May 12, 2011

You Must Unlearn What You Have Learned

Was challenged - in a kind and encouraging way - to open up a thought on the topic of "diversity". The original blog was delivered from a perspective that comes to us straight from across the pond, and, as this topic never fails to do, it got me wondering about my own sense of bias, my feelings on differences between people and the stereotypes which often ensue.

This is a challenging topic to address, one might say, because I fit into the traditional model of "what the $%&@!! do you know about diversity?" - I'm a straight white male in my middle age, so that kind of makes me more in line with "the man" than "the oppressed", right?

Well, I guess I'd have to say to that, yeah. Not that it would be something I'm proud of, because I honestly didn't do anything to be white, straight, or male, and the fact that I'm still alive in my early 40s has more to do with dumb luck than any particular methodology of heath care upon which I've set myself. Do I get any kind of benefits - real or implied - by being thus? Or, at the very least, do I avoid many of the pitfalls and challenges that face other people who are otherwise? People who are different - whether by the color of their skin, their sexual orientation or gender - or different in any of the readily obvious manners that some people use to instantly categorize or assume prejudice against? I guess I'd have to say yes, since that's just an issue of public record: people in this world commit - still today - all manner of atrocities against others simply because of whatever excuse they may find. Merely, as it inevitably becomes apparent, due to some sort of differentiation that the aggressor finds intolerable.

Now, on the one hand, I do understand the notion of categorization. It's a natural tendency of people to expect a pattern in the world around them. People will generally buy the albums from an artist or genre they love, simply because of past experiences - or watch movies with a particular expectation simply because of the actors or writers or directors. Or, consider your favorite flavor of ice cream - and then ask yourself if the company who makes that flavor really matters, or are you predisposed to like that flavor, generally regardless of who manufactures it? What's your favorite color, and when choosing a new shirt are you more likely to pick that color of shirt over another color you don't like?

Let me be clear, here: I am not in any way attempting to justify prejudice. I think the automatic fear or hatred of a person simply because they possess a specific characteristic is horrific and profane. What I'm saying here is that prejudice does partially result from what is an automatic human characteristic. We tend to gather similar experiences and build a common expectation from them. You burn your hand on the stove, you become nervous around stoves. But you also shouldn't go around destroying stoves because you burned your hand that one time.

Prejudice is a learned response - and this means it can be UN-learned. In fact, it may be one of the lessons most worth un-learning of all the possible things we can deliberately evolve during the course of our lives. See, the fact is, everyone's different. And though certain life experiences may sometimes establish some commonalities, it's not just unfair to the person who's being generalized, it's also unfair (albeit to a lesser degree) to the person doing the generalization. I'll explain.

A guy's driving home, late one night. The highway he's on has some construction up ahead, so he hops off the freeway before he gets stuck in a nasty traffic jam, but ends up in a part of town he's not used to. He can't find the onramp back to the freeway, and after several minutes of panicked wrong turns, he finds himself in "the bad part of town" and promptly gets a flat tire. It's late, he's lost, and his cell phone can't get a proper signal, so he decides to get out and walk to find a 7-11 or a pay phone. After a block, a couple kids who live in the neighborhood - approach. They've both got dark colored skin.

"Hey man," they say.

He turns and runs, fearful that they mean to do him harm or rob him.

They look at each other, shrug, and keep walking along their way. Unbeknownst to the man, both kids have cell phones (their parents wouldn't imagine letting them out at night without a way to call home), and one of their parents is a mechanic, to boot. The other kid's dad is a police officer.

Now, considering that story, who was most hurt by prejudice? Clearly, the two kids didn't need a reminder that some people are afraid of other people (note, I didn't mention the man's skin color, did I?), and could very easily have grounds to be offended by the man's behavior. But in this case, his stupidity really harmed himself - his fear kept him from learning that the two kids might have helped him.

On a less extreme level, as a writer I have to embrace the fact that every person has a story. Every single person. And though the stories may in some case be similar, it's usually only superficially so. Being prejudiced isn't just a horrible character flaw; for me, it would also be crippling from a spiritual and creative perspective. I love that people have uniqueness, that, really, if you put four people on the tv screen and sang "one of these is not like the others", I'd like to think you could pick any one of the four as the odd man out. I know I'm not the same as all other straight white males. I don't think there's a single characteristic you could pick out about me that's the same as any other person, actually. And I prefer it that way - just like I expect most people to be.

If every characteristic were an ingredient you might find in your kitchen, imagine combining twenty of those ingredients in any manner you wished; order of mixing, arrangement, cooking time, etc. Now, adjust the process, order, temperature, preparation techniques and so forth, even in the slightest way - and you're liable to get something totally different. I found this out when I was a child, making chocolate chip cookies for the first time. I thought that the important thing was just to put all the ingredients into the bowl at once and then mix. Turns out that you won't make cookies that way. Well, okay, you CAN, but they'll taste like crap.

And people are made up of millions of ingredients - each moment is a new experience, each person a different procedural step, and even beyond all of that, there's a certain element of personality and soul which comes from somewhere altogether ELSEways.

The fact is, assuming two people are the same because they kind of look the same is like saying Vanilla ice cream and lard are the same, because they're both kind of white.

So really all I'm saying here is that you can KIND of reach some generalities, but that everyone's different in at least some ways, and that everyone sort of makes assumptions about other people as a general rule of thumb. But that doing so is lazy, ignorant and should be avoided whenever possible. Like, if the dude you see coming towards you is wearing a hockey mask and holding a bloody machete in one hand and someone's head in the other, maybe it's not a good time to ask them about their philosophical uniqueness. Just saying. That's a rare example, though, obviously.

Oh, and sharks. I still don't like sharks, and if I see one of them walking towards me, I don't care if they have a cell phone in their pocket, I'm going to be running the other direction.  And you should, too. You don't believe me? Ask Roy Scheider about that - or, I suppose you could, but you can't, and I'm pretty sure sharks had something to do with that, too. But I don't HATE sharks. I'm just terrified of them. Completely. Absolutely. And I don't consider that a phobia, because a phobia is an unreasonable fear, and I think a fear of sharks is completely reasonable.

But that's a totally different thing than being afraid of people or hating them because of the color of their skin, their gender, nationality, religion, sexual orientation or any of a thousand characteristics you decide to be so horrifying. Except, perhaps, characteristics of bigotry or misogyny or homophobia, those kinds of things.

Fear and hatred stemming from prejudice; we should probably agree for that to be intolerable. Just a little confused why we can't seem to do that.

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