Monday, November 25, 2019

The Innocents and the Bigots

Recent experiences in social media have led me to the conclusion that we tend toward a very narrow window in assessing each other’s intentions, treating all communication as black and white, good guys and bad guys. We all have our blind spots, and/or are emotionally damaged. In fact, emotional damage has a profound effect on how we perceive the world, other people, other belief systems, and how we see ourselves. Inflicting more damage, even if unintentionally, does nothing to improve matters.

My interactions with diverse individuals and social categories of our population reveals that unless I am a clone of that particular person or an individual within that category, I probably have no place commenting on their circumstance or struggles. Attempting to embrace and validate their experience becomes an exercise in futility or worse if I take the conversation public. I then have no control over the input of others.

One of the unfortunate consequences of having a social network that spans the socio-economic-political-religious spectrum is that you are going to be called out as a bigot if you “protect” anyone else perceived as a bigot by those with differing experiences and views. The assumption is that everyone is already cemented in their views and not open to any additional information. We assume they know full well they are misogynistic, racist, homophobic, transphobic, God-denying haters, and not that they are simply uninformed or uneducated. They must be professional trolls.

There is a difference between an annihilist who desires to obliterate everything and everyone “different,” and someone who is simply comfortable with their own identity but uncomfortable with the new normal or having difficulty comprehending the territory. There is no way we can possibly put ourselves into the minds and bodies of others if we are not ourselves Black, homosexual, transgendered, or otherwise a “minority.”

It is my belief that there are many innocent people being labelled as bigots simply because they lack full understanding of the issues at hand. If you do not know where the mines are, you are eventually going to step on one. If you do not recognize the triggers, you will pull one at some point. When someone talks about “dog whistles” to the bigot camp, it may be that you do not hear yourself blowing one. The wrong intent is assumed. Groups that are trying to assert their long-suppressed rights, who are understandably angry at being marginalized and abused, if not murdered, begin to interpret every attempt at understanding, or every question pertaining to the historical “norm” as somehow a threat to be met with hostility, assigned to the domain of true bigots.

Me? I am the product of an overprotective mother, and an angry father on alternate weekends. It has taken me decades to undo the damage and I am still not a finished product. The truth is that we have no idea what anyone’s personal history is, what horrific experiences or sheltered lifestyles have shaped their views. It is impossible to know this unless they fully disclose personal information that they may feel leaves them vulnerable to ridicule and persecution themselves.

This blog is where I often articulate publicly the struggles I am having privately, in my own head, striving to be a more understanding, humble, and loving human being. Others choose to do that through social media where they make posts, or comment on the posts of others. Increasingly this is asking for abuse rather than clarification, understanding and patience. Boom! You are an instant a$$hole if you use the wrong words or admit your current frustrations or misunderstandings. Zero leeway, no empathy, nothing positive.

God forbid that you defend the wrong person, too. You are then a bigot for defending a bigot, guilt by association. Whatever happened to assuming the best about people, or at least having an open mind? Your experience with a person may be drastically different than mine. I am likely to keep both of you as friends until it is demonstrated by repeated behavior that you are not worthy of my emotional and intellectual investment. I can decide for myself who to keep in my circle, and I reserve the right to recall people I have kicked out, if they agree I am worth having back in theirs.

Perhaps that is our common ground, then, that we are all flawed; and all too eager to turn others into villains to advance our cause, make ourselves feel better, morally superior, and justified in our values and beliefs. That is a terrible way to receive validation, at someone else’s expense. We can do better. We can start by admitting we are incomplete, utter amateurs in the interpretation of the experiences of others. We can listen more, not reserve judgment but abandon it completely for tolerance, if not acceptance.

Can we hate bigotry without categorizing any one individual based on one conversation or comment thread? The scientific method demands reproducible results. We might apply that to our relationships. One bad event? Maybe the benefit of the doubt is in order. Repeated instances that reflect bad character? Now you have cause to re-evaluate the relationship. Each of us has a different threshold, and a single violent action should immediately end further interaction, but there is a fine line between cautious optimism and giving up on someone as a lost cause.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Surviving Holiday Dread

Early this morning we turned our clocks back for reasons that no longer seem applicable, but many of us are about to return to behaviors and states of mind that no longer serve us so that we can survive the season of politics and holidays. How else are we supposed to cope with expectations of civility that are seldom fulfilled? Not everyone has the luxury of escape from familial responsibilities and work obligations, and we really should execute our duty of voting....but can we endure without permanent brain damage?

© Purestock Getty Images via

The weather is against us, too, a physical cold that amplifies our emotional distress, and adds to the difficulties of negotiating the season in terms of travel and personal safety. We bundle up and take precautions driving, but traffic jams, crowded airports, and delayed flights make the horse-drawn carriages of yesteryear seem like a downright viable alternative if not romantic and nostalgic. We have put our extended families and in-laws at more than arm's length for a reason, and now this is the price we pay for the one or two times each year we choose to acknowledge them in person.

Congratulations to you if you have a truly loving and supportive family, a dream job, are comfortably affluent, with no addictions, and are in perfect physical and mental health. Most of us are not so fortunate, and while we have no animosity towards those doing better, we wish that you had a better understanding of our realities. We wish you had more empathy.

Were it up to me, we might be holding elections in the summer, by mail, so that politics were not so near the top of our thoughts, fueling dinner table diatribes during Thanksgiving and Christmas. Alas, they are this Tuesday, and if we must get ourselves to a polling place we have to figure out how to do so between the hours of our employment, the kids' scholastic programs, and a myriad of other chores and errands. The physical process of voting is daunting, and we haven't had time to research the issues and candidates. All of this adds to the guilt we already feel about failing in our civic engagement, and reminds us of grandpa who is stuck in a reactionary mindset that has no room for a changing social landscape. Surely you will come to blows the next time you see each other.

Depending on the outcome of the elections, we are either seeing a glimmer of hope, or plunging further into despair as the holidays fast approach. What a perfect storm, eh? Speaking of which, there is probably a Nor'easter on the way, just for good measure. Now we are reaching for another cocktail, another cigarette, or both, or something worse. We are no longer looking forward to the "vacation" to see the family, and are quite possibly fantasizing about alternative plans for Vegas or the Caribbean, minus any relatives at all, including our spouse and children. This is normal, if not unfortunate. Fantasies of fleeing are fine and healthy, it is carrying them out that is damaging. Know the difference.

What you may need to do is make a preemptive strike against depression and anxiety via a twelve-step group, a psychologist, or a supportive group in your church. Daily life is not kind to societal outcasts, and this time of year is harder still. Christians in particular would do well to remember that and at least ease off the rhetoric a bit. Compassion has to come without the strings of conversion attached to it. Seek first to understand, strive to accept rather than tolerate.

We will still likely have to deal with people who push our buttons, though, so what do we do? Avoidance is underrated if it means removing yourself from toxic situations and toxic people. You should have zero tolerance for physical, emotional, or financial abuse. Get away, stay away, or insist that your family share meals and time with another family, or at a public gathering. The "neutral field" approach can be highly effective at disarming what would otherwise be a volatile circumstance. We are all on our best behavior among people we feel we need to impress, or uphold an already high opinion they have for us.

Separate your personal objections to religion and politics from friends and family who might hold opposing positions. Good people are well worth your time, love, and investment, and good people come from all segments of the socio-economic-religious-political-ethnic spectra. Cultivating empathy should be the primary goal in our relationships with others. Listening is always good. Keeping your opinions to yourself sometimes helps, but do politely articulate your own perspectives if you need reminding of your own self-worth. I am a firm believer in the idea that stating your values, your truths, out loud, does wonders for self-esteem and long as you are being honest, and keep an open yet critical mind.

Ask others to be honest in their assessment of the origins of their stance on any given hot topic. It is obviously personal to them, so why is that? Assure them there is no shame in being forthright, and defend them from ridicule if that is the unfortunate turn a discussion takes. You can disagree without bullying.

Good luck to you in the coming months. We wish you peace and prosperity, sincerely, and relief from whatever burdens you carry. Please share your skills, tips, and tricks for making it through the holidays with minimal pain. We are all ears.