|Bruce Denis, Flickr|
Have you ever sat to ponder what your opinion might be on controversial issues? When I was an undergrad, I took a Philosophy course that forced me into that kind of reflection. The title was Contemporary Moral Issues. As the title suggests, this course explored some "hot topics" through philosophical lenses: we studied abortion, euthanasia, death penalty and pornography, among other things. From what I see, over the years the syllabus has also included topics such as censorship, affirmative action, civil disobedience, genetic engineering, embryonic stem cell research, and animal rights.
Do you have a clear and informed opinion on those topics?
At 20 years of age, I didn't. To a young adult, this course was an eye-opener. For example, up to then I thought there was nothing wrong with pornography. This was mostly because 1) I hadn't been exposed to certain kinds of pornography, and could not imagine they even existed; 2) I had not realized the whole implications pornography can have in "real life". In short, I was still pretty innocent on the matters (or maybe I was just not very "deviant").
What that course mostly taught me is that such issues are complex to say the least, and not easily resolved, not even when subjected to a thorough philosophical approach. I had been pretty opinionated up to then, but there I learned critical and nuanced thinking, and to explore all sides of a situation before making up my mind.
There is one thing, however, that I still believe cannot be questioned, and that is the universality of human rights.
|By ervega, Flickr|
Call me naive, but I truly and profoundly believe all human beings are born equal, and deserve the same treatment. Life is unfair as it is, do we really need to add to it by being disrespectful and downright mean to each other?
For as long as I can remember I've always been a prejudice fighter. In High School, for example, a friend whose family came from Haiti and I created what we called the "anti-racism brigade".
I'm not sure what brought about that open attitude toward difference, probably a mixture of innate dispositions and environmental exposition (i.e. an open-minded family), but I've never, never understood all the hatred that originates from cultural diversity and other societal differences.
With time, and thanks to my philosophy, sociology and psychology classes and readings, I have come to understand what prejudice and hatred originate from. Briefly: difference confronts us to our own ambivalence, uncertainties, and our need for a clear structure composed of mutually exclusive categories; in that sense, difference is hard to tolerate because of our mind's rigidity. At a deeper level, difference confronts us to our own flaws, weaknesses and fears. Finally: difference confronts us to our fear of dying.
For more on that last concept, please see Flight from Death: the Quest for Immortality, an EXCELLENT documentary. I have had the privilege to discuss with one of the researchers interviewed in this documentary, Dr. Jeff Greenberg, from the University of Arizona (the guy with the yellow shirt and MAD hat in the video), and his insight on the topic is quite fascinating (see excerpt below).
What's for sure is that your reaction to difference says everything about YOU.
Despite my understanding of the underlying explanation to intolerance, it still baffles me that otherwise intelligent people would fall prey to such feelings of prejudice and hatred toward other human beings, and let those feelings permeate their words and actions.
My own, personal experience of difference
As a kid, I lived in Western Africa (Senegal), and I experienced first hand what happens when different ethnicities/cultures cohabit (especially when one of those groups is privileged, the other not so much - if you want to know more about this I invite you to read about colonialism and post-colonialism). Even in the - apparent - absence of a major cultural difference, some situations can be a challenge to navigate smoothly. I remember an awkward moment, when my parents were discussing with a Senegalese friend who had studied in England (nothing less than Oxford) before coming back to his home country; he was also my English tutor. Inquiring about how his wife was doing, my parents got the following answer "Oh, she is not feeling too good these days; I'm about to take a second wife, and she's not happy about that".
How would you have reacted? From what I remember there must have been a brief, uncomfortable silence, then a change of topic.
Would you be able to build a friendship with someone who's way of life is so different from yours? How? (think of dinner invitations) Why?
I have also experienced what it feels like to be a minority. First, in Senegal. I cannot say I was discriminated against, and one might argue that I was on the side that's historically been the instigator of discrimination - not its victim. In any case, whenever we visited remote villages (where my mom volunteered), not only were we the ethnic minority, sometimes we were also among the very few blonde people the village children had ever met. I remember them exclaiming "toubab!" (means white person) and running up to us to touch our head! I wanted to befriend those kids. But they seemed to only notice (and be interested in) the color of my skin and hair. If I felt uneasy, how bad must it feel for those who belong to the group who's actually discriminated against?
Have you ever felt like that? How can you relate to someone who only sees the superficial aspect of who you are?
|I might have been a minority here too. Where's Waldo?|
Beijing, China, 2010.
|Those new acquaintances wanted to have their picture taken |
with me specifically because I was Caucasian (and blonde).
Great Wall of China, 2010.
My second experience as a minority member was a linguistic one. When we left our French province of Quebec and moved to Nova Scotia, I was pleasantly surprised by the omnipresence of francophiles (French lovers). Used to the linguistic tensions in Quebec, I was happy to see that there didn't seem to be much hostility between Francophones and Anglophones in my new province (I later learned this harmony is rather recent). What's more, most schools here have an extensive French immersion program. A lot of people are convinced of the value of bilingualism.
There is, however, an acquaintance who seems to have a problem with the fact that we're a French family living in an English environment. His comments are not negative, and he's always behaved very nicely to us. He does, however, mention the fact that we are French every single time we talk with him. Every. Single. Time. It's obvious that he views us as French people long before he views us as people, period. I used to minimize this, until I imagined what it would sound like if, instead of being French (a conquered people in a sea of English), we were members of another minority. Here's what his comments would be like: "Haha! That's because you guys are black!" or "Oh, but of course, I should have known, aren't all Jewish people like that?"
Hmmm... doesn't sound too good to me!!! What do you think?
But where does this reaction to difference originate from? Is it innate? To help answer that question, let's watch children's reactions to the interracial Cheerios commercial everyone is talking (or upset) about. Now that's what I call refreshing:
This other reaction is pretty good as well. With some discourse on the nutritional value of breakfast cereal as a bonus:
And now the pride topic you've been awaiting
This week, in Halifax, as in many other cities this summer, a Pride Festival is taking place. There will be activities of all sorts, including (heard on the radio) a "glow in the dark bingo with drag queens and all", and of course a parade. I know this will bother some people, for all kinds of reasons. People who can live with the existence of homosexuality and gender ambiguity as long as they don't see it... which pretty much means they cannot live with it, period.
People who claim they have nothing against gay people... "as long as they don't shove it in my face" (don't heterosexuals display their way of life all the time?!?), adding "but I don't get why they have to be so flamboyant about it". (Personally, I think anybody who's had to hide who s/he really is for years, in fear of discrimination and violence, is entitled to be flamboyant about it once s/he's come out of the closet! And those who don't like it can always look elsewhere!)
Think you're open minded? Take a look at the following video and tell me what you think!
Your little homework of the week
I'm not saying our reactions toward difference are abnormal, and I've certainly had some too, but I am questioning their origins, and the way we verbalize them and act on them. Today I would like to ask you something.
First, could you take a couple minutes and reflect on your gut reactions (whether it's toward other ethnic/cultural/religious groups or toward the LGBT - Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender - community), and think about where those reactions of yours come from? Do you feel perplexed? Uncomfortable? Judgemental? Superior? Threatened? Angry? Scared? Disgusted? Why? Be honest and try to come up with sincere answers for yourself.
Second, could you take a couple minutes to imagine what it would be like if you had been born a different skin color/cultural group/religion... especially one that has been discriminated against? How would you feel about the discrimination discourse and actions - open or insidious - that still abound, if you were the target of it, based on your birth?
Third, could you take a couple minutes to imagine what it would be like to suddenly realize you are not comfortable - not at all - living in the gender identity you are supposed to live in, and/or, to suddenly realize you are really, really attracted (physically and/or romantically) to someone of the same sex? How do you think it would feel if it happened to you? If those feelings were extremely strong and compelling and overwhelming? If it hasn't happened to you, what do you think allows you to judge the people who have to deal with it?
As the saying goes: "Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes". (And if said man is a drag queen in heels, I bet you won't even last a mile!)
I long to overcome ethnocentrism: your ethnic/cultural group is not the only one, and it's not the best one either. While we're at it, let's also tackle "sexocentrism": your sexuality/gender is not the only one, and it's not the best one either.
No one is expecting us to understand what we don't know. But we can at least try and RESPECT.
With a little bit of humility, compassion and love, we will get this done!
So, what is your take on this topic?