“Once I was blind, but now I see.”—John 9:25
Walking through the woods with a seasoned birdwatcher, someone like my cousin Michael, is a mind-blowing experience. You see things you’ve never seen. Hear things you’ve never heard. It’s like a veil is lifted, revealing a whole new world: a magical world, that was always there. I’ve spent years and years exploring the forests of Mount Royal Park. And I thought I knew them pretty well. Far better than most. But my cousin and his wife disabused me of this notion last summer. I went for a walk on the Mountain with them whilst they were in town. Michael and May live in BC, and it was their first time on the Mountain; yet they saw things I’ve never seen, and heard things I’ve never heard. Not, I hasten to add, because they’ve got superhuman senses (Spider-Man’s hearing, Superman’s sight), but rather because they’ve been avid birders for decades. They’ve trained themselves to see what’s always there, what the rest of us miss.
What’s true on the Mountain is true of intellectual life: if you’ve spent years and years training yourself to see one particular feature of the human world, such as race or class or gender, you can probably see a great deal that the rest of us miss. Seeing the world through your knowing eyes is something we should all do from time to time. Because it’s good to know where the monsters are concealed, and how the patterns are revealed. But it’s also good to remember that there are other deeply meaningful things going on in the forest besides the birds. I’ve yet to meet a birder who believes birds are the only thing worth seeing in the forest, just as I’ve yet to meet an entomologist who believes butterflies are the only thing worth seeing in the garden, but I’ve met plenty of intellectuals and activists who seem to believe that the particular pattern they’ve trained themselves to see is the only the pattern worth seeing.
Our progressive profs promised us a Savior in grad school: a solution to this problem. The Hydra-Headed God of Intersectionality was supposed to rescue us from rocks and ruin. But She didn’t. And She hasn’t. The problems and the patterns remain: most working-class white guys who grew up poor seem to like to talk about class a whole lot; most middle-class white women foreground gender; and most POC try to get us to remember race. To some extent this is a simple function of privilege. Privilege is, after all, for the most part invisible to those who possess it. So we shouldn’t be surprised to find a wealthy white woman who only seems to see sexism. Nor should we be surprised to find a middle-class African-American man who only seems to see racism.
Be that as it may, claims and counterclaims of epistemic privilege aren’t going to get us anywhere interesting. Same is true of personalizing and demonizing. We’ve been down those dismal roads before. And we know where they lead. We’ve been to those lonely dead-ends. So perhaps it’s time to remember, instead, that we’re an intensely social species, blessed with language and imagination. Perhaps it’s time to remember that we’re incredibly good at learning from each other. Perhaps it’s time to go for a walk, a long walk, in the woods. Show me where the birds are, friend. You’ve got my full attention.
I can’t wait to see what you see.
—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)