Thursday, July 11, 2013

Doing Good Badly*

I think sometimes our efforts to correct or reach across the privilege gap end up being counterproductive.  Maybe this is because we've grown up with such different assumptions that we fail to understand each other.  Maybe it's because our motives are mixed.  Or maybe it's because we don't take enough time to get to the root of the problem. 
The next post will be about what I see as a root issue.  For now, here are a few kinds of backfiring outreach that I have observed, among Friends and elsewhere:
1. Offering help and refusing to accept it 
When my family was new at the Catholic Worker some people advised us that when rich youth came to the farm we should get them to work hard and think about social justice, and when poor youth came to the farm we should hold parties for them and give them things.  My mother, who grew up far from wealthy though adequately fed, didn't like the sound of that division.  What many of the 'poor' kids wanted was to help, to have something to offer, to be competent and generous.  My brother helped some kids from the subsidized housing complex fix their bikes.  They asked if, now they'd learned the basics, they could help him fix bikes for someone else to use.
I've heard some people speak of feeling dismissed in this way by Friends who apparently saw them as disadvantaged, offered them help of various sorts and refused their offers of help with practical work and with discernment.  Perhaps this is meant to convey  "I've had life too easy and you've had it too hard; let's even that out."  But it can come across as "I don't need/want anything you can offer; you're not good enough."  And it can hinder God's work among us.
2. Praising someone for being Diverse rather than attending to what they actually do and say
As a teenager I was active in various religious and political groups. Often I'd jump into a discussion among full adults with what I thought was a different and valid perspective.  They'd say "Oh, isn't it wonderful to have young people involved!" and then go on without addressing the substance of what I'd said.  This might have been because I was missing the point; if so I wished they would tell me directly.  
3. Making assumptions about what is liberating for the other person, without listening to them to check this
I've repeatedly been present at this conversation between Friends or other somewhat liberal folks: A man is explaining that monogamy/fidelity is a patriarchal/capitalist concept which treats women as the property of men, and that free love or some variant thereof is a much more equitable arrangement, and that he is glad to be part of a time in which sexual arrangements are more favorable to women.  A woman, often looking harassed, is expressing discomfort with or disapproval of how uncommitted sex often works out and a sense that commitment or restraint is helpful.  The man pauses politely to let her have her say and keeps on with what he was saying…. I'm not saying that this debate always breaks down by gender, only that I observe a recurring pattern. I notice this one as a woman and a pro-commitment type.  I likely don't notice when I am doing something similar to other people.
4.  Being nervously guilty rather than present and responsible
Randy described this general pattern much more eloquently than I can in his comment to part 1. 
I know I've done this. I've let my worry about whether I could be unconsciously exuding racism get in the way of being really present to guests from other races and cultures.  I've been distracted by bursts of guilt from being present and listening to the kid from the ratty apartments in town who asks whether we also run out of food until somebody's stamps come in.  I've wasted energy in fretting about the nuances of my attitudes when I should have been looking more carefully at the ways in which people were harmed by by the food I ate and the gas I used.  I've let the white noise of anxiety fill the space in me which needs to be left open for the voice that calls me on into right relationship.
It's that voice, and the things which block us from hearing it, that I want to get back to in my next post. 
*I stole this post title from a chapter heading in Wayne Muller's excellent book Sabbath; basically, he describes doing good badly as the result of acting headily, desperately  and in haste rather than stilling ourselves and listening to each other and to God.

Link to part 4

1 comment:

Ashley W said...

More great stuff! I really resonate with #2.