By I Steve
A lot of white activist-types can talk our ears off about unconscious racial bias, micro-aggressions, and privelege, but are still gosh-darn twits. Is the problem that they have to try harder, read every article in Everyday Feminism? Or is there something deeper? Is it not good enough to have a list of exceptions where you don’t act like you’re better than other people: anti-racism, anti-sexism, and anti-homophobia?
How are there decent-hearted people with terrible predudices, and assholes with perfect politics? “I’m an anti-racist asshole. Why don’t people of color like me? Why doesn’t everyone like me?” Because you’re still an asshole!
What’s missing is basic humility. It’s not just about how to relate to marginalized groups. It’s about how you relate to yourself, and your relationship to reality.
White people don’t have a monopoly on arrogance. Just as being white doesn’t make you racist, it doesn’t mean you’re arrogant either. But white people collectively are as notorious for arrogance as for racism. That whiteness is intertwined with arrogance is obvious to everyone who isn’t an arrogant white person.
Humility, being humble, is usually defined as a lack of fixation on oneself and a deference to others. You’ve probably heard that humility isn’t about self-effacing. It’s about self-acceptance. If I don’t accept my real self with all my weirdness, I can create a glorious false-self to avoid accepting my real self. For some people, this goes all the way to Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
But I’m a ‘Radical’ who Does Good Things
One of the ways a culture preserves itself is by teaching itself good things about itself, and activist culture is no exception. Our teaching on arrogance is that it is a quality of the mainstream society we oppose. Those people try to get lots and lots of money so they can glorify themselves with bigger houses and bigger cars. They grow up wanting to be star athletes, leaders in business and politics, Nobel prize winners and best-selling writers, and foist their bitterness on the rest of us when their dreams evaporate.
All true, but look at us. We demand our demands be met. We no longer believe in “scientific” socialism, but we know our logic is flawless; we are right. Drawn to the cause by Dr. King and Che Guevara, why would I want to be a foot soldier or a shit-worker? Or I may reject mass organizing with its leaders and followers—I’m a free ego unencumbered by ancestors, culture, anything but my desires. While that approach appeals to the young-at-heart in all-of-us, it risks obliviousness to our interdependence, another form of arrogance.
Part of the activist identity is anti-Racism. Since I’m such a great activist, I’m a great anti-racist. So yup, if you tell me I did something disrespectful or ignorant, I’ll put you in your place to protect my ego. That’s why allies—or accomplices or whatever word the Internet says distinguishes us from those allies—can be so much more fragile than ordinary white people with twisted minds and good hearts.
Instead, I can realize I have more to learn. The Urban Dictionary’s entry on humility:
“Remaining teachable, knowing that you do not have all the answers.” Their example: “I had to have a good sense of humility to listen to my teammate’s advice, even though i have been playing baseball a lot longer than him.” “Veteran protesters” who think Millennial activists don’t know anything—do take note.
Humility is from Religion, and You Hate Jesus, your Mom, and your Buddhist Housemate
Humility is a virtue and core subject in most religions. Religion is an aspect of most cultures. Humility is a theme in most cultures. Among your many options, you can keep your culture’s religion and reject it’s idea of humility. You may also reject your religion but keep the humility.
We’ve watched enough cave-people movies to think humility was for humans before the Era of Reason, cowering before superstition and volcanoes. But that “Era of Reason,” the European “Enlightenment,” was also the dawn of whiteness. Enlightenment utopias like America were built with the stolen land and slave labor or non-white peoples.
You can listen to others’ wisdom and still be an atheist. You can be a humble atheist. An anonymous person explains how humility is why atheists paradoxically succeed in Twelve-Steps programs: “The steps work if you believe in God. The steps work if you do not believe in God. The steps do not work if you think you are God.”
Can You Tell Me How to be Humble?
There’s a whole lot written on humility and how to be humble spanning the whole world and three millennia. What about special humility for radicals? The whole point of this is that we need the basic humility that everyone else can do.
One thing you can do is think about who you were before you were an activist. Do you remember people practicing humility in your family? In your school? If so, you can find your real self by connecting to your roots. If not, if you were surrounded by arrogance, when did you know? What was your idea of humility that provided that insight? Don’t despair. It’s common for middle-class families, actually a blend of upper and lower class characteristics, to deny their humble roots out of shame, aspiring to the big time. Even if this is your origin, you can accept yourself.
Do you know anyone, can you think of anyone who you think is humble? They probably are. Notice how you feel in their presence. Learn from them.
Becoming Humble Will Make Little Birds Like You
No joke, animals will be less afraid of you. Including humans who will trust you more.
Then you can reach the ears of those people with twisted minds but good hearts. Not a tourist in your own neighborhood, whether in Fruitvale, Oakland or on Park Avenue, NY. Even where you are a stranger, you might still belong.
Humility has been described as the foundation of other virtues. When you can see yourself as you are, there’s a feedback loop so you just get more awesome.
Quotes to maybe have enlarged like (instead of?) quotes from the article:
One of the most curious of writerly traits is the onion-like layering of outrageous arrogance and abject humility.
Judith Merrill, Sci-fi pioneer
I will not be modest. Humble, as much as you like, but not modest. Modesty is the virtue of the lukewarm.
Jean-Paul Sartre, The Devil and the Good Lord
Catch him at the moment when he is really poor in spirit and smuggle into his mind the gratifying reflection, “By jove! I’m being humble”, and almost immediately pride — pride at his own humility — will appear.
C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters
If “humility” means nothing more than the capacity to learn from criticism, then it has an undoubted value; but if “humility” means a willingness to submit to authority—to abandon or to modify what one is doing merely because it does not accord with the teachings of the Bible or the thoughts of Chairman Mao—then it is death to the spirit: the proper name for it, indeed, is “servility.”
John Passmore, The Perfectibility of Man