Knights of the Silver Bullet

via Flickr user BradI want to confess something: despite my deep concern for social and environmental justice, I sometimes have serious doubts about the way many of us approach those issues. I, too, feel overwhelmed by the enormity of pervasive problems—climate change, racism, sexism, economic and social inequality… these seem too big to change. At times I feel the most we can do is hold a small beachhead against an ever-advancing flood. And I see some people defending each of their solutions as THE solution, and I yearn to find one myself.

And believe me, it is exhilarating and empowering and energizing to know that you have found THE solution! It is a deeply religious experience to tilt at windmills and slay dragons, to face a world of challenges that you can solve, and to evangelize for your solution with absolute faith in it’s efficacy.

But you can do all that and still be wrong.

In the face of futility and personal impotence, it’s easy to be drawn to ideas that promise one comprehensive answer. And it’s easy to gloss over the places where those ideas don’t quite line up with reality. In a recent piece in Jezebel, Melissa Chadburn describes her experience working in a nonprofit where fostering resilience was seen as THE solution to a myriad of issues.

“The story the campaign told was a story of lost resilience,” Melissa writes. “The narrative they preached was how to get it back. This is a common theme in community work. Over the years the term ‘resilience’ has been applied more and more frequently to people in distressed communities to mean their capacity to bounce back from dysfunction or breakdown. Increasing community resilience becomes a solution to chronic barriers such as poverty, trauma, and class inequity.”

And yet, it seemed few people at this nonprofit had stopped to questions the assumptions involved. Not only did they presume resilience was THE answer, they also presumed that “changing people’s behavior was the solution to their problems.” It’s a nice thought—that if you just work hard enough, you can overcome systemic problems. But it’s not true. It doesn’t matter how hard you work if you never have access to resources. As Melissa observed, “it’s a lack of resources that produces a lack of resilience, not the other way around.”

I like the concept of resilience. I think it is important. I think it is critical. But I also know there is a point beyond which it doesn’t apply, because resilience is about systems more than parts, and the farther you get from the whole, the less useful it becomes. When individuals are suffering in abject poverty, the problem is that the system does not protect those persons, not that the persons need to be more resilient.

Resilience is just one example. There are dozens of silver bullets we cling to. You can vote, live, and buy your way to a better world. Changing yourself is changing the world! Except that it isn’t really. And what about recycling? Well, sometimes it reduces waste, and sometimes it is energy inefficient. What about shopping local? Well, sometimes it improves a local economy and sometimes it increases fuel usage when things are moved around in smaller batches. What about wind and solar power? Well, it offsets use of terrible energy sources like coal, but it also can’t meet demand. What about the idea that you can change the world by changing how you shop? Well, you can in a small way, but most of the important purchasing to change is done by companies and organizations, not individuals.

But we need these ideas, don’t we? If we acknowledge the limits of our solutions, don’t we also have to acknowledge that none of them will fix these problems? Aren’t we stuck in a maze of dead ends and despair?

The quick fixes, despite their improbability, are enticing and seductive. I understand why we cling to them even when the facts disagree. I understand why we stretch them beyond their usefulness and apply them even when we shouldn’t. I am tempted to do so myself, if only to erase that hopelessness that sometimes creeps in. But when we do that, our energy is spent uselessly.

We need to be better than that. The truth is that there is no silver bullet. There is no one solution. But instead of despairing over that, maybe, if we try, we can see the vast possibilities it implies. Maybe we can embrace the idea that all our work matters, that all of us doing the pieces we do well is the same as fixing the whole. Instead of carrying the weight of the world alone and clinging to the idea that our one solution will fix it, maybe, if we try, we can carry it together.

The Rich Man’s Burden

via Flickr user David ShankboneThe argument that the poor are happily “sucking [the American] teat” evokes a self-satisfied group of freeloaders living like parasites on the stolen wealth of hard-working Americans—so it’s no wonder that it generates deep resentment of social programs. But the more I encounter this entrenched idea, the more I begin to realize that it is not just classist rhetoric; it is a the edge of an ideological statement about the role of the powerful in our society.

Consider the assumptions required to support this view. First we must assume that wealth from a growing economy is available to all and apportioned only by effort: that the son of a white multi-millionaire and the daughter of a poor black family have equal access to potential wealth. With that reckless presumption in place we can also conclude that those who have more have worked harder than those who have less. Finally we can assume that those hard-working folks who have more are the key to the health of the whole economy—that more given to the top will magnify and benefit the bottom, while anything given to the bottom will be squandered.

This is the Rich Man’s Burden: the idea that it is the inherent right and duty of the rich to guide and control society, for the benefit of everyone. The lazy poor should accept their lot and strive to work hard like the rest of us, not weigh America down with their basic needs. The Rich Man’s Burden carries with it all the old prejudices of the civilized over uncivilized, the manifest destiny of the powerful, and the duty of those blessed with more to take from the poor what little they have.

That naked classism might not stand, but fortunately there is a very old argument to prop it up—“it’s for their own good.”

The idea of trickle-down benefits crops up time and time again, and “job creators” is the latest incarnation, a reframing of the assumption that benefits given to the top inevitably magnify and support everyone. The phrase is bandied about on cable news, in political debates, in presidential races, and in the halls of government. Those who espouse this view do not argue that social well-being is unimportant, but rather that social well-being is not the business of government. “Market forces,” they claim, will translate the privilege of a few into the well-being of the many, and therefore one of the main available engines of equality—the government—should keep out.

This argument appeals to economics for justification, but it is merely an ideological claim couched in economic terms. Economist Thomas Sowell wrote with some irritation: “as someone who spent the first decade of his career researching, teaching and writing about the history of economic thought, I can say that no economist of the past two centuries had any such theory.”

The facts bear him out. If trickle-down ever had been an economic hypothesis it would have been long-since debunked. Emmanuel Saez, economist at the University of California, found that in the recovery from the 2008 financial crisis, 93% of the income generated went to the top 1% of earners. Richard Michel, who analyzed income data from 1982-1987 to determine if trickle-down theory had ever worked, concluded that “the rising tide may have lifted all yachts, but it has not lifted all boats.” Disturbingly, Michel also found that households headed by Hispanics, African-Americans, and single women—demographics often subject to prejudice-driven inequality—actually saw their income growth slowing when wealth was supposedly trickling down from the upper classes.

The evidence shows us that trickle-down economics has never accomplished its stated ends, but people are wedded to ideologies, and facts look fuzzy if you squint hard enough, and old ideas do not die easily or quietly.

The roles of the powerful and the powerless have been in contention in our society for some time, and possibly for as long as societies have existed. The White Man’s Burden bolstered the Western colonialism of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, helped maintain the ruling class of Europe, and led to some of history’s most famous uprisings, the French Revolution among them. In the past it was the supposed duty of the White to civilize the Brown through religion and culture—and to take their resources along the way. Now, it is the supposed duty of the rich to civilize the poor through job creation—and to make money off their backs while they do it.

Consider the rhetoric that accompanied that old idea, itself a justification for imperialism, exploitation, and the enslavement of others. Powerful white men would speak unselfconsciously about the need to civilize the savages, to teach the less intelligent classes how to contribute to society, and to put to good use the resources squandered by dumb, lazy natives.

Consider in parallel this statement made by Newt Gingrich, 2012 Presidential candidate, on the work ethic of the poor: “Really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works. So they literally have no habit of showing up on Monday. They have no habit of staying all day. They have no habit of ‘I do this and you give me cash’ unless it’s illegal.”

Or this, even more explicit, from South Carolina Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, who spoke against public assistance for the poor because: “[my Grandmother] told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. You know why? Because they breed. You’re facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don’t think too much further than that. And so what you’ve got to do is you’ve got to curtail that type of behavior. They don’t know any better.”

If we abandon the debunked economic arguments and look at these statements for themselves, it is hard not to see the echoes of what has come before. The Rich Man’s Burden enshrines selfish decision-making as beneficial to all, and justifies old prejudices by couching them in economic rather than overtly racial or cultural terms. And we naively accept the new forms, and repeat them, and encourage them; through some alarming rhetorical alchemy, those who take have come to be known as those who give. And yet, we keep waiting.

Protecting Religious Liberty

ReligiousLiberty_via_Joel_KramerIn the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to affirm the freedom to marry for all Americans, regardless of gender and sexual orientation, a small but vocal opposition is loudly lamenting the horrific consequences. Their main argument, it now seems, is one of religious liberty. I am sympathetic. It is a good argument, and a just argument, and it is also fundamentally misapplied.

(There are some who still cling to the idea that same-sex marriage is an assault on “traditional” marriage, but they sidestep any question of how to define traditional marriage. Amanda Marcotte brilliantly deconstructs that argument here.)

So what of this argument for religious liberty? I am afraid it is well-founded. Indeed, freedom of religion is a part of our constitution and a critical pillar of our society. Without it we might have a state-sponsored religion and a set of laws imposing one set of beliefs on everyone, regardless of their person choice. So, yes, protecting people’s religious liberty is incredibly relevant here.

But the religious liberty of evangelicals is not the liberty in question.

The people talking about religious liberty right now are prominent senators, presidential candidates, judges, pastors, and Fox pundits. They have never been forced to do anything against their beliefs, but they remain terrified of the possibility. In their view, extending the institution of marriage to same-sex couples might possibly infringe on the religious liberty of evangelical florists, wedding planners, clerks, caterers, and so on—people who might be involved in a gay wedding and deprived, by this ruling, of their religious “right” to refuse to participate. In effect, they want the religious liberty to discriminate against people they do not approve of.

Of course, that isn’t what religious liberty means. If evangelicals wanted to claim religious liberty as an argument for discriminating against women or black people, society would have no trouble piercing the veil of confusing language and identifying the bigotry at its heart. And before you think that would never happen, it has. Paul’s letters have been used, and are sometimes still used, to exclude women from leadership positions in Christian communities. The argument that black skin is the mark of Cain was used to justify persecution of blacks in previous centuries. In both these cases, religious liberty is not diminished when discrimination is outlawed.

In fact, discrimination is the opposite of religious liberty. However one tries to contort around the issue, the bottom line is that religious liberty—and all liberty—is not about the freedom to fully practice your beliefs. It is about the absence of any imposition of belief. Religious liberty means no one religion’s beliefs may be imposed on those who believe differently.

And let me be clear: discrimination is the imposition of belief. Offering a service, whether that is cake decoration, wedding planning, or acting as a public servant, is stepping out of your role as a religious believer and into your role as a part of society. Within that role, denying service to people you disagree with is institutionalizing your religious belief and imposing it on the people around you.

Of course I realize that liberty, and freedom, conflict. But the freedom of one person to believe and practice as they choose cannot and does not trump anyone else’s same freedom. If, for example, sacrificing children is a part of your belief, that does not mean your religious liberty is at issue if the law says you cannot do that. When the liberty of individuals conflicts, we must negotiate an equal path, a path that preserves the most freedom for the most people.

In the case of religion, you are free to believe whatever you choose, but you are never free to impose your beliefs on the rest of society. By living in a society with freedom of religion, you are implicitly agreeing to a social contract that subordinates your personal beliefs to the ideal of religious liberty for all, including those who do not agree with you.

You are free to disagree, and to disapprove, and to believe prejudicial things. That is your right. But it is never your right to discriminate. You don’t get to pick and choose the beliefs to which religious liberty applies, because religious liberty isn’t about beliefs. Religious liberty is about people. And religious liberty means same-sex couples get the freedom to marry, and you get the freedom to disapprove. But you don’t get the freedom to stop them.

The Apotheosis of Form

I like to think about words. I believe that thinking about the words we choose is a wonderful way of pushing the bounds of our thinking. I believe that choosing our words carefully and drilling down in the nuances of their meaning helps us understand both what we personally believe and how others’ thinking is subtly different. I believe that strongly enough that I’ve written a number of posts now about the importance of choosing your words carefully.

Anna_Chromy_Cloak_Of_ConscienceIn the discussions I’ve had on this topic, though, another theme has emerged: that of treating our words as if they are the only things that matter. I was discussing this with a close friend recently and she brought up the idea of “liberal shibboleths,” which I think is a brilliantly simple way to explain this problem. A shibboleth, after all, is “the watchword of a party,” and often “some peculiarity in things of little importance.” And before I single out liberals for illiberal use of shibboleths, there are plenty of conservative shibboleths, libertarian shibboleths, progressive shibboleths, and so on.

I and my friend both have seen moments when a well-meaning person is rebuked by members of the in-group for use of the wrong words. Sometimes that rebuke is called for—there are, indeed, people who are offensive with intent, and those people should be called on their behavior. But what of the rest? If someone reaches out honestly to understand a thing they are not, it’s natural that they not know how to speak about it. Why do we treat them as if they should? These are people who have taken a step outside their comfort zone—they do not need us to critique their form, they need us to show them new ideas.

There is value in treating people with respect. There is respect in describing people with the words they choose and not the words we choose. There is respect in recognizing what is offensive, and why, and avoiding it. But there is also value, and respect, in presuming the best of intentions. Certainly when a prominent white man publicly speaks of women as girls, the inherent sexism of his statement is worth critique. But if that man had gone to some of his colleagues with an honest desire to learn and asked how he should handle situations with “girls” in his lab?

Someone who wants to learn is a rare and precious commodity. What would you teach in such a moment? Would you teach this man that he is making unwarranted assumptions about half the human race? Would you teach him that basic human decency should not be dependent on gender? Would you teach him about women’s experiences when men view them as erratic, emotional, unintelligible aliens, instead of as human beings?

Or would you take this moment, this rare open moment, to teach him only that he is using the wrong word?

The thing I did not mention before is that a shibboleth is not merely a password or a badge of membership—it is a tool of exclusion. We know, by the words they use, who agrees with us and who does not. If we are complacent and unwilling to engage our own ideas, if we prefer superficial discussion with no dissent, the shibboleths tell us who to echo and who to exile.

In my opinion, the way we engage with outsiders is the true test—of whether our groups are bent on real, deep discussion and self-improvement, or whether they are rigid places where ritual is king and doubt is forbidden. We, who profess to be open to multiple ideas; we, who profess to believe in human rights and human decency; we, who claim to value discourse and discussion: it is incumbent on us to pay more than lip service to these ideals.

We can choose our words carefully, and we should. But we can make those choices out of understanding rather than prescription, and when we speak to those who disagree we should not conflate the two. The form is what we see, but it cannot be what we teach—because form, without the ideals to inspire it, is dead.

Judging the Poor

A man came up to me in town the other day. “Excuse me, sir,” he said, “I’m sorry to bother you, but I’m homeless and hungry and I just need to get some food today, maybe just a sandwich and some soda, can you spare a few bucks to help me?”

Via Kymberly JanischI had just come out of a small discount food store. I could have given him cash, which I knew he was asking for, but instead I said: “Well, is there anything in the store here that you want? Come in, get whatever you like.” He did, picked out a soda and a few granola bars, and I bought them for him.

But I didn’t trust him.

I had no reason to mistrust him, no reason to disbelieve what he said, no reason to think he was going to go spend the money on alcohol, or cigarettes, or drugs. And I would have had no reason to judge him even if he did—I buy alcohol with my money, so why shouldn’t he? I don’t buy cigarettes or drugs, but I know plenty of people who do, and I don’t judge them for it. And yet I decided, almost immediately, to buy him food rather than give him cash.

I have been told this in the past—that people begging for money may not really be homeless, that they may be just trying to support a habit, that they may be scamming you. A neat way to sidestep that, I have been taught, is to offer food instead of money. If food is what they are asking for, what’s the big deal? I get to preserve my charity and my mistrust simultaneously.

The big deal is that I am passing judgment on them, and I am humiliating them, even if they don’t know it. You see, what I am really doing is saying “I know you are already in a painful position where you are completely dependant on the charity of others, most of whom can easily afford to be charitable, but I am still going to make sure my charity deprives you of just a little bit more autonomy. I am still going to make sure that when you spend the money I give you, you do it in a way I approve of.”

Of course I am not alone in this impulse. We see it writ large on our society daily. We do mostly agree that the poor should receive help, that there should be a baseline standard of living in our society, and that people in unfortunate circumstances should have the chance to get out of them. But we are also stingy bastards.

In fact, we are much more intent on judging and controlling the poor than we are on helping them. If you’re poor, some of us don’t trust you with more than $25 at a time. Or we think you have no right to decide what you eat, even if it basically costs the same. And by the way, if you want public assistance we increasingly claim the right to test you for anything we deem unacceptable beforehand. Our charity comes with so many strings attached that the poor are basically our puppets.

And the things we demand of them in exchange for our help are often impossible. The poor are already stuck in a society that is structurally biased against them. We insist that those lazy bums go get a job, while simultaneously refusing to hire anyone who has been out of work for more than a few months. We tell people to get their finances in order while simultaneously refusing them access to banks and loaning them money at usury rates. We are happy to demand that they stand up and take responsibility for themselves, all the while removing every little bit of autonomy they may have left. And we happily and self-righteously condemn them for failing to get up every time we smack them down.

I remember what it was like to be on food stamps, and to grow up living paycheck to paycheck, and to have to cut out things that we couldn’t afford. I remember my father and mother working very hard indeed, because on top of trading a lot of work for a little money, they had to find ways to juggle all the bills from week to week without getting too far behind. Being poor is fucking hard work.

And if they ever spent a little bit of money on something we didn’t need, like popsicles for me and my siblings, or a slightly more expensive cheap coffee, it was because you can’t live with nothing. You have to have little wins, and little indulgences, and little ways to tell yourself that things are not quite on the brink, because when you don’t, you despair.

In my adult life, I have not had self-righteous politicians telling me what I can and can’t buy. I have not been forced to take a drug test in exchange for food. I have not had to beg on the street corners. I have not had to cash checks at places that take 20% of my income in exchange for doing it, or borrow money from people who demand twice as much back. I have not had to be out of work for weeks into months into years watching my chances of self-sufficiency slip away.

But the next time someone asks me for money, I am going to withhold my judgment and give them the cash. Because the very least I can do is to let them make their own choice about what they need the most.

The Value of a Boycott

We are regularly told that our power as citizens lies with our choices as consumers. Often we are identified as consumers first and citizens second. It is thus no surprise that boycotts tap into our cultural programming and trigger our associations with power. What we buy, we are told, controls what will be. The “demand” side of “supply and demand” is the shaper of our society. I’m sure we’ve all heard the quote, “buy the change you want to see in the world.” Or something like that.

Via R Barraez D'LuccaCertainly boycotts have sometimes been a major tool for achieving social change. In the 1980s in South Africa, black citizens boycotted white-owned businesses in the provinces and towns around Johannesburg and forced major concessions from the Apartheid regime. In the 1950s in Montgomery, Alabama, a boycott by black citizens led to the de-segregation of public transportation and made an indelible mark on American society.

There is also no denying that boycotts poorly framed and executed can lead to no change whatsoever. When a boycott is the wrong tool for the job, the actual effect can be negative—to require huge amounts of effort on the part of the participants, draining their time and energy, while having no real effect on the corporation or the regime being targeted. This sort of boycott is like a drum circle at a protest: it might make the participants feel good, but it does nothing tangible for the cause. At least the drummers are still part of the protest—an ineffective boycott is as good as invisible.

When I was growing up, there were calls in my church for Christians to boycott things made in China because the Chinese government was imprisoning Chinese Christians. We were given to understand that this was supposed to be a national action. Since freedom from religious persecution is a fundamental ideal in the United States, one might also be forgiven for thinking this boycott could be effective.

To sort out what helps a boycott succeed or fail, let’s compare the Christian China boycott, which I think representative of the sort of minor boycotts socially-minded people regularly call for, to the two boycotts I mentioned above, which I think representative of the most effective a boycott can be. Further, I will limit the comparison to a few critical points: leverage, simplicity, participation, and strategic goals.


In the case of the South Africa boycott, the targeted stores were owned by white businessmen, but they sold many of the goods to the black South African community. The Christmas season was approaching, and they had substantial assets tied up in their stock. The store’s white owners also had greater influence on the Apartheid government. Therefore, the boycott participants could indirectly leverage the government by leveraging the businesses.

In the case of the Montgomery Bus boycott, the black community made up a nearly 75% of the ridership. The bus system relied on fares to function, so publicly threatening the bus system put pressure on the city as a whole. Therefore, the boycott participants had substantial leverage.

In the case of the Christian China boycott, the majority of Chinese goods are sold to diverse manufacturers, countries, communities, and individuals. The Christian community has little influence on most of these. The Christian community therefore has reduced leverage on the Chinese government; even if every Christian in the United States avoided personal purchase of Chinese products, it would account for a very small percentage of the Chinese GDP.


In the case of the South Africa boycott, the actual practice of the boycott was simple: don’t buy anything from the white-owned stores.

In the case of the Montgomery Bus boycott, again, the actual task was simple: don’t ride the bus.

In the case of the Christian China boycott, the actual task of checking every product to ensure that none of its components are made in China is time-consuming and places a small but repeated burden on the participants.


In the case of the South Africa boycott, not buying anything from the local shops was a major hardship for participants. The organizers wisely agreed to a suspension of the boycott as Christmas approached to allow for negotiation with the Apartheid government. When those negotiations failed, the participants were refreshed and ready to resume the boycott. Without collaboration and careful organization, it would have been very difficult to maintain, but with strong community support they achieved nearly 100% participation.

In the case of the Montgomery Bus boycott, black citizens had to find other routes to work and other means of transportation. Again, without careful organizing and community support, it would have been an impossible hardship. With the leadership and support of local pastors and organizers, though, the black community achieved nearly 100% participation.

In the case of the Christian China boycott, American citizens have a variety of choices available and can easily choose to buy nothing or to buy a product from another country rather than purchasing Chinese products. In theory, participation should have been easy—but without collective organizing to motivate participation, the boycott never really got off the ground.

Strategic Goals 

In the case of the South Africa boycott, the participants had clear demands for their targets—to allow blacks access to public facilities, to withdraw troops from provinces, to end discrimination in the workplace, and to release political prisoners. Their requests were well within the target’s capability. In fact, the government made concessions to end the boycott. It is important to note that the black leadership did not call for an end to Apartheid with the boycott in question, instead focusing on “quality of life” demands. The end of Apartheid came under pressure from a wide variety of actions and strategies, of which boycotts were only one part.

In the case of Montgomery Bus boycott, the participants also had a clear message for the target—to de-segregate the busses—which was also within the target’s ability to grant. The demand was complicated by social pressures against it, but the participants achieved enough leverage to outweigh those pressures.

In the case of the Christian China boycott, the participants had a vague message without concrete benchmarks—to end persecution of Chinese Christians—which left the boycott with no defined end point. The request was complicated because what little leverage the participants exerted was on American businesses, while the main target was actually Chinese government policies.

Summing Up the Comparison

By and large, effective boycotts:

  1. Have a group of participants who have substantial leverage, such as the majority of the customers for a company or service.
  2. Have a simple and specific task for participants.
  3. Have strong community organizing to recruit high participation and support the people taking action.
  4. Have a clear message with a clear, measurable action called for from the target.

The South Africa and Montgomery Bus boycotts are both examples that met all these criteria. The Christian China boycott, by contrast, met none of them. I will add the caveat that boycotts also work best as part of a diverse portfolio of tactics, especially in cases like Montgomery and South Africa where major social change is part of the goal, but the Christian China boycott fails in that regard as well.


Too often, I think, calls for boycotts tend towards the model of the Christian China boycott rather than the South Africa or Montgomery Bus boycotts. Thousands of calls for boycotts exist, many with no clear demands for the target, most with no organizing for participants, and a great many suggesting that you boycott diverse corporations or groups of corporations and all of their holdings while putting the burden on you to figure out which products you are still allowed to buy.

We all have a finite capacity for social involvement, and it is incumbent on us not to expend that capacity uselessly. Boycotts are a popular way to feel like you are doing something, but their actual impact is variable and often nonexistent. My suggestion, then, is that if you are joining a boycott to assuage you conscience, don’t have any illusions about it. If you are joining a boycott to achieve broader social progress, though, choose wisely.

“Thug” is Becoming an Epithet

Let’s say you are a white person, and you want to convey that a black person is worth less than you are, that they are unruly and unreliable, that they are violent and deserving of punishment, and that, in general, the state should be able to do to them whatever it deems appropriate?

Via Fibonacci BlueWell, you used to have a word. You used to be able to use that word because you were in power, and you knew you were in power, and the black people you were discussing were legally chattel. So you could use whatever word you liked and the majority of the people (well, the majority of those who were recognized as people, anyway) would agree with you and not think twice about it.

Then, as time went on, society became a little less white, and you became a little less powerful. With some chagrin, and a lot of vicious underhanded terrorism, you admitted that you were wrong to hold as much power as you did and that you had to share. Sometimes. Eventually you decided that you having more than your fair allotment of everything and sharing sometimes was the same as everyone being equal. You got pretty content with this state of things, because lots of people around you (who were white) agreed with you that the problem was solved, and you still got to enjoy many of the benefits of having the problem (while black people around you were still suffering from the problem).

And then something went wrong. Many people have always been saying no, you having the most and sharing sometimes is not enough, but they started saying it louder. Maybe it was because the agents of social control that you built act mainly on your behalf, and so black people tend to end up dead at their hands. And you needed a reason to dismiss these angry black people, a reason to say they were wrong, and a word to explain how you felt about them.

“Thug” is a very convenient word. It has all the associations of your old word, but (officially) does not have racial connotations. There are white thugs, right? Totally. So you can express all that hate and resentment you feel quite nicely with this new word, which is just broadly-defined enough to give you plausible deniability.

But guess what? There is no plausible deniability for language. Language is a democracy. Meanings are not prescriptive, they are descriptive. So, when you use “thug” to mean “a black guy who makes white folks a little more uncomfortable than they prefer,” no one is confused about what you mean. Except maybe you, doing internal backflips to convince yourself that what you are saying is not a racial epithet—even if you are using it that way, and even if you are conveying exactly the meaning you want to be conveying by using it that way. Even if other people, perhaps just a bit ignorant of what is going on, use it too. Even if there are other meanings.

What I’m saying is, we will not let you off the hook. Because, no matter how much you justify and contort and argue that you are not being racist (and racism isn’t even a thing anyway, you assure us) the rest of us hear what you really mean. We know very well what you are saying, and we want you to stop.

You Can’t Understand

As both a fervent advocate of social justice and a generally curious person, I appreciate the value of a rhetorical discussion. I want to hear voices that are different from mine, and different from my friends, and different from my politics, but which are nonetheless careful and thoughtful and provocative. They are, to me, symphonic. They enlighten, and challenge, and inspire.

“You can’t understand.”

The words descend between us heavily, stark and divisive and unmoving. A bitter teenager rebukes his parents. A tired spouse fires back at their partner. A poor American admonishes a rich American. One hurt friend speaks to another. A black American indicts a white American. Someone who has felt something deep, and abiding, and painful, speaks to someone who has not, and builds a wall between them.

Walls crumble, but sometimes they need help

Walls crumble, but sometimes they need help

It doesn’t feel like building a wall. It feels like speaking the truth—like laying out a raw, painful, insurmountable truth. But it is a wall nonetheless; the question is whether it is a true wall, or phantasm.

I have seen this phrase from writers of color describing what it is to be black in America. I have seen it from women saying what it is to be a woman in America. I have seen it from advocates of LGBTQ rights on what it means to pursue gender and sexual pluralism in America. From these writers, I read this as language from a place of hurt, or anger, or frustration, or exhaustion. It feels like accusation and exoneration both.

I have also seen this phrase, and perhaps more often, from people who are none of these, but still write about these issues. From those writers, the phrase rings hollow to me—it does not evoke the difficulty of bridging gaps, or the difficulty of understanding. Instead it rings like an excuse, like a disclaimer for those things the author may have failed to grasp, like a Pontius Pilate washing his hands of any damage done by his ignorance.

As I read these dispatches from cultural fault lines, these tremors major and minor in the fabric of our society, I cannot help but wonder: is it true? Can I not understand? I am poor—by American standards—and I certainly feel that the rich do not understand my life. But I do not think they care to—could they? I think (I hope) that they could.

Each time I see this phrase, I must restrain the impulse to give up. I must remind myself that the writer who has said this is hurt, or angry, or confused, or speaking what is emotionally true. But I also wonder if we couldn’t think about things differently. I wonder if there is not another way to express our anger and our ignorance, our exhaustions and our humility.

I want to listen to the voices of those who are different from me. Those who tell me “you can’t understand” are telling me that I need not even try. And it may be true that I cannot understand, or it may not, but I think to return that indictment is to divide more than it is to enlighten. So, while I do not ask anyone who believes this phrase to censor their experience, I do ask those who intend to advocate change to consider their choice of words. Only a small change in phrasing, I think, is enough to return hope to the equation and offer at least one small piece of a collective solution:

“You can’t understand, unless you listen.

A Singular Problem

Global Gender Issues

An abandoned book

The book lay forlorn atop a small table, abandoned beside a potted plant and a faint ring of coffee. The title, “Global Gender Issues in the New Millennium,” was splashed across the cover in bold yellow letters and surrounded by a rainbow of faces from around the world. I glanced around quickly for the owner of this book, but no one was in sight. The clock on the opposite pillar reminded me that classes had begun only five minutes before.

Collecting the book from the table, I headed for the library front desk. As I handed it to the librarian, though, I paused, considering my words.

“Someone left his or her book on the table. He or she will probably be back for it.” Hardly acceptable; I couldn’t determine which, if either, of those genders was appropriate for the individual in question, and it was stilted besides.

“This book was left on the table. The person who left it will no doubt return.” An acceptable use of the passive voice to draw attention to the object of the sentence, but not an efficient way to communicate. It also seemed needlessly formal.

“Someone left their book, and they’ll probably be back for it.” Of course; this is a perfectly acceptable sentence in spoken English, and it is really only in retrospect that I hesitated. In most cases, I wouldn’t give it a second thought—and nor, I wager, would you.

Despite the shrill protestations of those who declaim on the decline of discourse, the use of the singular “they” and its derivations is by no means a new phenomenon. That vaunted authority, the Oxford English Dictionary, records usage of the singular “they” as early as 1375, and that in writing. It also notes that the third-person forms of “they” were likely borrowed as a result of “functional pressure” to “disambiguate” the third-person plural and singular pronouns. In other words, the very existence of the word “they” in English is probably because we needed third-person gender-neutral pronouns, singular and plural both.

OED: a1375   William of Palerne (1867) l. 2179 Hastely hiȝed eche wiȝt..til þei neyȝþed so neiȝh..þere william & his worþi lef were liand i-fere.

Why then do some grammarians rail against this useful and distinguished form of the word? For me to ascribe motivations would be rank speculation, but were I inclined to do so I might suggest of such a grammarian that they are a rule-bound pedant with no understanding of the descriptive nature of definition or grammar in a living language. I might also, if I were inclined to cast aspersions, say that the prescriptive rigidity of such a person does a disservice to the very heart and soul of language.

But rather than spending all my time rebuking such persons, I shall make my argument with the positive cases for the use of the singular “they” in writing—yes, even in formal written English. As I noted above, it is commonly used in informal speech, and likewise on internet message boards, in e-mail, and, I dare say, in blogs. (Some may disagree, naturally. If anyone has a particular disagreement, I would be happy to discuss it with them.)

The simplest benefit of the singular “they” is that it provides a gender-neutral pronoun for those cases where we are discussing a specific person, but their gender is unknown. Have you ever had someone cut you off on the highway and then groused about their driving later? Have you ever tried to speak about the owner of a lost item (as I had to above)? Have you ever tried to talk about a group by discussing its archetypical member? In all these cases, the singular “they” easily sidesteps questions of gender and lets you focus on the matter at hand.

A subtler, but perhaps more important, benefit of the singular “they” is its deft avoidance of exclusion. In cases where scientists, psychologists, teachers, reporters, or politicians must speak about members of a group, the use of the awkward “he or she” may actually introduce bias into the discussion. Defaulting to “he” as a supposedly neutral option is even less productive. In fact, some research shows that while “they” is gender neutral, the generic “he” and even the speciously balanced “he/she” still generate, for the reader, a mainly male image of the supposedly generic person in question. John Gastil, who performed this research, noted drily: “That this bias could reinforce itself in sexist thought and behavior seems eminently plausible.” Bias towards a gender dichotomy is encoded in much of formal academic language, but the singular “they” nullifies the issue with one simple step.

My final argument for the singular “they” is, in essence, an argument from linguistic conservatism. I firmly believe that language should be free to evolve as it needs to, but I also believe in making the most economical linguistic choice available. For that reason I do not think it worthwhile to employ stilted rephrasings of the sentences that come first to mind, nor to sidestep the issue with “he or she,” nor to sit quietly in the background of academia ruffling no feathers and waiting for others to lead the way.

Nor, even, do I think we should invent new words like “xe” or “ze” to cover our meaning, because it is not simply a matter of having an inclusive choice—language is a fundamentally democratic exercise, regardless of what some grammarians may tell you. While “xe” might catch on in limited circles, I think it is too dramatic to be adopted by the public at large—usages become widespread most often when they are intuitive, and “they” already fits that bill quite nicely.

The singular “they” is simple, elegant, intuitive, and has existed for centuries—and if anyone doesn’t believe that, they are welcome to look it up themselves.