Social change comes, not simply through personal change, but also through persuasion. An important part of influencing the world around oneself is to communicate ideas and to influence the people who surround us. Feminism, Marxism, and the enlightenment era values of equality that drove the civil and gay rights movements – those ideas gave us all the tools and the frameworks to understand our lives and our social context in new and revolutionary ways.
However, with the example of feminism, it was not enough for the idea that women are equal to men to be sparked in one mind. No, that is not enough to create a world-changing social movement. That idea had to be born in the minds of many, spoken by the mouths of many, and heard, challenged, and accepted by answering minds before a philosophy and a movement could be born.
Communication is an important thing.
A disabled individual, like me, might change their social environment by explaining the difficulties that they encounter to key individuals around them: teachers, classmates, family, and friends. While one might not always find a receptive mind, most people, when approached respectfully, will do their best to accommodate. In all but the most unreceptive environments, one can use this approach to create an community of support.
In extreme contrast, one might talk solely to others encountering the same difficulties, about how those difficulties are not accommodated, about how the needs of the group are unmet, without bringing others into the conversation – or while outright disregarding the opinions of those outside the group. Since they do not share in our difficulties, the assumption might be, they are obviously ill-equipped to discuss the subject and therefore have nothing of import to say.
Much as existing power-structures limit the participation of marginalized groups in mainstream social dialogue, to the detriment of our social progress, the same voices privileged in the mainstream are occasionally heavily delegitimized where the language of social justice reigns. This has a certain well-they-started-it playground logic, but it is largely counter-productive and has many problematic elements, such as the creation of a social hierarchy where status is linked to the degree of disenfranchisement in the dominant culture. This may further discourage communication with the dominant dialogue by demonizing it, rather than engaging with it.
When we arbitrarily limit who can have a voice and who can participate in a dialogue, then we simultaneously limit the scope of the effect we can have on society with our discourse. We limit the power of our words. Assuming that a white, cisgendered man can neither understand privilege nor communicate meaningfully on how privilege affects everyone throughout society is demeaning to that individual’s status as a rational being, but it also cripples communication. The dialogue of social change becomes insular, a one-sided conversation with no purpose, held solely to convince ourselves of the guilt of those who oppose us and our own personal righteousness.
We are speaking, but there is no one there to listen.
Just because a person is currently ignorant of the tools and frameworks of ideas like feminism, does not mean that they are unreceptive to those ideas or that they can never come to understand them. That is why excluding men from discussions of feminism, why excluding heterosexuals and the cisgendered from discussions of sexuality and gender, why excluding those who are currently abled and healthy from discussions of disability and mental illness is so problematic: because they could be great allies in the search for an equal society, and because they need to be part of this conversation too.
Young men need the tools of feminism just as young women do: they need to understand how patriarchal gender norms limit their self-expression and encourage damaging behaviour. Straight men and women need the encouragement to accept the full range of sexuality, desires, and bodies that is discussed in queer studies. White individuals need to understand the full impact of institutional racism and how it permeates the lives of everyone in our society, so that we may all enter into a meaningful dialogue about race, instead of the silent war of hidden hostilities in which we often find ourselves.
All affected parties must be at the table before a discussion can be had and an agreement reached.
We live in a divided time. In North America, politics are increasingly polarized, with both “sides” watching each other mistrustfully over a middle-ground that has been burned and razed. This is not a time to cut off communication, but we have become more and more reluctant to engage with those who disagree or who simply have not previously been receptive.
So do not structure the dialogue of social change to exclude the privileged. Structure it to teach them, to include them, to engage them. Bring them into the conversation. Certainly, we need not have these discussions with every Tom, Dick, Sally, and Thoth the Enlightened that crosses our path – heaven knows I wouldn’t have the energy. But when you do find yourself in such a conversation, please do not say, “You’re a part of (privileged class), so you wouldn’t understand.”
That’s not starting a conversation, that’s ending it.