege, and part of it is not having to realize that you have privilege. In that sense, those people can easily deny that they are part of an unjust system, thereby disagreeing with others and losing one understanding of the principles of justice. Also, even within marginalized groups-those with unfortunate starting positions-there are varying degrees of consensus on what justice truly is. For these reasons, I don’t think society (at least not an American society) is capable of coming to the exact same conclusion.

Further, many institutions, such as the school system and the political system, do not and cannot ever fully honor the peoples’ beliefs on justice. Not how they are currently, anyway. They make it impossible because they were created by, and intend to favor, certain individuals and groups. To borrow from Audre Lorde, they were built with the master’s tools and were intended for the master’s use only. It is these institutions that give way to those sacred starting positions of privilege, that ensure their survival even with the creation of new laws and norms. In fact, the isms themselves-racism, sexism, heterosexism, and so forth-can be called institutions themselves, so how could they honor the ideals of social justice? Of justice in general? Therefore, I also cannot see Rawls’ second condition being put in place. 

None of this is to say that people and institutions cannot change, but it cannot be done without serious efforts. The master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house, after all. I believe our conception of justice should be fluid, even if I recognize that we must start from somewhere. Context and history matter, even if everyone can come to agree about justice. And overall, I think we can’t move forward unless we acknowledge those who have and those who have not; the different starting positions in our lives and the major role that they play. 

Question:

Given this critique of Rawls, is it possible for us to settle on principles of justice while we still play a part (active or passive) in injustice? 

Class discussion and impact:

My contributions: I brought up my main issue with Rawls and how it’s difficult to all agree on justice, especially when institutions conflict with individuals. I also pointed out that even reactions to injustice like the Declaration of Independence excluded a large portion of the population. There will always be conflicts.

Other’s contributions: Sinead called into question social contract theory, how it’s all well and good to imagine making rules but that we will always have been born into an already clear set of rules, and that we will have to go along with them. Anna wondered about individual versus societal definitions of justice, and also noted that that whatever rules we have in place harm will always be caused either by those rules or by people going against them.

I really liked this discussion because many of us were saying similar things. We were wondering about the validity of Rawls’ views when thinking about conflicting conceptions of justice and problems within institutions. It was important, though, that we addressed social contract theory, because that gave me more of an understanding of where Rawls is coming from. In my QCQ I sort of accused him of not being very thoughtful about issues of privilege and systematic oppression, but I see now that he was just trying to set up a basic line of thought for a just society. It’s just difficult to separate what you know of reality and what theories people come up with. I will hold onto my hesitancies about Rawls but will try to remember which theory he is working off of and how that lead him to have certain ideas.

QCQ 10: Mill’s Utilitarianism

Quotation:

“In the first place, it is mostly considered unjust to deprive anyone of his personal liberty, his property, or any other thing which belongs to him by law” (Mill 129).

“Thirdly, it is universally considered just that each person should obtain that (whether good or evil) which he deserves, and unjust that he should obtain a good or be made to undergo an evil which he does not deserve” (Mill 130). 

Comment:

Mills is going through various ideas about what is just or unjust. They’re all slightly different, but still hold the idea of “a wrong done, and some assignable person who is wrong” (134). In the case of these two lines of thought, the first would indicate that no matter what, the wronged is the one being targeted for something that he has, and the wronged in the second being the one deprived of something that he deserves. 

Throughout this chapter, I found myself transported back to my highschool ethics class. One particular day, we had a discussion about a dilemma wherein a man with a very sick wife was being overcharged for the medicine that would save her, and so he thought to steal the medicine. The idea was that how you viewed the situation implied a certain level of ethical understanding (though I don’t remember all the levels clearly). I myself felt that the husband was justified, but one boy disagreed, adamantly stating that the store owner’s property was his and his alone, and that any damage to his property was the most wrong thing. I remember being very frustrated with him for being so inflexible, because he hadn’t thought for very long about the situation before jumping to that conclusion. 

I plucked these two understandings of just and unjust because the first made me think of that boy, Brian. Or at least, how he was in high school (he may have changed his views). The second appealed more to me during that time and still how I feel now. Both of us had clear ideas about the justified person, being on opposing sides in a sense. I felt so strongly that the store owner (who normally charged a certain amount but was suddenly upping the price when he saw how much the man needed it) was in the wrong. I felt that the husband and his wife deserved to obtain that good. Brian felt that the store owner was being harmed, because the medicine was still his to sell. Perhaps, while I was putting myself in the husband’s shoes, he had put himself in the store owner’s shoes, thinking that if he ran a shop he wouldn’t want people to go around stealing from him just because his prices were unfair to them personally. 

In a sense I can understand where he was coming from now, but even more so I understand that it is a just thing that each of us can have our own thoughts without facing penalty. I almost want to add that to Mill’s list. I may have thought how Brian approached that situation was wrong, and he probably felt the same about me and everyone who disagreed with him. There are many people today that I believe to be wrong. But on the flip side those people think that I am wrong. We get the right to disagree with one another, but I believe it’s just how we act that determines who the wronged truly is and who is the one doing wrong. 

Question:

Which of Mill’s five statements about justice appeals the most to you and why?

Class discussion and impact:

Towards the end of class we listened to that long paragraph from Mill, which made me think of LeGuin. The idea that what’s best for us supersedes what’s best for you. Also, Hayley’s point that what’s just or unjust is heavily dependent on society and not its own individual sensation resonated with me. My QCQ reminded me that everything is subjective, and that we will never have one right answer about what’s best and what causes the most pain.

QCQ 9: The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas

Quotation:

“…It follows from the fact that the people of Omelas are happy people. Happiness is based on a just discrimination of what is necessary, what is neither necessary nor destructive, and what is destructive” (Le Guin 1-2).

Comment:

The narrator is describing the city of Omelas and its people, who are happy but not simple. They live in a seemingly perfect society, where “they did not use swords, or keep slaves…got on without the stock exchange, the advertisement, the secret police, and the bomb” (1). This quote foreshadows the truth we learn about the boy in the cellar, and how his misery is what sustains the happiness of these people (3). As such, the people have decided what is necessary for that happiness, and that it is not destructive.

When I first read this quote, I didn’t quite understand it. In fact, I labeled it with a question mark because the wording threw me off. The meaning I have come to is that, throughout our lives, we make a lot of decisions. Some are simple, like what to have for lunch, and others more complex, like which politician to support. As altruistic as we like to make ourselves out to be, I think we tend to prefer the decisions that will make us specifically happy.

To reword this quote, I might say that a series of decisions are made by society between what’s most important, what’s desired, and what’s harmful. Though, of course, that will mean different things to different people. What’s harmful to me might be important to someone else, what I just see as a desire might be seen as harmful (i.e. technological devices that make life convenient for me but contribute to carbon emissions).

This would lead into the idea of the boy trapped in the cellar. It’s certainly true that he is being harmed. He deals constantly with “fear, malnutrition, and neglect” and believes that he has been put there because he has done something bad, crying out, “please, let me out. I will be good” (3)! It’s unclear what his suffering has to do with sustaining happiness, but “they all know [the boy] is there, all the people of Omelas” (3). And even though there are people who, upon seeing the boy, leave and don’t come back, there are still so many who are content with this understanding that their happiness cannot exist unless this wrong is done.

The people who do not walk away from Omelas, adults and children alike, have made a decision. Sure, there might be a period where they live in ignorance, like the children before they go to visit, but overall the people are being willfully blind. To me, this boy represents the undesirable things that exist in our world. Things that cannot fully disappear, even in a perfect society. The isms, oppression, unfair labor practices, etc. People experience pain on a daily basis, and yet many of us are fine with such things existing because, hey, that sweatshop makes really nice dresses that I can wear to my party. We make decisions that what is destructive is necessary.

The final thought I had that made me chuckle (and perhaps it shouldn’t have), was that the narrator was going out of their way to make this place seem real to the readers, encouraging them to add whatever they liked to this city. The final piece of information we are given, then, is about this great darkness. And somehow, by highlighting this uncomfortable truth about humanity, this world was instantly made more real.

Question:

Do the needs and happiness of the many take precedence over the few?

Class discussion and impact:

We had a very interesting class because we focused more on themes in the reading rather than just individual QCQs. Utilitarianism, happiness, and the mentality of “out of sight, out of mind” were all examined in different ways. We mainly had similar thoughts with slight variations, and we also wondered if we had our own ‘boy in the cellar’ in American society. I definitely want to continue to explore what utilitarianism really means and who is determined as less deserving that the majority. I think it relates strongly to my social work studies. After all, a main goal of ours is that we’re meant to be providing resources for everyone, but who needs them more? And just what does that mean for those who are left behind in the cellar?

QCQ 8: Mandragola (pt. 2)

Quotation:

“MESSER NICIA: I made him undress. He was whimpering” (Machiavelli 5.2, 54).

Comment:

Messer Nicia is recounting the events of the previous night to Ligurio, wherein (on the ‘doctor’s’ request) they kidnapped a ‘stranger’, gagged him and put a bag over his head. After bringing him to the house, Nicia had forced him to undress, be inspected by Sostrata, and made him have sex with Lucrezia. The stranger had initially been quite confused and frightened, but Nicia pressed on anyway because he was that desperate for a child (5.2, 54).

I chose this quote because it made me think of the end of our class on Thursday, where someone had made a comment about what a gender reversal of this play would look like. While the point had been (I believe) intended comically, I looked at this whole scene and imagined how different it would feel if this stranger had been a woman forced to have sex with a man.

I mentioned the channel ‘Pop Culture Detective’ in class and the creator’s video about the sexual assault of men in TV and movies, and I really do think its applicable here. The point of the two-part video was that we generally accept the joke of men being assaulted because a) we believe it couldn’t possibly happen, b) they end up liking it so it’s fine, or c) the character being featured was horrible and ‘deserved’ it. To focus on the first aspect, men can be assaulted (usually by other men but sometimes by women), and even if women are more often the victims that doesn’t take away from those male victims. Assault usually has less to do with gender and sexuality and more to do with the assertion of power. So to present male victims as a joke might be said to be a continuation of that power assertion, i.e. that we should see these types of men as lesser.

To be fair, Callimaco was the stranger and he was playing an act, not actually scared of what was happening to him because he had planned it. But Nicia thought this was a stranger. So, to him, this was a perfectly acceptable thing to do to someone. Sure, the point of the play is that he wants a child (a son, really) so he’s desperate to try anything, but even then one might think his conscience might kick in at some point. He complains “about Lucrezia’s foolishness, and about how much better it would have been if, without so much bickering, she had given in at the very beginning,” but she was right to be hesitant (5.2, 54)!

Again, some would try to argue that ‘you really can’t force a man to have sex because that’s all men want anyway’, which would connect to that second point. In terms of this play, they might look to the end of the scene, where Nicia “couldn’t get that racal to get up” out of bed because he’d had such a good time (5.2, 55). But to push this idea that all men are sex-crazed fiends is just as horrible as saying that all women who are raped are ‘asking for it’ because of how they are dressed or what they were saying. And the men who commit assault, desiring to hurt another person just to have sex, should not be seen as the norm. Those women who assault, rarer though they may be, are proof of the fact that the act itself is about more than gender.

Question:

Would this play sit as well in our stomachs if Messer Nicia had been a woman with an infertile husband, and had been okay with forcing another woman to have sex with her husband?

Class discussion and impact:

I thought this was very much a continuation of last class’s discussion but with added elements. For example, some still finding the play funny despite its problematic elements or the idea that even the original audience was aware of the satire/intent of the play. My QCQ (and the last one) was definitely focusing more on male victims of assault and how society views them, but following the train of thought about autonomy was interesting. That may really be my main issue with the play (certain characters having their free-will ignored), and I suppose I needed to explore that more fully with the class. Everyone had good ideas, and this play definitely opens up the important ideas about the importance of considering intentions when harm is caused.

QCQ 7: Mandragola (pt. 1)

Quotation: 

“CALLIMACO: Nothing’s ever so completely a lost cause that there can’t be some way to hope for it, even if it’s only weak and empty; the passion and desire a person has to get what he wants keeps it from seeming so” (Machiavelli 1.1 9). 

Comment: 

This quote comes from the beginning of the play Mandragola. The protagonist, Callimaco, is struggling because he’s lusting after a married woman, Lucrezia. There are of course many barriers in between him and what he wants, and his servant, Siro, wonders what Callimaco is planning. Callimaco speaks this line to show that he intends to move forward, because to him it’s still possible to be with Lucrezia (1.1 9). 

I chose this quote because, quite honestly, it frustrates me. In any other setting, this sentiment about not giving up one’s passions because of other factors that seem to get in your way might be admirable. But Callimaco is referring to trying to sleep with a woman who, by all accounts, is not interested. In my opinion, that’s not something that men should aspire to do. 

There’s this long running idea in our society and in our media that women are a prize for men. We are shown that they are desirable, that they need to be ‘caught’ or protected. On the flip side, we see that women are supposed to yield to men’s desires. Now, this may not be as obvious as it used to be. We are more critical of how women are talked about and portrayed in shows and movies, and the #MeToo movement is proof that women are done accepting harassment. However, these ideas do still exist, because they are at the core of sexism. 

In Mandragola, Callimaco showcases this idea of ‘getting the girl’ by any means necessary. His goal, as we see later in the play, is not necessarily to pursue a relationship with this woman but to have sex with her. (And even if he wants a relationship, that still doesn’t excuse his plan to try and break up a marriage). He doesn’t appear to care if she loves him back, or if this is even something she would want. In fact, the plan hinges on her being convinced of having sex with a stranger by her mother and by a friar, and not on him talking to her or getting her thoughts. Her desires come secondary to his own. 

Callimaco’s declaration, therefore, is not an inspiring line but an insidious notion that men are entitled to get what they want. That women are that grand prize for men who work hard enough. Anything’s possible if you keep trying. Even if you’re told ‘no.’ Even if you have to lie or use force. In the eyes of our protagonist, that solution of sleeping with a married woman was always there because he deserved it. It was just a matter of putting the pieces together in the right way and manipulating others. 

In all honesty, this entire play frustrates me. Even if it’s meant to be a comedy, its ideas about women are very harmful. The very fact that it is discussed as a comedy, meant to be humorous, is even more infuriating. I know this was written a long time ago in 1518, but as I said, these ideas still haven’t gone away. That’s why I think it’s important not to indulge such beliefs and critique them whenever they arise. Otherwise, we may be playing right into this system of oppression.

Question: 

Is it right to try and ‘get what you want’ if doing so is going to hurt other people? Are your desires more important than theirs? 

Class discussion and impact:

Once again I felt like we were on a similar wavelength in this discussion (for the most part). None of us enjoyed the play very much, mainly because of the moral ambiguity. In terms of my QCQ, we had a discussion about intent to harm and whether or not it can be justified, which was interesting. I mostly needed to get my thoughts out about the sexism in this play, so I hope I was able to do that. A few others (like Anna) had some thoughts about the play’s objectification of women, so I’m glad I wasn’t the only one noticing problematic issues. I hope to continue to be critical of works while still being able to examine them in more traditional ways.

QCQ 6: Antigone (pt. 2)

Quotation:

“And that, child, is how you ought to keep your / affections: Stand by your father’s ideas / in all things” (Ant. 37, lines 649-651).

“What threat is it to speak my resolve to you?” (47, line 767). 

Comment:

The sisters Antigone and Ismene have just been captured for their transgressions-Antigone for actually committing the act and Ismene for knowing about it and doing nothing (30). Creon speaks with his son, Haemon, who originally was meant to marry Antigone. Creon asks his son if he has “come to fight your father for your bride” (37, line 643). Haemon initially shows his support of his father, saying, “Father, I am yours, and as you have me, / you guide the best course for me to follow” (37, lines 645-646). Creon, proud of his son, speaks about the importance of loyalty in children towards their parents. Later, when a disagreement ensues between father and son about the situation, Haemon declares that he is not defying his father but speaking his mind. 

One of the first ways we gather information about the world we live in is through our parents. The behaviors we are praised and scolded for, the clothes we wear, the food we eat, all of it comes from them. As we start getting older, things like political ideologies, religious beliefs, and personal biases may become adopted by us as well. At a certain point, though, we may break away from our parents’ beliefs and opinions in order to form our own. I don’t think, like some might, that this is bad. That it should be labeled as disobedience. We are all our own people, and as people it’s our responsibility to learn about the world on our own and decide our own path. We may find that the things we followed as children don’t make as much sense as we thought, and we shouldn’t be punished for having that epiphany. 

Haemon is not necessarily going against his father for speaking his mind about what is happening with Antigone. He’s trying to offer his perspective, and defends it when his father grows angry. He’s frustrated by his father’s obstinance at seeing the other side, and I can certainly understand that. I’ve been in these situations too, and I have a hard time trying to get my mom to see that I’m not fighting her, but rather the specific idea she expressed. To reject an idea is not necessarily to reject the person as an individual, but I think that’s hard to understand, especially if you are used to your child accepting and going along with you most of the time. 

In Antigone, things are of course a bit different. Aside from it being a very serious situation, there’s this other level of power imbalance with Creon being the King and Haemon, technically, one of his subjects. But Haemon definitely is approaching this matter as a child challenging his father rather than a subject rebelling against the king. He never claims not to love the man and respect him, but that doesn’t stop him from continuing to push. I think it’s important to not only form new beliefs but to share them with one’s parents, even if that may not end well. If we never try to learn, we will never grow. And it’s foolish to think that adults cannot continue to grow and change, because they were children once too. 

Question:

What is the responsibility of parents to learn from their children? For past generations to learn from future ones? 

Class discussion and impact:

I was a bit hesitant to share my QCQ because I wasn’t sure if it could be relevant to our ongoing discussions about justice and civic duty. The discussion that we had today, though, showed me that I was wrong. There were still strong connections to the content we have been exploring. We focused on the idea of power and who has the right to wield it, and connecting that to my writing, I think that’s definitely an issue among parents and children. There is often this immediate assumption that power should go to adults/elders and not to younger people, but indeed younger people sometimes have wisdom that can be shared. I also appreciated Hayley’s comment about how smaller (micro) situations of injustice could translate to larger (macro) situations. And I liked, too, the connection to the individual family of Creon and the city of Thebes as a ‘family’. I will try to be more confident about my work, because it’s probably not as bad as I think it is and does feature important connections.

QCQ 5: Antigone (pt. 1)

Quotation:

“I do not dishonor them, but to do this / against the state-I have no strength for it” (Ant. 16).

Comment:

Antigone and Ismene, daughters of the infamous Oedipus, lament that King Creon has allowed only one of their brothers to be given a proper burial. The justification is that Eteocles “fell fighting for this city [Thebes]”and so deserved to be treated with honor, while Polynices “returned from exile with hopes of burning his native land and ancestral gods from top to bottom” and therefore should have none (20). Even though the Gods demand bodies to be tended to a certain way, the King (the state) is declaring that to be illegal. 

I have, for the majority of my life, had complicated views about religion. There are constant issues regarding the separation of church and state in our country, a law which is so often forgotten. People constantly quote the bible as justification for why a certain group of people should be treated poorly or not allowed to exist. I won’t lie; that truly frustrates me. However, in reading Antigone, I feel compelled to examine the other side of the argument of church vs. state, since it really is the crux of this play. 

When I use the term, ‘religion’, I recognize that I am mainly referring to Western religions (Christianity, Catholicism, etc.). In reality, ‘religion’ is a very broad term, and very unique to each individual. There are also plenty of religions that exist in the world, all with very specific rules and systems of belief. Even if people don’t agree with them, they are not inherently lesser because they see the world in a different way. Greek mythology may not be around anymore, nor are the methods of they practiced, but for a while the ancient Greeks believed that “those who did not receive proper funeral rites were doomed to wander by the river Styx, the entrance to the Underworld, for eternity; their souls could never be at rest” (67). That specific belief is not inherently about control or discrimination, rather it is a guide for people whose loved ones have passed away. And funeral rituals do exist for current cultures, such as Muslim and Jewish people.

For all the generalizations I make, not everything within religion is designed to attack others. Sometimes there are just ways you need to do things, and I can imagine it must be frustrating when barriers prevent you from doing them. This can be highlighted in the famous case of the Lees, a Hmong family in California. Their daughter, Lia, was having terrible seizures. Because their religious beliefs were at odds with Western Medicine, the Lees disagreed with medical doctors and did not comply with the medications they were meant to give her. Regardless, when it came to children, the state of California had “the right…to force the patient to comply with life-saving treatment, even if it is forbidden by the family’s religion” (Fadiman 311). Many other Hmong families were pushed to comply with various operations and treatment plans despite what their religion stated. And so, for them, the issue of church vs. state is very personal.

Being controlled by the state is not an issue unique to religious persons. There has been a long history of laws and policies enacted with the intention of controlling certain populations. The idea of being forced to do something you feel to be wrong is certainly frustrating and frightening. To be told your beliefs don’t matter, that you don’t matter, I’m sure is difficult. To clarify, none of this is to say that I support the use of religion to control others in the same way. But I can see why Antigone-and the Lees-would be so angry with the state for trying to say they couldn’t do what they believed to be essential to protect the ones they loved. Knowing all of this, I will try to be more open-minded about the idea of religion, rather than simply following the assumptions in my mind.

Question:

How do you reconcile what you believe with what the law states?

Additional Resource:

Fadiman, Anne. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997.

Class discussion and impact:

I had the important experience today of having my QCQ challenged. I had brought up the notion of church vs. state, and Maeve had stepped in to say that the true issue of the play might be that of citizenship and the rights therein. It was only because of Polynices’s status as a traitor/noncitizen that he was denied traditional burial rites. I hadn’t considered this, and I feel my ideas have been expanded as a result. I still hold my thoughts about the defense of religion playing a greater role, but I will try to be more critical of the quotes I pull in the future and think about them in different ways.

QCQ 4: Between the World and Me (2-3)

Quotation:

“And the word racist, to them, conjures, if not a tobacco-spitting oaf, then something just as fantastic-an orc, troll, or gorgon” (Coates 97). 

Comment:

Prior to this quote, Coates had been telling the story of an encounter with a white woman who pushed his son out of the way. He had reprimanded her, as any parent might, but was then almost cornered by another white man and a group of people trying to defend the woman (94). He contemplated what it would have been like to tell that woman that she was succumbing to racist history, and how she likely would have immediately claimed that she wasn’t racist (97). Coates points out that the idea of the ‘racist’ is somewhat mysticized in our culture. 

I chose this quote because it reminded me of several videos I watched by a woman named Lindsay Ellis, the subject of which being how racism (and oppression in general) is portrayed in the media. In her opinion, it’s all too often made to seem like just an individual issue. And then that individual himself is little more than an over-the-top caricature. The problem with that is, when the audiences see that portrayal repeatedly, it reinforces their existing beliefs about what racism is and what it isn’t. And those beliefs are often incorrect.

I can’t help but agree, as I’ve grown up around these examples. People in shows who go around announcing ‘I don’t like black people’ as if that’s all racism is. That it isn’t rooted in a deep history of systemic and legal control of people of color. That it can’t crop up in significantly more subtle ways. Realtors steering people of color towards minority neighborhoods, teachers expecting less of children of color and thus doing little when faced with their lower grades, the higher likelihood of white politicians passing laws that harm people of color and other marginalized groups (Rothenberg 251). We don’t like to talk about those things because, in various ways, we all contribute to them. We don’t pay attention to laws and policies that don’t concern us, we don’t consider how they could hurt people who don’t look like us. We keep watching movies where the over-the-top bigot is brought down or laughed off screen and think, wow, we’ve really made progress, haven’t we?

Racism is individual as well as systemic. Paying more attention to the macro level can be eye-opening if not frightening. On the micro level, yes, I do think that woman in Coates’ story was being racist. I don’t think I can picture her pushing aside a white child with as much ease. Of course, she may not have been thinking of it that way, but that’s not the point. The point is that, when racism is individual, it too can be hard to see. Just because someone doesn’t loudly announce their opinions doesn’t mean that they don’t hold them. 

But to show that onscreen might cause feelings of shame and guilt, alienating a large portion of the audience. We can’t have that; we need them to keep buying tickets, keep queuing up to watch the next episode. So we will likely keep seeing those fantastical portrayals, if indeed we see them at all. And thus the cycle will continue indefinitely. Unless we speak up about it. 

Question:

Given how misunderstandings about racism can have a dangerous impact on people, how can we challenge the traditional stereotype of “the racist” in a constructive but educational manner?

Additional source:

Rothenberg, Paula S. Race, Class, and Gender in the United States: An Integrated Study. New York, Worth Publishers, 2016.

QCQ 3: Between the World and Me (part 1)

Quotation:

“It began to strike me that the point of my education was a kind of discomfort, was the process that would not award me my own especial Dream but would break all the dreams, all the comforting myths of Africa, of America, and everywhere, and would leave me only with humanity in all its terribleness. And there is so much terrible out there, even among us. You must understand this.” (Coates 52).

Comment:

This quote is the culmination of the thoughts that Coates has been having regarding his education and his status as a black man. He’s been searching for answers in the pages of many famous authors, which often disagreed and conflicted with one another. He’s at a level of enlightenment and yet still feels this discomfort with the knowledge he’s gathered. However, he does not see this as bad but rather necessary in order to move forward. 

I chose this quote because it reminded me of another class I have been taking called Human Behavior and Social Work Theory. We’ve been studying the ‘isms’ (racism, sexism, etc.), prejudice, and oppression, but more specifically where our beliefs surrounding those topics came from. We wrote a paper last semester (as it’s a two part course) about precisely that, though our professor had warned us that to look so deeply into ourselves and our history might very well be uncomfortable. That we might realize things about ourselves that we had tried to ignore. 

Any investigation into oppression may lead one to realize the role they might have played in it (if the reader is part of the oppressors) or the impact it has had on their life (if they are a part of the oppressed). If someone becomes upset by certain assertions, they have to ask themselves why they are upset and the roots that feeling has. This is not necessarily a fun experience, but it is a necessary one if any change is to happen. 

Coates and I have had very different life experiences, to be sure. I have always had the privileged status as a white, middle class woman, and as such I’ve gotten to live most of my life without having to think about prejudice and oppression. This isn’t to say that I’ve never thought about it, but that I never had to think about it in the same way he and other people of color must. That’s what privilege is, and that’s why it’s so discomforting to have to learn about it and face it head on. “Humanity and all its terribleness” is not something that we as the more privileged group like to focus on, because it puts us in the spotlight (52). It makes us see all the conscious and unconscious moves that we have made and the impact it has on others. But again, we must have that discomfort or else things will stay stagnant. There is indeed a great deal of terribleness in our world, in our country, but one way that we can challenge it is to examine ourselves and the people around us with a more critical eye.

Question:

When it comes to difficult conversations, what can we learn from our own discomfort?

Class Discussion and Impact:

We didn’t get to my QCQ, but in a way I feel like we did. We spoke about education, and how it as a system is complicated and at times biased. We spoke about race and racism, and the ways we learn about and accept them. I think within all of that there is some discomfort in learning about the world and its complications. That it’s awkward having to challenge your worldview or the worldview of your friends and family. I enjoy taking part in conversations about these topics, as well as hearing from my classmates about their reflections.

QCQ 2: James Hall

Quotation: 

“Well, if anybody’s mean to you you’ve got to be nice to them” (Hall 13). 

Comment: 

This quote is spoken by James Hall in his interview with Gregory Hunter at Duke University. Hall was explaining that, after he had bought sixty acres of land, he was having trouble with James Bachelor, one of the white farmers who owned the land on the other side of his fence (11). Hall said, “my cows got out and he [Bachelor] got out in the road and he drove them in his pen…to get my cows, twenty-five dollars, that’s what I had to pay him” (12). But then, when a similar incident occurred and Hall had Bachelor’s cows on his land, he didn’t ask for any money and simply gave the cows back.

I chose this quote because as soon as I read it, it truly resonated with me. I think when someone is cruel to you, the first instinct is to resent them. To scowl at them whenever they pass by you or take any opportunity to get little revenges. Even just picking them apart at every opportunity, like Bachelor did when he “said that James Hall over yonder, he’s crazy” (11). 

Hall was in an even more difficult predicament than most, though, because he was very limited in what he could do in the Jim Crow south. Any kind of open retaliation might have caused him harm or cost him his life. Indeed, he did face a great deal more opposition doing absolutely nothing, with people killing his animals, burning crosses on his yard, and even putting a bomb in his mailbox (20-21). It was fair to be charged for dealing with animal issues (12), but it’s also  true that politeness might have been his best option when faced with Bachelor to avoid further danger.

What struck me, though, was that that wasn’t how Hall framed his decision. He didn’t say, ‘I did what was best to avoid another blowing out’ or ‘he wouldn’t have given me the money anyway.’ He said, “if anybody is mean to you you’ve got to be nice to them” (13). Even in such an uncertain and frightening time, he still believed that kindness was the way to go. I think that speaks even more the power of his sentiment, that he could hold onto that idea despite the time. 

I have definitely had people treat me poorly throughout my life, and while I never retaliated, I did hesitate to send kindness their way. Hearing about Hall’s experience certainly gives me less of an excuse. Maybe we don’t have to love or support everyone, but maybe continuing to be polite and respectful can go a long way. It may be difficult, and I’m certainly not trying to say you’re a horrible person if you are unable to face certain individuals who’ve wronged you. I’m also not trying to say that marginalized people, for example, have any sort of obligations to aid their oppressors. I do think, though, that kindness is how we might see some changes. Simple acts or words may not create better people, but surprises can still happen. Bachelor did end up relenting about James Hall, “he’s tell to be a little better than I thought he was” (14). And even if we aren’t expecting people to change, it’s still better to be kind than spiteful. 

Question: 

What are some ways we can work with those we disagree with the most?

Class Discussion and Impact:

Lots of us (including me) had the same quote for our QCQs, which amusing, but I like that we all had slightly different takes on it. Several said Hall not asking for money was more about being the bigger person or showing independence and strength. I hadn’t thought of that, though I suppose it’s somewhere along similar lines. Myself and others said it was more about the golden rule and a general kindness (“kill them with kindness”). My perspective has been enhanced somewhat, but I still stand by my reasoning. I also enjoyed the documentary because I really had no idea that Boston had been so against integration. It really makes you challenge the stories that get told about the North and the South.

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