2016-02-25

Inside / Outside

In which I discuss the different perspectives that come from a person's relationship to the community in which they live.

Mormon high school students typically take special, daily religious classes called "seminary classes." Outside of Utah, these classes are offered before or after school, but in Utah a dedicated "seminary building" stands next door to every high school campus, and students organize their class schedules so that their seminary classes are incorporated into their regular daily schedule like any other high school course.

One day, when I was in high school, I had lunch with an attractive friend of mine, trying to get to know her a bit, with hopes of mustering up the courage to push things further. At some point, she mentioned her seminary class and then, assuming that I was also a mormon, she paused to ask me what period during the school day I had scheduled my seminary classes.

When I told her that I didn't take seminary classes, she was visibly but unantagonistically startled. She put a hand on my shoulder and reassured me: "Oh! That's okay."

There are two ways of looking at this interaction, depending on whose perspective you're likely to take.

From her perspective, she wanted to reassure me that the fact that we were members of different religions didn't bother her. I completely understood that at the time, but as a religious minority in the area, I also had another thought: "I know it's okay!" I didn't need reassurance from the religious community that it was "okay" to believe what I believed.

Members of a social majority often have very little perspective into what it means to be tolerant of minorities. Saying that "it's okay" for me to have my own beliefs sounds kind, from the perspective of a tolerant member of a majority. However, minorities don't want to be reassured that their existence is valid in the eyes of the community, they just want to live their lives. Members of majorities never have to ask for this kind of liberty because it is taken for granted.

I thought about my experience in light of some of the things I've been reading out there. It's not uncommon for pundits, economists, and philosophers - especially political philosophers - to discuss "the polity," or to discuss the various ramifications of "our" running "our" political system one way or another, or to discuss what "we" mean when "we" say or act a particular way, or etc. They aim to solve problems that "we" have, so that "we" can do a better job of living "our" lives.

I can't help but notice that these are conversations that can only be had from within. "We" can only discuss what "we" think should happen in "our" community or political region if we happen to consider ourselves members of that community. The choice, however, is not always ours. The community might openly reject your bid for membership because of your religious beliefs, or your race, or your income level, or whatever else it might be.

If "the polity" decides for itself, in your absence, that you do not belong to it (even though you do), then your position in "the polity" changes considerably. Your relationship to it is completely different. Your ability to affect change is diminished if it is not obliterated. Your ability to be persuasive is no longer a question of your ability to communicate or to reason, because what the group wants from you is not change but conformity. So, conformity - the one last thing you could ever want - is the only option offered to you.

Some insiders recognize this, and temper their philosophies accordingly. They aim to be tolerant and non-judgmental. They aim to "check their privilege" and to "respect other cultures." They make willing and liberal concessions in their political ideologies to allow plenty of room in "the polity" for us outsiders to thrive. 

When they speak about the interests of minorities, or outsiders, or individuals, they remind me of that the girl I knew in high school who wanted to reassure me that it was "okay" to be who I am. And when pressed on this point, members of strong in-groups will simply invite the outsider or the individual an opportunity to come in and participate in the community's already-established operating system.

Individuals and outsiders want neither reassurance that their existence is okay nor an opportunity to conform and participate according to the group's rules, and offering us these things is not an act of kindness or tolerance. 

We want only live our lives.