On Infiltration of the Other

I had an entirely different post planned. But, as often happens in my life, something else overshadowed it. In this case, it was a discussion that took place on a friend’s Facebook page about this book, in which an evangelical Christian man decided to spend a year living publicly as a gay man in order to reexamine his beliefs about homosexuality. In this case, the friend asked if going undercover in a marginalized community in order to better understand that community was a good or bad thing.

Most people responded that they thought it was a great way to “walk in somebody else’s shoes.” Another mutual friend who is African-American brought up the earlier book Black Like Me as a similar positive example for the African-American community.

The general consensus seemed to be that even though Kurek lied about his orientation, which may have hurt some people in the gay community, the end result of him realizing that gays were not sinners outweighed that. And that the gay community eventually forgave him, so that seemed to make it OK. One person even noted that such an experiment was “a gift” to the marginalized community because now they could be heard and understood.

I noted that such “social experiments” may be productive for those communities (I cannot say for certain, as I am not a member of either), but when you have a community that already has issues with being treated as lab rats or test subjects, it becomes much more tricky. My attempts to point this out  were met with confusion, defensiveness, or outright attempts to explain to me why it was acceptable, regardless of what the Other might be.

Here’s the problem. People in chronic pain communities face constant disbelief from friends, family, and the entire health care system. For us, places where we can share our frustrations among each other and are not judged are a refuge from the constant barrage of being told it’s all in our head, it can’t be that bad, or that we are just drug addicts.

Some of us have been actual test subjects in real experiments. We have had to read IRB human subject testing statements and sign the accompanying consent forms. Being test subjects for an outsider to prove (or disprove) their theories is not a hypothetical for us. Nor does it necessarily end with hugs and forgiveness, a la Undercover Boss (a show I resolutely refuse to watch for precisely the reasons stated here).

There’s a great deal of very private things that get shared in the community. The notion of somebody else coming in, pretending to be a chronic pain patient, and hearing the sorts of things we would never tell our friends, families, or doctors, really is a betrayal. And at the end of the experiment, the infiltrator is not going to “reward” us by removing our pain (see above about Undercover Boss).

As a chronic pain patient, the very thought of somebody using me as a subject for their social experiment makes me furious. We are real people. We are not part of your experiment. We don’t need the benefit of your “gifts” (wow, patronizing much?). We are, as the title of this blog says, not your teachable moment.

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4 Responses to On Infiltration of the Other

  1. While it’s easy to say Kurek is going all Jane Goodall among the chimps, I do think he was making himself and straight Christians like him the social experiment rather than the gay people around him. And unlike Black Like Me where the author became obviously white again (although he did live with threats over the book for decades), Kurek is always going to live with suspicion over what he might have really done while posing as gay.

    That said, he also lied, and I’m sure people regretted confiding in him because they thought they shared their experience.

    Unfortunately, it’s likely the people who would most benefit from reading The Cross in the Closet are also the least likely to read it.

    BTW, I loved the one-star Amazon reviews. Particularly the one by the lesbian preacher who unpacked a whole lot of baggage Kurek never really worked through.

  2. thatwordgrrl says:

    Yes, precisely. Those who would have been likely to get the biggest benefit (the fundamentalist Christian community), are the ones most likely to view him as a traitor to the faith.

    I want to reiterate that I am not trying to speak for the validity of such an experiment within the gay community. As I do not self-identify as gay, it would be very presumptive of me to do so. Maybe it is a good thing, maybe not. Either way, that’s not my place to speak.

    My point was that such an experiment within a community that is already wary about being seen as test subjects will not go over well.

  3. Summer says:

    I wanted to leave an intelligent comment about the problems inherent in a member of one group attempting to enter another group to understand and explain it. And the controversy still surrounding Black Like Me, that instead of attempting to understand the African American community through first hand accounts and self-produced literature, a white man infiltrated and endangered the lives of this group in order to explain them to outsiders. But I’m in too much pain to marshal my thoughts or even think of the words I want to use.

    One benefit, if you can call it that, of being in pain is that it’s impossible to fake the details. If someone wants to join a chronic pain group out of curiosity or research, they wouldn’t be able to give day-to-day accounts of their life that mesh with the reality of chronic pain. In that way I don’t worry about being conned by an outsider. I’m so used to being simply ignored by society that it was a surprising thrill to get a positive mention in Obama’s inaugural speech.

  4. I hear (and agree with) what you’re saying about violation of trust. I also have issues with a member of a more-privileged group going undercover in a less-privileged group in order to tell the stories which belong to that less-privileged group. Maybe we could, you know, believe people when they talk about what it’s like being them, instead of needing someone with higher social status to say “Hey, turns out, they weren’t lying about their lives! Who knew! Here, let me tell you all about what it’s like being them.” Is it better to have one’s experience heard, at all, because someone who doesn’t actually share that experience is restating it? Or is that just reinforcing the norm of not listening to people who live that experience?

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