Spot the difference – Solidarity, Intersectionality, Empathy, Compassion, Love


This is in response to a lot of things that I don’t think I’m going to address directly. If you’ve been following the people I follow on twitter this weekend, you know what it’s about. There’s been some awesome responses, particularly here, and shockingly, three years ago, here.

The thing is, we’re all so very different from each other.

This is the thing you have to learn, again, and again, in order to be really good at being a human being.

It’s not easy, but if you look closely enough you can see that we are all different. Your viewpoint on anything is not the same as mine. We have lived entirely different lives, lived through different experiences, and so become different people. We’re also made up of entirely different genetic material, so even our starting points are different.

Sometimes, when fighting against injustice, we use words that hurt someone. Sometimes we’re not even fighting against injustice.

Because we are not other people, we cannot always hear when we’re hurting someone.

Here’s the key.

When someone says you’ve said or done something hurtful, you should probably stop and listen, because they are giving you a chance to use their ears to hear your words.

It’s an incredible opportunity, the thrill of communication. By listening, we can actually learn something about the way someone different from us thinks. Language is this incredible gift, it’s clumsy, and its easy to make mistake, but it gives us the opportunity to share experiences.

You use it best when you listen, or read.

If you’ve not heard of intersectionality, don’t worry, it kind of means the same as all the others. It’s the idea that we’re all part of multiple groups. Some of those groups are mistreated by ‘society’ (that’s a word that means ‘us’, by the way), and because people fit into more than one group, they may have their mistreatment multiplied, and that can be really fucking difficult. It also means that you may be mistreated as part of one group, but also have ‘privilege’ (I’ll get back to that in a minute) in as part of another.

What this means is you can experience being white and a woman. You can experience being gay and disabled. You can experience being Jewish and black and transgender.

Depending on these experiences, your life may be different.

This should not come as a surprise. There are a lot of people out there, and a lot of groups, defined in a lot of different ways.

Privilege is a word with a couple of different meanings. It’s easy to think of it as meaning rich. In fact, we mostly think of it as meaning ‘something other people have’. When we’re talking identity politics (which I’m pretty sure we are), privilege means a lot of things, the simplest of these to understand is probably social capital. Some people, in a room, will be more likely to be listened to on the basis of what they look like and their apparent life histories. Some people are valued more than others. This reinforces itself because when people listen to you, it’s easier to assume that you’re right. These same people will have easier access to spaces, resources and all the other things that are divided and controlled invisibly on the basis of spurious ideas of ‘social status’.

That whole thing is a form of privilege. The ability to speak, to command attention, just by having lived a certain life (or being seen to have lived a certain life), is one of the things we must be challenging constantly.

And we must do it ourselves.

It sounds like a tricky thing. To recognise something that is invisible. It is tricky, but not because it’s complicated, just because it’s hard. I’m trying to explain all of this in the simplest terms possible, because I think it really is simple. Even if applying it is difficult.

We are all different.

The only way to know what it is like to be different to you is to listen.

Ear View

If you think there’s any chance that you’re in a position of privilege, that your perceived life experience has made your life easier, then when someone different from you says you’re being hurtful, you should shut up and listen. Hear their words. They are reflecting you back through them.

Doing this, is an act of solidarity. Recognising that we are all different, and trying to cross the bridge of those differences, is empathy. Caring enough to do that. To pay attention, listen and think, is compassion.

We can’t change the world by putting people down, but we can if we change ourselves enough to recognise that our very difference is what unites us. Our ability to listen and care is what makes us powerful. We are different, but if we listen to each other, we can be more than just individuals.

You cannot speak for other people. I cannot speak for other people. I am only myself.

But you can listen to other people. You can always listen, and that gives you a broader base of experience, that expands your unique viewpoint on the world.

If we all listened hard enough, maybe eventually we would almost be the same.

That’s an impossible, but we can aim for that. Aim for everyone taking the time to understand everyone else.

It’s not derailing the struggle to think about this stuff, this is the personal face of the struggle.

The personal is political, and the political is personal.

I have not figured it all out. I am trying constantly, to recognise my failings as a person. I get things wrong, constantly. I get called out, all the time. But I hope I do one thing right. I try to listen, I try to let what I hear change me.

We are different people, but by listening to each other, we build bonds of empathy and understanding. With compassion, we become powerful.

We can fight for each other, with love.

Illustrations by Emma and Helen


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