December 15th, 2016

The Obvious and I M Oblivious : nice people and unintended consequences

Today is a day for stating the obvious. This is because I see so many people acting as if the obvious doesn't exist. They're hurting others. I don't want to write this in the second person, for it would sound accusatory and set up an "I don't do this" reaction.

Many people don't do these things. Many people do. And a lot of those who do don't know. They care, but are unaware. Today is not about accusations. It's about "I am so tired of all this. So very tired." I shall talk, therefore about someone called I.M. Oblivious and why they cause problems for a whole bunch of people despite their best intentions.

Just two Items of Obvious today, for I've got so very much to do. If people produce more items in the comments, however, I can extend this post when life is a bit less frantic.

Obvious #1: Discovery

There's loads of personal discovery happening right now. Enormous numbers of wonderful people have had their eyes opened to inequities and historical injustices. They care. They want to make a difference with their caring. It's heart-warming and gives us all hope for humankind.


Three times this month, IM and IM's cousins have knocked on my door and wanted to tell me all about this piece of Jewish history they've just encountered. Twice I've been told about the pain caused by injustices to women. And I've lost count of the times I've been told about the effects of government programs on the disadvantaged.

These good people hurt because of Auschwitz. They hurt because of the Inquisition. They hurt because of expulsions. They hurt because women are abused and denied careers. They hurt because... so many reasons. They come to me because they want me to help them deal with their hurt. They choose me specifically because I know this kind of hurt from personal experience. I will understand.

This first happened to me when I was in primary school. It's a perfectly natural part of privilege. The privileged person grows and learns to understand and sees the one person who will understand their awakening and uses them as a crutch. Not only do certain groups in society and individuals have to endure bigotry and hate, therefore, but if they choose to admit their background, they often have to hold the hands of IM Oblivious as Oblivious learns what we've had to deal with.

What can we do? (Why we? Why not just IM Oblivious? Because I'm as privileged as anyone else is some respects and I need to not do this thing also.)

We can make responsibility towards victims a part of our growing up. It isn't all about us. In fact, it never was about us if we were neither persecutors or victims. When IM spends a half day showing me photos of places where my ancestors once lived and where there are no Jews and doesn't listen when I say politely "Yes, I do know this history. Do you have any pictures of nice architecture? I really like nice architecture." then IM makes my history theirs.

It's another form of appropriation. A nasty one, done with the best of intentions.

What we can do, then, is try very hard to not hurt the already hurt. Listen to them saying "This is not a good thing." Be aware of nuances and of direct statements. And find someone else's shoulder to cry on until we're past Effects of Hatred 101.

Obvious #2: Polite and Gentle Exclusion

This has happened to me every year of my adult life, often many times a year. IM and their ilk tell me "You weren't interviewed/considered/called on because you have all the experience and we want to give someone else a chance." Or because "He's a bright young thing and needs to learn this thing" (and it's always a he and he's always from establishment background). Or "You're Jewish/female/something else and I don't think you could handle this." Or "We went out to dinner" and didn't think of asking if I wanted to come too.

I get many apologies when IM realises that I could have done the job, or that Bright Young Thing was being given other opportunities and I wasn't, or when they stopped and looked closely at my CV and realised that I actually had the capacity and qualification (often more than Mr Bright Young Thing), or that the dinner party was full of my friends and that I might want to join them but by then it's too late. They apologise and add "Of course, I can't do anything now, but if I had thought of this when I made the decision..."

It has cost me so many things, from going to France as an ENAque (after selection) to having novels take up by this publisher or that to a solid chunk of my social life. My most recent is a "You didn't need this job" and also (same day!) "We need to talk about Other Famous Book, because you have novels as well, so people will see your breakthrough academic work on genre anyhow."

It's a subtle form of acting on prejudices. It is only ever done by nice people. It is only every done unintentionally. It affects all minorities, and most women. And it's almost impossible for the victim to fight. It's the single biggest reason why, when I compared my career to that of my male counterparts (from my undergrad and first PhD days) last week, they had brilliant careers and I didn't. To a man, they were given breaks and I was given apologies for them being given breaks and there being no breaks left for me.

If it's damaged my career so very severely (when my undergrad final result was 90% and I received both prizes and my choice of scholarships) imagine what #2 has done to people who have had to deal with far worse situations. Damage on damage. And yes, I have specific people's life experiences in mind when I say this, but no, I can't talk about them because they're private.

I get to be the repository of the hurt of many who've had doors slammed in their faces and I've seen the effects and... when my gently closing doors with IM saying kindly "I'm sorry for closing this door, but you understand" feels so very bad, the consequences of slammed doors and being shoved aside so that other people can have access to the open doors has to hurt beyond bearing.

What can we do? The only way #2 can be fought is by the person who puts other people forward, or who creates selection panels and short lists for interviews or gets groups of people together for this or that. It's by making the playing field fair rather than littering it with apologies.

We need to know ourselves and learn what we do, whether it's by error or not. Blame is irrelevant. It's a waste of emotional energy that can be better spent on not causing the situation to happen around us.

Don't make the discussion about our error (or not). Try very hard to create that level playing field, every single day of our lives. That's the very least we can do. The most we can do is actively seek out those who have had those doors closed/slammed and, instead of apologising, create other opportunities for them. Not the opportunities we think might be nice as apologies, but the opportunities people need.

I see so many good people hurting others through niceness. Oblivion can be just as damaging as hate.