We Must Be Able to Understand a Human Being Unlike Us

“You can’t understand me because you haven’t had my experience.”

“I’m _________, you’re not, so how can you know what being my group experiences?”

These words surely remind us that we should hesitate to speak for another and that no two
human beings have the exact same life stories. They should evoke humility when conversing with and responding to another human being.

They can be spoken from the depths of the systemic oppressions that are a part of the warp and woof of our culture. One of the characteristics of any of the privileged statuses that remain endemic to society is the feeling that the privileged group is the one that’s entitled to define those without that privilege and to interpret their experiences – what is and is not really privilege, oppression, offensive, normal, and significant enough is taken more seriously when described by the privileged group.

LGBT people know the feeling. People of color know it. Women know it. The physically challenged know it. The poor know it.

Taken to the extreme, though, these words also prevent progress in the healing of the various isms that separate us. They can divide us more, promote isolation, and keep us from being allies while they cement almost impenetrably the actual oppression in our minds.

They neglect what we do have in common as human beings – we’ll call it whatever we mean by our common humanity. And they render hopeless any attempts to understand another.

In its extreme this leaves us in the pickle that no one can understand anyone else. It means the oppressed can’t really understand the oppressor either and thus can’t knowingly talk about what oppressors think or feel.

It means there’s nothing to be said on either side – a straight man, for example, can’t understand a gay man, but the gay man can’t understand what’s going on with the straight man either. It means that since no two experiences even in our group are alike, we can’t even generalize our experience to anyone else in our category or speak for the category and know someone outside it can't understand.

It means that the claim itself - that someone in another category of humanity can’t understand me - is invalidated by the fact that the very criticism falsely claims to somehow understand that there’s a misunderstanding in what’s going on in the mind of the person not in one's category.

It’s a vicious, even absurd, circle of isolation encouraging a downward spiral for humanity. Yet, the idea has become widespread for a number of reasons.

Modern pop psychology has pushed the thought that each human being is unfathomably unique, even a “miracle.” It has proclaimed that no two human experiences are exactly alike to the neglect of any similarities. So no one else can “understand” me.

The discriminations and oppressions in our society have also caused a backlash to a dominant group claiming to speak for a non-dominant group. Rightly so, the members of non-dominant groups have often become fed up and interpret their identities as more basic than what we all might have in common.

Who can blame people who’ve continually been hurt by a society for acting out of their hurts? It takes a long time to heal enough from hurts around someone’s self-identity to allow oneself to focus on what humans have in common beyond those identities.

But if there’s going to be any chance for us to heal from the interwoven oppressions of a society that is full of division and hate, a culture based on fear, those of us in the struggle must think clearly about this issue. We must have some commitment to the idea that there is a common humanity that should enable all of us to be touched deeply by the realities of the struggles of those around us.

We recognize that there are those on all sides of oppressions that have been so abused and hurt that they aren’t in touch with their human nature and therefore unable to identify with it in others. At this point, it looks as if we have a U.S. President who is a glaring example of such a destructive, out-of-touch-with-his-humanity sociopathy.

Our task is not to think of “understanding” dualistically as if one either can or can’t understand someone who isn’t in a category we apply to ourselves. Such a dualistic idea arises out of unhealed hurt and pain because it provides a protection from being hurt further.

Healing our society means a commitment in the healer/activist to the idea that there are levels of understanding and depths of comprehension. Understanding is possible and achievable if we realize that even though we might never understand another fully, we can relate to and even identify with some of their struggles, feelings, hurt, pain, and victories.

This isn’t to downplay differences such as claiming when confronted by racism that we are “colorblind.” Unless one is optically impaired, we will always see innumerable differences in shades of human skin, but in so doing will we also see that, like ours, that surface is still very human skin?

And as someone who is light-enough to be called a White man, I will never know the full hurts of those who have lived for generations as targets of White racism. But I will be able to know a bit about how, as a fellow human being, that hurt can affect ones outlook on life, and become a barrier to being in touch with anyone’s whole and complete humanity.

To do the work we must do to make the culture a place of justice, love, and acceptance, requires the regular reminder of what it’s like to be a human being even in circumstances so much more challenging and destructive than we have ever experienced.

It calls us to do whatever internal journey work we must to make sure we ourselves are in touch with what we can call our common humanity. It means getting beneath our own hurts from the past, our own ignorance, and all else that prevents us from feeling with the lives of others who don’t look like us, act like us, love like us, live where we live, or have the privileges we have.

And it requires us to move beyond the idea that no one else can have any understanding of me and my life. That idea will isolate allies and kill our movements for equality, fairness, and acceptance.


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