Right is not always good

19 Nov

Last year, I started having conversations with educators and students about service and social justice: the overlap, and the difference between the two.

Here’s the gist: there are a lot of well-intentioned organizations and individuals who are trying to do good in the world. Who are doing good in the world. And at the same time are perpetuating what’s wrong with the world.

One example is the KONY2012 movement, which I’ve written about. Ending child soldiering? Definitely good. In the process, perpetuating the white savior industrial complex (http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/03/the-white-savior-industrial-complex/254843/), which itself perpetuates global racism? Not so good. In fact, down right wrong.

I would and have said the same for BeadforLife, an organization dedicated to “eradicating poverty one bead at a time” (http://www.beadforlife.org/en/our-impact/our-model). No argument with ending poverty. And a vehement argument about actively supporting the paternalistic US-Africa relationship (which includes lumping all of Africa together) while doing so.

And then there’s a recent Facebook plea to help the survivors of Typhoon Haiyan: “Come on, go through your closets and make a stop at your market. They need food, detergent, canned goods, soap. They need flip flops. Any old shoes you don’t want (http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/foreigners/2013/11/how_to_help_typhoon_haiyan_survivors_in_the_philippines_the_only_donation.html)”.  My question is whether we can eradicate poverty, end child soldiering and provide disaster relief without shoring up racist, nationalist, classist and sexist hierarchies and systems of oppression.

It’s not that we shouldn’t donate money or goods. It’s that we need to think critically about what we’re doing and the impact we’re having, and then figure out what else we need to do if we aren’t having the impact we intended. If we really want to do what’s right, we need to realistically assess our do-gooding.

And that brings me to the topic of supporting same-sex marriage.

I do. It seems unequivocally right and good to me.

But as blogger Scot Nakagawa points out in “Why I Support Same Sex Marriage as a Civil Right, But Not as a Strategy to Achieve Structural Change” (http://www.racefiles.com/2013/03/25/why-i-support-same-sex-marriage-as-a-civil-right-but-not-as-a-strategy-to-achieve-structural-change/), supporting same-sex marriage isn’t just simply right and good. His “serious worries about the broad implications” of the eventual 50 state legalization of same-sex marriage is that this “victory” is also a concession to a problematic conservatism that dictates more than just who get to marry whom in our society. As Nakagawa writes:

Extending marriage rights to LGBT people does little or nothing to address the structure of oppressive family laws and values in society. It also does very little to change the  core of the conservative agenda which is, fundamentally, about power and control. This is evidenced by the fact that young conservatives are increasingly supportive of same-sex marriage at the same time that they continue to be champions of austerity who are deeply opposed to public funding of critical safety net programs. And many are terrible on issues of race, equating black and brown people with destructively out-of-control sexuality, crime, and government debt. So their attitudes about LGBT people may have changed, but their worldviews remain pretty much the same.

… What appears to be leading to this “success” with young conservatives points to another of my concerns. By presenting LGB (I’ll leave off the “t” here) people as basically conservative in our demands, the most mainstream faction within the LGB movement is subtly positioning us as a model minority. And it’s working. Where once attacks against LGB people relied heavily on messaging that mirrored prejudices historically used against people of color (morally debased sexual predators and criminals seeking anti-American special rights), LGB people are increasingly understood to be all-American and fundamentally non-threatening. The sales job basically seems to revolve around the idea that if you let us in, nothing really changes. And, based on the demands at the center of this agenda, this is, to a degree, true.

And, like all model minority strategies, this kind of argument plays subtly on an us vs them mentality that suggests that we ought not be vilified because we are like you, and not like the them popular prejudices associate us with…

Also troubling is my sense that the current strategies ignore something about marriage rights that ought to be obvious to anyone excluded from them, especially when that group is arguing that being excluded has real, material consequences. That is, that we are arguing to be able to use marriage as a shield against wrongs that no one, regardless of sexual orientation or marital status, should suffer. No loved one should be excluded from survivors benefits and pensions, end of life decision-making, hospital visitation, and the many other family rights reserved for married couples. And when we argue that being able to wield this shield is a right we deserve because we conform with the values of good people, that shield can become a weapon against those who are still excluded.

I agree with Nakagawa about the fundamental conservatism of the institution of marriage. Getting married myself (which as a hetero woman has always been my right) was a conflicted decision and process for me because while my relationship is mine, getting married was clearly about buying into a tradition and culture I have many and vehement questions about (don’t get me started on the tradition of giving away a bride. I am not a cow.) Even now, I prefer to refer to my partner by name or as “my partner” because, quite frankly, the word “husband” connotes some values and beliefs that I don’t stand for. (Of course, whether I use the word “husband” or not, we are married. We are–I am–part of this culture that Nakagawa critiques so insightfully.)

What Nakagawa makes me wonder is: what do I stand for? I’m not retracting my support of same-sex marriage. I absolutely support it. And it’s not enough. Because what I’m trying to stand for isn’t just extending equal rights to some more folks. It’s rethinking our rights, and embracing inclusive rights for all folks.

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