Welcome to part nine in my ongoing series where I reach out to the men in leadership positions in the secular communities to get their thoughts and advice on how to deal with and move forward from the hate and harassment we have seen directed at the women in our communities of us in recent months.
Today, I bring you the words of Michael Payton. Michael is the National Director for the Centre for Inquiry, Canada.
Michael comes at the problem by way of an anecdote that shows how some can begin to understand the concepts of privilege and oppression through personal experience while others can experience this through empathy. Though sadly, many have yet to learn these lessons.
Michael’s story after the jump.
As a leader much younger than many of my peers I find it difficult to add anything that has not already been said. Perhaps more importantly I’ve noticed a very strong trend in the recent posts from other leaders. All of us without exception so far, have been white and male. Fundamentally, I feel it would be inappropriate to make declarative statements about harassment endured by women. Even if I have seen it, and it’s effects myself firsthand. In many ways I feel it would exacerbate the situation for women to have me comment on their lived experience. Because of this I think it would better for me to ask a question about our movement rather than make a statement.
In the province of Ontario, the government funds both a public school system and a separate religious Catholic school system. In 2009, we began to see a string of suicides of Gay youth in High Schools. Many of them were taunted, teased, beaten up, driven out of their schools and in some cases even their families. In response our Education Minister stated that schools had to allow Gay Straight Alliances as support groups in all publicly funded schools: including the religious ones.
There was enormous political backlash to this resolution from religious right in Canada, which is otherwise relatively docile compared to their American counterparts. They lobbied, they held public demonstrations, they held parades, they jeered at committees and fought against the Bill at every opportunity. Sitting in the back benches of the public legislature, listening to their testimony I often felt like I had been transplanted back into the 12th Century.
Fellow volunteers and friends at CFI rallied to provide a voice for these kids in opposition of such hatred and bigotry. Outnumbered, overworked and exhausted we eventually won. The Bill was passed and I am proud to say that thanks to our efforts there will now be safe spaces for gay kids in all Ontario Schools come September.
When the victory was announced we arranged a modest victory party at the home of one of the organizers. Speaking to one of the students who had his club disbanded by Catholic Trustees, I told him how sorry I was that he had to go through this experience at such a young age. He was only 14.
He paused in thought for a moment and then replied that he wasn’t sorry. He told me that this experience had given him something that he wouldn’t have gotten in any other way: the experience of being oppressed. He grew up as a male, in a white, rich, suburban area. For most of his life oppression was something that happens only to other people. Speaking to me that afternoon he said he now felt a deeper connection to other oppressed people. Perhaps it’s something you can only learn through being driven from home, attacked by teachers, and shunned by peers and politicians alike.
After listening to him, I began to think about our own movement. Why haven’t we learned this lesson? All of the vile threats, the harassment, the anger we express not just to our opponents but even to each other. Did we forget that many of us too have been shunned by our families and lost our friends? Yet thousands of us visit these same terrors on each other every day. For some reason, instead of building a community based cooperation, tolerance and support, we’ve become a group of verbal thugs. We have become our own oppressors.
We are supposed to be the voice of reason. We’re supposed to be the smart ones, free from bigotry and dogma. If that were true, how could we have let this happen?
Prior posts in this series can be found by clicking the links below.
More to come.