Agree to disagree

Wonkette highlights this quote from Democratic Senator Chris Murphy:

“I worry that we are entering a world where we don’t talk unless people are 110 percent in alignment with us.”

Of course this is idiocy. Lordy, if feminists didn’t disagree with each other all the time we’d have 90% less to say. We are constantly speaking to those who disagree. What was Mitsue Yamada’s work except daring and cogent protest against the forces pushing her to the margins not only in US society at large, dominated by men and masculinity as it is, but even within feminism?

What were the sex wars of the 1980s if not shatteringly strong disagreements? Without disagreement, how does one even begin to explain the hundred years of mainstream feminists’ eye-rolling whenever the socialist feminists enter the room? How could anyone ever explain that one joke about Judith Butler that was retold 170 billion times in the 1990s?

Disagreement is the heart and soul of the left. It is loud and messy and frustrating and painful. It leaves people who shop at the supermarket feeling judged and people who shop at the co-op feeling hopeless.

But it also is the only thing that has ever led to progress in socio-political ethics. The world gets better because we disagree.

Humans have always treated out-groups differently than in-groups. We have, for ages now, defined our progress largely by an ever-expanding definition of the “in-group”. The US constitution has been one of the best examples of this: at its drafting the monied and educated white men who gathered to create it guaranteed themselves treatment that they thought just and fair. Over the centuries since, we have been adding groups to those previously protected — Black people, people in other states, Chinese immigrants, women, and so on. While what constitutes just treatment has also evolved, this too has happened largely through comparing the treatment of some to the treatment of others.

The defining trait of conservatives is the drawing of a line to say, “This many are in my in-group, but no more! The remainder are outsiders because they deserve to be outsiders. Prohibitions against the immoral treatment of others do not apply to the treatment of them.”

The defining trait of progressives is a recognition that the definition of the in-group is not yet expansive enough. But just as conservatives can differ about where to draw the limits of the in-group, so can progressives. White supremacist nationalists might draw the line one particular way, while theocratic christians might draw a different boundary encompassing many of the same people, but not all. Meanwhile one progressive might fight strenuously for the right of people with disabilities to :gasp: sexual self-determination, while another might fight strenuously for the right of Black boys and men to respectful treatment by the police.

Those two hypothetical progressives disagree not only on the out-group most in need of inclusion, but also on the forms of marginalization and exclusion from ethical consideration that most pressingly demand elimination.

Chauvin is an example of how policing excludes Black people from the ethical protections of our shared humanity to which in-group status would entitle them, and Chauvin is not even the worst example of this. Murderers like Chauvin begin now to receive the widespread infamy they have always deserved. To suggest that this might not be our most important fight would understandably provoke criticism, and the farther that suggestion travels, the more likely some of the criticism will take terrible forms.

But sexual self-determination for people with disabilities is not a trivial issue. In myriad ways we are denied sexual education and experience. As a result, not only are we cut off from an entire realm of human connection and prevented from ever fully participating in society, but we are portrayed as innocent in a way that allows sexual assault and rape to flourish. Our rapists believe that we are unable to comprehend or experience sexuality in a way that would make us truly victims, thus rationalizing generation after generation of abuse. Our family, caretakers, and educators deny us the conversations and sometimes even the vocabulary necessary to identify (much less protest) the harms inflicted upon us. The rapists literally depend on those charged with our care to silence our screams, and they are not disappointed.

How can we justify agitating for more attention to those whose violations at least get some when some violations get no attention at all? The rapes of children with disabilities get at least nominal condemnation, if no effort at solving the issue, but as yet we have no name for the denial to people with disabilities of puppy love, making out, marriage, fucking and all the rest. This entire world of human interaction which is the basis for connection after connection, historically a world through which one group would literally join with another to form a new, larger group for defense, political connection, sharing of labor and wealth, this gigantic source of human strength and vulnerability and growth and joy is denied millions with no comment or discussion at all. How can this be unworthy of our activist efforts?

It takes little to see, once the words are on the page, how those fighting on either of these fronts could see the other as a dangerous distraction, a waste of energies best directed elsewhere. How do you respectfully tell the bereaved mother of Atatiana Jefferson that racist police violence has received enough attention? How do you tell the medicalized woman raped by her caretaker but denied the necessary assistance to travel to her boyfriend’s house that we have helped her enough, she has no right to ask for more or better?

Our issues are pressing. It is a tribute to our passion for inclusion that some of us will disagree. Some of us will spend more energy on the issue closest to home, or the one on which we have the most expertise. We need that. We need the personal stories because indeed the comparative importance our society places on the stories of Benjamin Franklin and Venture Smith is part of our problem.

But being progressive isn’t to be perfect, and so long as our issues are pressing, some of us will desperate as well as passionate. Desperate disagreements are not polite disagreements.

We are disagreeing passionately and desperately, but the left is disagreeing about the right things, and has been for as long as it has been the left.

“Ain’t I a woman?” asked Sojourner Truth.

Dr. King warned:

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

And add to this words from Kimberlé Crenshaw:

a large and continuing project for subordinated people … is thinking about the way power has clustered around certain categories and is exercised against others. This project attempts to unveil the processes of subordination and the various ways those processes are experienced by people who are subordinated and people who are privileged by them. … And this project’s most pressing problem, in many if not most cases, is not the existence of the categories, but rather the particular values attached to them and the way those values foster and create social hierarchies

We of the left are in a constant struggle, but not so much over the need to expand our in-group, to love more, to provide more, to include more amongst those we love as ourselves. No, in a world with such violence and desperation amidst our margins, the questions that provoke the fiercest responses are those about whom to save in the finite today, for tomorrow will be too late for many.

It would break my heart if we could not hear people scream at the lifeguard saving a Black boy that the crippled girl is drowning just as certainly. When George Floyd whispers for his mother, his lungs near empty at the last, when the nameless, hidden woman with Down syndrome cannot find the word for rape to speak it, when she is silenced by the admonishment that her weekly bleeding is menstruation at what volume should I scream?

When I hear the angry, wounded shrieks of those who have brought these two into their in-group, who cry out as if they themselves were being raped, being murdered, my concern is not for the ringing in the ears of some. Our empathy is a moral victory. Our rage is moral genius.

To those like Chris Murphy who complain about the messy, turbulent, painful noise of the subjugated, the dispossessed, the marginalized, the other, I say that love will win. We progressives will expand the in-group and expand it again, and every generation the conservatives will defend a new, larger boundary. And you may lose your hearing from the cacophonic din, but we will yell because we must, because our morality demands it. And when we fall steeply into our last and lasting sleep, we will dream of the day when our boundaries compass the entirety of the world, when the screaming ends not because it violates a norm of propriety but because there is no longer any desperation to yell out.

What will you dream?