Friday, February 29, 2008

crise de conscience

Here's the problem.

I get quite a lot of silly and fun correnspondence from various friends around the world, and a few send me lots of jokes via email. Now, I have as bawdy a sense of humour as anyone and appreciate that it's often the things that have a poignant ring of truth to them, or the things that sharply remind us of life's more bitter-sweet side that can trigger helpless laughter. I'd hate to start trying to define exactly which jokes I do not like to see, which ones I find funny even though the sentiments expressed might not exactly coincide with my opinions and values, and then which ones I just adore...

However, it often does put me in a bind. The jokes that really bother me are the ones that are a definite racial or ethnic slur, or the ones that are truly vicious. Terribly hard to define, as I already said. So, how do I deal with them, if I can't even express what it is about them that bothers me so?

A few articles in today's paper illustrate my point.

In the article, "Lessons to be learned from Obamamania", Royson James writes about some challenges to the GTA's multicultural reality: one, the Barrie police officer of 30 years' seniority who has been suspended for distributing racist emails an example of which is entitled "Afrocentric Math for Toronto's new black only school" which purportedly mimics a math test with 10 problems related to guns, drug deals, etc.; two, nine black jail guards sitting at home on paid leave, the result of racist threats that have been made against them in areas supposedly only accessible to their colleagues (rather nasty working environment, that, eh?), while for more than three years, officials have been unable to determine who has been making those threats.

Joe Fiorito, in "Not all are sympathetic to dying woman's plight", writes that some responses to a previous article were troubling, to say the least. "One person blamed the weakness of our health-care system on the tapping of our resources by refugees; another wrote to say the real problem was all those single mothers who spend all their time giving birth to all those gang members."

Mr. Fiorito puts it so well when he says that " there are still those in our midst who fear strangers, regardless of creed, colour or culture; just as there are those who don't care if others fall by the wayside." It's incredibly sad to hear him say that he "used to think we were all in this together."

When Mr. Fiorito went on to say, a bit further on in the article, that "violence of any kind leaves a scar on both sides of the act," I recognized the painful shrinking of my heart in reaction to the jokes I often get and wondered how I could step up and say something to the senders.

I recognize the hurt I feel in receiving them. And I wondered if surely, in the case of the jail guards, there weren't any colleagues who were the audience of just such "jokes" that expressed similar sentiments to the threats the black jail guards have suffered. Were there not any among the guards not threated directly by such jokes and threats who felt a pang of hurt and could speak up?

And then I wondered, what do I say myself in such situations. I have been an unhappy audience to much such slander. Debate does not work. Explaining I find it offensive and hurtful only elicits apologies and declarations from the offender that they are not prejudiced or that they have lots of "that kind" of friends, or that they don't mean to hurt anybody's feelings. I feel nothing has changed.

I talked about it this morning with my friend Fiona. She often has such a deft way of finding another point of view. She said in one such situation she found herself getting uncomfortable when someone she was seeing started including her in such remarks, as in "we" statements, in which she felt he was aligning her with his realms of prejudice. Her response was to stop seeing this man.

And you know, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that that is just about all I can think of to do. Whenever I am being roped into such an alliance, I can just say, "No, I don't agree with you." I don't have to change anybody's mind. I don't have to engage in debate. I don't have to express my deep doubts and misgivings. I only have to be clear about my own stand and say "I do not stand with you in this instance, on this issue, in that opinion you just expressed. Here, I have a different opinion." That's all.

But, perhaps that is all that was ever required. A pause. And standing apart from what is not right when necessary. After all, it's only a small movement away from one course that begins a journey onto a very different tangent! I can only hope.

Finally, I want to mention one other thing from today's paper. Rosie Dimanno wrote in "Letter form the past and the future", about a glaring gap in the education of her one time fixer, a man who was far more educated than most Afghans. (It recalled to me again the dilemma of the character in the movie "Charlie Wilson's War" in being able to raise Billions for weapons of war, but unable to raise a few Million dollars education after the Russians left Afghanistan -- but that's another story!) To have a gap in one's education that results in the complete ignorance of the existence of Israel and that conflict seems inconceivable. But that just serves to illustrate to me how easy it is to assume our opinions are based on all the facts.

How can we hold to any opinion with any assurance that we don't have just such gaps in our own education? It humbles me, and so I realize, although I find many things terribly offensive, I don't really have any right to force anybody to believe as I do. The line is hard to define here, I realize. I must disagree with what I believe is wrong, but I have no right to actively suppress it. I must defend those who are being harmed without causing harm. I must speak about what I think is right, without bludgeoning and haranguing those who would not believe as I do to hear what I think is my truth.

I get that. Now, what do I say to those whose many jokes I do appreciate while also removing my alliance from the jokes I do not? I can grasp what I need to do in theory, but I still don't know how to speak to my friends who send the jokes. Maybe all I can do is to respond to one joke at a time and say "I don't like this and I don't agree with this."

Help! (I have to confess I have a story about the flip side of this issue where I have told jokes myself that offended other people. I might tell it to you some other time.)

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3 Comments:

Blogger Sky said...

oh, i have been in this same position a few times. finally i decided to drop a note to the sender of the jokes that went something like this:

"as you know my career has been spent helping the poor, disabled, sick, disenfrachised, and elderly. that has included working with those of different races, ethnic backgrounds, and religions, those suffering with HIV and/or substance abuse, young women having babies out of wedlock or wanting abortions, and those who are gay or members of other minority groups. jokes related to these issues are usually not humorous to me. keep in mind that i am a dedicated democrat, too. i don't usually find jokes which criticize the core platforms of my party or its members too funny.

now if i am making this so hard you decide not to send me anymore jokes, i will surely understand! if, however, i am still on your joke list thanks so much for screening them for me! i do accept all jokes about republicans! ;-)"

usually i stop getting jokes from that person, but i have remained friends with all of the jokers! :)

12:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I too find it a challenge when it comes to email 'jokes' and how to respond. Those that don't offend me I will pass on - those that do (and frankly most do) get deleted. Sometimes, before I've read more than a few lines. I guess we just have to continue to speak out, when we can safely do so about what is right.

11:41 AM  
Anonymous mss @ Zanthan Gardens said...

I don't have any suggestions but I do like the approach you are considering. I think you have made an important distinction. We don't have to change each other's minds. We only have to stand up for our own opinion.

I think a lot of the conflict I've seen in my lifetime is from the growing feeling that we must change other people's point of view--that we must convince them of their essential wrongness and our essential rightness. And if they don't agree with a stance of ours, they can't be our friend.

This is dangerous absolutism. So, I think you're on to something. State your opinion. Be open to agreeing to disagree. If they are not open, well then perhaps it is time to shrug your shoulders and say enough is enough.

10:56 PM  

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