Shortly after putting up my last post – a rumination on the connections between knowing, seeing and loving – its converse reared its head. “If knowing can breed loving, then ignorance can breed hate.” That feels harsh. But I know it’s true, and I’m not alone in that surety.
Ignorance, I have come to learn, is more than not knowing. But not knowing is still a useful “middle” to jump into. Some things that we don’t know don’t particularly bother us, and our lack of knowledge is not critical. For instance, despite Julie Powell’s best efforts, I still have not read Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. And at this point I doubt I will master either the book or its techniques.
Some areas of ignorance, of not knowing, are more critical. For instance, not knowing I am gluten-intolerant made me really sick. Not knowing I am being offensive to another could ruin a relationship or opportunity. I am still learning to use our chain saw; ignorance in that department could get me or another person seriously injured or killed. These are areas where not-knowing is a result of a relatively innocent and unintentional lack of experience, awareness or insight; I am likely willing to grow more knowledgeable, when I become aware of my ignorance in these areas.
Sometimes ignorance is not so benign. For instance, I meet white people who “don’t know” any people of color. I meet straight people who “don’t know” any queer folk (this is especially the claim of politicians who defend their homophobic voting records by saying “I don’t have any of those people in my district.” Right. Excuse me? Here I am ….). Most men will admit to knowing women, but many also will say they “don’t know” how or why their choices, attitudes and behaviors can be detrimental to the health and well-being of women (like the way men get paid 25% more for the same work, and don’t get me started on the effects of secrecy about domestic violence and childhood sexual abuse, for the most part perpetrated by “straight” men).
These forms of ignorance are not benign for at least two reasons: First, whole people groups experience a degradation in their quality of life – ranging from lower salaries, less adequate housing, higher-priced commodities, myriad emotional tolls, threats to and violence against physical person, including dismemberment and death – because of this kind of societally inculcated and condoned ignorance.
Second, this is an ignorance that is maintained, person by person and across generations, because whole people groups are benefiting by the ignorance. Ignorance is maintained because it is profitable in economic or political terms, and deliberately carried out by the spread of misinformation, by the distribution of errors in thought and behavior, and by the pernicious mis-characterization of persons and realities. (Thanks to Charles W. Mills’ work in this area; see his essay “White Ignorance” in Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance. Masterful essay in a brilliant text.)
This makes plain another connection to my previous post: what you don’t (want to) know shapes what you see (or don’t) and what you love (or don’t). And on that not-loving front, we have arrived – by one definition – at hate. (This is how my Hebrew professor, Dr. Toni Craven described hate in the biblical sense: when the Bible says God hates something, it is another form of love, a lesser form. When God hates something, it’s like saying God loves it less. But, it’s still love. Interesting thought. Do I still love, in some way, what I hate?)
White privilege is a prime example; if you don’t believe it exists, and you refuse to see it, you can continue to benefit from it. Of course, this means people of color – including human beings you know and many you don’t – are being hurt, and will go on being hurt. What don’t you see? Environmental racism. White-flight-decimated or gentrified-up communities. The re-segregation and de-funding of schools. The racialization of poverty. Immigrant-bashing. If you are white, these benefit you. Want to know how?
Heterosexual privilege works similarly. Do you see my volunteer work that benefits the church and our children’s school and our community? If you saw me at school at 7:00 am this last Saturday morning, registering band students for contest, would you have said, “That’s so gay”? Do you see the social security I pay into that my spouse will never see in survivor benefits (thereby helping to keep social security solvent for straight people)? “That’s so gay.” Do you see the taxes we pay on her benefits for me as a registered domestic partner? Taxes that support a predominantly straight society? “That’s so gay,” too. Benefitting the straight world socially, spiritually, financially … such a gay thing to do.
I could go on with variations on this theme: class privilege, able-bodiedness privilege, and so on. But perhaps this is clear-enough evidence that knowing and not-knowing, seeing and not-seeing pose concrete, ethical concerns. If you or I have any sense of accountability or responsibility for the quality of life and material justice in our communities – by way of virtue, duty, shared dreams or love – then we are bound over to the requirement to open our eyes and learn about each other.
I am remembering an old rabbinic story … I looked it up to have a hope of relaying it rightly, so here is a version from the Tufts Hillel Foundation. In this version of the story, “A Hasidic rabbi is watching two Russian peasants drinking together at an inn. The first asks, ‘Boris, do you love me?’ His friend replies, ‘Ivan, do I love you, we’ve worked side by side on our farm for years. Of course I love you!’ They return to their vodka and a minute later, Ivan asks, ‘Boris, do you know what causes me pain?’ Boris thinks for a moment and answers no. At that point Ivan roars, ‘If you don’t know what causes me pain, how can you say you love me!?’ Afterwards, the Hasidic rebbe who heard this exchange said to his students, ‘This is the essence of our connection with one another. We must look deeply enough into one another’s souls not only to know what makes us happy but also to understand what causes us pain.’”
Working together is not love, and it is not the absence of hate. Even living in the same neighborhood or being acquaintances is not love, and is not the absence of hate. We must know what love is, because it is what we are made for and what we are called to. Love is eyes that clearly see, and hearts that deeply care, and hands that do something about what causes pain.
I’m getting out of this chair and I’m gonna go do some love. One of my neighbors just got out of the hospital, and I’ve got some soup that’s calling his name.