social identity

A Good Guy with a Gun

The NRA is fond of saying that the only way to stop a bad buy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.

In this view of the world, ideally everyone is armed and we count on good citizens to make split second judgments about who is a good guy and who is a bad guy in order to keep us safe. How confident are you that you can tell good guys from bad?

I know I am a good guy, of course. That goes without saying really. (Of course to the rest of the world I am just one of those other people, a stranger.) As I know I am a good person, it follows that good people must be people like me. It is a natural part of being human to identify with an ingroup and to be afraid of “the other.”

Things get trickier here because there are an infinite number of ways in which a person can be like me or not like me, and they’re not all immediately apparent. I am helped, however, in deciding who is “like me” by social categories that I have been taught over and over.

A person with dark skin is “black” or “African-American” and is a different category from me. People from a different socio-economic class are in a different category from me. People from other countries are in a different category. People of other religions are a different category.

The undifferentiated “American”– the person who politicians address, is a white, middle class, straight, Protestant male. We know this because any other category must be specified to avoid confusion: “A Jewish American, Female voters, An African-American man.”

So when I– a good guy– go out with my gun vigilantly protecting the other good guys I will naturally cast my gaze with more suspicion on the Muslim American or the tough looking redneck or that group of Mexicans than on the white kid who looks like he might be part of my church youth group. I might not even consciously believe that is what I am doing. I just feel nervous around this person. Something is not right about him. I might be able to give you dozens of intellectual reasons besides race or social category why those “others” make me feel uneasy. When you’re a good guy primed to protect the world from bad guys, there is not a lot of nuance involved. You go with your gut. You react by instinct.

These categories are social constructs. This is not to say these categories do not matter. On the contrary, once we create them, they matter a lot. They can have very real, sometimes lethal consequences, as we have seen in the Zimmerman case. As long as we perpetuate them they have power over us. But the good news is that if we have the power to construct these categories, we have the power to take away their power as well, if we have the will. There was a time, for example, when the Irish would have been considered a separate race from whites, an underclass to be feared. We can change our categories, change our focus, change our culture.

And we must, because as Morgan Guyton expressed so well in his blog Mercy Not Sacrifice “if I feel unsafe around someone else because they’re black, I am part of the reason that the world becomes unsafe for them…The source of so much evil is people feeling unsafe and seeing others as threats instead of people who feel just as unsafe.”

One of the things I learned from reading The Geography of Thought by Richard E. Nisbett is that in the West when people read news stories they tend to attribute everything that happens to the players personalities. We immediately try to identify the good guy and the bad guy. In the East they are more likely to talk about the circumstances and context that created the situation.

Crimes are not only the result of a good guy encountering a bad guy. They are caused by two human beings in all their complexity, with good and bad traits, coming together in a way that causes conflict.

Let’s say I–we have already established that I am a good guy– decide to exercise my second amendment rights by wearing a sidearm to go pick up my third grader at school. Let’s say that a dedicated kindergarten teacher who has been armed and trained to protect the children spots me and my weapon and makes the split second decision that I might harm the kids. She shoots and kills me. If she has killed one of the good guys, (I know I am a good guy) does that make her a bad guy? What if I draw first and I kill her in self-defense? I am a murderer, am I still a good guy? Has my basic nature changed? What if children are caught in the cross fire? No one had the intention to do harm, but does that change anything?

The good guy/bad guy mentality does not help us. It makes all of us less safe. Put another way, we, as a society, need the tools to protect ourselves not only from the bad guy with a gun but from the good guy with a gun too.


(See also my earlier post On Senseless Violence)

How to Write Dirty Books Without Even Trying

“By taking communion, he was acknowledging the divine nature of his immortal soul. His inner and outer beauty merged and became one, inviolate, complete. Of course, a person’s soul can never truly be possessed either. But unlike physical beauty, it can be shared: a pair of souls in holy, holy communion.”

Is this erotica? Amazon believes it is. So does Google Books. So do a lot of book selling sites.

My novel, Angel, is the story of a Christian minister whose assumptions are challenged when he finds himself falling in love with another man. Not only does Amazon categorize it under “gay erotica” it sometimes comes up with the tag “gay sex” even though the only sexual activity described on the page is kissing.

It never occurred to me that this was what constituted “erotica.” I admit that I don’t have first hand experience of gay male sex, which explains my confusion. In the straight world, for a book to be considered erotic, it has to contain descriptions of actual sex. I had assumed that the same principle would apply when the protagonists were two men. I didn’t know that it was considered explicit sexual content when two men’s lips touch.

Every time I turn around I find another site calling Angel “erotica,” so it must be true. Book sellers are in the book categorizing business, after all. They must know what they are doing.

“Paul leaned in again, and this time their lips touched, tentatively at first. Ian responded, gently teasing Paul’s lips with his own. An invitation and an answer.”  


I have not yet figured out how to capitalize on my salacious infamy. Some friends have suggested that now that it has been explained to me that I am a writer of erotica, I should embrace it—- go all “Fifty Shades of Gay” and make a million dollars. I should build up a following of avid erotica fans and churn out volumes of hot man-on-man action like:

“So they unfolded the futon, pulled out the afghan, and curled up to watch whatever was on TV. Ian rested his head on Paul’s right shoulder with his arm draped across Paul’s chest. Paul lazily ran the fingers of his right hand through Ian’s hair.”

I have been trying to decide what my porn name should be. My name is already Laura Lee. What can I come up with that is better than that? The thing is, I’m just not sure I can handle a gay porn writing career. Why?

Because frankly, gay men, I’m disappointed. All my life I’ve heard so much about your promiscuous sex lives, your freaky three-ways, your glory holes, bondage dens and anonymous encounters in the baths. Who knew that all it takes to get you off is resting your head on another man’s shoulder while you flip through the channels on TV?

You guys are boring! The straights get steamier in the Biblical epics on the Family Channel.

So a career writing gay erotica is not for me.  So let me take one more stab at getting your juices flowing before I retire from my pornography career:

“My personal feeling about why the church tries to promote sex
only within marriage is that ideally it preserves the real life-affirming
kind of sexuality. It’s not just about sensation and your own pleasure, it’s
about connecting to someone else on a deep and serious level. Maybe
churches are clumsy in how they express that sometimes.”
“Clumsy, like saying only straight people can have that.”
“Yeah, clumsy like that.”
“You think two men can have ‘life-affirming’ sex?”
“Yeah, I do. Of course they can.”

Are you breathing heavy?

Now it occurs to me that maybe I am not being fair.  It is possible that it’s not you, gay men, it’s me.

I read an article today on Indie Reader in which author Pavarti K. Tyler discusses the steamy texts of Anais Nin and Henry Miller.

“It isn’t surprising that Nin found it necessary to self publish. Art which challenges peoples’ notions of sexuality is always difficult to find funding for, especially the type which deals with women’s sexuality,” Tyler writes. “Historically in the US, erotica has had tremendous difficulty finding an audience… When she moved to America with her second husband, she found her titles had almost no market and were unavailable to the general public. Meanwhile, Henry Miller’s infamous works ‘Tropic of Cancer’ and ‘Tropic of Capricorn’ (also initially self-published) were achieving critical and financial success. What is interesting is that as crass as Miller’s prose can be, it was always considered ‘literature’, while Nin’s much more poetic style carried the less commercial label: ‘erotica’.”

A couple of years ago I read a novel by a male author.  It was the story of a gay male divinity student.  I can’t recall the author’s name or the title any longer, but what I do remember is that the book opened with the protagonist waking up in the morning after a particularly successful night cruising, and unable to remove his cock ring, still on from the previous night, he wears it to devotion under his robe.  I learned about that book through a review in the gay press.  It was reviewed there, in exactly the way “erotica” is generally not.  It was labeled as LGBT fiction.

So maybe it all comes down to that porn name of mine.  Angel by someone named Laura Lee just sounds like erotica.  So it must be.

Discuss: Why Are There No Female Peter Pans?

From the article Who is Peter Pan? by Alison Lurie in the New York Review of Books:

Girls in children’s books often visit other worlds, but they seldom want to stay. Though Wendy enjoys Neverland, she is the first to suggest that they leave. Alice is uncomfortable in Wonderland, and in the first few Oz books Dorothy Gale keeps trying to go home to Kansas—though in later sequels both she and her Uncle Henry and Aunt Em end up in the magical world, where they will never age or die.

There are, further, no Lost Girls in Neverland. Barrie explains this by telling us that the Lost Boys were all babies who fell out of their perambulators, and that girls were always too clever to do any such thing. Today, perhaps for a similar reason, there are few female slacker films. Women in popular culture are often shown as upset and depressed by the idea of growing old, usually because age will make them less attractive to men, but they seldom seem to long for a permanent adolescence in which they can hang out with other lazy, unemployed females, get drunk, and talk dirty. Usually they want the traditional perks of successful adulthood: good jobs and expensive clothes and attractive lovers and husbands. Possibly, after being treated as irresponsible children for so many years, they have no desire for that role; while men, with a long history of pressure to grow up and take responsibility, are still dreaming of escape into perpetual youth.

What Kind of Object Am I?

I have been reading The Geography of Thought by Richard Nisbett.  The book discusses the different thought patterns of Western and Eastern minds.  In the West we tend to view the world as separate objects which have properties that we can classify.  We believe that by classifying and understanding the properties of the objects we can understand the truth of the world.  In the East, people focus first on complex interrelations and the context in which objects reside.  Objects are seen as having properties in relation to external forces.  When western children learn to speak, their first words are usually nouns.  “Cat.  Ball,” and so on.  Eastern children are more likely to utter verbs first.

As an illustration, Nisbett noted that “Aristotle explained that a stone falling through the air is due to the stone having the property of ‘gravity.’ But of course a piece of wood tossed into water floats instead of sinking. This phenomenon Aristotle explained as being due to the wood having the property of ‘levity’! In both cases the focus is exclusively on the object, with no attention paid to the possibility that some force outside the object might be relevant. But the Chinese saw the world as consisting of continuously interacting substances, so their attempts to understand it caused them to be oriented toward the complexities of the entire ‘field,’ that is, the context or environment as a whole. The notion that events always occur in a field of forces would have been completely intuitive to the Chinese. The Chinese therefore had a kind of recognition of the principle of ‘action at a distance’ two thousand years before Galileo articulated it.”

We laugh a bit at Aristotle’s assumption that a rock has “gravity,” as it might have “magnetism.”  But I got to thinking about how our object focus works when it comes to social categories.  It seems to me that we make exactly the same type of leaps every day.

For example, rather than saying “I have this framework for understanding the world,” we say “I am a Christian” or “an Atheist” or a “secular humanist.”  The person’s working hypothesis becomes a property of the person, a way of defining the person.  Rather than speaking about someone as being attracted to people of her own gender we say “she is a lesbian.”  Rather than saying a person has certain political views we say “He is a liberal” or “She is a conservative.”  Every aspect of a person becomes a way of classifying that person.  We want to know what kind of an object is this?  What kind of properties does he have?

Making an idea into an identity makes it hard for people to change and be flexible.  What if I have a crisis of faith?  Does that mean I am no longer a Christian and I am therefore an entirely different type of person?  What if I like the Democratic candidate?  Does that mean I am no longer a Republican and I have lost my identity?  If my house is foreclosed on does that mean I am no longer a middle class person and I am not who I thought I was?

How might we relate to one another and ourselves differently if we had not inherited this object classification mentality from the ancient Greeks?

The Illusion of Tradition

A follow up, of sorts, to my first article on tradition.

When you start to read books on the history of Christianity it becomes clear that many of the ideas and approaches that seem non-traditional and novel are actually as old or older than the approaches considered “traditional.” I have read many a 19th century text making the same arguments that might be published in books today as shocking new ways of approaching religion.

I was recently reading the book American Jesus by Stephen Prothero, which talks about how our distinctly American ways of understanding Jesus and Christianity have evolved.  One of the things that surprised me was the prominence of Unitarians and their kind in shaping our national religious culture.  In spite of having our patron saints Emerson and Channing, I don’t recall learning much in Sunday school about Unitarian history.  We learned about other religions and their traditions but I do not remember having a sense of Unitarians having traditions and history of our own.  Instead, I had a vague sense of Unitarianism being modern and forward thinking.  Unitarians, I generally believed, reacted against the ills of mainstream religious culture.  We did not create or influence the mainstream.

Prothero points out that the forms of Christianity that came to the United States did not put Jesus at the center of their theology as we do today.  The second person of the trinity was present in the faith of the Puritans and Calvinist of course, but the focus was on the first person, God.   Christ “functioned as more of a principle than a person.”

The shift towards a “personal relationship” with Jesus came from a place you might not expect, what we would now call the religious left, Unitarians, Transcendentalists and Universalists or more accurately, the dance between traditionalist and “the religious left.”

Thomas Jefferson’s approach to scripture was to try to get back to the original teaching of Jesus and away from all of the interpretation that had built up over the years.  The Jefferson Bible removed all of the miracles and supernaturalism and got down to a few core teachings that Jefferson believed were authentic to Jesus.  Even though his theology would not resonate with many modern Christians, his focus on the fundamental teachings of Jesus over institutional traditions became a hallmark of American religion.

Thomas Jefferson’s influence on American religion can be overstated. His theological views, unorthodox upon his death in 1825, remain unorthodox today; the overwhelming majority of Americans are now Christians who affirm the creedal view of their Savior as fully divine and fully human. Nonetheless, they have inherited from Jefferson a strategy for understanding Jesus and Christianity that continues to drive religious change, from both the left and the right. That strategy begins with a bold refusal. It starts when a religious reformer refuses to equate Jesus with the Christian tradition. The religion of Jesus, the reformer asserts, is not the same as the religion about Jesus; and what really matters is what Jesus did and taught. The second step is to isolate certain beliefs or practices in the Christian tradition as unreasonable or antiquated or immoral. The next step is to use the cultural authority of Jesus to denounce those beliefs or practices as contrary to true Christianity—to call for religious reform. As these alternative understandings gain ground, Jesus is gradually unmoored from the beliefs, practices, and institutions that in the past had restricted his freedom of movement. He loses no authority among the traditionalists, who continue to see him as they had, but he gains authority among the innovators. As his authority expands, Christians are all the more likely to champion reforms.

This opened the door for a form of Christianity that encouraged members to think of Jesus as someone with whom they could have a personal relationship and to try to get back to fundamentals of the religion of Jesus.

Prothero also referenced the “Unitarian Controversy of the early nineteenth century… That controversy, which ran from 1804 until the establishment of the American Unitarian Association in 1825, touched on the doctrine of the Trinity, but centered on human nature. While traditionalists affirmed Calvin’s dogma of the total depravity of human beings, Unitarians defended the more optimistic view that human beings were essentially good.”

An interesting historical note is that one of the reasons the UUs merged was that the Universalist church, which had once been very popular and growing, started to lose its appeal as many other mainstream Protestant faiths toned down their talk of hell and started adopting a more universalist approach themselves.  “God is love and he loves everyone” is the chorus of a popular Christian song right now. Rob Bell’s Love Wins expresses a more universalist Christian theology.  So, in a way, the success of universalism also became the universalist church’s down fall.  When Methodist churches started to focus more on heaven and the goodness of people than on damnation and sin a lot of Universalists jumped ranks.

Christianity has never been a monolith.  In fact, the earliest Christian writings we have in the Bible, the letters of Paul, seek to address heated arguments within the early Jesus movement as to what was required to be a follower of Christ.  At the fourth-century Council of Laodicea, early Christians met to close the canon of the Bible.  Some argued that there should be one Gospel.  Others fought for four, one for each corner of the earth.  As you know from glancing at your New Testament, this side won out.  (I touched on this in an earlier essay on the “What is a Christian” question.)

A view that is orthodox in one era is heresy in another.  Some of the heresies are older than some of the orthodoxies.  Some former orthodoxies are modern heresies.

For example, approaching the Bible as the literal, inerrant word of God is actually a fairly new method for interpreting scripture gaining prominence only in the 20th century.  (There are many sources on this.  One that I can think of off hand is Pedagogy of the Bible by Dale B. Martin because I happen to have read it recently.)

If a non-literal approach to the Bible predates that of Biblical literalism, why is it that we consider literalism traditional and a less literal interpretation as new?  I believe it has less to do with history and more to do with a sense of identity.  Liberal religious types value their sense of identity as free thinkers and agents of social change whereas fundamentalist types value their sense of being part of an ongoing tradition with firm foundations.  We accept each group’s self-definition.

The interesting effect is that a viewpoint that is, in fact, a minority opinion becomes the working default assumption of what counts as mainstream thought.  Almost every book that I read on the Bible or Jesus scholarship spends a great deal of time arguing against the proposition that the Bible should be approached as the literal, inerrant word of God (God’s instruction manual, if you will) even though, as I have mentioned here before, a poll done by a Christian organization of Christians showed that only 30% of self-identified Christians approach the Bible in that way. Why is it that almost every discussion of Christianity addresses a minority view as though it is the default assumption?  It is only because it has been dubbed the “traditional approach.”

Rather than using our self-definitions, and seeing the people who value tradition most as the most traditional, what if we were to view a more questioning approach to the Bible as mainstream American thought and to view fundamentalism as a modern counter-cultural faith?  How would our dialogue change?

How the Wall Street Journal Spreads Stereotypes about Men


For the men who are part of the Good Men Project—guys fighting wars in foreign lands, working diligently to be good dads, recovering from economic hardship, striving to be loving spouses, searching their souls trying to figure out what it means to be a good man—the piece is one more example of mainstream media portraying us in an egregiously negative, quasi-sexist light.


Not sure why he uses the term “quasi-sexist.”  It is blatantly sexist.

The Vocabulary of Love: What are “Lovers?”

CoupleWhile looking up something else I came across a blog by Kate Trgovac which featured an article on “The Subtext of Stock Photography.”

In it Kate describes how images of a loving same-sex couple (pictured here) appeared in her search for images to illustrate an article on furnaces.  Gay couples apparently show up when you search for the term “heat.”

“Seriously?” she wrote, “Maybe two scantily clothed men making out in front of the fireplace.  But two gay stockbrokers with their chihuahua?  Hardly… why is it that ‘gay’ in all of its forms implies a licentiousness or luridness?”

I was reminded of a quote by Yale professor John Boswell who described some of the pitfalls of translating terms for emotionally charged vocabulary related to love, relationships and marriage.

“Modern English has no standard term for same-sex partners in a permanent, committed relationship, so it is virtually impossible to translate ancient terms for this (of which there were many) accurately into contemporary English,” he wrote.  “Probably the most common word in contemporary English is ‘lover,’ but it is quite misleading… A heterosexual ‘lover’ is generally not the equivalent of a spouse: it is either someone to whom a heterosexual is not married (or not yet married) or a love interest in addition to a spouse, seen on the side and usually clandestine… these associations are not apposite to ‘lover’ as applied to same-sex couples, for whom the world almost always designates the primary and exclusive focus of erotic life, usually intended to remain so permanently.  Using ‘lover’ for same-sex partners implicitly suggests that all same-sex unions are illicit relationships, comparable to what passes between a heterosexually married male and his mistress rather than to the man’s union with his wife.”

Life in a Hippie Shop

A few years ago now I worked at a hippie-ish shop.  It sold flowy dresses, hemp necklaces, piercings, incense, and various other treasures to a mostly young clientele.  While there, I made notes about my experiences.  Here are a few of them:

Had a guy come in carrying a skateboard asking if we were looking for anyone to work here.  I said I thought we were all set.  He said, “Can’t you fire someone or something?”

A bunch of teenage girls were in here yesterday.  One said she wanted to get her navel pierced.  Her friend told her not to because if anything goes wrong she could do damage to her ovaries and never have children.  She said, “I could always adopt.”

I had a woman last week come into the store.  She was in her mid-50s.  She had two dresses, identical except that one was purple and one was blue.  I told her where the fitting room was.  It’s behind this orange tye-dyed curtain and there’s a full-length mirror behind it.  She pulls the curtain to the side, and instead of moving two feet forwards so she’s in the changing area, she takes off all her clothes (except her underwear) in the middle of the store and puts on the purple dress.  “Which do you think is better?” she’s asking me, “The purple or the blue?”  “Purple.  Definitely the purple.  You can wear it out of the store if you like.”  She decided to try the blue anyway.  Whipped the purple dress off… I was trying to be subtle, “there is a changing area if you’d prefer.”  “Oh, no, this is fine.”

We get lots of heads.  They come in and say, “do you have glass?”

Had a guy the other day who seemed to be having a sexual experience with the incense.  He held eye contact way too long.  Very creepy.

A woman came into the store.  She was large.  Wearing a fabric pillbox hat embroidered with the same floral pattern as her long, heavy jacket.  Both were of a fabric reminiscent of a bed spread.  Her hair was just longer than a brush cut.  Her lipstick was blue.  Her purse was a giant mass of white feathers– like a beheaded, bleached ostrich.  I believe she was an actual woman, but she dressed with the flamboyance of a drag queen.  She came in for pink hair dye.  Since we had none, she settled for bright yellow.

Also one day had a guy trying on the skirts.  Asked my opinion on them.  He didn’t buy anything.  Left.  Immediately after he’d gone, another guy came in and wanted to buy an Indian shirt we have.  It’s a sack of a shirt with a single button at the neck.  I thought it was a man’s, but the one button was apparently on the wrong side.  He said he couldn’t wear something that buttons the wrong way.  (I don’t know the difference)  Kind of an odd juxtaposition to have these two customers back to back.

Had a guy try on a necklace.  Was about to buy it.  Really liked it and then he stopped as though he might be about to set off a land mine.  “This isn’t a woman’s necklace is it?”  I’m thinking, first of all, I’m trying to make a sale here, so if I tell you it is, I don’t sell it.  Second, you liked it a minute a go.  Third, if you buy it, it’s yours so it’s a man’s necklace…  I just said, “no.”

Question in the store: “Do you have men’s hair bleach?”  Well, we have bleach.  Hair is hair.

There’s a group of Appalachian trail hikers outside sitting by the window.  They’ve decided they want to dye their hair funky colors but they can’t figure out how to do it camping on the trail.  They were talking about coloring their beards and talked about having a violet goatee.  I said I thought that sounded like a good rock band name.

The hikers came back and bought bleach and hair coloring.  They bought yellow, green, and blue.  They were putting dresses over their heads to see how the color would look.  I told the red-haired guy, “you are the first guy to come in here and wear a dress on his head.”

I put a couple of the dresses out on the rack outside and someone came in to try it on.  Her son, who was maybe 8, followed her in.  As they were walking out he said, “I wish I was allowed to wear dresses.”

A guy wanted to know about glow in the dark jewelry.  He looked at the lighters we have, the one with the lights inside.  He wanted to know if you have to smoke to use them.  I said, “No, you can use them to set fire to whatever you want.”  He thought that was funny.  I elaborated that you could use them to light incense or hold over your head and wave at rock concerts.  Appropriate uses.

“What I’ve Been Told Was Mine”

Malcolm X Quote

“It’s interesting how those in power always feel so victimized by those without it.”

I found myself tweeting this observation today in response to an article in Religion Dispatches.  It quotes Vatican representative Archbishop Silvano Tomasi making the case that those who oppose equal rights for LGBT people are the real victims.

He said there was “a disturbing trend in some of these social debates: People are being attacked for taking positions that do not support sexual behavior between people of the same sex… they are stigmatized, and worse—they are vilified, and prosecuted.”

There is a current of anger and a cry of unfair treatment that has come from those in dominant social positions throughout history.  Virginia Woolf observed it 1929 in A Room of One’s Own.  She was baffled by the tone of the men who wrote anti-feminist articles and books:

“The most transient visitor to this planet, I thought, who picked up this paper could not fail to be aware, even from this scattered testimony that England is under the rule of a patriarchy.  Nobody in their senses could fail to detect the dominance of the professor.  His was the power and the money and the influence.  He was the proprietor of the paper and its editor and sub-editor.  He was the Foreign Secretary and the Judge…He was the director of the company that pays two hundred per cent to its shareholders.  He left millions to charities and colleges that were ruled by himself…he it is who will acquit or convict the murderer, and hang him, or let him go free.  With the exception of the fog he seemed to control everything.  Yet he was angry… It seemed absurd that a man with all this power should be angry.”

Joe Perez, in his book Soulfully Gay, made a similar observation about the emotional urgency of anti-gay arguments:  “Their facade of confidence, self-righteousness, and certainty are all too often betrayed by the anxiousness of their tone, their adamancy, and their quickness to feel that their very world-view will collapse upon them if they give but an inch in the argument.”

Jon Stewart, who happens to be Jewish, made a similar point to his guest Mike Huckabee, who had been arguing that there is, in this country, a cultural war on Christianity.

“I have to say,” Stewart said, “as someone who is not Christian, it’s hard for me to believe Christians are a persecuted people in America. God-willing, maybe one of you one day will even rise up and get to be president of this country – or maybe forty-four in a row. But, that’s my point, is they’ve taken this idea of no establishment as persecution, because they feel entitled, not to equal status, but to greater status.”

The anger and outrage of people who have been blessed with social advantage intrigues me.  I have tried to understand where it comes from.  The answer is surely not simple.  It is a mix of psychological and social forces I cannot entirely unravel.

The best that I have been able to come up with is that people who have lived their lives within a framework that bestowed a certain status on them are afraid of what they might lose.  They are afraid that they might wake up one day and find that they were lied to when they were told that if they just followed the rules society would take care of them.  What if the rules that set them apart as honorable and advantaged members of their society were not there.  Might they be left behind?

I think of Beau Sia’s poem “Asians in the Library of the World,” which concludes:

“If only they understood that I’m here too.  That I share this place with them.  That I belong here.  That the hoards and swarms invading the system I’ve learned remember who I am as the world changes.  I’m so afraid I’ll have to fend for myself without what I’ve been told was mine.”

*image reblogged from The Zeitgeist Movement

“Happens to Be”

I love the expression “happens to be.”

We say it when we are pointing out something about someone’s social identity.  The thing we are identifying is held, by some groups, to be a pejorative.  Using the expression says that you are not one of those small minded people.  You are mentioning a distinction in passing, but it is not that important to you.  It doesn’t define how you see that person.  You hardly even notice it really.

Except you pretty much only use the expression in a context  in which the distinction actually is important.  You would probably not say, for example, “I handed my friend Julie, who happens to be a lesbian, the book.”  That would be weird.

You’re much more apt to use it when you’re speaking in a context in which the information about the person’s race/religion/political affiliation/gender identity is relevant. For example, you are talking about how the state of Virginia combined Martin Luther King Jr day with a celebration of Confederate soldiers and ended up with a compromise that pleases no one— “Lee Jackson King Day.”

One of your friends had something pithy to say about this and, by the way, she “happens to be” African-American.  In this context, you bring her race up because her perspective as a person of color is actually a relevant part of the story.

Yet you don’t want the listener to think you just go around all the time calling Lois “My Black Friend.”  “Happens to be” signifies that we’re comfortable with the difference we’re pointing out.  That’s what we’re trying to say with the words.  What we’re also saying, less intentionally, is that we’re uncomfortable talking about this difference.  That’s a lot of work for three little words to do.