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Sabotage: Part 5 - Neutrality & Witness
The first sabotage is sabotage of our awareness with ignorance—a sabotage enabled by a morally empty neutrality. The big question is: How do we counter it?
Note: this essay was originally published on Revue on September 4, 2022.
So, to begin: We have a lot of problems. Perhaps you’ve noticed. A lot of things are broken, everything from our roads and bridges to our foundational assumptions about what society is and what it should do and how it should function and for whom it should function.
We want to see these things fixed, most of us, and we agree on the solutions, mostly—by which I mean those solutions are massively popular when polled. And yet nothing gets fixed, and after 5 or 6 decades of trying incrementalism, it seems just as likely for the increments to lead to things becoming incrementally more broken as to becoming incrementally more repaired.
We want to see what is broken get fixed, and yet repair seems far from us.
I believe the reason for this is that we are facing a foundationally supremacist culture, currently energized by an overtly supremacist movement, which insists on its own blamelessness even while it opposes the process of repair, by means of a regressive process of unjust, unnatural, and abusive sabotage. It’s a sabotage that forces us away from the lower cost of repair while it profits from making everyone pay the much higher costs of brokenness. It’s a sabotage that makes the cost of repair much higher than it needs to be, in order to make repair an undesirable thing; a sabotage that casts those who engage in the process of repair as combative and troublesome to make brokenness seem like the way of peace and ease; a sabotage that makes brokenness popular, and easier, and inevitable.
The first sabotage is the sabotage of the first step of repair—that is, the sabotage of our awareness with ignorance.
But as I’ve learned, it’s not the abuse that makes the supremacy, but the accommodation of that abuse. The accommodation is the supremacy in other words.
As I perceive it, each sabotage is accommodated by its own enablement.
The enablement of the first sabotage—which, again, is the sabotage of our awareness with ignorance—is something I’d call neutrality.
It’s so pervasive, it’s hard to know how to start. I think I have to ease into this one in a slow spiral, looking for cracks in the armor.
How about I start with the beer commercial?
“Beer commercial” is a little reductive, I confess. It was a commercial for a national service, sponsored by a beer company. But “beer commercial” just has a little more fizz to it than “commercial for a national service that features a mass-produced lager.”
The beer commercial came out several years ago in the UK. It was approvingly shared recently by people I consider intelligent and well meaning, by people who are doing good work to make the world better.
Here’s how the beer commercial goes: we hear voices over title cards.
The title cards read:
TWO STRANGERS DIVIDED BY THEIR BELIEFS MEET FOR THE FIRST TIME
… and we see a large warehouse and the two strangers entering …
NEITHER KNOWS ANYTHING ABOUT THE OTHER OR WHAT THE EXPERIMENT IS ABOUT
… and we see them wordlessly walk over to some instructions and begin to read …
IS THERE MORE THAT UNITES THAN DIVIDES US?
… and then the experiment begins. The experiment involves the two people taking the pieces scattered around the warehouse and assembling them. The pair, naturally united into an easygoing camaraderie by the shared experience of a modestly challenging task, eventually realize they’ve assembled a bar. The bar is stocked with Heinekens. The pair is instructed to open two bottles, then watch a video. The pair watches the video and learns that their fellow worker is somebody who disagrees with them fundamentally on a matter of importance to them. Then, confronted by the essential humanity of their ideological “other,” they both have to decide what to do with this new knowledge: Will they have a beer and a chat with their new workmate? Or will they withdraw?
They all decide to sit down and have a conversation with their new friends over a beer.
The idea is: hey, if we get to know each other over shared work, we’ll learn we aren’t that different.
And I thought: how awful, how grotesque.
To make human beings drink Heineken.
It’s 2022 now.
Let’s see what’s up this week in 2022.
Joe Biden gave a speech in defense of democracy, warning about the dire threat to democracy posed by the group he dubbed “MAGA Republicans.” Most people of even basic awareness would simply refer to this group as “Republicans,” but the president made a point of drawing a deliberate and sharp line between Trump insurrectionists and regular Republicans. He needn’t have bothered; Republicans as a whole responded by angrily identifying with MAGA Republicans, and decrying a president who would give a speech so corrosive to unity.
Unity is suddenly apparently a very important matter to a political movement that just overturned Roe v Wade and is passing anti-gay and anti-trans legislation, which has spent my entire adult life pursuing a strategy of Black disenfranchisement, which defends every extrajudicial murder of every racial minority by police (or just people who like to pretend to be police), and I could go on, but honestly either you see things that are obvious to see, or you don’t, so, here’s a period to end this sentence.
And sure enough our consent-manufacturing apparatus heaved into gear, worrying that the president’s factual words might be corrosive to unity, without much thought given to what we are meant to unify around in order to unify with Republicans, or who we’d have to abandon in order to achieve that unity.
Joe Biden has spent his entire presidency trying to rehabilitate the image of Republicans, by the way; preaching a vision of unity that Republicans have steadfastly shown no interest in whatsoever. He even campaigned on it. He told us that once Trump was gone, we’d see a real difference in his friends across the aisle. He said we’d be really surprised.
His friends have responded by calling him a commie extremist and a sundowning puppet and a thief of the election he decisively won, and threatening political violence should any appropriate legal consequence befall their rabbit-eyed, foundation-shellacked, gobby god prince.
And the gobby god prince just held a rally in Pennsylvania last night. At the rally, the former president bashed trans women and told his cheering throngs that Democrats are against God, among many other things. There is little reason to expect a similar show of concern about politicians saying things corrosive to unity that we’ve enjoyed in response to Biden’s much more measured and deliberate words.
I have not been surprised by this, I must say.
I wonder if Biden is surprised.
The current president—a man who has sometimes bent over backward to speak flattering lies to blameless supremacists—at last spoke a simple truth that is clearly observable, which is that the Republican Party is a fascist movement. In response, a lot of people took time out of their busy schedules to make sure they expressed outrage at these “unprecedented” infractions against comity and unity and other virtues—virtues they spend the rest of their time demonstrating their clear contempt for.
Meanwhile, the TV news networks, who breathlessly covered every fart of the Trump presidency, decided not to air Biden’s speech—which, let’s all remind ourselves, involved a sitting president speaking of a clear and present and easily observable threat to our democracy, and naming the threat, and asking for unity against it.
They aired re-runs instead.
They decided the speech was political.
Apparently they don’t like it when politicians are political.
Apparently they think defending democracy is a controversial subject.
They like to stay neutral.
Awareness is what I think is being sabotaged. Did I mention that? I think I mentioned that.
And awareness is a part of a process of repair, a process we might call reparation, a process we might think of as a spiritual alignment toward being a people who repair and maintain rather than neglect and destroy. It’s a process beginning with awareness of brokenness; proceeding to conviction of a shared responsibility to fix it; moving on to a confession of our awareness and conviction; then to a realignment of spirit, resources, and belief—away from neglect, toward paying the cost of repair—that I with my Evangelical background think of as repentance; and finally to the actual repair—doing the work, paying the cost.
And sabotage is a process, too, a regressive twisted mirror of the progressive process of repair—ignorance, and apathy, and denial, and oppression, and war, defending supremacist blamelessness from the threat of improvement.
I want to repeat these points about process, because I think all of these steps tie into one another, and bleed into one another.
I also want to think about process, because every time somebody gives witness to the injustices in our society—remembering the way that injustices are foundational within our history, discussing how injustice threads throughout our national story like a dominant theme, naming the ways we hide our brokenness from ourselves, naming the people who have suffered the higher costs of brokenness, naming the people who profit from those higher costs—we suddenly hear people fretting about divisiveness, who have, strangely enough, rarely worried about it before.
They say things like how can you simply condemn half the country because of different beliefs?
They say things like that sort of divisive rhetoric leaves no room for nuance or for people to change.
They say things like you’re treating these people as if they’re irredeemably bad, and you’d feel differently if you got to know them.
It’s a particular form of enablement I think of as exoneration—reconciliation without reparation. If all goes as planned, I’ll return to exoneration and unpack it some other day. But notice the way it weasels out of making value judgements: positing that the problem is different beliefs without naming those beliefs or measuring their effects upon others; asking witnesses to injustice to lend nuance to opposing positions that allow little room for nuance; demanding they create narratives of redemption on behalf of people who are opposed—often violently so—to any sort of redeeming work, who are in fact actively working against redemption wherever they see it, in order to protect the ignorance that their blamelessness depends upon.
And I think it’s interesting, the assumption that witnessing to injustice would be understood as a de facto condemnation, rather than a challenge to improve.
I think it’s interesting, the assumption that a person who has already done the work of observing things through a new lens has neglected nuance, when doing so requires greater nuance than simply using the old lens.
I think it’s interesting, the assumption that a person witnessing to injustice would be assumed to simply not know the people involved in that injustice, since there is a massive mainstream far right political movement in this country, and we all know people involved in it or aligned with it—friends and neighbors and colleagues—and we know that some of them are very fine people.
Doing all this relies on establishing and maintaining neutrality: a tool that in a healthy context can be a good thing, a result of health and general good will that people of good will should desire in the same way that they desire healthy contexts, but which in an unhealthy contexts merely participates in abuse by never acknowledging it, which believes its rationales and excuses without marking what it does.
So I’d observe that exoneration rests upon a foundation of neutrality.
It’s a neutrality that isn’t neutral.
Let’s go back to the beer commercial.
A lot of people found the beer commercial inspiring, and though I didn’t find it inspiring, I can see why that would be. Human connectivity is naturally inspiring. It would be churlish to seem to oppose it.
When two people encounter each other, they are forced to observe something undeniable and powerful, which is the essence of one another’s humanity. It creates connection, and connection makes othering and hatred more difficult to achieve—and that is good. We should seek such connection. I truly believe that. I’d even drink a Heineken to achieve it.
But let’s return to the title card:
TWO PEOPLE DIVIDED BY THEIR BELIEFS
Three sets of two people, in fact, running three different iterations of the experiment.
The commercial shows us these divisive beliefs, right at the beginning: clips from the video the two will be asked to watch, after completing their task.
A feminist who believes that women should be treated as equal human beings, and a man who believes that feminism is man-hating twaddle.
An entrenched climate denier, and a man deeply concerned about the climate catastrophe: that which is coming and that which is already here.
A trans woman who believes she is a person who deserves to exist, and an anti-trans bigot who believes that trans women don’t exist.
And I have to ask myself: is what separates these people their beliefs?
Are all these beliefs divisive?
Do both people have beliefs that need changing?
Divided by … beliefs?
Is that the problem we’re trying to solve?
I can’t help but notice that the commercial elides the truth, which is that the trans woman has not failed to understand the bigot’s essential humanity, but the bigot has rejected hers. The feminist has not failed to understand the essential humanity of men, but the anti-feminist is staunchly opposed to hers and believes that it threatens his, even as he threatens hers. The climate activist is not misaligned with a basic important component of modern reality, but the climate denier is.
The climate activist doesn’t actually have to learn anything about climate denial, and he doesn’t have to convince the denier in order to believe the truth—nor, I have to say, does there seem to be any evident interest on the denier’s part to learn; he only desires that his nonsense be listened to, and greatly appreciates the climate activist’s apparent willingness to spend his time doing so. Maybe he’ll listen, and learn, but I have to ask myself why that’s necessary, and if that’s a good use of a climate activist’s time, when it’s far more likely that the denier’s takeaway will be a reinforcement of his existing belief that people ought to listen to his counterfactual twaddle, that it’s good and healthy when that happens.
The feminist doesn’t actually have to learn that men are people, and while the conversation she is asked to have might convince the anti-feminist that feminists are people, it might just as easily reinforce his clear belief that his anti-female positions should in no way preclude women from treating him as if he’s an awfully good bloke—after all, she got to know him!—when in fact she would be absolutely correct to understand him for the threat he poses to her well-being, absolutely correct to perceive the ways that he, despite his current situational approval of her specifically, has made himself generally comfortable with denying her essential humanity.
And then, there’s this:
When an anti-trans bigot is suddenly confronted with the fact that they have been working alongside a trans woman, they are confronted with the fact that they have already accepted the trans woman’s essential humanity, and must now decide whether or not to remain in their new awareness, or reject it and retreat to their previous ignorance.
This is a hugely dangerous place for a trans person to find themselves in.
As the beer commercial depicts it, the bigot—after making a “joke” of stalking off and rejecting her—chooses the former.
But he might just as easily not have—and rejection was the least of the dangers present in that moment.
A trans woman in that position doesn’t have to make the same calculation as the bigot, because she never denied the bigot’s essential humanity. She merely has correctly insisted that she be allowed to exist in society on the same level as cis men. No, a trans woman in that position has a very different calculation to make. She must decide whether or not she is about to have her essential humanity tolerated, or if she is about be assaulted or killed—even in a controlled setting like a beer commercial.
Do you think that’s dramatic? I would bear witness to the simple fact that it’s the reality. I could provide statistics on hate crimes and murders of trans women, but honestly if you’re curious you can find them, and if you have to be convinced then I think you’ve decided not to know.
And then our commercial—and all of us, if we find the commercial inspiring—expect her to have a beer with a person she rightfully ought to understand as a credible threat to her health and well-being, because of choices he has made about what to believe about other people. We ask her to treat this threat as if he has already proved himself to be as harmless a person as he expects everyone to understand him to be, even though he has firmly established he is not. We ask her to share a beer with that credible threat.
And it’s for his benefit and growth. It’s not for hers.
The beer commercial highlights the fact that each participant sees the other as a threat on some level, whether emotional or intellectual or physical, but ignores the fact that in each pair there is one who is entirely correct to do so.
It puts the burden of changing the minds of bigots and fools on the very people who are endangered and drained by them, without even acknowledging it is doing so.
It takes bigoted beliefs and puts them on the same level—that is, as a divisive problem—as the simple existence of people who make bigots uncomfortable.
It neutrally equalizes two very different demands: the demand to be thought of as a human while actually being a human, and the demand to be thought of as good and safe while holding beliefs that are harmful and dangerous.
It reassures people who have chosen bigotry (and other deliberate and harmful ignorance) that the problem isn’t their ignorance but divisiveness; that the problem of divisiveness isn’t that their ignorance makes other people pay a high cost for simply living, but that they, the ignorant party, haven’t been seen properly, listened to enough, or respected sufficiently—even though they themselves have refused to see or listen or respect.
The commercial stays neutral about matters that aren’t neutral.
It’s designed to make comfortable people feel inspired, which I know, because that’s what it did.
I probably watched it years ago. I might have been inspired.
Earlier in my journey of awakening and awareness, I certainly have watched videos like this, and have been inspired.
My awareness was sabotaged, and I enabled the sabotage by entering into neutrality.
I’m sure I still do so in many ways I don’t even realize.
We’ve been talking about a beer commercial, but we could be talking about thousands of other messages that come to us every day. The sabotage of our awareness is in the atmosphere.
Between the malicious mainstream of conservativism and the rest of us can be found a thin but permeable rind of respectable individuals committed to the proposition that there exist two and only two sides, and that both of them are equally good and equally bad, equally right and equally wrong, equally respectable. It’s an active ignore-ance, ostensibly performed in the name of depolarization and comity, but actually designed to maintain a comfortable relationship with blameless supremacy—which we know, because a comfortable relationship with blameless supremacy is what it actually achieves.
Neutrality offers persistent and ongoing credulity to deliberately ignorant and debunked positions, and bestows upon credible and proven perspectives a persistent and ongoing skepticism.
Neutrality entertains public conversations about the right of different people to exist, without including the people affected into the conversation.
Neutrality is “just asking questions.”
Neutrality is “only saying what lots of people are saying.”
Neutrality is “genuinely curious.”
Neutrality “plays devil’s advocate.”
Neutrality ignores power and aggression in matters where power imbalances and abusive aggression are the primary factors; it ignores existing solutions to problems to focus exclusively upon obstacles to those solutions; it ignores the bravery of whistleblowers who exposed deep corruption in order to focus on the rules they broke to expose it; it ignores the deep institutional trust broken by the corrupt to focus on the personal trust broken by the accuser’s true claims; it ignores the adverse effects of abuse upon the abused to draw focus upon the adverse effects of exposure upon their abusers; it refuses to draw distinctions between truth and untruth, between what is and what is claimed. It isn’t interested in exposing a lie as a lie, it’s only interested in presenting the lie next to the truth, usually between advertisements for pharmaceuticals, and then speculating like day-traders over which one the public will decide to believe.
Neutrality absolves itself of any accountability to delivering objective truth, takes no sides between true and false, harmful and helpful, conspiracy theory and actual threat.
Neutrality will tell you, it only reports. You decide. Reality is optional.
Most of all, neutrality always takes the perspective of the blameless society as a given presumed default, reinforcing ignorance’s claim upon reality as a matter that is for the ignorant to decide, by deciding whether to be persuaded or not; neutrality always takes ignorance’s refusal to be persuaded by the truth as evidence that the truth is not persuasive; neutrality always joins ignorance in ignoring the reality, which is that the truth remains true even if a person remains unpersuaded to its existence.
Neutrality remains indifferent to awareness because awareness carries a cost, and cost is bad for business.
Neutrality doesn’t take sides, to avoid the cost of being thought of as divisive.
Neutrality keeps silent in the face of lies, to avoid the cost of being thought of as argumentative.
Neutrality accepts the framing of ignorance and never interrogates it. It uses the framing of ignorance to challenge the truth.
Neutrality isn’t neutral.
Supremacists sabotage awareness with ignorance. But the accommodation is the supremacy, and neutrality makes ignorance successful.
You’ll know our awareness has been sabotaged, because you’ll find that even very fine people who seem to agree with progressive motion toward repair begin to accept the blameless society’s framing: that knowable things are unknowable, that both sides are equally bad, that the most ignorant side must be persuaded of truth in order to accept truth and act on it, that awareness is a burden, and that those who pursue awareness are tiresome.
Once we’ve agreed to occupy the frame of the blameless society, we remain inside their picture. We never take the journey our moral compasses have set, because we have decided not to observe observable things; decided to not even know that movement is needed.
It’s important to note, all of this is done in service of avoiding repair; all done in service of a worldview that decides every day to live in an alternate reality, untethered to knowable and observable fact, all to avoid paying the cost of awareness.
None of this is ever admitted to be in service of ignorance, of course, because a blameless society would never be purposefully ignorant. It’s all just a way of sabotaging knowing, and even the desire to know among those who might otherwise know; it’s all a way of accommodating that sabotage by never revoking the respectability of a saboteur.
So now I want to answer the big question, which is what do we do about it?
I want to talk about witness.
I wrote about witness before. Here’s some of it again, repurposed and slightly modified:
What I mean by witness: the simple act of seeing what is happening, and speaking to it with the authority of that witness.
In short: you have the authority of your own experience; to see what you have seen, and to say that you have seen it, and to know that you know it.
Witness is simple. It’s not an argument. It’s not a rationale. It’s not a justification. It’s an observation. It speaks the truth without asking permission, and it rests on your ability to simply perceive what is perceptible, from the unique perspective you find yourself in.
For example, to say “I am grieving your involvement with the Republican Party, because I can see very clearly that it is a supremacist hate group that is dismantling democracy and I can clearly see that your support of it degrades your essential humanity and your many fine qualities,” is witness.
Notice the value of aligning your witness to a core principle grounded in universal justice: it doesn’t have condemnation built into it, but rather a recognition of essential humanity and a clear path back to it, for anyone who would care about your opinion enough to seek that path.
Notice how it doesn’t shift a person’s responsibility to change their harmful beliefs to anybody else.
Notice how it names the thing without negating essential humanity, but also without negating the essential harm of the lie the person has believed.
Notice how it allows you to see a person’s goodness and niceness and other fine qualities clearly, without forgetting that these very fine qualities are what people lend the movements they join; that it is the fine qualities of its members that fascist movements find so valuable to use, because they provide atrocities with the trappings of goodness.
Notice how this leaves the door open to further conversation with people who have genuine curiosity—without obligating a threatened person to engage with a person they ought to understand as a threat, without obligating a person who has awakened to awareness to engage in endless bad faith argument with somebody who has refused awareness.
Notice that while a person hearing witness may wish to debate against your witness, witness isn’t an invitation to debate, nor do you have to engage in one or win one for the act of witness to remain exactly as it is.
Notice that witness can be heard and seen by others, who might be encouraged or moved by it, and who might start witnessing themselves—which I would say counts as persuasion much more than permission-seeking debate with unpersuadable people.
Witness names what is wrong. It gives language to the challenge. It labels the map for those who want to take the journey.
Witness is a statement of observation about something that you find unacceptable.
And another thing—maybe the most important one:
Witness increases the cost of ignorance. It increases the cost of sabotage and blamelessness, which might bring people to your side who would enter awareness if the cost had not been made so high, and which raises the ideological overhead of blameless people whose main goal is avoiding the lower cost of repair so they can profit from the higher costs of brokenness.
Witness breaks a morally vacant neutrality.
Even to simply say “The Republican Party is a hate group,” or to begin to talk about all the unacceptable things they do, and why you find those things unacceptable, begins to bring these truths into common currency. If it happens enough, then that truth will become the common understanding of the Republican Party, and what membership in it means.
This has been the fate of hate groups in the past, by the way, when the atmosphere changed, and suddenly belonging to it or supporting it or believing in its tenets was simply no longer possible without a consequence that had never been a worry before; one’s entanglement with the hate group now means accurate things about one will be automatically conveyed to others.
Membership in the KKK used to be a common and respectable thing. It isn’t anymore.
So it can be with today’s hate groups.
To be a witness to simple truths is to fight the blameless society’s sabotage of awareness. You’ll know this, because if you start to witness, those convicted by it will begin to attack your authority to bear it, by making sure the price is as high as they can make it—so you’ll know you’ve begun to witness, when you start to pay.
I think witness is a powerful weapon, available to everyone.
It changes the frame.
It tells a new story.
It raises the cost of blameless supremacy and its many sabotages.
And that’s what I think repair looks like.
A parting question: why do we need awakening to awareness, anyway?
The same reason we need to be aware our streets are broken—because it leads to discovering what needs to be fixed, and makes us realize that it’s up to us to fix it.
We need to awaken, because awakening leads to conviction.
A.R. Moxon is the author of the novel The Revisionaries, available in most of the usual places and some of the unusual places, and co-writer of Sugar Maple, a musical fiction podcast from Osiris Media. He can stage a runaway golf-cart marathon.