This thought occurs to me after conversations recently with several young, middle-class, American women, and after reading Laura Hankin’s novel, The Summertime Girls. I would like you to see these people as the hope of the world.
Shame debilitates. Makes people conceal themselves, deny connection to their power, disassociate themselves from others. I’ve heard more than one young woman use the word privilege as if it were a curse or a handicap. They wish to conceal how fortunate they have been, with loving parents, comfortable upbringings, great educations. As they engage with human suffering, they feel much shame at their relative position. Their isolation encapsulates them.
Oppression damages people. Pain renders people myopic. The agony may over time lead to profound insight, but along the way comes a focus on self that makes it quite difficult to regard others who may also suffer. The rage that stems from being mistreated, or the despair that arises when there seems to be nothing that can be done about it, inhibit compassion for others. Pain makes it difficult to see past its end. Revenge excludes other perceptions. Oppression assaults the psyche, making people doubt their intellect, their beauty, their worth as human beings. The twisted timber of humanity comes about because so many people experience the cruelty and dehumanization meted out by their fellow humans.
Those who wish to end oppression seek a fulcrum to effect change. They struggle to get more people on their side, or inspire those who already are. Some little lady, as Lincoln termed Harriet Beecher Stowe, writes a book, and the tiny American abolitionist movement gained half of a nation. Harvey Milk says “Come out!” and oppression that had existed towards his people for hundreds if not thousands of years in Abrahamic-religious civilizations retreats enormously. How many more Vietnamese would have perished had the war planners been able to avoid dealing with the horror broadcasted on the nightly news? The problem of change becomes an optical endeavor. Transformation becomes possible once everyone sees what only a few had viewed clearly.
Young middle class women exist in both worlds, that of the privileged and the oppressed. The recent movie The Suffragette brought back to me that women who wished to vote were despised and beaten in the time of my grandparents. Young women don’t need that reminder. They feel in their bones they have escaped restricted lives. I often thought of the teenage women in my high school as people newly liberated. Their over-booked, over-achieving young lives demonstrated the power of unleashed, previously-thwarted ambition. Title IX might have put the weight of the federal government on the side of women playing sports. But then young women rushed through. They have done so throughout our society, in academe, politics, law, medicine, art.
These young people possess huge capacity in our world. Their parents and their wealth shielded them from much of the damage sexism might have meted out. They have gained for themselves profound and powerful educations. Their position in society endows them with enormous social capital. Think who their cell phones allow them to contact. This new position combines with the development since tribal times of a language of feeling, a different perspective on human relationships and the value of life. All these may now be applied to a far wider world, particularly in the realm of human conflict.
I would wish for all of us, especially these young women themselves, to understand that their very privilege presents a precious opportunity to make things right in the world. Oppression hasn’t damaged them too badly, yet they are quite aware of its power. They possess the ability to empathize, to connect with the suffering of others. Their ambition now turns towards others who suffer. Their male compatriots may share some of this potential for change in the world, but too many of them are still bound up with their own sense of loss of position to regard the pain all around them.
In Laura Hankin’s novel, The Summertime Girls, two former childhood friends meet after a post-college year apart. Beth has returned from a time at a medical clinic in Haiti. Over the course of the story, the reader understands her feelings of helplessness and grief as she holds a dying boy in her lap. She feels shame for her privilege to get on an airplane and escape the agony of that poor child and his country. Yet it was her courage and compassion which led her there. By the end of the book she is gaining a sense of her path in life, building on this terrible experience. The reader not only wishes her well, but hopes she, and all her people, understand and use their vast power to help others.
I would wish for middle class women to embrace who they are, and kick a lot of ass.
Let me end with a thought from a Brecht poem. ... All those who have thought about the bad state of things refuse to appeal to the compassion of one group of people for another. But the compassion of the oppressed for the oppressed is indispensable. It is the world’s one hope. Bertolt Brecht, “The World’s One Hope”