White People, It’s Okay To Feel Bad About Privilege

“The next time a white person blusters at you, ‘Oh, so I’m just supposed to walk around feeling bad about my privilege all the time…?!’, think about what they’re actually saying to you.”

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Every so often, I hear (probably well-meaning) black people say things like “White people, nobody’s asking you to feel bad about your privilege” when having conversations about race and politics, economic inequality, and how that can affect people’s lives right down the color line.

I know that they mean well when they say it, and I know that it’s probably just a response to memes like the that insist that no living white person was responsible for slavery and no living black person was enslaved, and other things like that.

But I don’t think that they should, and that’s because I think it’s okay to feel bad about privilege.

The next time a white person blusters at you, “Oh, so I’m just supposed to walk around feeling bad about my privilege all the time…?!”, think about what they’re actually saying to you. They’re asking for permission to live without empathy.

Empathy is looking around and realizing that other people do not have all of the things that you have. It’s feeling that uncomfortableness that comes from knowing you have a home to go to when others don’t, that you have an education when others don’t, or that you have cool gizmos and gadgets that others don’t. It’s also a complicated system of managing how we interact with the world, how we help others, and how we balance our desire for justice with competing interests – namely our own.

But as they’ve described it, they don’t WANT to have that feeling. “Feeling bad” for people is icky, and they want to live without icky. Definitely without icky. They don’t wish to be reminded of the inequality that exists in the actual world, and instead, prefer a cloistered reality where they don’t “feel bad” because they’ve noticed something outside of themselves.

All of those things that I mentioned are real levels of privilege that I personally have, by the way.

I once had a friend ask me why black people don’t like to swim. Off the top of my head, my first guess was, “Well, black people do tend to live in more impoverished communities that are in the urban centers without much access to bodies of water like pools or lakes, and often lack the monetary resources to be able to afford things like lake houses, ski doos, tubes, boats, etc., and that probably just creates a habit of not swimming very much.

She looked at me, confused, and said, “Are you saying that black people are poorer than white people?”

I’m not going to lambaste her for ignorant, but clearly she lacked exposure. And what people are saying when they ask to not “feel bad” about their privilege is that they like it that way.

Let’s get one thing straight: “Feeling bad” can be a really good thing. What I’m about to say may be heresy in some atheist/freethinking circles, but there are some problems that logic does not crack.

– Americans weren’t always outraged about Vietnam, and were only more outraged when they could see it. That’s “feeling bad.”

– The Civil Rights Movement made grand use of the media to sensationalize the brutalization of black bodies to the general public. That’s “feeling bad.”

– “Feeling bad” is the kind of thing that makes a person realize their LGBTQ son or daughter is a real person, because that’s what empathy does.

Empathy can overcome miseducation and break through barriers that raw logic is not able to penetrate. It can also be a useful surrogate for exposure, because just because you don’t know something doesn’t mean you’re a bigot. It means you’ve been sheltered from it, and empathy is often a great way to build that bridge to someone about something that you may not know a lot about, whatever it is (racism, sexism, or tapioca.)

But you’ll never learn any of that if you run around insisting that it’s wrong that you have to notice other people’s pain, or that it’s wrong for other people to bring that to your attention.

That’s not empathetic. That’s not human. And if you’re gonna feel that carelessly towards other people, that’s what you really should “feel bad” about.

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Dear Conservatives: Empathy Applies To Bad People, Too. (Part 2)

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Then why is he still alive?” – Under The Red Hood

Since the beginning of time, there have been bad people. And since the beginning of time, good people have had to decide what to do with bad people. And that’s where things get dicey.

In the most recent days, I’ve heard people talking about what we need to do with ISIS, but the ones that have stuck with me are the suggestions that we should just bomb them. Not only is this idea devoid of an understanding of how complex the situation is, it’s devoid of empathy, and here’s why.

ISIS is not the only place where this startling lack of empathy can creep up. It creeps up when people think that those on welfare are just lazy and should stop abusing the system. It’s leveraged when talking about how okay it is that many prisoners receive inadequate or harmful medical treatment. Or, you can check out how easy it was to shift the tide of empathy for unarmed 18 year old Michael Brown when it was found out that he had stolen cigars from a gas station.

Yeah, I get it. We feel that there must be justice. Some form of retribution. Some vengeance. But too often what people in search of vengeance do not stop to consider is what they will not do. After all, if we’re going to call ourselves the good guys and our enemies the bad ones, we should have a reason for that.

What is the distinction between them and us? What exactly is the difference between a member of Al-Qaeda being willing to blow up a plane in pursuit of an ideal he believes in, regardless of the collateral lives lost, and us being unconcerned with the amount of false convictions in our prison system? What is the difference between 9/11 and daily drone strikes?

What’s the difference between a damned killer and a righteous one?

Basically, in order to be a good person, there have to be some things that you are not willing to do, even when dealing with extreme evil. Because that’s the definition of a good person. People being evil doesn’t mean all bets are off on how we decide to treat them.

What’s the difference between a damned killer and a righteous one?

Monsters come in many forms, and you can’t tell me that you’re willing to indiscriminately bomb these countries (as we do), support waterboarding (as Evangelicals do), forced sodomy, rectally infused puree (Abu Ghraib), etc, AND you don’t want me to call you a monster. If you do not carefully construct your worldview to include things that you are not willing to do for justice, if you are truly willing to do anything to defeat ISIS, or to feel safe, you will end up doing despicable things that will corrode your heart.

Because we must be good. And as it turns out, being good is actually the hard thing to do.

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Dear Conservatives: Empathy Applies to Bad People, Too. (Part 1)

“You can’t just act, you have to think, you have to…listen! There are always wolves…” – Into The Woods

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“You can’t just act, you have to think, you have to…listen! There are always wolves…” – Into The Woods

Since the beginning of time, there have been bad and good people. The bad people, unlike Hester Prynne, have rarely walked around with an emblem on their clothing to tell us who they are. They come in the form of teachers, politicians, cripples, priests, students, and little old women who pretend not to shoplift. And since the beginning of time, good people have had to decide what to do with bad people.

The Bible is full of this kind of language and these kinds of ideas, to say that it’s not always easy to tell who’s on what side.

Jesus (AKA that dude nobody listens to), in one of his most famous sermons, said stuff like this in Matthew 5:

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’
44 But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you,
45 that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”

46 For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?
47 And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so?
48 Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.

It is abundantly clear that this is not what many Christians actually believe (which makes me wonder why we call them Christians, but I digress.) The points that the philosopher is making here are twofold:

  1. In life, you don’t always know who’s who. You can’t even always be sure you’re on the “right side”.
  2. Even if you can figure that out, you are supposed to be kind and loving towards the people that are not on the right side.

Now, personally, I don’t think that I’ll ever like some people. I’m never gonna want to sit down and have a beer with Donald Trump, and if you try to make me, I will probably physically fight you. But…if he came to my house for safety, if he was bleeding, if he was in a car accident, if a loved one of his died…I’d do the right thing. Because he’s a part of my family, and we’re the only ones here.

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“BOP Goes The Weasel” – Why The Burden of Proof Fails

In terms of really being able to debate someone about anything, you have to be able to understand what their axiom is. If you don’t know what an axioms are, they are the groundings of beliefs, or things that are self-evidently true. You know, like “Leonardo DiCaprio is the peanut butter to my jelly”, or “Quinoa is abhorrent”. Okay, okay, I’ll give you a real example: “Murder is wrong.” It’s important to note at this point that axioms are not technically beliefs. They are what are under or inside of beliefs, whatever metaphor suits your fancy. Beliefs are the things that arise from axioms.

You know, like “Leonardo DiCaprio is the peanut butter to my jelly”, or “Quinoa is abhorrent”.

For example, having a conversation about whether someone should get first degree, second degree, or manslaughter for killing someone with a baseball bat is a conversation based on the axiom “Murder is wrong.” Asking what punishment they deserve is impossible when the other participant in the conversation has not conceded that they deserve any type of punishment at all, not to mention you’ve thrown in the extra axiom that “Wrong deeds require punishment.” Another grand example of axiomatic differences is the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes, where we can debate until the cows come home about the color or fabric of his clothes, but the truth is that he’s not wearing any.

The Burden of Proof

Here’s where I want to present one of the most basic claims of skepticism and of atheism: The burden of proof. BOP is levied against Christians all the time, in an effort to properly orient them to the ways of logic and skeptical reasoning. However, if we take what we know about axioms and apply it, it should be pretty easy to show why BOP falls flat.

BOP goes something like this: “There’s a infinite ‘mount o’ thangs we dunno, an’ we can’t just go ‘round essepting erry claim that comes along! Whenever sumun makes a positive claim, the burden of proof is on THEM to provide evidence, not the person that don’t believe ‘em. Ya can’t prove a negative. Can’t nobody prove the non-eegsistence of the Flyin’ Spaghetti Monster, but it ain’t up t’us to disprove it. It’s up to y’all to PROVE it.”

I know you may have thought this post was going a different way, but the truth is that this is a pretty sound argument. How else do we protect ourselves and conserve our energy? How else do we respond to a world that is clearly much bigger than ourselves, with a possibly infinite amount of things that we don’t know about it? Answer: By not trying to definitively disprove the existence of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. By not really testing the veracity of claims and instead testing the likelihood of them, and reserving our research and thorough testing for claims that seem more likely.

Ya can’t prove a negative. Can’t nobody prove the non-eegsistence of the Flyin’ Spaghetti Monster!

The Achilles heel of BOP is that it’s a logical argument, but it’s applied to people, who behave much differently than logic. One thing I’ll always see floating around the Internet is sentiments like this: “I don’t believe in evolution, I accept the overwhelming scientific fact of evolution.”

I also see many atheists talking about the “claims of Christianity” or the “claims of God and His divine nature” and other things of that sort. But what these don’t take into account is that Christians do not truly believe that they are claiming anything. In essence, Christians and atheists are talking past each other because they have not agreed on a fundamental axiom.

Christians do not truly believe that they are claiming anything.

In much the same way as someone might feel that they are not “believing in evolution”, as pictured above, Christians do not particularly feel that they are “believing in God.” They believe that they are only accepting something that is already self-evident. Even the holy book says so: “For since the beginning of the world, His invisible attributes are clearly seen.” (Romans 1:20) This is the axiomatic difference between the atheist and the Christian: God is self-evident.

BOP, while a fantastic argument, does not resolve this axiomatic tension, and in many cases, as seen by atheists all over, ultimately fails. Maybe it would’ve worked with the very first person that ever claimed that there was a god, but by now, it’s something that people are born with, and something that they’re taught. It’s not to say that people are brainless automatons, but it is to say that your basic assumptions about the world affect and color how you debate these topics. This is crucial to understanding what belief is. The burden of proof argument, while valid, only works on someone who understands themselves to be making a claim that requires evidence, not on a person that believes themselves to be accepting evident fact. Understanding axioms is the first step to understanding belief, and the first step to being able to convince someone that maybe the emperor doesn’t have on any clothes at all.

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