The impulse to “both sides” matters of oppression is a byproduct of whiteness
In the U.S., we have an impulse to treat “sides” of issues that existentially threaten people as if they are one and the same, here’s why that is wrong.
On my first Sunday at West Philadelphia Mennonite Fellowship, one of our elders brought me to tears when he said that he wished I would help WPMF take a side. He was paying homage to my book, Jesus Takes A Side, where I call Christians to embrace the political demands of the Gospel. He knew that often Anabaptists are pacified in their political posture, and I am honored to be a part of the congregation’s journey toward siding with the oppressed.
But it is much easier said than done. In fact, even though many Christians, especially the white liberal intellectual ones, can agree that Jesus sides with the oppressed, when it is put into practice, it is much harder to do. We have an impulse to even offer the most heinous oppressors the benefit of the doubt, an impulse that decidedly falls most uniquely on the shoulders of the oppressed. I think we see this all around us, all the time, but I particularly want to pay attention to it in the voices and perspectives of the white moderate.
David French, an Evangelical commentator for the New York Times, offers us an example of this phenomenon. French is a torture-apologist, Never Trumper – so he sees himself as a voice of reason in his fascist political party. French writes in “Politics Can’t Fix What Ails Us,” that “one reason our politics are so angry and performative at the moment is that we know that a series of profound, negative cultural changes are underway, and we’re looking to politics to solve crises that are beyond its reach.”French does this as he defends the corrupt, conservative financer and his collection of authoritarian and fascist memorabilia. Obviously French can take a side, and often does so with conservatives, and in fact, thinks his own philosophy is a solution to what ails the world.
He’ll go on to share that many Americans are suffering from a lack of belonging and loneliness. And I do agree that this is a pressing problem that needs to be solved, but he thinks it is a problem that politics, and polarization in particular, contributes to our lack of belonging.
Amazingly French argues that we can tune out silly culture war fights, about Bud Light and library books being banned, but we can’t tune out our children’s depression, aimlessness, or loneliness. But then he couples this argument by talking about the decoupling of sex and love – and how that decoupling “directly affects abortion decisions.” In one breath, he says politics can’t solve these problems and that culture wars are silly, and in the next, he props up his own conservative family values politics as a solution.
Unsurprisingly, in a column about belonging, he elects to say that polarization makes things worse:
I’ve written for years about the wounds politics can’t heal, but I fear that formulation understates the problem. We’re suffering from wounds that politics often make worse. Politics is destroying social cohesion. Republicans and Democrats despise each other. By overwhelming majorities, they perceive their opponents as close-minded, immoral and dishonest. At a time when Americans need connection, my inbox fills with stories of friendships and even families fracturing over political disagreements.
French argues that political polarization is causing us to feel a lack of belonging, and then points to his own political stances as a solution. There is good reason that oppressed minorities think that their oppressors are immoral, close-minded, and dishonest. To us, Bud Light and library books aren’t culture war issues, they signal directly that minorities, such as BIPOC and trans people, do not belong. Not surprisingly, French tells us that the results of the “Belonging Barometer,” shows us that a “lack of prosperity” contributes to a lack of belonging – but I wish French would have considered how oppression of other kinds – racism, transphobia, sexism, ableism – multiplies that lack belonging. And political movements can help that! To suggest that these two things are separate, or worse, that the culture wars exacerbate the loneliness and lack of belonging misses the power of oppression on our mental health. Polarization shows us the cry of the oppressed – dismissing it for the sake of unity burdens the oppressed more and makes us feel more lonely. And French offers an exception to his own politics though, for example, “I’m the last person to say that law and politics are inconsequential (for example, I strongly support Mitt Romney’s child allowance plan for its effect on child poverty alone).”
He acknowledges that the personal is political, but sometimes the personal is just personal. He writes, “I know men who have children and grandchildren who want their attention, yet when you’re around them, they want to talk mainly about what they watched on Fox News.” While I do think he is right in some cases, hostility against immigration propagated by Fox News and radio talk shows existentially affects immigrants and their children such as myself. Yes, politics is personal, and when French argues there are only personal solutions, he’s not thinking of minorities who are most affected by those politics. He’s equating white grievance politics with the genuine despair that minorities suffer in a political economy where fascism is viable political option. French thinks of himself as a moderate, but his inability to take a side burdens the oppressed more. In fact, it makes me feel lonelier, as if the issues that affect my loneliness are just dismissed as “silly culture wars.”
French is right, “To quote the prophet Malachi, it is time to ‘turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers.’” While I am not sure exactly what French means, I can’t help but think political movements that give dignity to the most oppressed among us are part of the solution. They help us turn our hearts toward one another, giving dignity to the most vulnerable among us. I think taking their side helps us feel like we belong. And this is not just a matter of national politics – it is local, as French says – our churches, communities, and neighborhoods are affected by political movements. We shouldn’t dismiss them at all. French’s argument stunts their progress and dismisses them as ineffective.
But French’s impulse is not his alone. When faced with brazen evil, we are taught that political solutions can’t be effective, that polarization is wicked, and that partisanship increases our problems. We are taught this because the powers around us require our loyalty to the American mythology that the discourse between disagreeing parties is what makes us great. If we could only see the humanity in our political opponents, we would build a more loving world. The problem is that this loving world is built for those who aren’t affected by the political discourse, and it is those minorities that French, and everyone who has an impulse to use empathy instead of advocacy, burdens the most. Put plainly, French does take a side, and he takes the side of whiteness and the political structures that order it, the status quo in this country that maintains it.
That last paragraph - whew!