A Case for Humility by Roger Fisher

I want to take this opportunity to make the case for humility.  Not for the sake of the usual moralizing or righteousness of thought that many of us embrace. No. I raise this case as a invitation for all of us who consider ourselves as workers, practitioners, educators and scholars for social justice to reflect on how much humility is demonstrated in our organizing, coalition-building, education, research or writing.  My hope is that we do not allow our pursuit of Social Justice Education to result in Social Justice Elitism.

In an attempt not to be misunderstood or immediately dismissed let me assert what I am not suggesting.  I am not suggesting we dim the critical light of anti-oppressive consciousness or social justice advocacy.  I am not suggesting the coddling of individuals who display resistance to identifying their privilege or to the paternalism of protecting those who are in their emergent stages of identity development or are colluding with their own oppression.  I am not suggesting the self-regulating, self-silencing, or self-censoring of ourselves that disempowers us or diminishes the power or meaning of our life’s experiences. Nor am I suggesting any hesitation or moderation of the struggle against the institutions, systems, and social structures that perpetuate or give shelter to oppression or those that benefit from it.

This case for humility and caution against Social Justice Elitism is a call to remember the transformational nature of social justice education.  If our goal is to create socially just communities where we may all participate and share responsibility for ending the (unnecessary) human suffering caused by the abuse and misuse of social power by any other human then we must uphold the power of individual, institutional and societal transformation.  Can we remember any time in our lives where we needed the firm gentle guidance of someone to encourage our identity development, critical consciousness, social advocacy or allyhood?   Do remember as a new professional or social justice educator having a blind spot awkwardly exposed, or in a fit of righteous zeal reveal some remnant of unexamined privilege, or simply embarrass ourselves by not knowing the right term at the right time – being unaware of the latest decolonizing lexicon – or having not read the “latest must read piece” at a national gathering of colleagues?

If we are to be really effective as leaders of transformational social justice education or (my preference) education for social justice, we should remind ourselves of the unavoidable (no shortcuts!) journey we must uniquely, but commonly, travel.  We must honor the human potential to grow, develop, and self-enlighten.  We are challenged to be as committed to the process of change as we are to the result of change.  We should aspire to use whatever influence or authoritative power as educators we have to guide, promote, encourage, challenge, pursue and hold accountable…but not to shame, ridicule, embarrass, humiliate or punish.  Do our speech, actions, pedagogy and attitude create space for others to join the causes we care most for, or leave as a possibility that ours is not the only or definitive understanding of justice or how to achieve it, or to, simply, treat everyone with the human dignity, respect and compassion we seek for ourselves?

The simple act of humility in our practice can be a powerful tool against the core of “fear, ignorance, confusion and insecurity” at the center of the “Cycle of Socialization” (Harro, 1997) and in the promotion of the core of “self-love, self-esteem, balance, joy, support, security and spiritual base” at the center of “The Cycle of Liberation” (Harro, 2000).  In her own powerful case for vulnerability (The Power of Vulnerability, http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability.html)
and caution against the destructive effects of shame (Listening to Shame, http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_listening_to_shame.html ) Brené Brown describes the sort authentic, loving, and humble human interactions that can be transformational and affirming – “our ability to empathize, belong, love”.  Are the results of our practice routinely “self-love, self-esteem, balance, joy, support, security and spiritual base” or do we leave (or reinforce) participants feeling “fear, ignorance, confusion and insecurity” but we feel satisfied in having staked out the moral high ground and standing atop it?  Has our struggle for the civic inclusion of the powerless and oppressed resulted in our own form of ism where we embarrass, shame, humiliate, exclude or punish?  Have we allowed our intellectual prowess or pedagogical gifts to become a kind of privilege that we allow to go unconsidered, unchecked and unchallenged?

If you have read this far – thank you – and may I ask to read a little further?     This case for humility has fermented in my own uncomfortable reflections on the opportunities lost where I did not have patience with a colleague who “didn’t get it”, or the conversations that I participated in that left others awkwardly uninvited or uncomfortably implicated in our criticisms, or learning opportunities compromised by not sharing the vulnerability I saw in our students’ eyes.  I am challenged fundamentally by this case for humility because I believe in my good intentions, and nobility of my causes, and the righteousness of my anger and impatience and can rationalize my own form of resistance to the examination of my privilege of Social Justice Elitism.  But, I see now how my work tempered (in all senses of the word) by humility is more effective and reflect my aspirations for true social justice.  And, I do not want to offer this as yet one other standard upon which we will judge others “getting it”.  I humbly invite you to have own reflections on humility and making a case of your own design.

Bon voyage.

Roger Fisher currently serves as Associate Director of the Program on Intergroup Relations, at the University of Michigan. He teaches, provides administrative leadership, and manages k-12 outreach for this social justice education program. He has served in several capacities at the University of Michigan in roles including Associate Director of the office of Student Activities and Leadership and interim Director of The Office of Multi Ethnic Student Affairs. He can be reached at rogerf@umich.edu.

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