Some of us wear our moderation like a badge of honor, as if it represents our intellectual fortitude in discerning the true path between opposing extremes. And in some cases, moderation is a virtue — in our diet, in our exercise, in caring for our bodies. But when discerning a stance on issues of moral importance, choosing moderation is in fact a way to avoid choosing.
When confronting the extreme problems of our time, I will take the extreme position. I will be a zealot. I will be a zealot for the living systems we inhabit. I will be a zealot for racial justice. I will be a zealot for the abolition of mass incarceration. I will be a zealot in addressing police violence. I will be a zealot for climate justice. I will be a zealot in addressing the warming of our planet and its disastrous consequences. On each of these challenges and many more, extreme questions require extreme answers.
But I think we can confuse zealotry with condemnation. My zealotry doesn’t mean I belittle or dehumanize those who believe differently or make different commitments. I oppose their beliefs, but I do not oppose their personhood. I condemn the impact of their beliefs, but I do not condemn them as people. I must step out boldly to end the harm they cause, and I must step out equally boldly to find connection with them through our shared humanity. Because I will not advance the cause of my belief through the dehumanization of those with whom I disagree.
In fact, this dehumanization is the key tactic of many of those who advance the causes I oppose. Those who maintain the system of mass incarceration support that system by dehumanizing the people they say need to be imprisoned. Those who oppose climate action do so by dehumanizing those people who are most affected and devaluing the planet on which we live. Dehumanization is a key feature of the white supremacy at the core of these issues…the worldview that says that we are only as good as what we produce, that what matters most is maintaining power.
So if we want to create new ways of being that undermine white supremacy culture, if we are zealots for the living systems of our planet and our societies, we cannot advance our goals through the tactics of white supremacy. To quote Audre Lorde, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” We cannot and will not achieve our goals by dehumanizing those we oppose.
Instead, we must connect with others. This does not mean that every person everywhere must embrace their tormentors… far from it. But it does mean that when we can connect, doing so is vital. As a heterosexual, cis-gendered, middle-class white man, I especially must use my privilege to both to stop the harm inflicted on others, and to stand for the humanity of both the victim and the perpetrator. To search for connection with those who are harmed and those who harm.
One key way to build this connection is through stories. Stories draw us into our shared humanity rather than pushing us away from it. Stories allow us to understand what motivates others, to get inside other perspectives. Stories develop our empathy for others. I can hear your story — I should hear your story — and I may disagree with the meaning you make of it. But once I hear that story, I cannot unhear the humanity inside of it. And when I listen to your story, you are more inclined to hear mine and other people’s.
I reject moderation, striking a balance, getting the right mix, finding middle ground. I am a zealot. I embrace extreme solutions to extreme problems. And I believe that the only way we will achieve the extreme solutions we need is if we reach out to understand the stories of others who disagree with us, and if we tell them different stories to help them see a broader humanity as well.
This is an especially important role for white men like me. It is understandable that people of color and women would not want to hear the stories of those who question their humanity. They do not need to listen to racist or misogynist ideas, or look past those ideas to hear the stories of the people who spout them. Therefore, it must be our role as accomplices to condemn racist and sexist language, while listening for the stories and humanity of those who use that language. It must be our role to tell different stories to those who use that language — to help them understand new ideas and points of view.
This is our charge as white male accomplices. This is the way we undermine white supremacy culture. This is the way we build justice for the living systems we inhabit. This is the way we imagine a new world.
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2 thoughts on “A zealous commitment to stories”
Jim, you are redefining zealotry, which by definition is a bad thing. Sorry.
Jim, I’m not sure that I’m redefining it. Maybe adding a nuance. Why is that a bad thing?