Wednesday, May 16, 2007

On Understanding Injustice

Not long after my “Being a Duck on Easter” post, I got a message from a friend who’s studying abroad in Europe. She is studying, among other things, the history of the Holocaust and the current events of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. Here are some brief excerpts of her letter (her name also starts with D). (The letter also references my "The Weather at Auschwitz post.):

“… The body has no response. I am overflowing. … In my time here, I have learned what too much is. I have never seen too much. I have never felt too much. … And I'm thinking about the blog entry you wrote yesterday. … I want to take that blog entry and shove it up your ass. Because, in the words of the generations before us, what the fuck do we know from antisemitism? What do I know? … And what if overflowing is not too much? At 120 degrees, the body can still function. You don't start to boil, or bake. Is that what it will take before I can feel like I understand this world?
And here is my response:


What do you mean by "understand"?

I asked a young trans person I know if people have to experience anti-trans oppression in order to understand, or if they have to experience body dysphoria in order to understand. He seems to think they do. I have often asked a low-income friend of mine if people have to experience poverty before they understand. He is undecided. People I love have come near to dying of poverty, several times that I was aware of. I want people to understand. But I don't want them to have to go through what we went through.

Do you have to experience suffering in order to understand it? Do you have to be a prisoner in order to understand the magnitude of the crime [of imprisoning someone]? In which case, would you not be useless as an activist?

You have decided to experience this - you decided to visit Auschwitz, you decided to study what you are studying. What did you think it would do for you? Did you think you would understand? What did you not understand before?

I did not decide to go to Auschwitz. There have been times when I have immersed myself in studying the Holocaust and similarly laden issues (Amnesty [International] appeals, witch burnings, rape statistics, AIDS, etc.). Right now I am not doing that. My work right now is to develop my skills so that I can work more effectively as an organizer to prevent further atrocity and build sustainable communities.

Part of that work is knowing that "good enough" never is. Sustainable communities are ones that are constantly self-critical, constantly developing. Putting up with small injustices does not do honor to great injustices - in fact, it fosters them.

What do I know from antisemitism? I know enough not to want to "understand" its extremes, if understanding means experiencing first hand. I know that historically, antisemitism has always been cyclical, and that my future is no more secure now than my grandparents' were in the U.S. in the 1930s, when they all thought (in various combinations) that they were going to live happily ever after, that their relatives would all immigrate soon, that they would become a doctor, get a job, join a union, and ride the revolution. I know better than to stop working for justice, even for a moment.

And what do you know, D? What do you know, now that you have cried about our U.S. crimes? Is your pain making you a better person? Is it making you a better activist? And who are you to ask me what I know of injustice?

Love, D

P.S. In case you forgot to bring your copy, here is this page from a Smith student haggadah [the prayer book of the Passover seder]:

"This is the way to experience bitterness: take a big chunk of raw horseradish, let the burning turn your face all red.

This is the way to experience bitterness: dig back to a time of raw wounds, remember how it felt before the healing began, years or months or days ago.

How big a piece of maror must we eat to reexperience this bitterness? To what extent are we obligated to re-live suffering and pain?

And what if I've known enough pain this year already? And what if exclusion and exile are not just memories for me?

And what if I eat the whole root and my tongue catches fire and my ears burn? Then will I know slavery?

And if I truly know slavery, then will I be devoured by freedom?”

What is lovely about these letters is that they represented the beginning of a conversation, not the end of one. D and I share a culture in which brutal honesty and unapologetic disagreement are signs of engaged dialogue, and in the best case, tools for making meaning together. As evidence that the conversation went well: D gave me happy permission to post this here.

1 comment:

Dane said...

PS. I've retitled my poem-in-the-works "The Importance of Dialogue" and posted my latest draft on my blog. It's less of a revision than just some good tight edits, but I like it. And it's all about the importance of dialogue. Or so I'd like to think.