Earlier this week, blogger K.T. Bradford made waves online by posting her challenge to “stop reading white, straight, cis, male authors for a year.” Her point was to question what we might gain when we temporarily silence the voices that have the loudest platforms and are most easily accessible in our culture? The answer, it seems, is that we find a richness of expression, diverse experiences, and, ultimately, a stronger pool of literature. Her experiment and subsequent challenge to her audience went … about as well as you expect it would. White men of the internet predictably rose up in a collective cry of “Discrimination!” and “Reverse Sexism/Racism!”
There is a lot to unpack in this online controversy. The fact that notions such as reverse racism or reverse sexism do not actually exist, because the forces that feed into systemic oppression simply don’t work in the opposite direction. Or we might discuss how those of us who enjoy positions of privilege often enjoy a blissful ignorance when it comes to how those less privileged around us experience oppression in ways we will never comprehend. But these are complicated issues to discuss another day.
Instead, lets talk about Lent. It is effectively taken for granted these days that one observes the holy season of Lent by “giving up” something for the six weeks between Ash Wednesday and Easter. Why do we give something up–whether that’s chocolate, or alcohol, or sugar, or screen time? As I discussed last week, part of this practice of fasting is not because these items are “bad” in and of themselves. But a period of abstaining from something that has perhaps become excessive in our lives is a powerful way of cultivating mindfulness of how present that excessive consumption has become. Cutting out even 30 minutes or an hour with mobile can make us realize how much time we actually do spent staring at our screens–a reality of which we may have been previously unaware. Giving up meat for this brief period can be a pretty striking way of thinking “oh, wow…I didn’t realize I was so dependent on meat in my diet. I guess I need to go out of the way to eat more veggies on a regular basis.” To put this conversation in a more fittingly spiritual perspective — a period of fasting and abstinence makes us aware of spaces where we have been crowding out God’s presence. Food and drink and casual entertainments are again not bad things in themselves. But they can become potential vices when they make us so comfortable in ourselves that we do not even realize how much space they are taking up and how little room we have made for God.
In that sense, I feel there is something very “Lenten” about the challenge K.T. Bradford proposes. Contrary to befuddled MRAs (Men’s Rights Activists) online, no one is saying we should no longer read straight, cis-gendered, white men anymore. I am not giving up my Neil Gaiman or my Terry Pratchett any time soon. I think what she IS getting at is challenging us to consider how disproportionately predominant those voices are in what gets published most often. To become aware of how often we gravitate towards voices that sound most like our own. It may sound like a drastic thing to cut out the most privileged voices, even if only temporarily. Sometimes, however, it is necessary to silence the loudest voices so that others may be heard. Sometimes, we have to say #BlackLivesMatter, because #AllLivesMatter ignores the particular trials endured by the Black community.
In comparing Bradford’s “challenge” to a Lenten discipline, it might seem that I am falling into the trap of secularizing the season of Lent as so many are prone to do — treating it as a season of “self-improvements” or opportunities for diets. That is not my intention. I dare say there is a deep spiritual imperative in what Bradford’s post suggests. We are, as people of faith, called to seek out and lift up the marginalized and affirm those less powerful in our society. When we see the degree to which certain voices still enjoy a broad platform we have a sacred responsibility to seek out those who do not. We have a calling to listen humbly to those whose experience might differ from our own.
There is a power in silence. It is the power to give others a chance to speak, and an opportunity for us to listen and to learn from them. It can be hard for those of us who enjoy certain forms of privilege (even just the privilege to have access to the internet to read this post) to realize that we may have to be silent in order to hear others speak. No doubt it is hard for the straight white dudes of the internet to cope with no longer being the default empowered voices. But it is the way to true equality and for a world that more fully reflects the values of God’s Kingdom.