Productive Discomfort

A blog reflection by Joe Levin-Manning, Graduate Coordinator for LGBTQ Programs

One thing I think we need to see and hear more of is people feeling uncomfortable. While there is a time and a place for the principle of “safe space” it has now become somewhat of a crutch to not have to face challenging issues. I will acknowledge that my introduction to this idea was through this concept of Brave Space (that is hyperlinked, so please check the article out). Last year’s theme for Critical Social Justice introduced this topic to the UMBC community and offered a social justice lens and I hope to take this a little further and throw a little Jewish spin on it as well.

In Judaism we have these things called Torah, Mishnah, and Talmud. Everything talked about in these three books is not always cut and dry. One of the things the Talmud specifically is known for is the debate that occurs between the different rabbis. Even several thousand years ago the rabbis knew that in order to grow you must be challenged. I remember talking with a colleague about studying texts and they said they missed the buzz of a Beit Midrash, a room where people study and struggle with text. Then, I wondered why have we become so content with making everyone pacified, instead of asking someone to acknowledge their bigotry and evolve.

We have begun to fall into a trap of believing that all spaces must be safe spaces. This is a very dangerous trap. This misuse of safe space weakens the understanding of where the need for a safe space came from. If left unchecked more and more people will feel ostracized and shamed any time they learn they offended someone. There is a similar issue with the idea of political correctness. It is a faulty attempt at trying to make people feel better by creating “appropriate language” to put people into boxes and not feel guilty about it. The problem here is that we are trying to equate someone’s identity with boxes and the tension that ensues is electric.

In Judaism we have this principle called lashon hara (evil tongue). What this basically means is that we are not to speak ill of another person. This principle does not differentiate rumors from the truth, you are to never speak ill of another person. At first this may seem as if we have to ignore the faults that others have. I disagree. I believe is actually charging us all to do our part in being investing in bettering our community by trying to strengthen all the members of it. By talking about someone behind their back we prevent them from having the opportunity to learn. No, not everyone wants to learn or better themselves, but some do. You might be surprised by the fact that some people have good intentions and just did not know how to express themselves. Do not let them become Elphaba, someone who unintentionally caused harm by attempting to do good. Someone who almost completely lost faith in acts of loving kindness.

The goal of most educational institutions is to produce graduates that will become productive members of society. In ancient Greek and Roman societies, being a productive member of society meant that you were involved in the public discourse. (I do acknowledge that these debates/political processes did prohibit certain groups from participating, namely women and slaves.) However there was such an emphasis placed on being a part of your community that there were consequences for something like not voting.

While I am not advocating for whipping those who chose not to exercise their right to vote, what I am saying is that we need to engage more in public discourse. Challenging systems that are not fair to others. Being okay with being uncomfortable because that is how we learn. Something the most important question to ask is not “how did this happen?”, it is “why did this happen?” Once we understand why, we can begin to challenge it and fix it.

To bring this topic home let’s look at Baltimore. Now more than ever we need to revel in our discomfort and tackle these issues in our community. In order to affect change we have to take this discomfort we feel and create an opportunity for productivity. This practice will allow us to rebuild our community from the inside, to tackle the discrimination and oppression that exists in our community. The theme for Critical Social Justice this year, Baltimore 365, aims to do just that. We hope that by bringing in people that are doing this valuable work year round we can keep this conversation elevated in all our lives and keep you inspired you for action. 

Adapted from: Musings by Joe


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