Friday, July 08, 2016

Being Nice to Bigots? Or, I'm almost fed up with this ...

I read another bigoted post on Facebook recently and I know that I should not take these things too seriously but ... well ... I do in the sense that I think they contribute to a culture of prejudice. At the least, they reinforce the views of those who are already prejudiced and this reminds me of friends and relatives of mine who have the same type of bigoted views. The question I have is: what to do about it? For a long time I ignored it ... well, that might be a bit of an exaggeration.  There were always posts that set me off to which I had to reply. And, I won't claim to be a long time aficionado of Facebook. But, in the time that I have been -- and, elsewhere in life -- I tended to ignore bigotry perhaps because it was upsetting or perhaps because I just thought it would go away. It didn't. And, this is one of the things that as I reflect on my job, my age, and what I used to think that confuses and upsets me. When I was the age of my students now, I used to assume -- as did many of my friends -- that bigotry was on the way out, in all its forms. Surely, we thought, even bigots recognize this and they are becoming a smaller and more vocal and idiotic-sounding group of racists whose only supporters were skinheads and KKK wannabes. To be clear, no one expected racism or sexism or homophobia to disappear right away but we had a sense that those of us who supported equality, who supported compassion, who supported kindness and progress were on the right side of history.

Current debates over refugees in Canada highlight the degree to which we judged incorrectly. I take a great deal of heart from the fact that overly bigoted people are a minority of the Canadian population. The vast majority of Canadians -- and the vast majority of people about whom I care and for whom I respect -- have risen to the challenge of helping people who need help; who recognize what it means to flee from ISIS or famine or militarized extremism in an unfortunately diverse range of forms.

But, I still can't shake the deep feelings of disquiet that haunt me when I read posts by people I know or even don't know who recycle sad clichés and try to pretend that they are not bigots all the while talking bigotry. The other day, for instance, I read a post reposted by a friend, a person who is a member of the same church I attend and who would self-identify as a Christian. This person frequently asks for prayer support and help because ... well ... she needs it owing to her current life circumstances. Fair enough. That is what she should do. I would do the same thing in her situation. But, she will also periodically posts bigoted and inaccurate statements, urging our support for prejudiced views. For instance, a couple of weeks ago she re-posted a complaint against Muslims not wearing motorcycle helmets while all good Canadians did. The post included a picture that showed supposed Muslims flaunting the law, riding what appeared to be ATVs, with long beards flowing. Her accompanying text complained that hard working Christians built this country and they were being treated as second class citizens (because these supposed Muslims could here be seen flaunting the law).

You know the story and you don't need my discourse analysis to highlight words like "hard working" attached to Christians but not others and the implications of that link. But, the image that was posted was all wrong. It showed Sikhs not Muslims at a parade, shriner-like. In other words, what looked like a service club having fun at a parade was politicized into an anti-immigrant statement. (I would, btw, strongly advise anyone to wear a helmet when driving a motorcycle).

This is just plain wrong. It is wrong because it is uncharitable; it is wrong because it is inaccurate; it is wrong because it asks us to think about groups of people and make judgements about them based on their heritage and not who they are as people.  It is wrong because it treats civic spirit as a crime and it is wrong because it distorts history and tells at best half truths ... .

Over the years, I've tried to approach these types of things in the way I have thought best: with reason and evidence. Years ago, I was chatting with another father on soccer pitch. He found out what I did for a living and began -- as people are often wont to do -- to tell me my job. He explained that when I taught about Canadian heritage I had to treat things in context (OK, yes), for instance, no one back in the day thought deporting Acadians was wrong and so we should not teach that it was wrong. I thought about this for a second and asked him "don't you think the Acadians thought this was wrong?"

My question was pointed but asked in an even voice and designed to highlight (a) that context is complicated; it is rarely a simple thing and depends on the perspectives of those who experienced that history (b) that he was violating his own rules by not taking account of context. I did not pause to call him a bigot or belittle his lack of knowledge of the Deportation. I tried to intimate that good relations between different communities could, in fact, be build on accuracy about history and that we should not excuse tragedy.

My question then, as often now, fell on deaf ears. Rather than continue the discussion, the other father walked away from me. And, I hate to say it, that is more often than not the response I get from people when I use the even keeled reason and evidence approach.

I get it. I am often not talking to the person to whom I am actually speaking but setting a model of reasoned engagement in public issues for others to follow and from which others can learn. But, I will also confess that I am getting tired of the barrage of racism and bigotry and if I am tired of it, how much more tired must be the people who actually experience this bigotry and racism?

What should we say to those people who do not want to help children fleeing sex slavery? Or, who don't want to see hospitals rebuilt because there might possibly be some sort of use to someone who does something wrong? Or, who feels that the reality of poverty in Canada means that Canadians should not help someone fleeing for their lives?

I ask these questions because they expose what I think was the fallacy of my old reasoning. I used to believe -- back in the day -- that reason would win out because the bigots and racists and sexists of the world simply did not understand the issue. At heart, I believed, they were good people who were misguided. Once they discovered that they had made a mistake, they would behave like I behave when I discovered that I made a mistake. They would correct it. They would be generous, support equality, not want to see innocent people hurt.

Was I wrong about that? I don't think so but the evidence is mounting. Every day I read posts from people -- including people who are Christian friends -- who ignore the tragedies of others' lives, who don't want to see Canada reach out to help and play a constructive role in world affairs, who ignore sexual slavery and torture as they complain about refugees who they treat as a bunch of slackers riding off the Canadian welfare state. They -- safe in their homes -- claim they are the aggrieved party -- the person to whom something wrong has been done -- and not the child about to die; not the man about be beheaded; not the woman about to be sold.

Perhaps, indeed, these people have grievances. Perhaps we should talk about their problems. But, we have that luxury. We can talk about their problems tomorrow. For the refugees that they stop at our borders ... the matter is somewhat more pressing. For the kid in Gaza who will die without medical treatment, the issue is someone more grave.

I don't agree with what she says but I almost  ... almost ... get why Rona Ambrose stands up in the House of Commons and distorts the truth. I'd urge her not to, if she cared about my views. I'd tell her that she could and should be a principled conservative who did not have to pretend that there were no implications to not providing medical aid in Gaza. I'd tell he that she did not have say that Israeli lives mattered but we can ignore Palestinians. She could play a leadership role in building a better and different type of conservatism in Canada and that she did not need to pander to the basest voices in our society. She could be better than this. I almost get it. She is trying to get votes and those votes don't come easy because she is selling a product, as it were and using a metaphor, that most Canadians don't want to buy. And, this is why she plays the politics of distortion.  I almost get it, even as I hope she'd be better and more responsible and more humane.

But, I don't get why others hold these views. What is so threatening about refugees who want to live? About women who want to be something other than abused? About religious minorities that want to practice their religion without fear of beheading?

What is most disturbing, of course, is the realization that there are people out there who simply do not care about others. Ambrose is playing a role for her own reasons, so we can leave her to one side, but what about those people who actually believe these things? When did they lose -- did they ever have? -- their sense of human decency, of kindness, or compassion? When did they start to argue that kindness and compassion were bad?

Racism is back and it is back with a vengeance. It has been broken free from the bounds of simple human decency to make the other not someone worth caring about. It is an ideological trajectory that runs, in my view, disturbingly close to fascism.

I have decided that I will be polite in most circumstances in response but I have also decided that people need to be "called" on their views. If a Christian friend of mine posts a bigoted statement I will say "this is not Christian". If a non-Christian friend or relative does the same thing, I will say "you are wrong" and in cases where people are being racist idiots ... I feel compelled to say "you are being a racist idiot." I am not at all certain that racists and bigots of all sorts should be let off the hook. I suspect, in fact, that bigots count on the reasonableness and proper behaviour of the rest of us. They assume that they will not be called on their points (or, if they are, they can dismiss us with their ready answer of "oh, you're a liberal" -- another thing that happened to me). If someone is making a stupid point ... should we be polite in response?

Likely yes and the model of those who suffer directly from bigotry but continue to make polite responses, continue to argue in reason, continue to try to animate the better nature of others, stands as a model. For me, however, every once in awhile, I think it is necessary to call things for what they are.
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