I want to talk about fear.
None of us is fearless. Fear is a great driver of human nature. Fear caused us to congregate in groups and tribes to ward off large predators. Fear moved us to harness fire, and to invent weapons and tools. It can cripple or it can motivate. Even when we lack a direct threat, we have evolved minds that can conjure new fears to propel us. We all feel it and we all use it. It seems fair to say, in that way, all people are equal. In fear, we are all the same.
Let me tell you about my fears. They are probably similar to a lot of other people's fears. My fears are what ifs and could be’s. I wrestle with potential future events and tragic outcomes. I worry about impending disasters that I can address or allay with careful planning. I fear for my children. I fear damage to my home. I have fears about running out of food, or water, or air. I fear disease and failing health. I fear the loss of the good things in my life.
Most of my fears have no teeth. Things are going along pretty well, and will likely continue along that trajectory. Nothing of any substance has happened to me to make me think otherwise.
I know that I am statistically very lucky. I had the good fortune of being born in one of the safer, and more stable countries in the world. By nearly all metrics there are not many better places I could live. I was fortunate to come into a loving family that supported and sheltered me. I also had the good fortune to be born male. That matters less here than in some other places, but it still counts as an advantage.
Here is where I will lose a lot of people who read this. You might be one of them. You will read that line above, the one about having been born male being an advantage and you will check out. You are a rational, thoughtful person, and you know that in this modern western society, the opportunities afforded women, given similar education and experience, are equal. You are a rational and thoughtful person, and you don’t harbour backward notions of sexism. Besides, you never thought of oppressing anyone. I’ll grant you that. You probably believe in a meritocracy. An equal and fair society where no one is held back, but no one is offered preferential treatment either. Not for race, gender, or orientation. Not for cultural background or personal beliefs. You believe in equality. You think that way because you are a rational and thoughtful person. You don’t let your fears control you.
Let me tell you a few others things I know about me. I'm white. Heterosexual. Tallish. Nothing about me draws particular attention. No unique marks or physical conditions. I wouldn't stand out in a crowd, at least not where I live. I am unlikely to be singled out, pointed at or talked about. All of this has had the cumulative effect of me never really being scared. I have been afforded that. I have been gifted that. Of course I feel fear like any other human, but all the circumstances of location and genetics that make me who I am have also moderated my fear. My fears are hypothetical. I have to construct them myself, a stitch at a time, creating draperies of anxieties that I can use to ward off possible unsavory futures. I have made it very easy for myself to believe that we are all equal in our fear, and that fear is something to be controlled and surmounted.
All people feel fear. In that, we are all the same. Our fears are equivalent. No one person's fears should be placed above any others. That wouldn’t be fair. right?
There are a lot of people who aren’t like me. There are people who, due to random throws of chance feel conspicuous. That fear is not the same as mine. It is not hypothetical. It is the very real and immediate fear of other people looking directly at them. It is a chronic fear. It doesn’t really matter that I, or you, have no intention of oppressing them. That isn’t how people feel fear. That isn’t how fear works. It is a level of fear that I can’t really imagine.
I am able to abstract my fear and examine it. I can safely put it aside as something to plan for and deal with another day. I will not be accosted in the street today. I will not have someone take notice of me and stare at a train stop today. I will not have someone make a hurtful remark in my direction when I go to get coffee today. I will not feel conspicuous. I will not have that fear burn away inside me, making me look for a safe place to simply be a person. Some people are not afforded that luxury. They feel fear built from experiences, not intangibles. Many small jabs, some unintended, but pervasive. Continuous. Regular. Normal. Their fear is, that the same injuries and terrors that happened today will happen tomorrow, and the next day, and the next. It is the sort of fear that I have no experience with, and never will.
I can only empathize. I can’t stop someone from feeling afraid. I can’t tell them that it will be okay, and have that be enough. I also don’t have to, in the name of fairness, contribute to it. I don’t have to be party to hurtful words or actions, and I don’t have to ignore them when they are casually uttered. I can be thoughtful, and rational, and logical, and maybe even try to be objective, but I can’t tell someone that the fear they are feeling is wrong. I can’t debate away their fear. I can’t pretend that we are all equal. In fear, we are not.
I damn well don’t have to be what they are afraid of, and you don’t have to be either.