An old friend of mine used to say that the duty of privilege is absolute integrity. Those poetic words turn out to be revolutionary. They can change the way we think about life, which is really the same thing as changing the way we live. What they mean, I think, is simple: what we’re supposed to do with our lives is to ask two simple questions:
What resources do I have, and how can I use them to serve the common good?
What lack do I have, and how can I ask for help?
These two questions apply equally to all humans, no matter what our power or status may be. All of us have some resources, and all some lack; all of us can make our mark on the world through service to the common good, and all need support in the areas where we can’t do it ourselves.
We’re living in times where despair is easy to come by; some of us fight back with rage against authoritarian policies or dehumanizing rhetoric, some of us are frozen amidst the overwhelm of where to even begin, some of us want to run away or bury ourselves in distraction.
But the only way out is through: oppositional energy may be necessary to hold boundaries of protection around vulnerable people and ecosystems, but ultimately only doing something better in its place will help us move beyond the current crises.
And of course the current global crisis is a crisis of storytelling - who are we, what is our place in the universe, what are we for? Considering the two questions above can open a path to an answer, beyond individualism, beyond selfish ambition, even beyond fear.
In this week’s news the two questions could be applied to the men in public life who have yet to make amends for the harm they have done, but who seek to maintain privileged positions. Kevin Hart isn’t going to host the Oscars, because he has rejected invitations to make adequate amends to the LGBTQ community for dehumanizing comments he made in the past. He seems to think he’s being victimized here, targeted by a conspiracy of trolls who seek to take him down. I don’t know about the trolls, but I do believe that public harm warrants public amends, and that a couple of statements about how he wouldn’t repeat these remarks because “the times weren’t as sensitive as they are now” and how he’s sorry that his words hurt people aren’t enough. But I do also believe that the problem is bigger than Kevin Hart and the LGBTQ community - dehumanizing words affect everybody, including the speaker; and to contribute a better world for us all, there’s a deep need for a public path beyond fight, flight, or freeze. Kevin Hart could have become - could still become - an example of someone who made public mistakes, caused public and private harm, publicly apologized, and then took the step that seems least understood: made amends that are at least as public as the original harm.
He could enroll in LGBTQ ally training, and pay for a hundred others to do the same.
He could offer to fund scholarships for underserved LGBTQ young people.
He could pay for therapeutic and restorative support for those of us who are seeking to address the wounds of being bullied, silenced, considered less-than, refused the right to marry, told we were demon possessed, or worse.
He could champion the work of LGBTQ comics and other artists.
And as the first step on this path, he could ask the LGBTQ community what we might want him to do that would help us feel heard and respected. He might find a surprising welcome. He could also ask other straight folk who have been down this path before, learned from their mistakes, and become our allies. He would surely find allies of his own.
The path beyond that might not lead him back to hosting the Oscars, but I imagine that truly seeking to understand the lives of folk to whom he caused harm would lead to an even richer reward: he would have made new relationships, he would experience the immense transformation possible when you look in the mirror and know that you have received mercy, he might even own more of his story. And maybe he could help lead others to do the same.
I speak as both a member of the LGBTQ community who has been affected by Hart’s earlier remarks, and curious about his own apparent lack of curiosity about their impact, and inadequate amends. I’m also just as guilty of saying harmful things. So to address the first question: what power do I have, and how am I using it?
I don’t have the same public platform as Kevin Hart, of course, but that doesn’t absolve me from the responsibility that my old friend invites. The duty of privilege is absolute integrity presents the same question to all of us: what impact am I having on the world, and what support do I need?
I want to take responsibility for the consequences of my words and actions, whether intended or not. Saying sorry isn’t enough; making amends without asking the folks I’ve impacted what they think isn’t either. Part of what we’re dreaming about in the New Story Festival is a world in which consciousness about the impact of our words and actions, followed by living amends, becomes second nature. We would teach it in our schools, we would talk about it in our art, we would model it in public life.
As for the second question, well, to be honest, while LGBTQ lives are more visible and respected than ever, homophobic jokes do tire, and sometimes distress us; and they are part of the structure that allows real harm to target people. America is a safer place than many to be queer, but it’s still a daily struggle to go out into a world that still has to earn my trust.
I don’t like to live with an invisible wall around me, but the trauma of growing up queer in a homophobic culture has a long-lasting legacy. I’ve experienced huge debilitating impacts from emotional bullying and the internalized message that there is something wrong with me. I’ve been receiving treatment for post traumatic stress disorder for three and a half years. The years in which I was unable to resolve this struggle cost me a lot, causing pain to me and others; this happened partly because I didn’t know where to turn for the kind of support necessary to navigate the minefield of sexuality, masculinity, religion, culture, and my own emotional terrain. Until my mid-twenties, every conversation I had about my sexual orientation was with someone who told me there was something wrong with me. I’m in my mid-forties now, out and becoming proud, yet still there is a wound to be healed.
But the only way out is through.
So here I am. Seeking to transcend fight, flight, or freeze. Kevin Hart is my brother, he’s a talented comedian, his friends say he’s generous and kind, and he has also contributed to painful and even harmful experiences for vulnerable people. I am one of those people. I think he should listen to us, and take steps to learn and live meaningful amends. But we should not define him by his mistakes.
And here I am again. Seeking to transcend the victimization story, and recognize my complicity in painful and even harmful experiences. I’ve spoken ill of folk. I’ve mocked people to their faces. I’ve lied to avoid facing responsibility. I’ve often not thought about my impact on others. But I want to, and I’m committed in my personal life, and in my writing and speaking to learning to ask of myself what I’m asking of you:
What power do I have, and how am I using it for the common good?
What do I lack, and how should I ask for help?
Some options for pursuing this conversation further - you’re wholeheartedly invited:
The New Story Festival, March 29-31, in Austin, TX.
The Seventh Story books - two books I’ve co-authored with Brian McLaren, offering a lens through which everything can change.
Porch Circles - regular gatherings hosted by friends of The Porch, building community, unlocking from oppositional stories, and moving beyond fight, flight, or freeze.