How Plato ruined everything

All right, maybe “everything” is a bit of an exaggeration.  Still, I’m convinced that Platonic notions color so much of our culture (not just Christian religion) that it’s hard to know where to start.

I suppose a word of explanation as to why I’m thinking about this is in order.  I haven’t blogged much this fall; there are several reasons why not that I won’t go into here.  One of the reasons, though, has to do with online politics and the constant pressure to get it right.  It was a crisis of correctness, I suppose, that led to my on-and-off writing over the last three months.  I blame Plato for that, too.

In an ideal world, life would work like this: No one would ever be distracted by the appearance of another person; every act of justice would take into account every possible situation and person; and no one would ever get off on picturing themselves licking whipped cream off a naked celebrity.

We don’t live in that world.

The problem with that world is that it doesn’t exist anywhere except in the heads of would-be online philosophers.  In all things, there’s some imaginary line that Must Not Be Crossed when it comes to behavior.  It might not have overtly religious overtones, but there’s still the same message:  If you don’t do things right, you are flawed.  Broken.  Damaged.

Instead of learning respect and consideration, we end up with the same fears often instilled by our religious communities–that we are not good enough and must seek to work towards this imaginary standard to which no human can measure up.  How many seconds is too long to stare at someone’s half-undressed body?  Which fantasies are okay to have when masturbating?  How carefully do we have to phrase things to make sure someone disagrees with our views and not our word choice or tone?

There’s no answer to that outside the heads of a few people who have styled themselves the Gatekeepers of Blogging.

My husband and I had an interesting conversation the other night.  He’s been taking a philosophy class–don’t ask me the details; I’ve never had much interest in that sort of thing.  I didn’t entirely follow everything he said, but the gist of it was that some people live in the realm of ideas and some people live in the realm of practicality.  About eighty percent of people are in the latter group.  The difficulty I see is that (at least on the Internet), the other twenty percent often see themselves as being at the top, and the rest of us should conform our practical existence to fit into the theories they’ve developed.

Well, screw that.  I can’t live that way.  When I started writing, it was because I was in a religious context in which I felt that there were specific people being marginalized (namely, LGBT people) and that the church had it dead wrong in how to care for them.  I remained anonymous for about a year and a half.  When some of my Christian LGBT offline friends began sharing my writing (not knowing it was me), I told them.  At that point, I decided hiding was a disservice to people I love in my non-bloggy life.  If they were out, why shouldn’t I be public too?

Note that I never said I blogged because I had some Magic Words of Wisdom on the church and LGBT people or any other issue regarding church teachings (which I also covered).  Honestly, I just wanted those I love to know that, and I wanted anyone like me who might be an ally in enemy camp to know they were not alone.  Practical purposes, people.  Nothing philosophical.

I recently stopped blogging as much because I had started to feel the same sense of “not good enough” that I’d had for over twenty years in the church.  I couldn’t blog about LGBT issues and the church because I didn’t know enough about intersectionality.  And other people who needed my support.  And not tagging every post on social justice issues as triggering (because, realistically, every post could trigger someone for something).  And not actually being LGB or T myself.  And not criticizing progressive Christians correctly.  The list goes on.

That, right there, is Platonism at its finest: There’s a right way to blog about these issues, and you’re not doing it.  There’s often a sense that the critic doesn’t actually know what the right way is, just that one must exist.  Well, no.  There is no hypothetical idealized advocacy.  There are some things that get it decidedly wrong (go research Human Rights Campaign, for example;p see also the Good Men Project).  Most of the time, though, it’s a matter of different people wanting or needing different things.

Another serious problem with forcing advocacy into a Platonic ideal is that the vast majority of the time, the people pushing it at the rest of us genuinely believe they have it right and we have it wrong.  There’s no sense that they might also be falling short of an unnamed ideal or that their particular philosophy might not be the best version because it still leaves some people vulnerable.  It’s an unfortunate reality that there are people out there who simply do not care about hurting people they think are in the wrong.  I’ve seen things get pretty ugly when one person gently explains why they need a particular type of ally and another person says the equivalent of, “That’s the wrong thing to want” rather than, “Tell me more.”

I spent several years deconstructing my faith.  I’m now in process of reconstruction, and there are some great people I can trust along the way.  Deconstructing social justice advocacy feels pretty similar.  I’m disappointed with the online community in a lot of the same ways I was disappointed in the church.  Before someone gets all heated about it, I’m not saying that social justice movements are abusive.  But are there abusive, powerful people within them who want to control the rest of us at any cost?  You bet. (“No! I don’t want to control you!  I just want you to get it right, dammit!” is, in fact, controlling–particularly when the person saying it does not belong to the group for which they are advocating.)  Those are the people I’m trying to steer clear of.

There’s no way to know where this will end up.  I don’t want to stop writing, but some days, I think I have no choice, at least when it comes to blogging.  I do know that it won’t change anything in my everyday life; my loved ones will still know they can count on me.  As for the online advocacy police?  There’s no reason I should care about their Platonic ideals.

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3 thoughts on “How Plato ruined everything

  1. Can you give an example? I think you are talking about people criticizing the way others write about activism? Is this correct?

    I actually do think the way we approach something is important, but it is up to the author to determine how she wants people to react and write accordingly. It is the writer’s job to shape for an audience, not the audience’s job to conform to the writer’s intentions. Some people want to get readers hot under the collar. It can be a wake up call. But if an author finds that a stylistic or tonal choice is getting unintended feedback, I think it can be worthwhile to look it over again. Maybe because I give this kind of advice for a living, but I am appreciative when a reader can explain to me that my tone in a piece is off-putting etc (not that I’ve ever found this with you!).

    I also think part of blogging, especially about political issues, involves a conversation which sometimes becomes a “here’s where I think you have it wrong” explanation. This exchange of ideas isn’t necessarily a beat down of the OP, but a further challenge to consider so we can fine tune as a community what we should be striving for. The OP is free to disagree or even disregard, but the implication of a public blog/forum is that it is open for discussion.

    Perhaps I am misunderstanding, but I wouldn’t hold back or stop just because people challenge or disagree, even if they do so rudely. This is one of the few blogs I’ll actually read because of your unique position as a Christian, LGBT ally, and good writer.

    • Thanks for your kind words. 🙂

      I started thinking about this while I took a (loooong) break from Twitter. There were too many snide 140-character comments about various activists/allies doing things wrong. I’m not sure I can be specific, not because I don’t want to be but because it’s like trying to explain how a fever feels. I can describe feeling achy or getting chills or having a headache, but I can’t quite describe the exact feeling of generalized malaise. One of the problems I’ve seen is when one blogger is devoured by others for not saying things in exactly the right way. For example, one person wrote last spring (maybe?) about how putting glitter on one’s breasts and going to a club might end up in having people stare at the glitter. She got dozens of angry comments about how “wrong” she was because it’s everyone else’s job not to look at the glitter. That’s the Platonic ideal I’m talking about–how long is too long to be drawn to the sparkles? I’m not into women, but I think I’d have a hard time not staring, too. That one post sparked all sorts of rage-fueled follow-ups about body-shaming and policing people’s clothing choice which were clearly never intended by the original piece. A very similar thing happened with the NALT project. It’s been criticized for all sorts of reasons, from “you used a word choice I didn’t like” to “I don’t like Dan Savage” to false claims: it was directed at non-Christians (nope), there weren’t any women (nope), it’s centered on gay men (nope), and there are no trans people represented (nope). Instead of using every tool available to make a difference, or seeking to make the tools available better, it’s just petty and mean–and ignores the actual people being helped.

      • I think I’m getting a better understanding of your frustration. I might call it the difference between constructive and non-constructive criticism, as well as false vs true information. Disagreement is one thing, but when the OP is reasoned, the responses should probably aim for the same and afford the benefit of the doubt. I don’t think it’s wrong to offer these perspectives, and I can see how they would all be a valid part of the conversation, but I think it is bad form to assume that someone who is otherwise reasonable in their post is trying to offend.

        H8rs gonna h8!

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