I went to high school in the early 1960s, a different era – before the Stonewall riots and the women’s movement. So it never occurred to me that Miss Dodge and Miss Wheaton, teachers who walked from their apartment to school each day, were lesbians. And, with all the smart/with it kids that were my classmates at Scarsdale High School, I never heard anyone else mention that possibility either!
Years later, I watched a movie in which a lesbian’s life long partner died suddenly. The nephew arrives a few days later and “generously” tells her to stay in the house (titled in her deceased partner’s name) for another 30 days because she and his aunt were such “good friends.” Since her marriage was unnamed and unacknowledged, she was rendered invisible and mute, unable to express her anguish at the loss not only of her life partner but of her home as well.
A final anecdote: An author at the center of the lesbian scene in Greenwich Village in the early 1950s, when interviewed 50 years later, talked about how she and her friends loved the dime store novels of that era in which a young woman would visit the “dark” side only to be “saved,” in the end, by a man’s love. For them, the endings were irrelevant. What excited them was that they were being acknowledged. They were being named. They existed.
This sort of marginalization is one of the culture’s most powerful tools of oppression. In some cases, the oppressed group literally has no name. Think, for example, of the children who for decades (or, perhaps, centuries) were being abused within the Catholic Church’s hierarchy. Prior to its disclosure, these victims didn’t exist. And if they dared to speak up, they were dismissed as troublemakers, delusional or worse.
In other cases, such as being a lesbian in the 1950s – or a transgendered or intersexed person today – the culture does offer a name. But the group is so thoroughly stigmatized and marginalized that it is seldom talked about. And when it is, the discussion is suffused with embarrassment and typically conducted in hushed tones. The group exists in theory but its members are never acknowledged as real people, living with and amongst us.
Invisibility and marginalization take repression to a new level. When you are is part of a recognized group, you can coalesce with others and take countermeasures. But when “who you are” is unacknowledged or deeply suppressed, the level of isolation and negation goes much deeper.
Even the seemingly simple act of naming yourself – to yourself – can be tough. Many gays and lesbians who came of age in my generation (the 50s and early 60s) always knew that “normal sex” didn’t work for them. But because homosexuality was so marginalized and stigmatized many of them were in the closet not only with others but with themselves as well. And their challenge didn’t end there. Even when self-recognition broke through, there was often the daunting problem of finding others, like them, for communion and support.
Being unnamed and unacknowledged typically carries with it a diffuse, ill understood form of pain – frustration, loneliness, depression, confusion, a feeling that things just aren’t right. And because you don’t understand the cause of your pain you assume, more often than not, that there is something wrong with you.
This phenomenon is deeply political. Groups at risk of invisibility are groups that interfere with, or slow the momentum of, the culture’s predominant values. And while socially disenfranchised groups are its most obvious victims of this process, the reach of the phenomenon extends far beyond these groups.
The culture pushes us to be a certain kind of person: Logical, focused, goal oriented, organized, efficient, a good linear thinker. But who we are encompasses so much more. We are also emotional, visual, sensing, tactile, and so on. And these qualities richly contribute to our vitality and aliveness.
The good news is that people have a wide variety of dispositions and aptitudes. There is no shortage of people who can help us understand our potential in each of these less logical and linear areas. Unfortunately, however, the mainstream culture’s support for these people is tepid at best. And sadly – for them and for us – the more they diverge from the culture’s left- brain ideal, the less they are seen and acknowledged.
Take my friend William, for example. Trained at the best schools, he has all the necessary left brained skills. But that is not who he is. William’s core passions and gifts are tactile and sensing. The center of his being exists in an essentially nonverbal world of movement and sensation. He loves to milk goats. He has tracked animals, been on archeological digs, and led bicycle trips. Recently, he spent a summer working on a small family farm in the Pyrenees.
As a more logical and linear person, I don’t understand the joy William feels in milking goats at 5 a.m. – in the dead of winter! But I do know that I am deeply nourished by his different sensibility; a sensibility that leads him to these choices.
Life has not been easy for William. Being smart, organized and charming, he spent years doing what he was supposed to do, working as a teacher and business executive. But he had no passion for these jobs. Much of the time, he was discouraged and confused. And a key cause of William’s pain was the culturally imposed invisibility, described above.
In an entirely analogous way, the mainstream culture tells people with an artistic or spiritual sensibility that that’s ok, but only if they demonstrate competence in its approved set of aptitudes and skills – by making money off of it. Absent that, their sensibility is likely to be seen as a problem to be overcome, rather than as a different and valued way of living.
This same phenomenon applies, in a more subtle way, to many individuals who, on the surface, seem to be doing just fine in the mainstream culture. These people fit in – sort of. But in fact the emotional fit is uncomfortable. Responding to the culture’s pressures, they let their less mainstream aptitudes and passions atrophy through neglect and disuse. The result is a diminished life not only for themselves but for those around them as well, since they are deprived of their unique contributions.
When it comes to recognizing, naming and valuing difference, the challenge is multi-dimensional. We need to cultivate a heightened sense of curiosity and possibility about people who are different from us and we need to do it in every area of living, from the most private and personal to the most political.
In closing, I want to highlight one area in which the rewards of attending to this challenge are very high: The workplace. Work is the epicenter of our culture’s competitive, win/lose values. We spend the best hours of the great majority of our days at work. And, at most jobs, the pressure to take on a mainstream persona is unrelenting.
But there is a very encouraging “on the other hand” to this discouraging reality. If we are able to bring curiosity about, and appreciation for, difference into the workplace we are bringing this more enlightened way of being in the very belly of the mainstream beast. In other words, change in the workplace could, potentially, become the catalyst and main driver of change in the culture at large. So, imagine a workplace:
- Where an employee with a more spiritual disposition (for example) does not feel compelled, out of fear, to stifle his or her differences;
- Where an employer who does not instinctually judge and marginalize this worker but, instead, seeks to engage with, and magnify, his or her unique strengths; and
- Where, unable to follow through on that optimal outcome, the employer is still willing to modify the worker’s role, hours, and (if necessary) compensation to maintain his or her viability as an employee.
There is no practical impediment making this a reality. Indeed, one by-product of these different sorts of choices could well be soaring morale and increased productivity.
While there are companies that experiment with this sort of approach, what we need is a paradigm shift – from “interesting experiments by a few companies” to “accepted way of doing business.” To do so, however, will require businesses to wean themselves from our “success at all costs” mindset, systematically replacing it with a more humane set of values, such as those reflected in Radical Decency.
Why? Because, if companies remain psychically wedded to the old ways of operating, competitive pressures will inevitably cause them to regress to the mainstream culture’s norms: Reserving the new policies’ benefits for their most economically productive workers; shrinking or abandoning these initiatives when, as is inevitable, the company goes through a period of reduced profitability.
In addition, offered a partial “when it is convenient” shift in policy rather than a whole-hearted embrace of more humane ways of operating, workers will quickly smell a rat. Case hardened by their long experience with insensitive, quick to judge workplaces, most workers will – in this compromised scenario – (very sensibly) refuse the invitation to be more open about their differences.
As this example illustrates, effective strategies for fostering a greater appreciation of difference are difficult to craft and even more challenging in their execution. But the rewards are commensurate with the challenge. People like William will find their place in the world more easily and with less pain, and we will all be enriched by the new vistas their more robust and empowered involvement opens up for us.