We Know What We Know

Let me tell you some stories. They are similar in some respects, different in others.

A white female graduate student is in a program training to be a therapist. Part of her training involves supervised therapy training sessions with real patients. One day the school assigns a black patient to her, who is struggling with stress and anxiety, much of which is due to his experiences with racism. Unfortunately, the white graduate student is a racist and the thought of being in the same room with a black person fills her with anxiety and revulsion. She requests that she be excused from counseling the black patient. Casual investigation reveals that the motivation is racial animus. The administration calmly but firmly tells her that no exceptions to the rules will be made for such reasons, but she sticks to her guns, and because she refuses to comply with the requirements of the program, she is ultimately expelled.

Second story, similar situation: a female graduate student who is a former victim of domestic violence is in a program training to be a therapist. It is one of her most deeply held moral convictions that male-on-female violence is consciously chosen, blameworthy, and a part of a larger social strategy to subjugate women. The thought of men beating women makes her literally nauseous with rage. The school assigns her a patient for training purposes who is suffering from relationship stress, guilt, and other unpleasant feelings, because he is a wife-beater. The therapeutic challenge is to help stabilize the relationship and help him feel better about himself in this relationship. Astonished and furious, the student requests permission to take a different patient, which is refused. The refusal is accompanied by a stern admonition from a male administrator, himself a wife-beater, about the importance of tolerating diverse lifestyles and not imposing one’s values on patients. She continues to refuse, and is expelled.

Third story, similar situation. The student is attending an program that happens to be housed in a college operated by an evangelical Christian denomination. The student is Jewish. She is assigned clinic hours on the Sabbath, requests permission to give her patients on that day to another student, and is refused, on the grounds that no one is entitled any exemption from generally applicable rules. She can have her Sundays off, just like everyone else, and will not receive any special consideration for her peculiar religious commitments, which, after all, were her decision to adopt and maintain anyway. She insists that this is a part of her identity and upbringing, but is told of the availability of Christian conversion education to assist her in correcting her religious defect. She declines the offer, does not attend her assigned clinic hours on the Sabbath, and is expelled.

Now. Which of the preceding stories does the following story most closely resemble?

The female student is an evangelical Christian. The assigned patient is gay. The student requests a different patient, is refused, is ultimately expelled.

Here’s a hypothesis, suggested by personal experience and conversation. Whoever you are reading this, you find one of the first three stories a much better analogue to the fourth, and indeed find this to be so very obvious that you can scarcely imagine any other person not agreeing with you. And, for all of the people reading this, there is no collective agreement over which story that is.

Though I make no effort to be factually accurate, the fourth story is modeled on a recent federal court case. The first, district court opinion, if you read it between the lines, clearly sees the case as most closely resembling the first story, about a refusal to accommodate bigotry, a social phenomenon which possesses no redeeming social value. The appellate court, rather astonished by this, sees it as more closely resembling one of the other stories, but isn’t sure which one. As lawyers love to say, “we would need more facts.”

As Foucault teaches us, the history of perceptions of homosexuality is a strange and complicated one, for what was once simply extramarital sex that naturally anyone would desire but which must be prohibited, later became a biological essence (a disease) to be eradicated in the name of personal and public health, and subsequently a biological essence (a race) whose members are to be accorded all the legal protections and personal respect we, in our best moments, want to see everyone receive regardless of race.

If you do not know this history, then you can be forgiven the assumption that what you and all the members of your community believe is what, deep down, everyone believes and always has believed. I assume that some knowledge of this history would shake this assumption to some extent. For I suffer from the same failure of imagination as everyone else: I simply cannot imagine anyone who knows this history taking any of these views fully seriously, despite some evidence that many people who do, do precisely that. That is my “prejudice.”

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One comment on “We Know What We Know

  1. skholiast says:

    Sorry to be so late in commenting. You do love to push people’s blind spots, don’t you? No wonder you get called a crypto-whatever. The danger of trying to see and articulate “another side of the story” is that one just makes people uncomfortable. And the odd thing is, this discomfort frequently remains even after one has made one’s own position (prejudices) clear — and remains all around. Why is that?

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