Saturday, May 30, 2009

Latina wisdom: a blog post on epistemology and politics

Let me start with something that I think should be fairly uncontroversial, given its pride of place in the Western canon on philosophical axioms:

Know thyself.

When Judge Sonia Sotomayor talks about the role of experience and her identity as a wise Latina woman, she is not sounding some crazy radical pomo activist socialist whateverist scary siren song of identity politics and--as the more ridiculous critics have termed it--racism. (Honestly?) She is stating something obvious and unavoidable, and something absolutely necessary to the process of making decent judgments about, well, anything. Know thyself. Plato said it first, and I guess we'd put him in the category of hallowed white males, wouldn't we.

In the lecture that the supposedly damning quote is pulled out of, Sotomayor makes two points, both of which hang on the necessity of knowing yourself as a part of the process of making judgments. The first is that being who you are, whether that's a "wise Latina woman" or a "white male," is a specific identity, the cumulative result of a lifetime of experience and circumstances that are unique to each person. This is the part where the quote comes from. The controversy about it comes not from her acknowledging that she is a Latina--which everyone is busy pointing out as well. It's fine that she's willing to acknowledge the specificity of her identity. The controversy comes from the presumption that a Latina's specific experiences are a valid perspective from which to judge. That presumption means not just that Sotomayor is rejecting the idea of some universally objective non-personal standpoint but that she regards Latina experience as on par with any other American experience, equally valid and representative. And this is only controversial because in his country, apparently, we still retain the idea that there is some kind of universal American experience and identity from which all judgments should be made--and that this universal American experience and identity is the epistemological possession of white men. (If Sotomayor were willing to say it doesn't make a difference that her body is Latina because her mind is the same as a white male's, then we would call her "fair" and "objective" and "dispassionate." She would also, of course, be a liar, but that lie is one that we cherish and like to hear.)

Of course, not all Americans are white or male, a point that Sotomayor also makes. Most of the defenses of her that I've heard focus on this point, arguing that she is talking about her Latina experiences as particularly relevant in the context of discrimination cases. As true as this may be, it is the wrong defense to make, because it emphasizes the experiential gap between the "wise Latina woman" and the white male--precisely the thing that scares the pants off of all the white males calling her racist at the moment.

It would be smarter--and more relevant--to point out that Sotomayor goes on to make the second point, also connected to 'knowing thyself,' that acknowledging one's specific experiences and identity does not mean one is unable to understand that other experiences are real, valid, and require understanding. Rather, it means the opposite. Being a wise Latina woman does not mean that she can only properly understand the experiences of other Latina women, or that she makes Latina experience universal for everyone in an epistemological oppression mirroring the supposed universalism of the particular experience of white maleness. Understanding that her experiences are particular, not universal, she can therefore perceive the need to actively seek to understand experiences not her own. Only if you understand the particularity of your own experiences can you get the fact that other people's experiences may differ from your own. The larger question Sotomayor addresses in her lecture is how one goes beyond the particularity of personal experiences in the process of making judgments: does one do by aspiring to some sort of universal standpoint outside onself, "objectivity," or does one do it precisely through acknowledging the preferences and presumptions one's own experience has provided, seek to evaluate their relevance and impact on one's decision making, and possibly revise or even counter them in light of the experiences of others? Sotomayor advocates the latter. As any honest thinker should--and must. This is what makes her, not simply a Latina woman, but a wise Latina woman.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

on what you can and can't say, in church

I was a high school kid, telling an anecdote about something outrageous after church, standing in the center aisle...and slipped up and said "damn it." "Jenny! You're in church!" came the shocked response.

A couple years ago, Joe asked us to share our most joyful moment as we prepared to celebrate the Eucharist together. Everyone in the church shared something about the most joyful moment in their lives, and then it was my turn. I described how it felt to pee on that little stick, wait 2 minutes, and look at the little blue plus sign. "OH shit. We've done it now," is what I said in that moment, and this time, my church family didn't censor me at all--just joined in the sense of stunned wonder I felt as I realized I was responsible for nurturing a whole new life in this world.

See, I go to a church where you can say anything. Even "shit."

But all churches--even mine--have to work hard to be places where people can say what they really think, really believe (or don't), really feel. But if church isn't the safe place where people can be honest and vulnerable with each other--what the hell is it? And if the people who are part of your church don't feel safe in expressing what they think and feel and believe, how in hell is someone who's not a part of the church going to feel like it's a safe place to walk into?

In my church, we have to work hard to make sure that those still struggling with how to read the Bible and understand it on the topic of human sexuality know that they can say so, without censure. We have to work just as hard at that as any conservative church in the midwest has to work to make sure that the lone gay marriage supporter in its midst knows she is still welcome, even if she's not understood.

Because that's what unity is. That's what bearing with each other means. That's what living in community takes. And it's worth it. As we struggle through the conflicts of opinion and disagreements in doctrine, we each bear witness to the gospel--to each other. And often, out of dissensus comes greater understanding of what living the gospel really means. But we can't bear witness to each other in this way unless we're free to speak our minds, unburden our hearts, and live our convictions. We can't bear witness to each other, if we're too busy censoring each other's statements.

And if we can't bear witness to each other, how can we bear witness to the rest of the world?

Friday, May 22, 2009

Is anyone else totally grossed out by the ubiquitous "cure your yellow teeth" ads in the hotmail sidebar and all over facebook? The ones with the "free" and "discovered by a mom" taglines, with the great big closeups of people's mouths. The last straw was the mustachioed man licking his white white teeth. BLURG! Please, please, please make it STOP.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

AIDS Walk NY 2009

The AIDS Walk was Sunday. Our CCfB team collectively raised $475, and Clare and I officially reached our donation goal of $100!

Special thanks goes to Grandmom and Grandad, and Sylva's Nana.

Clare's collection can gathered a total of $10.97 from various anonymous donors, from both CCfB and Calvary Episcopal Church (where we placed the can in the church office). Thanks to all of you, too. I matched your donation to bring it to an even $20 with some "play money" from Anna Mercedes, so thanks to Anna for helping us make our goal!

Y'all ROCK.

And as Dora would say, "Thanks for helping!"