My MLK day act of public service

January 20, 2009

I didn’t go out to work in a homeless shelter today, or paint a house, or do any physical action that could be contributed to me. My act of public service today consisted of wading back into a very heated discussion occurring near my other corner of the blogosphere about cultural appropriation and racism that grew out of certain published authors blogging about their thoughts on ‘writing the other.’

Some of the commentators on both sides have gotten very nasty. Some people I really respect have said some pretty blatantly outrageous things, and are too busy defending themselves and jumping unasked to the defense of others who were willing to say, ‘you’re right, I’m sorry, you’re right and I was wrong,’ to wake up and hear themselves.

I believe these conversations are important to have. I believe that participating them in a patient, polite, open way without compromising one’s essential values is vitally important, and that too many people refuse to talk at all, or agree to disagree too fast, on controversial issues. I believe that part of what went so wrong in the past eight years is that people put their heads down rather than stir the pot among their families, their friends, and their communities, local and national. Argument for the sake of argument, and controversy for the sake of controversy is generally obnoxious, but change won’t come without a little civic engagement.

I think I’ve done my part today with words.* In the future, I’ll try to make sure all my words are matched with actions, but I think the words are important too. As ‘coffeeandink’ wisely said in one of the innumerable threads I’ve been reading, the stories we tell ourselves in our fiction are the stories we tell in our blogs, our newspapers, our public conversations. Words have power. They have the power to change how we see the world, or to reinforce our perspectives, and we in turn have the power to shape the world with which we interact. Not being sensitized to the implications of how certain words and actions might fit into broader social trends is a privilege. Unless society changes, that privilege won’t go away no matter what you personally do. But the privilege that comes with being a thoughtful human being who cares about whether her words might hurt other people is that you can learn how not to exercise the privileges that automatically come with being white or high caste or whatever other characteristics to which your privileges are tied.

*And no, I don’t get a cookie for doing so, because that’s not what an act of public service is about. In a very real sense, these conversations were not about me, shouldn’t be about me, and I didn’t do what I did because I was trying to prove that I am an ally. I want to be and to act as an ally, but one doesn’t wade into such emotionally sensitive conversations where other people are being hurt in order to re-frame the conversations around oneself, which is what trying to prove (and thus implicitly asking if one has earned the right to so call) oneself an ally is. However, since this journal is my space where I share how I see and interact with the world around me, and today is a day when my President-elect, who tomorrow will be my new president, asked all of us American citizens to go forth and do public service, I am drawing attention to what I have done. I do so because I consider it my act of public service and I want to encourage my readers to expand their definition of what public service is beyond the physical and the blatantly visible. When we make public service a message in a broader conversation about what citizenship means, an act of public service is both a public statement and a gift freely given. It says: it’s not all about me; it’s only about me in the sense that I/’me’ is a member of a broader community, and that you are too.

x-posted

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