Distinguish the Part from the Whole, and drawing a line

Social media is all about the most impact in the least words, but that often sacrifices accuracy for impact. But as frustrating as that is, we can’t simply blame those editing the headlines, We do it in our heads all the time. What is prejudice, after all, but pre- judging a whole group by the small sample from it that you have already seen?

Think about groups you are in and the people in them that you wish weren’t. Are they, and their bad behavior the ones who seem to get the most attention? What do you do about it? If you’re like most people, you try to ignore them. Isn’t that what your parents and teachers taught you to do? If you ignore them, they’ll stop. (really, does that EVER work?) What they’ve done is reduced the total amount of noise and nastiness they have to deal with by silencing the reasonable, the kind, the cooperative folks. The ones who have learned that they get their own way by being nasty, uncooperative, and unreasonable, just get louder and nastier because they know that people will give in to get some peace.

Sadly, each concession is on top of previous ones, so, in the case of the bratty kid they all started out as, it moves from “I want a treat now” to “I want treats all the time”, and from “if they get a treat (for their good behavior), I want one because it’s not fair that they have one and I haven’t!” While you can indeed repeat that the other kid earned theirs, screaming about fairness and acting like a victim usually gets audiences who know none of the background on their side, and their caretakers gave in because being judged (misguidedly) as unfair or mean made them uncomfortable. If you are a caretaker of a child embrace the confidence that you are doing well by the one who has not yet learned to keep the social contract. If you are watching someone else, give them the benefit of the doubt (when there is no actual danger involved). Cumulative concessions move the line to where you don’t want it. Letting the line creep sets you up to be accustomed to accepting things we don’t find acceptable when we look at what is important to us. Keep an eye on where YOU draw your lines.

We need to be careful to not judge whole groups by the “squeeky wheels”. The Westborough Baptist Church and other such extreme groups don’t speak for all Christians. Just because Heathens use runes doesn’t make them Neo-Nazis. Even all Germans weren’t Nazis, they were simply afraid once they had allowed the system to get too much power (learn from their lesson). Not all those from the Middle East are terrorists. Not all Hispanics are illegal immigrants. Few on welfare want to be on it, most would rather work, and most get off. Not all computer nerds are hackers…. the list could go on, but I’m sure you get the point. Don’t judge a whole group by the ones who are in the spotlight. As they say about news, news is the unusual happening, not the normal stuff.

But when you decide where to draw the line- hold it there. As the Germans found out, as the Church found out when it started to support those looking for heretics and ended up with the witch hysteria, you can’t give power to those who you don’t want to have it. If you don’t stop the boys from saying that they can’t help grabbing a girl if they think she’s pretty, you are going to end up with rape. You have to call out the people who are verbally abusing strangers over their religion, their race, their looks or some imagined defect, before it progresses to physical abuse. Somewhere some people get to feel better about themselves by putting other people down, and you have to stop it. I’m not saying that the verbal abuse is not harmful, because it is. The people who insult others were taught by someone what a powerful weapon that was, and that’s why they are using it to get power for themselves. Insults hurt, they damage, and can create a cycle of harm. Step in whenever you can and stop it.

As kids, most of us are taught to avoid conflict. Our parents probably cautioned us to not challenge our older relatives on bigotry they were raised with. Arguing with them wasn’t going to change their minds, so why create a fuss? But people DO change their minds when talked to respectfully, and encouraged to question why they do some things they have been doing since they were children. Admittedly, a teenage self righteously challenging Uncle Joe or Granpa is more likely to set them up to be offended about how kids are not brought up well these days than to question their own early upbringing. But the pre-holiday dinner parental caution might be to suggest the possibility of real communication if done quietly, slowly, privately, and reasonably, rather than as a public challenge over mashed potatoes, so too those closer to the pater familia or matriarch in power to step in when elders behavior is so unconscionable that it would be challenged by anyone else. At very least, it can be good behavior modeling for how to calmly say “that’s not acceptable in this house”.

We MUST argue with people who use the language of hate in front of us, even when they are friends or relatives.  If they are friends or loved ones, the chances are that they aren’t bad people, they may simply have been raised to think of things in a way that they wouldn’t if they thought about it. As a child I absorbed from my parents that anyone who kept goats was “white trash”. When I decided goats was something I wanted in my life, I had to recognize that in my upbringing and say “That’s stupid!”.  My grandmother was raised in Tennessee at the turn of the last century; she referred to African Americans as “coloreds” (or “negros” if she respected them, like Doctor King.) But if I suggested that they were the same as us, she assured me that I’d never lived with them, as she had (I didn’t even ever see a black person until we went down to meet our southern relatives), and she knew that they weren’t as bright or as motivated as white boys. Once I hit my teens I recognized this for the prejudice it was, and I think had she not also accepted the safety of cigarettes from the same misguided culture, she would have lived to have recognized that she’d been taught wrong. You don’t question anything that doesn’t come up. If no one challenges you when you talk about Jews or Injuns or PRs, or ‘towel heads’, you are going to assume that everyone around agrees with you. Kids learn that language from other kids, who learned it from adults. They admire the self assurance and confidence of the older kids, and imitate them, in order to be admired.They make suggestive comments about girls, and disparaging comments about whoever is their local target. “Everyone” says it, so they figure it must be true.

I had a friend once who taught me an extreme version of this. Fitz spend a lot of time on the internet and shared many outrageous stories. He was very knowledgeable, and not a bad person, but he had a tendency to ‘improve’ stories, and seemed to have a fondness for conspiracy theories. The path of least resistance when speaking to a conspiracy theorist is to let them go on and on, say “uh, huh” and “isn’t that interesting” periodically, and ignore the apparent evidence that your otherwise intelligent friend seems to have fallen for this foolishness. If you try to talk them out of it, they take that as proof that whoever the ‘evil empire’ is, has subverted your information stream. But gradually I started hearing from third sources that I was a proponent, and apparently what was going on was Fitz was telling people that I believed this crapola. I came to the conclusion that if I didn’t tell Fitz “No, that’s BS.” “That’s ridiculous.” “I don’t believe that for a minute.” he would assume that silence indicated assent, and thus agreement. So he’d tell other people that I believed it.  I believe in enough ridiculous things all on my own, I didn’t need to add his on top of it, so I learned the value of challenge.

And that’s what we have to do. Any time someone suggests that women are not as able as men, that handicapped people are slackers, that fill-in-the-blank race is untrustworthy or lazy, that members of a different religion are an affront to God and all right-thinking-people,… you have to say no. Say it calmly, say it clearly, and don’t for a minute let them think that the other people listening would support them. Depending on the situation, they may or may not. (You may want to use some judgement, depending on the audience.) But in a random store, restaurant, street, or subway, the average person is good, not particularly bigoted, and also probably doesn’t want to get drawn into defending the victim. They may be protecting their income, or kids, or may be afraid that the jerks will turn on them. That’s their issue to deal with. Or they may be just as happy to support you when you support the victim. They may have been one themselves once, and wish someone had stood up for them.The one making the remarks may only be making them because he’s miserable about something else in his life, and wants to prove to himself that at least he’s not at the bottom of the pecking order. He may be (privately) thrilled to have his suspicion that the people who taught him to hate were wrong, but he’s going to accept it since acceptance of it proves that “everyone feels that way”. If he threatens you, that means he knows he has nothing to back up his hate. Give him an out, so he can walk away with some vestige of his dignity intact, because his worldview has just been called into question, and that’s hard on one’s self esteem. You reassure the intended victim, and remind yourself you’ve done a good thing. You know what’s right, and you did it. Maybe you aren’t satisfied with how you handled it, but you can do better next time. This time you showed how many people are around that hate speech isn’t acceptable, and whether they seemed to be involved, you changed their world too. You showed them what is possible. Go you.