Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Short Answer: Yes, Long Answer: No.

A very wise man who I constantly regret having lost contact with once cautioned me that if I ever felt like I completely understood something, I assuredly did not. He said to visualize the knowledge you have as the area of a circle. Circumscribing that circle is everything you are aware of not knowing and beyond that are things you know so little about that they may as well be non-existent (to you, anyways). The larger your area of knowledge, then, the deeper your understanding of what is left to understand.

Adding to the idea that a narrow worldview gives one a sense of having all the answers is a recent study (aptly titled "Unskilled and Unaware of it" [link]) documents how those who are more unskilled, concurrently lack the skills to properly evaluate themselves. From the abstract:
People tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains. The authors suggest that this overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it[...]Paradoxically, improving the skills of participants, and thus increasing their metacognitive competence, helped them recognize the limitations of their abilities.
In other words, this problem is not insurmountable. The more you know, the more you know you don't and the less of an idiot you will appear in the process.

So the point I'm trying to make (and I will admit it has taken me some time to get here) is that if you feel like you have some prescriptive advice that will completely revolutionize a movement or if you think you have an overarching theory of something (see: xkcd:Revolutionary) you probably don't and it would be worth hanging around a little more to educate yourself by listening to the people who have been at it longer than you have. Yes, occassionally it's true that it takes a fresh perspective...but incredibly rarely and it's the height of hubris to just assume that you've struck upon it.

This is particularly important as it applies to being an activist and an ally. Having your consciousness raised is typically such a mind-blowing experience that it is tempting to think that you now understand all about oppression and how it works in the world, afterall if you understand systemic racism/sexism/ableism/enter-ism-here, then you understand systemic everything right? Now that you can spot misogynist tropes in adverstising you can also see how racial stereotypes are used as shorthand for all manner of unflattering things and how transphobia is used to police the gender binary and and and and and and...

...and how could you possibly if you've just heard about all these issues? Let's not forget that we were all raised in this world, this kyriarchy, that up until we were made aware of these issues in the first place we accepted the status quo as right and true. That undoing that will take much more than a single a-ha moment. Don't forget that we live in a world where this bullshit is largely accepted at face value despite the frankly towering absurdity of it being even remotely true.

I want to stop for a moment and explicitly state that I do not think I know everything or that I am in some hallowed position where I can see all that I do not know about and am therefore the perfect activist and ally. All I want, really is for all of us (often me included) to try and be better allies by listening and participating in the communities we are vested in supporting. To de-centre ourselves, to remove ourselves from the James Cameron's Avatar version of activism (where it is you, the privileged who should lead the poor oppressed people to victory). Tami (from What Tami Said) has an excellent post up about how to be a good ally which is very worth reading and essentially boils down to the point I'm trying to make - it's not all about you, listening and being still is vital, and if you think you have something just absolutely revolutionary to say, by all means share it (afterall, that's what participating in a community means) but have the wherewithal to be gracious when you aren't well received, with the attitude that you may not know best.

I think sometimes, even the best of us, with the most noble of intentions, needs reminding.

1 comment:

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