May 9, 2005

who gets to say what?

Someone has come by and left an anonymous comment about this aside I made in my last post. I'm intensely curious about who this person - let's call her Anonymous Jew and use girl pronouns, for the sake of argument - is and how she found my blog, but let's put that aside. If you want to know what she said, go read the comments; but she does bring up two interesting questions.

First, does the fact that I'm Jewish change what I can say about Jewish issues? Anonymous Jew says, "Your being Jewish is not a carte blanche [sic] to make inane generalizations about Jewish people." Which is true, to some extent. But the rest of what she says suggests that she thinks me being Jewish has no effect on what's ok for me to say, and I disagree. I think that when people are talking about what their own communities do, they get more slack than people who aren't in that community; they can speak more loosely, use different words, be frank about sensitive issues.

Partly this is because when I'm talking critically about Jewish stuff or feminism or queer stuff, you can be pretty sure I feel sympathetic toward the people I'm talking about, because I'm one of them. When I use words like queer or dyke or whatever, I'm not using them as slurs; there's a whole conversation about whether you can reclaim words like that at all, but the conversation you can have with me is about that, not about how I'm slamming queer people and am really homophobic.1 The same thing operates with other kinds of identity, though its rarely as clear as with the language issue. It does mean, though, that I can make casual asides about Jewish stuff and get the benefit of the doubt. So. The presumption of sympathy.

There's another reason, though, which is that because I grew up Jewish, etc, and am part of that community, I have a pretty intimate knowledge of its virtues and vices. When I have something to say about my own community, there's a lot more nuance and experience that goes into it than when I'm saying something about other people's communities. Less perspective, maybe, but more background knowledge. You might call this the presumption of knowledge - you can argue about whether something's true, but my identity means I get some slack about backing things up. It's worth pointing out that people who aren't actually members of a particular community but hang around it a lot and feel strong identity with and concern for it also get presumed sympathy and presumed knowledge, but in more limited ways.

Second, was what I said true? Like other people, I've been known to say things that, in the cold and sober light of other people's scrutiny, I regret. This isn't one of them. The pope's past as a child in the Hitler Youth has received at least as much attention as his active complicity as a powerful adult in AIDS deaths throughout the developing world, just for example. Lots of Jews are incredibly socially engaged, and there's a lot of good in the world that's done by Jewish social action organizations; but I wasn't denying that. I was referring to the way Jews talk about the Holocaust, as if it's a trump card. In some ways it is. Its horror was unique. But you know, every historical tragedy is tragic in its own way.2 I'm not being flippant. Rwanda was uniquely horrible; so was slavery. They were different, but they were also terrible, and to act like the Holocaust trumps them is to misunderstand the nature of horror and tragedy. The point I was making earlier is that this is a specific situation in which the Holocaust has particular moral relevance, and in which someone's behavior with respect to it is genuinely, seriously worth talking about. This is not
always the case.

The Holocaust is not the most important issue in every conversation, nor is it appropriate to bring up with respect to every issue. And I have to say, if you hang out in Jewish communities, you will see this happen. True story: when I was 14 and someone in my confirmation class smoked pot on a class trip, one of the parents brought up the Holocaust. I mean, can you be any more absurd? In many Jewish communities - less so in college-age activist ones, more so in older, more conservative ones like the one where I grew up - the Holocaust is this enormous deal and other tragedies are secondary, marginal, one step above irrelevant. What did I hear about in Hebrew school as a kid? Anonymous Jew, what did you hear about? Because in my Hebrew school, it wasn't how the Holocaust should make us extra-sensitive to other people's suffering. It was all about how this was the biggest deal ever and nothing else was as important. How we should never forget.

I'm tired, and I need to do something other than write, so let me leave you with this:

We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it -- and stop there; lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove-lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove-lid again -- and that is well; but she will also never sit down on a cold one anymore.

--Mark Twain

and with a link to this post about Ratzinger on Body and Soul (a beautifully-written blog, by the way) which says things like what I said, but better written and with actual citations. Also this follow-up about sin. Hipster Monk and Political Schmientist, I think you'll both like these.

1. OK, funny story. I got my hair cut last time I was home, and said something to my sister about how dykey it looked. My very straight, very earnest sister looked at me and said, with no discernible sense of irony then or after, "But isn't that just a stereotype?" People, I had this spiky pixie haircut that was almost exactly the same as my little brother's, except for having pointy things by my ears. It's practically the regulation dykey haircut. And it's not like I haven't been doing queer activism FOR THE LAST TEN YEARS. My sister clearly knows about two queer people, total.
2. Thank you, Tolstoy.

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