Are we wimps?

The older I get, the more I love history, and after classes ended today, I was chatting with our Social Studies department head. I was enrapt by some of his stories of Canada’s involvement in the two World Wars. Those wars. They were horrible. So very many thousands of people died – often hundreds at a time. Everyone must have had their hearts in their throats all the time, fearing not only the possible humiliation and uncertainty of losing a war and what havoc the enemy would wreak on their way of life, but also, the very real daily threat of getting the telegram that told of the loss of a loved one.

I think about all those boys waiting to fly bombing missions into Germany where one in every ten crews “bought it” on each mission. (How would you feel flying your 11th mission?) No one was under any delusion. They all knew they were living on borrowed time. I think about an old English professor I had, who told of a giant stone coming through his ceiling in the middle of the night one night, and landing between him and his brother during Hitler’s bombing raids over London. What kind of stoicism allowed the Brits to keep up a stiff upper lip in such times? Those were indeed hard times.

I wonder what the people of those times would have thought of us if they could step into our social media world and see the things we write about. The worst threat to me in a day is a paper cut. I jog to keep in shape. This was laughable to my grandpa, who knew the daily physical exhaustion of being a farmer. We boohoo over EVERYTHING: a run-in with someone at work, a heartache, our kids, a headache. I’ll bet that older generation would be completely perplexed at our misery. They’d likely wonder why we are such a bunch of sad sacks, pitching and whining about every little thing. God forbid any one of us would ever have to endure a tooth ache or ear ache without running for the Tylenol bottle!

I’m not saying that life is perfect. It’s not. And I’m not saying that there isn’t real suffering in the world – even in Canada. There is. But honestly! The whining never stops! What the hell is wrong with us?

Why sluts must be gentle.

If activists want to win the battle against ignorance and bigotry, we must act with the gentility that we would like to promote. The very structure that supports maladaptive societal standards is the blind, unchallenged acceptance of them by well-meaning people. As much as we must challenge all forms of ignorance that lead to the subjugation of people, we must not, in our zeal, punish the people we seek to convert. We also must be careful not to subscribe so strongly to our own convictions that we fail to give real consideration to contrary viewpoints.

In the midst of the fallout from Amanda Todd’s tragedy, there has been much editorializing about how such a thing could have happened. Social critics like blogger, Krissy Darch, rightly identify the bigotry and intolerance (Darch’s article zeros in on misogyny.) that are embedded in our society as at least one of the roots of the tragedy.

Critics like Darch are visionary and well informed. They have put much effort into studying social issues, and they are able to contextualize tragedy and point to it as a natural outcome of a some of the social ills they study. The shock of the tragedy incentivizes them to renew their ardour in pressing for change. The vision and studied knowledge that they bring to their activism are what is meant by intellectualism.

Intellectuals are able to recognize that intolerance is supported, taught and reinforced in societal structures like families, schools, media and laws, and intellectuals know that the life blood of intolerance is ignorance. Surely if people had a clear understanding of the world, they would participate in the rebuilding of societal structures so that the world would be better.

Embedded into the world view of the intellectual is a recognition that everyone is culpable – including the intellectual herself, and that change starts with recognition of one’s own maladaptive practices. This recognition is difficult, because everyone wants to believe she is a good person. No one wants to be accused of having had a part the tragedy that happened to Amanda Todd.

How, then, can the intellectual accept this knowledge when others can’t? The answer is in the intellectual’s recognition that as much as her own past behaviour contributed to and supported an intolerant society, she herself is a victim of that society, and has therefore been taught maladaptive behaviours like intolerance. She can forgive herself as long as she now participates in enlightening the public through her study and activism.

Unfortunately, most people are not intellectuals. They are equally shocked and equally incentivized by tragedy, but they do not have the education or vision to contextualize the tragedy. Without the ability to understand how they themselves have been the unwitting protegés of wrong teaching, they simply can not accept their culpability. Frank discussion of issues becomes impossible as they purposely cast their gaze away from their own behaviour and look for someone or something to blame.

For this reason, people learn about the Todd tragedy and come up with solutions like “teach your daughter not to expose her nude body to anyone online”, and “teach kids to step in when they witness bullying”. They may be quick to jump on teachers for not doing anything to prevent such tragedy, and they push for anti-bullying policies that will identify villains, and punish them. These people are well-meaning. They want to go after the people or structures that are to blame, but they simply can not recognize their own role in propagating harmful ideologies. In a sense, they must not. They are looking for the simple solution where one doesn’t exist. Their focus is too narrow, and the policies they advocate are doomed to fail.

Further complicating this problem is the frustration felt by the visionaries whose ongoing efforts to illuminate the issues that harm society are met with a collective yawn, or worse, opposition. The message of the visionary is threatening. It suggests a need to change – to give up the structures that are supported by delusional thinking that has been repeatedly refuted by research. For this reason, visionaries resort to in-your-face tactics.

Slutwalk is one such tactic. The purpose of Slutwalk is to bring attention to the problem of systemic misogyny by shocking the sensibilities of a complacent public. But often, instead of achieving its purpose of enlightenment, such activism works against the visionaries, as the public can now objectify them and write them off as radicals.

In the case of Slutwalk, the behaviours that  are intended to shock sensibilities are the uncensored use of the word “slut” in order to disempower the word, and the dressing up (by some women) in traditionally sexually provocative costume in order to disempower the sexual objectification of women associated with such costumes. But unwilling to internalize slutwalk’s message, which calls for the public to recognize its own misogynistic attitudes, the public derides the activists because of their “inappropriate” behaviour and attire. The irony that underscores the important message cannot overcome the entrenched taboo against using foul language or dressing  like a “slut”.

This is not to say that Slutwalk as a form of activism should be discontinued, but what the activist must do is support the message with sober, well-articulated, patient rhetoric. Intellectual activists must be seen to have something to say, and they must not come off as accusing. As frustrated as they may be, they must not give in to their frustration and verbally lash out at the ignorant. Protesters can never expect an immediate societal change as a result of their protest. The activist’s victory is the fact that her activism was noticed. It will take years of repetition of  the truths learned through vision and scholarship to effect change. We must be patient and genuine, and we must act with compassion for the ignorant, remembering that those who oppose us are the victims of the ideology that needs to change.

Intolerance in 10 year-olds

I arrived early to my daughter’s dance studio to give her a ride home. With time to kill, I sat down, opened up my laptop, checked my email, then mindlessly sat playing a game of digital solitaire, whilst listening to some music on my headphones. A group of girls stationed themselves behind me, well in earshot, and they started chatting. I know they were in grade 5 because part of their conversation was about what middle school they would go to next year. For the most part, I was able to attenuate to what was on iTunes, but there were a few words that caught my attention: “Blah, blah, blah cuts herself”, “blah, blah blah, lesbian”. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that they’d be talking about such things. At what age does such talk begin for girls? I don’t know… I was moderately successful at being able tune them out, so I really don’t know exactly what they were saying, except that I perceived it to be derogatory. I ignored them. Such topics were new to them and bound to be exciting and confusing. They’d learn to be more tolerant. Right? Not my job to address it, right? And who would defend ME if one of them ran to their parent and complained about the old man who eavesdropped on their conversation and then proceeded to freak them out by lecturing them. That was trouble I didn’t need. I tried to focus on the music.

Another conversation grabbed my ear. I don’t think it was the same pair of girls, but certainly they were the same age. They were using the words “slut” and “bitch” to compare notes on some of their outside acquaintances. Now I was shocked. At 10 years old, do they know the meaning of the word “slut”? And they freely (and loudly) talk this way in front of an adult? And it was the same as it always is: one girl was dominant in the conversation, talking in a cool, jaded tone – too cool to care about anything, while the other was trying hard – too hard – to keep up. At 10 years old.

I felt, what? sad, I think… sad to think that my own 12 year old could easily be the bitch or slut they were talking about; sad that apparently this so-recently-popularized issue of bullying seems not to have made any difference, at least not in the dance studio; sad that my 12 year old likely hears and participates in similar conversations when she is out of my earshot; sad for the poor girls whose spirits have been assassinated by the time they’re 11.

I turned and glared at the girl talking. I gave her my best look of disapproval. She quickly whispered something to her friend and they beat it on out of there to continue their conversation in the change room. But I doubt my look of disapproval was very effective. The girls likely had a choice name to call me once they were hidden away in the change room.

I don’t feel particular hatred or anger toward the girls. They’re 10. They have not matured emotionally or intellectually enough to be capable of much empathy. Likely, they are not even aware of the meaning of their own words. They have learned this behaviour, and everything I know about learning theory would suggest that somehow the behaviour is reinforced.

You could say that this is none of my business, but you’d be wrong. This is very much my business. I’m a teacher who deals with the fallout from this kind of character assassination on a daily basis. I talk regularly in my classroom about the issue – about tolerance, but I don’t know how much good it does. After all, didn’t one girl from my grade 8 class turn out to be a brutal bully in later years? How did I not see that coming?

Surely the secret is in parenting? Do we model derogatory talk? Do we talk to our kids about the way they talk to and about other kids? Do we ourselves speak with intolerance about our kids’ peers – the kids in the class who are a bit different? Do we ourselves laugh about the awkward kid? the handicapped kid? What are we letting them watch on television? What are the subtle and not-so-subtle messages that are being expressed in the kids’ sitcoms, where the laugh track teaches that there is something hilarious about Freddy-the-Nerd being ‘deservedly’ humiliated by the starlet; or in commercials where a girl shoots down a boy who used her cell phone with his “eww… toe fingers”.

I dunno. Maybe I’m just in a bad space right now. I can’t see a way out. It just never goes away. And 10 year olds. What do you do?

An Open Letter to the CBC

I was bothered by comments made the other night by O’Leary on the Lang and O’Leary exchange. The comments were a response to a union-developed teaching resource about the environmental hazards of an oil pipeline. O’Leary manifested his dislike for unions and went on to detail the kind of vindication he would take on any teacher who would proselytize to students on an economic issue.

I pay taxes to support the CBC. O’Leary’s comments are partisan and aggressive. His onscreen persona spews exactly the kind of vitriolic bully-boy shout-down monologue that kills intelligent discussion about what is just and progressive in Canada. Instead of illuminating very important issues (the obligations and limits of what teachers should teach, and the clarification of fact vs. opinion vis a vis an oil pipeline that traverses a whole province and pours oil into supertankers that will be negotiating the tight passages on BC’s coast), his short, mean-spirited rant mocked unionism and teachers, revealing (even admitting) his disdain, and by extension, CBC’s disdain for them. Meanwhile, Lang sycophantically laughed as if to underline how cute his tirade against teachers was. This program has got to go.