“Taking Up Space”: Spiritual Capital and Human Dignity

It is now common in social justice communities  to insist that people of privilege avoid “taking up space” too much and that they learn to step aside to make room for the voices and presence of those with less privilege.
 
As a voluntary practice, this is a beautiful thing.
 
Stepping back and creating more speaking room for people who belong to groups that have traditionally been set aside or actively pushed to the margins is an opportunity for these people to experience their own power. Doing our part to make that happen is a very good thing.
 
We can call this a practice of investing spiritual capital if we want to.
 
In the classes I teach -where almost all of my students are people of color, working class white folks, military vets, immigrants, and international students- this practice is essential, and that is why I work to create a culture of inquiry, curiosity and questioning where most of the activities, discussions and projects are led by the students themselves (and for the most part clarifying questions from me).
 
In my experience, we lose nothing by humbling ourselves and allowing others to be right, wise, brilliant, expressive, and powerful. And if we go back to the “spiritual capital” metaphor, we might even be able to see how much more is GAINED when we step back and let others shine.
 
But, I don’t think it helps to be too dogmatic about this.
 
In some college environments and activist communities that practice what is called “intersectionality”, “social justice work”, “anti-racism” or “anti-oppression”, the practice I have just described has become highly formalized into a ranking system where individuals are partitioned into separate categories and given more or less power and opportunities to speak according to the level of oppression they can claim as their experience…. all without any meaningful discussion or norms around standards for the most effective and moral exercise of this newly acquired power and status.
 
This practice is called the “progressive stack”.
 
I have seen the progressive stack work well in more mature communities that have worked through their issues. And I have seen this practice abused by individuals and communities who hold extreme, irrational beliefs about the hearts and minds of those relegated to the bottom of what can fairly be called a kind of caste system. I have seen the practice used as a weapon to create spiritual poverty and to make people feel small, ashamed, frustrated and silenced.
 
There are consequences to that, including the loss of allies and the dampening of the enthusiasm that is necessary for any movement to succeed.
 
The dampening of spirit… the waning of spiritual capital.
 

With all the anger that’s out there now and the real and imagined fears that are experienced on all sides (some with guns), now is a good time to promote the most promising practices for exercising our voice and power in a way that mirrors the values of our movements and honors the human dignity of all.

No matter who we are and where we come from, holding power is a responsibility, not a cudgel.