Archive for June 11th, 2010

This is one of my cat's favorite spots.

He is a bit suspicious of the camera.

I didn’t mean to cut off my head in the second one, but balancing the camera on the arm of the other chair didn’t work out as well as I’d hoped. I also realized when I posted my feet the other day, I didn’t include a good picture of my tattoo. They’re runes, and each one has a name and meaning. It’s technically unfinished, as they’re supposed to have green vines forming the lines between them (and also wrapping around them), but it really hurt and I was ready to be done, so that will have to happen at a later time.

Clockwise, from top: Kenaz, Inspiration. Ansuz, Communication. Wunjo, Joy.

So today I’m going to talk a bit about dignity, decency, and treating other people as if they’re people, rather than things or animals. This is surprisingly difficult, considering the human imperative to group ourselves and maintain a constant “us vs. them” mentality. This is an evolutionary imperative, stemming from the time when we were still figuring out agriculture and how to herd animals. In general, those who stayed with their own tribe tended to be safer, healthier and less prone to disease. So it became natural behavior for us, to cling to what we perceive as “our tribe” and eschew all others. This is all fine and dandy when you’re living in a mud hut, but it doesn’t work so well when you are part of a global society, where anything you say online can be accessed not just by those people in your own country, but anyone with a computer and internet access anywhere in the entire world.

One of the most insidious forms of “us vs. them” behavior is gossiping. Gossiping is something that, I am ashamed to say, I participate in more often than I should. I do it a lot less now, but it’s part of my personality, for one because I’m somewhat insecure (everyone who gossips is) and for another because I spent the last nine years in the music and theater cliques in high school and college. Next to the “popular” crowd, they’re about the meanest and most gossipy people you’ve ever met. On any given day there can be a new target, an up and coming freshman who thinks she’s better than those of us who’ve been here forever, some director who made the mistake of casting a junior instead of the diva senior in the lead role of the opera, etc etc etc. And this behavior is so incredibly divisive that people who have grown up together, who’ve spent their lives being very good friends, can stop talking for years over which one got the plum role in the play.

Now, granted, all young people gossip, to a certain extent. And it’s not just girls, either, I’ve heard enough about “locker room talk” from my guy friends over the years to know that guys gossip too. Part of growing up and developing proper social behaviors includes gossiping. If you’re lucky, you get a few teachers/older students who call you on your crap and you learn that gossiping can be hurtful and wrong. If not, you eventually hurt someone you care about and get the lesson that way. Of course, some people ignore it and continue gossiping their entire lives, but we’ll talk more about them in a bit.

Gossiping isn’t the only way to marginalize people. Silencing a person or group you dislike/mistrust is another classic way. It can be as simple as interrupting everything they say so they can hardly get a word in edgewise, or as complex as effectively turning their serious words into jokes and/or being passive-aggressive to make them feel guilty for speaking up. For instance, when a guy says something he knows may be offensive, then says “but feminists, don’t kill me.” This is a way for him to shut them up, because then they have to defang their argument to make sure his feelings aren’t hurt. The fact that he implies that women who simply want to be treated equally are militant man-haters devalues a lot of what they might say, even if some of their ideals will benefit both sexes in the long run.

Every person who’s ever been shy has experienced the shushing, I’ll wager. Those of us who already have trouble speaking up in mixed groups (mostly around people we don’t know), more often than not end up being cut off by those who don’t know us and thus either don’t believe we have anything of value to say, or are simply unaware of us as an individual. This behavior is often very hurtful, because we can’t argue against it. Nine times out of ten the person cutting us off wasn’t even aware of their behavior, and if we call it to their attention they usually become defensive and tell us to “lighten up” or otherwise not act like we’ve been silenced in a hurtful way. We also often feel guilty for feeling resentful toward them, as they clearly didn’t intend to hurt us, and that creates a worse mix of bad feelings. However, if you keep speaking over someone who is interrupting you, then sometimes you get treated as the rude one, and shy people already being nervous about social interaction already, the idea of people getting mad at us for a faux pas is even more upsetting.

These are more subtle forms of exclusionary behavior, but there are many more out there. For instance, outright classism/racism/sexism. It exists, and everywhere. Many people who are privileged have no idea what they’re saying can be hurtful, but that isn’t really an excuse. In this day and age, where all of us must think of ourselves as global citizens, because we are (whether we like it or not), simply saying “well I wasn’t aware” isn’t good enough. If you say something racist and someone calls you on it, you don’t have a right to ask them to educate you, or to be offended that they caught you in an embarrassing act. The only response should be to apologize, and then go out and educate yourself. Don’t demand that they educate you, especially since they likely spend 90% of their time educating everyone and their brother, simply to get people to understand them. Don’t get defensive and try to say “it’s just how I was raised” or “I wasn’t trying to be mean”. It doesn’t matter if there was hurtful intent behind your words or not. Words can still hurt when said cheerfully and thoughtlessly, sometimes even more for that. If someone walked up to you, smiled and said “I ate a puppy for breakfast!” would you be more horrified at the act or at the fact that they seem so happy with themselves about it? One doesn’t negate the other, you can be horrified about both. But there would be an extra helping of horror at the fact that they treat this as an okay, everyday occurrence, rather than something that shouldn’t have ever happened in the first place.

The fact is, almost everyone has been marginalized at some point in their lives. The problem is that we have the ability to compartmentalize our experiences, and after having someone say something incredibly offensive about us, we can then turn around and say something incredibly offensive about someone else, without even realizing that we’ve just done to them what was done to us. Every so often, I have random strangers moo or oink at me in the street. This has happened on my college campus, in my hometown, and even when I took the trip to Germany. On the trip to Germany it was especially memorable because I was walking with some of the other girls on the trip, and they were horrified. They had never dealt with that behavior before, because none of them were fat. I shrugged it off because it had happened to me enough times that I was numb to it (which isn’t the same as being immune), and they were even more shocked when I mentioned it was a regular occurrence. But the next day, they spent ten minutes making fun of one of the guys on the trip. Despite the fact that these girls had seen first hand how awful it is to be treated as sub-human, they didn’t even stop to think about saying hurtful things about another person, even one they were acquainted with.

The hard and fast truth is this. We all deserve basic human dignity. Even us fatties. Even that guy in the corner who has ridiculous B.O. Even the homeless man raving on the street corner. Even that girl wearing clothes you might consider questionable. Even that mentally ill person who can’t quite manage to count their money in the supermarket line. Even the gays, and those of other races, and people from other countries who can’t speak English very well, or at all. There are no exceptions. Because if you try to divide us up, to say “these people deserve rights and dignity, those don’t”, inevitably someone else is going to come along and put you in that “other group”. Because everyone’s ideas about who deserves what are different. And it’s easier and more beneficial in the long run to just say “we’re all human and deserve to be treated as such” than try to figure out who the “them” is in the “us vs. them”.

Because we are all human. Even that weird guy in the corner.

Linkspam: These are various links pertaining to privilege and being treated like a human being. Feel free to read some or all of them, they are all very good and thought-provoking.

On Message – A post about how women absorb messages that they are not people from a very young age.

Another Post About Rape – About how women are taught to be passive so as not to anger their aggressors, then are blamed for not fighting back.

Shame Is Not a Health Care Strategy – About how bashing fat people isn’t helping them.

All Women Are Real – About how insulting the term “real woman” is.

Race, Gender and the Oppressive Public Gaze – Slightly dated, but still relevant, about dehumanizing people, especially by questioning their gender.

No, You Can’t Touch My Hair – About some of the horrendous entitlement white people feel about black people’s (especially women’s) bodies.

White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack – Seriously, if you haven’t already read this, then there’s something very wrong. This was written 20 years ago and is still sickeningly relevant.

The Male Privilege Checklist – An updated version of the above link, modified to specifically address male privilege.

Since When Is Being Criticized Like Having Your Limbs Blown Off By A Landmine? – About how men defuse feminist anger by playing the violence card.

Homosexuality is a Choice – About debunking the ridiculous theory in the title.


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