Tonight I spent a fruitless hour talking with a friend about the “microaggression training” workshops that are soon to be offered by our local Unitarian-Universalist church. She’s fer ’em; I’m agin ’em. Neither of us managed to shake the other’s view. I’ve read a lot more widely than she has about the social movement of which this effort is a part, but she is much more inclined to be optimistic about life than I am.
Her stance, if I haven’t misunderstood it, boils down to the idea that doing small things that may improve the world is worthwhile, because these small things create momentum that will (or may) someday lead to changes in the big things. Such as, you know, an end to racism. Yeah, sure. Right.
Her examples of the need for microaggression training included people reaching up to touch a black person’s hair. Probably a black woman, and presumably someone the toucher doesn’t know well. I can’t even imagine anybody doing that, but my God, it must be utterly terrifying, having someone touch your hair. (Snerk.) Another example my friend mentioned was people asking a gay man (obviously they don’t know he’s gay) if he has a girlfriend. Wow — the idea that a gay man would have to think up a snappy comeback and have it ready! We should all rush to take this training so gay men don’t have to torment themselves for hours on end trying to think up snappy comebacks.
I’ve been reading a book called Without God, Without Creed by a historian named James Turner. In it, he traces the changes that took place in religion, and specifically in European-American Christianity, between 1600 and 1900, as a result of which actual atheism became, rather suddenly and surprisingly, possible. It’s a fascinating book, and one point in particular caught my eye. Before the Renaissance, people didn’t generally believe in the idea of progress. Human history was felt to be either static or cyclical, not to be trending upward. As religion collided with science and as the printing presses got cranking, thinkers’ view of history underwent a tectonic shift. The abolitionists in the U.S. in the 19th century weren’t the only ones who believed in or agitated for social progress, but they were in the vanguard.
Consider, if you will, Martin Luther King Jr.’s statement about the arc of history. Here’s a passage explaining that quote; I lifted it from an opinion piece on HuffPost:
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” is King’s clever paraphrasing of a portion of a sermon delivered in 1853 by the abolitionist minister Theodore Parker. Born in Lexington, Massachusetts, in 1810, Parker studied at Harvard Divinity School and eventually became an influential transcendentalist and minister in the Unitarian church. In that sermon, Parker said: “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe. The arc is a long one. My eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.”
The ideal of social progress in the direction of justice, which my young friend cherishes, is an expression of religious faith — not just because it comes from the mouths of ministers but because it is unprovable and because it imputes to the universe itself a moral tendency that frankly doesn’t exist. The universe is not a place that is organized according to any sort of morality. The universe has no moral dimension at all. And in case it isn’t obvious, human history is a phenomenon within the universe. The only conclusion a rational person can possibly come to is that King was talking through his hat. (As the HuffPost piece by Mychal Smith points out, Parker was a good deal less confident about the thing than King.)
We can each try, if we choose, to bend the arc of the universe in a direction that we conceive of as moral, but at the same time other people will be trying to bend it in some other direction, and with just as much conviction that they’re right. Ultimately it’s a form of arm-wrestling. It could go either way.
I rather suspect that some of the millions of people who died in the Nazi concentration camps may have harbored grave doubts, as death approached, about the direction that the moral arc of the universe was bending. And that’s the point. Anything may happen. We’re not in control of any of it. In the next hundred years a new Dark Ages may descend. That wouldn’t be at all surprising — and whether it does or doesn’t is something you and I can’t possibly control.
If it pleases you to imagine that you’re doing good by housing the homeless, I’m happy to encourage you. Meanwhile, somebody else is planning to hunt down legislators and kill them in order to promote their own twisted version of a brighter future. We don’t know who will win, and Dr. King didn’t know either.
I’m not going to go into detail about the reasons why I’m personally offended by the idea of “microaggression training,” because it would be a long read, and it’s none of your business. The idea behind this training is that it’s supposed to help people be more sensitive in their social encounters with members of marginalized groups — people of color; gay, lesbian, and trans people; the disabled; and so on. As a lifelong member of a horribly marginalized group — and no, you’re not going to read any details here, you’ll just have to take my word for it — let me say this: Nobody ever gave much of a rat’s ass about bending the arc of my world in a more positive direction. I spent thousands of dollars paying therapists (in the days when those thousands had a lot more purchasing power than they would today), seeking professional help to try to get to a better grip on what was happening in my life, and it didn’t work worth a damn.
There was never the slightest likelihood that I would be able to live a life as a normal member of society, free of thick dollops of alienation and injustice. The therapists were happy to take my money, I might add; none of them felt that they needed to admit they weren’t going to be able to help.
And here’s the point: I don’t whine about it. My life is just fine. I write novels. I play music. I play board games. I edit people’s books. Sometimes I even do yard work. I don’t sit around and obsess about the not-at-all micro aggressions I suffered through in high school. I rarely think about my big misery-inducing problem at all, and this will probably be the only time you’ll read about it in this blog.
So when somebody comes to me and says, “Gee, you could take a workshop that would help you learn to become more sensitive to the emotional needs of people of color,” I just yawn. I’m occasionally boorish, but I’m not a racist. And the way I look at it, everybody in the world has some kind of horrible issue that makes life difficult for them. You might be black; you might have cancer; you might have been sexually abused by your uncle or a priest; you might barely have escaped from a horrible religious cult and be estranged from your family; you might be dyslexic and clumsy and unable to hold down even a minimum-wage job; you might have a great job but you’re a woman working for a male-dominated sexist corporation so you get passed up for promotion and ignored in meetings; you might be schizophrenic or autistic or blind. My sister was blind, by the way. Everybody has something.
So get over it. Live your life. If you want to try to help others, go right ahead. Be my guest. But if you’d rather play competitive pinochle, or spend months on end polishing the fenders on the mint-condition ’37 Packard in your garage, or sell amethyst crystals on the Internet by making up flagrant lies about their healing properties, that’s fine too. I wish you well.
As I get older, I no longer see life as a progression or procession through a series of grand, sweeping activities that are undertaken in the interest of noble abstract ideals. I’m pretty sure that whole dance is just a lot of pathetic hoo-hah. Life is lived only in the particulars. Only in the things we actually choose to do today, for our own satisfaction and nobody else’s. If you have clean underwear, you’re good to go — and even if you don’t have clean underwear, you’re good to go. Nobody fixed things up for me when I was a kid or a young adult struggling with personal issues, so why should I waste an hour trying to fix things up for someone else? I’ll do it if I feel like it, and if I don’t feel like it I won’t, and there is no moral judgment that attaches to my choice, because neither you nor anybody else has the right to pass moral judgment on me. Your morals are your own private business, and nobody else is required to kowtow to them.
Today I spent several hours reacquainting myself with a wonderful piece of music software and starting to compose a new piece of music using it. It was fun, and fulfilling, and required no recourse to moral judgment of any kind. Tomorrow I’ll probably work some more on that piece — unless I feel like working on my novel instead. There are no general principles. The arc of the universe ain’t going nowhere. All there are are the particulars — this moment, how it feels, what you’re doing right now.
If you would like to thank me for freeing you from the burden of your festering Christian guilt, you may send me money. Or don’t. Whatever feels right.