All Souls Kansas City

“Obligation and Choice,” October 11, 2015, Rev. Kendyl Gibbons

Obligation and Choice


Most of us are probably familiar with the story of the fish who went looking for water.  Traditions vary as to whether he ever found it; the issue is not whether water was available, but whether or not the fish had the reflective capacity to understand what was all around him, the environment in and through which he existed, as a thing, called water.  How do we take the milieu that surrounds us as a separate object?  This is always a conceptual challenge.

You may also recall the experiments that the developmental psychologist Jean Piaget did with young children, showing them the contents of a tall, slender beaker of water poured into a shorter, wider container.  At a certain point in their intellectual unfolding, the children insist, with all the conviction of those who see the evidence right before their eyes, that there is less liquid in the shorter container, and more when it is returned to the taller vessel.  There will come a time, of course, when it will be clear to the same child, with equal insistence, that obviously the quantity doesn’t change just because the shape of the container is different.  This shift is not a matter of information; it is a new conceptual capacity, to let the liquid have an existence apart from child’s internal sense perception.

Robert Kegan, who studied this process of both intellectual and moral human development, speaks of it as emerging from our embeddedness in our perceptions and our environment.  At a certain early point, a toddler has no ability to take his or her impulses as an object of reflection; she wants what she wants, and the wanting is sovereign; it is in a sense who she is, not something separate about her.  A little later on, the same child will be able to *have* impulses, and recognizing them, choose whether or not to act on them.  However, at that point, she may still be embedded in the approval of authority figures; to suggest that what parents or teachers or the gods command could be wrong will be incomprehensible to her.  Further down the line, she may be able to take authority as an object of reflection, but her friends’ evaluation of what is or is not ‘cool’ will constitute reality, not something accessible to question.  As she continues to mature, she will emerge from embeddedness in her immediate peer group, while her loyalty to a cause or an institution, be it a school, a sports team, a political party, a union, or a family, or a church, will be absolute.  This process of emergence, says Kegan, goes on throughout our lives, as we become increasingly able to take our own thoughts, feelings, and behavior as objects of reflection – something that an essential ‘I’ can think about, rather than what I just am.  Therapy invites us to take our feelings and actions as objects of reflection, to examine both their connection to reality, and their impact on the felt quality of our lives.  Systems theory asks leaders to take their reaction to the anxiety of others as an object of reflection, rather than being embedded in our own anxiety, and thus perpetuating it across the institution.  The whole idea of spiritual maturity might be seen as a process of intentionally increasing our capacity, and our willingness, to emerge from our embeddedness, and to take the ways in which we make meaning for our lives as something to look at, and possibly question, or indeed affirm.

When I was growing up, and making formative decisions about the shape of my personal and professional life, women in my social order were wrestling with the process of emerging from one cultural definition of what it meant to be a woman.  It may seem obvious in retrospect, but in order for that to happen, we all had to become fish who learned to see water.  We had to stop just being embedded in those assumptions about what women were, and were capable of, and become able to examine them, question them, take them as objects of reflection.  That process made us all profoundly uncomfortable.  It made some of us mad.  It scared some of us a lot.  It knocked the props out from under ways of life that both men and women had taken for granted.  Two things I remember specifically about that process.  One, it was something that we as women had to engage for ourselves, to some extent by ourselves.  It was important to have settings where we could explore our common experience without having to defend our perceptions, or protect the feelings of other people, specifically men.  We often expressed ourselves in ways that were not especially fair, but that allowed us to begin to see what we were all trying to talk about.  Two, when men of goodwill, men who sincerely cared about us, tried to be helpful, they usually just made us madder.  And when they asked, with varying degrees of condescension or impatience, what it was we wanted them to do, the answer was something along the lines of, “Leave us alone, and go fix other men, and the system of power that favors you!”

I’m reflecting on that experience quite a lot these days, as I find myself on the other side of the equation with regard to white privilege.  The racism of our culture, like its sexism, has both explicit and implicit dimensions.  Any of us can be sincerely appalled by its explicit manifestations – the killing of unarmed black men and boys by police; the strategic denial of voting rights; the abandonment of inner city schools; the prison industrial complex – we can oppose those things, and work to fix them, and we should.  There is no excuse for any of it, just as there is no excuse for frat party drug rape, or domestic abuse, or unequal pay for women.  And, at the same time, that is not all there is to it.  All of us, both white people and people of color, are being challenged to emerge from our embeddedness in the culture of racial privilege that is the water we have been swimming in, and take that presumptive privilege as an object of reflection.  Here’s the thing: learning to see the water is always hard work; just as it was hard work for that toddler to come to understand that her impulses were not the truth of the world, but something she could think about, and manage, so it is a struggle for any of us to bring into question what we thought was simply the way things are, and start to understand the possible alternatives.

I want to suggest to you this morning that the progressive, educated, elite folks that David Brooks describes as ‘bourgeois bohemians’, or ‘bobos’ for short – and that is us, and people like us, my friends – have a particular challenge in this work of learning to see the racial privilege of the water that we swim in.  Probably everybody has one of some kind; some special challenge, but this is ours.  We are, as he proposes in the passage that Scott just read, trying to build a house of obligation on a foundation of choice – nobody more so than Unitarian Universalists.  We believe in freedom; we believe in creating our own theology, and our own destiny, and our own covenant community that exists precisely because we assent to it.  We believe in making choices, and taking responsibility for the outcome of those choices.  We believe that no one gets to tell us what we have to think, or do, or cherish, or believe.  No scripture, no tradition, no tribe, no king, no priest, no synod, no parliament, no caste, no boss, no authority can overrule our own reason and conscience.  We are not without duties, and moral obligation, but they are the fruits of our own choices; we assume them because we are persuaded by them, not because they are handed to us.  This is our heritage from the Enlightenment, and it is precious.  It is the foundation of both democracy and science, the twin sources of much human progress.

The problem with racial privilege, though, is that as any person of color can tell you, we are born into it, and it is nobody’s choice.  As always, it is easier to see the water by looking at the not-water.  African Americans do not choose to be stopped while driving, expelled from school, and sent to prison in disproportionate numbers; they do not choose the historic economic disparity and threat of violence within which they must build their lives.  The house of obligation that they will construct for themselves in this society begins upon these foundations, which are not of their choosing.  Now, fellow bobos, watch carefully; like the famous image of the vase and the two profiles, if you can see the figure, you can also see the ground.  We, too, we white people, are born into a house of privilege that we did not, and do not, choose. We have an inherited moral obligation that we did not assent to, that is not, in fact, built upon a foundation of choice.  It isn’t anything we do; it is the water we swim in, whether we want to or not.  This goes against everything we tell ourselves about our freedom as rational agents, and the ideals of human equality, integrity, and identity.  But the truth is that every constraint experienced by people of color has a corresponding privilege that the dominant culture has learned not to see.  Our whole society, both black and white and all other colors, is embedded in that unspoken and unconscious privilege.  And this entire conversation about white privilege and black lives matter is our collective struggle to emerge from that embeddedness, to take the whole proposition of privilege as an object of reflection, and decide what we are going to do about it.

The analogy from my experience of the feminism of my own early adulthood is very far from exact, but it teaches me this:  learning to see the water was a different experience for women than it was for men.  We both had to do it, but it wasn’t the same.  Women had to name the vase of our own experiences, and – this was crucially important – we did not need men’s help with that work.  In fact, for that effort, men could only get in the way; they couldn’t avoid it.  But, that did not mean that men had to just stand around feeling helpless and powerless and annoyed, although some of them did take that option at times.  Rather, we said, men had their own work to do, and it was not the job of women to walk them through it, like the mothers and teachers and nurses and administrative assistants we had always been.   Men needed to learn to see the water too, as the ground of the image, the profiles — the way they thought the world just was, only maybe it wasn’t really — and the best people to help them with that were other men.

We women were a little harsh about this at times, I think, and not entirely without reason.  There were many centuries of oppression and ongoing outrage to wrap our minds around.  And of course there was resistance, too – both within ourselves and from the culture of privilege, that will always try both to defend itself, and to become invisible again as quickly as possible.  But once you have seen the water, you will always know what water is, even though you continue swimming in it.  In case you are wondering, I would in no way argue that this work is done, or that we no longer swim in a world of gender privilege, especially from a global perspective.  But for this fish, and many like me, it became apparent what that water was; we emerged from our embeddedness in the feminine mystique, took it as an object of reflection, and made more conscious choices about how we might shape our own identities – and not, by the way, all the same choices, which is the point.

This reflection causes me to hear with greater sympathy than I otherwise might, as a person of privilege, the message that it is not up to people of color to help me do my work around racial privilege.  As a group, they have waited on me enough, and more than enough, in a variety of capacities.  They have ample work to do, to emerge from their own embeddedness in oppression, to claim and name the truth about the vase, in ways that have integrity and power for them.  I don’t get to tell anyone how to go about that work, and I sure don’t get to say that they are doing it all wrong.  Most of all, I don’t get to have them pay attention to my tender feelings while they are at it.  My task is to try to get clarity about the profiles; the space that is left at the edges of their oppression, that constitutes my privilege, no matter how little I might want it to.

Make no mistake; it is harder to bring the water of privilege into focus than it is the water of oppression.  Oppression is no picnic; you have to begin by persuading yourself that you are somebody; that your voice counts, that your black life matters, even when the larger culture is demonstrating over and over again that it doesn’t think so.  Yet that same insistence by the dominant structures of society creates a disconnect, and a nagging sense of pain and outrage, that at times become difficult to ignore.  If you can stay with the outrage, and not anesthetize yourself, and not internalize the blame and the inferiority as the status quo urges you to do, you will begin to emerge from your embeddedness in the way things are, and learn to take your oppression as an object of reflection; as something apart from your selfhood, and something that could potentially be challenged, and changed.

But, if you are on the other side of the equation, as I am; to understand your own privilege and comfort, and sense of entitlement, and picture of what constitutes a fair world, as something that might not be what you always thought, might be open to challenge and up for grabs, is a breath-taking leap for the person who swims in privilege as a fish swims in water.  Do you believe in freedom?  Do you want to stand on the side of love?  Then this is the work we must do; to learn to see that the racism of our society is not as simple as mean, ignorant people doing and saying mean, ignorant things.  As hard as it is to fix those things, that’s actually the easy part.  When liberal white bobos like me construct our house of obligation, the moral duties that shape our lives, part of it must be founded on recognizing the reality of our racial privilege; a privilege that we were born into, without choice.  A privilege that does not mean – does NOT mean — that  “nothing bad ever happens to you” or “you are better off than every single black person” or “what happens to black people is all your fault” or “all whites are rich” or “your white person’s life might not also suck”.  It doesn’t mean any of those things.  It just means that our society, and the people in it, see us and treat us differently than they would see and treat us if the color of our skin were other than it is.  None of us selected that option; it’s just there, it’s the water we swim in, and as soon as we start to see it, to recognize it, to emerge from our embeddedness in that cultural reality, it compels our moral choices, and it demands action.

People of color report, over and over again, to anyone who is willing to hear, that they are constrained every day, all the time, by the reality of racial privilege in this society.  It shapes what they worry about; it shapes the challenges and dangers they face; it shapes what they imagine their lives might be.  Too often it determines how long those lives will even last.  They have no choice about any of this.  Those of us who benefit from that privilege, whether or not we choose it, do have the option of turning a blind eye, and sinking back into our embeddedness in the way we always thought the world was, the way it is comfortable for us to believe it is, so that we need not take our unchosen privilege as an object of reflection, and be made to build our house of obligation on a foundation other than our own choices.   That is the path of least resistance, of personal and collective inertia, and the status quo system will be delighted to assist us in taking it.

There are only two forces strong enough to pull us forward in spite of that inertia, and our own resistance — they are love and faith.  The form of love that is justice, the love that we want to stand on the side of; the love that sees our own heart’s desires mirrored in others’ eyes.  The love that cannot rest until freedom comes, for everyone; until the tragedy of black mothers’ sons matters as much as the tragedy of white mothers’ sons.  In the light of that love, we can learn to see that water is what we swim in; that our privilege is not a choice we make, but a reality that constitutes an obligation handed to us by history and community, without our assent but requiring our response.  The other force is faith; the vision of what is possible for human community if we would learn to perceive the water, and emerge from our embeddedness in the matching contours of privilege and oppression.  There is no proof that I can offer you to show that this is a better way of being, while I can assure you that it is without doubt uncomfortable.  It is an act of faith to reach for that emergence and awareness anyway, to believe that wholeness and integrity are worth suffering to attain, even when some of us must then move to dismantle our own advantages.  Why would we do that?  Only because we have faith that it is better to grow up, to awaken; only because we once heard it said that we shall know the truth, and the truth will make us, all of us, free.

Let us stand and sing together.


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