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Etz Chayim: Stepping off the Party Line

This week I have been thinking about what we choose to reveal and conceal about ourselves when we do political work. We’ve all heard the endless debates about “political correctness.” On one side there are the people who insist on the use of certain terminology. On the other side are those who say “What’s in a name?” Then there are those who point out that some people and institutions hide behind the “correct” language in order to mask oppressive realities (for example, “workplace diversity initiatives” that merely attempt to paper over deep-seated racism in hiring practices).

Language is obviously extremely important to political work. I constantly identify potential allies by the language they use — even when I’ve met someone minutes ago, I feel camaraderie with them once they indicate through a few key words that they’re tuned in to a particular political community. (For example, a potential new housemate came to check out my apartment yesterday. Once she said “CUNY,” “structural violence,” “locality,” and “anthology,” I started grinning and said “You should move in.”) And this is not about prejudice or stereotyping — when someone can converse freely in a particular jargon, it does indicate that they have substantial experience with a certain political milieu. This shared experience makes a certain level of intimacy possible — the same way that certain conversations become possible when you find out that the person you’ve just met is a Reconstructionist Jew just like you.

On the other hand, classifying people based on their language usage can oversimplify things. Some people share the same vocabulary but use it in different ways — and some people have entirely different vocabularies but the same — or at least compatible — values. (To continue the Reconstructionist analogy, different Reconstructionists can have different theologies, and one Reconstructionist may find that her theology has a lot in common with the theology of a particular Orthodox Jew that she meets.) Once the initial “Oh, you are? I am too!” passes, we may learn many things about each other that surprise us or contradict our assumptions. I’ve learned the hard way to be flexible about language — just because someone uses language in a different way than I do doesn’t mean that “they’ve gone over to the side of evil.” It might mean that they aren’t aware of something, and would be happy to be informed. It might also mean that I’m not aware of something, and if I ask them to clarify, I’ll learn something new. Or, it might just mean that there are different ways to say the same thing, each of which is grounded in a particular set of experiences. (Or that multiple things are all true, even if they seem to contradict at first glance!)

And sometimes, knowing all the “right language” can be a way to avoid engaging with the honest reality of doing political work. We’ve all known the people who say all the right things but don’t apparently know why they’re doing the work they’re doing, or who appear passionate and committed but then suddenly drop out and disappear. I’ve been that person in the past, easily able to rattle off a well-cited explanation for a certain phenomenon or political strategy, but struck dumb when asked a question like “Do you enjoy being part of this community?”

What I’ve noticed is that I’ve been able to develop my political self-awareness and integrity by paying attention to those moments in which language becomes messy. After all, I can’t stop feeling certain things just because I believe that I “shouldn’t” — I learn a lot more when, rather than denying or ignoring my experience, I observe and explore it. If I ask questions about why I might feel that way, I sometimes learn something new. For example, I’m all for gender egalitarianism in Judaism, and I dislike the gender binary (so much so that I prefer gender-neutral pronouns), and yet I sometimes enjoy being in a synagogue with a women’s section! What’s going on here?

My housemate told me another relevant story the other day. He used to be heavily involved in the politically conscious hip-hop scene. He told me that he met another artist who had a reputation for being somewhat self-righteous. The guy was putting on some brand-new Nikes (Nikes has been notorious for paying sweatshop workers next to nothing and then turning around and marketing exorbitantly-priced sneakers to impoverished urban youth). My housemate commented on the shoes, and the artist laughed and acknowledged that despite everything he stood for, he still liked to wear some nice Nikes. My housemate thought to himself, “Hey, this guy is human after all.” After some more conversation, the artist explained that as a biracial man, it was important to him to wear nice, styling sneakers (an important signifier of black masculinity) in order to publicly establish his black identity.

In my experience, it is important to create space for this type of conversation when engaging in political work. (And yes, a certain degree of trust needs to be established in order for such conversations to become possible — if someone says something I disagree with, I’m much more likely to believe that they’re wrestling with the complexity of the issue in a serious way if they are someone I know and trust.) I see this as one of the places in which spirituality is valuable in political work. To me, it is a spiritual process to cultivate enough self-awareness to know how we really feel about things, and to develop relationships in which we can explore those feelings honestly, no matter how surprising or shameful they seem to us at first glance. And it is through this process that we develop new insights about what we should be working towards. What does justice look like? What role does each of us have in bringing about a just world? Finding our place in the work becomes possible when we honestly assess what we, ourselves, want and need to build, and what we personally find exhausting or fulfilling.

–Ri J. Turner