Tolerating those with beliefs you (strongly) disagree with

I live among many people with beliefs I dislike—often abhor.

I live in a small town in Central Bohemia in the Czech Republic. It is almost entirely white and affluent. Recently a few Asian families have moved to town to open businesses. There are also a handful of oddball people of color—one kid at school with a mother from the Caribbean and so forth.

The opinions of most of my neighbors reflect that. They are inexperienced, fearful of people with different skin tones, and resentful of the hardworking Asian business owners (who keep their shops open hours after everyone else has closed up). They blithely “pop out to the Vietnamese” at 8:00 pm to get a snack when no one else in ten kilometers is open, but they’ll be back at the Asian-bashing the next morning… or often as not, on the way home from the store..

Beyond that, the country is not very diverse. We are among the handful of countries in the EU who have taken in the fewest refugees as a percent of population. My neighbors are always telling me about why we shouldn’t take in refugees, particularly not from Muslim countries.

This isn’t backwoods ignorance but rather pseudo-intellectual rhetoric:

“European culture is founded on Christianity and the enlightenment. Even though most of us are not really Christians anymore, that’s our cultural foundation. Muslims don’t fit in here and they will make enclaves where they enforce their culture and beliefs. They’ll also change our overall culture. They have a lot more children than we do. In the end, you know they want to force us to live under Sharia law.”

There are so many false assumptions in this common public story that I hear from every side daily, even within my own family. that it would take at least five blog posts to cover them all:

  1. No, Europe was actually Pagan. Christianity came from the same general area as a large number of the refugees.

  2. Refugees don’t erase your cultural foundation. Throughout history, nations that accepted refugees have done better economically and become more culturally enlightened. I’ve never seen a historical exception to this fact.

  3. Poor and desperate people have more children. Secure people with access to education and health care have fewer children. That’s a very basic biological fact about humans as a species. If you want to curb population growth, give people education and health care.

  4. The majority of Muslim immigrants don’t want Sharia law. Fanaticism is often a top reason they left their homelands. Even in Muslim majority countries, opinions about Islamic extremists are overwhelmingly negative.

Creative Commons image by Andy Blackledge

Creative Commons image by Andy Blackledge

The fact remains that I live next to, converse politely with and even maintain a shallow level of friendship with many people who hold a lot of bigoted, inexperienced and hateful opinions. I have little choice, since I live in a country where these are the views of the vast majority of the population. Unless I want to be a hermit, who only shops at the family owned Vietnamese store (with nice people) and who doesn’t even use social media, I have to learn to live in the vicinity of horrid opinions.

But the original question that sparked this post on befriending or respecting those with beliefs you don’t like came from these same people—just the other way around. I have been asked many times how I can have Muslim friends and express respect for Muslims, when I am not a Muslim and I clearly disagree with some common Muslim beliefs and even the very basis of that religion.

Once I had a party with a lot of international friends from the city. There were probably thirty people in my yard and living room. One of my foreigner friends from the high-energy activist culture of Prague, a Palestinian student, had brought a couple of his friends.who I didn’t know as well. At one point they approached me as a group and asked if there was some quiet place where they could pray, given that they really did pray five times a day.

The choices weren’t spectacular. The yard was full and mostly dirt at the time anyway. The house was tiny with the main room, one bedroom with too little floor space and my office area, which also included a couple of beds behind a curtain. I took them to the office, which at least had a door that could be closed.

The office not only had rumpled beds and a pile of my folded clothing but various Pagan statues and artwork scattered around. I noticed that the Muslim students seemed a bit uneasy about the arrangement, but it really was the only viable option. They quickly rallied and expressed their appreciation. I pointed out the direction of southeast, which was easy since my practice involves compass points as well. Then I left them to it.

Before that, I once accompanied a Muslim woman in Kazakhstan on a pilgrimage to a holy site in Turkestan (which is a town, not a country). My interest was journalism and personal experience. This woman narrated much of her beliefs and practice along the way, while I went through the motions as a sign of respect and as a way to broaden my own understanding.

All this, and I can still say I really don’t agree with Islam.

I know some Muslims like to point out that the word “Islam” is closely connected to the word “peace,” but let’s face it, the history of Islam has been far from peaceful. Show me a major religion without copious amounts of blood on its hands.

The Koran says some violent and intolerant things, whether about the particular battles of Mohammed’s time or about the way the world works in general. And so does the Bible and so do lots of original Pagan myths. I’m not arguing that we have to take these things literally or that I’m better than anyone else. But the fact is that there are plenty of things in the Koran that I don’t like.

There is that controversy over the “Verse of the Swords,” which can be read to mean that a Muslim should fight, hound and persecute non-believers wherever they be found or it can e read to be referring only to a specific incident when some Pagans broke a treaty with Mohammed. Mohammed sounds to me like a pretty normal leader, trying to deal with the realities of the world and getting confused about how much force should be used in defense of what he believes—hardly someone copying down directly the words dictated by the one and only true God.

Another controversy arises out of verse 4:34 of the Koran regarding relations between husbands and wives. It states that women should be obedient because God put men over women and if a wife disobeys, her husband should first advise her, then refuse to have sex and finally“strike” her if she doesn’t submit. Scholars like to argue over the many possible meanings of the word “strike” in Arabic, some insisting that the verse does not actually condone domestic violence.

But that isn’t even my primary concern. I’m still stuck on the part about women being obedient and God putting men over women. I know this was written for a violent and harsh time and women did often need the protection of men. But men needed the life-giving power of women. And this is supposed to be directly inspired by God. And hopefully God—even a regular god, let alone the one and only God—surely ought to be able to see beyond the local, current context when dictating the ultimate rules for everything.

So, it isn’t a religion for me. I can’t go with both believing the Koran is literally inspired by the only true God and that we have to take the stuff about women being inferior in social context. I really don’t like these beliefs. But it is the peaceful way of life and the respect toward women shown by the Muslims I meet that makes them welcome for me.

A few years ago, I decided to read the mythology of every major religion to my children for a year. I obtained children’s versions of the important stories from Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and a wide variety of Pagan and indigenous faiths.

Some of the Jewish and Christian stories made me pause. I skipped a few of the more gruesome ones that I just couldn’t conscience reading to young children. But when I got to the Islamic stories, I couldn’t find ANY that were not deeply problematic from the perspective of modern, sheltered children. Maybe I had the wrong book, though it had an author who professed to be Muslim and it was specifically for children.

I’ll grant that Pagan stories have been sanitized over the years. We don’t have such old texts, so we will likely never know how gruesome the versions of our stories from 1,500 years ago would have been, if we could read them in the original. And again, I don’t encourage literalism in mythology.

But there is also the matter of the whole Islamic thing about how there is only one God and some intolerance toward those who believe otherwise. I do have many gods and I dislike intolerance in Islam as much as I dislike similar intolerance in my neighbors.

But here is the thing. I tolerate in society those who do not impose their beliefs on others.

Islamic extremists do impose their beliefs on others. I will always speak out against such extremists and I won’t tolerate them or welcome them to a community. The same goes for Christian fundamentalists who seek to impose their beliefs on others. The same goes for those who may call themselves Pagan or Heathen, while usurping my spiritual symbols for the purposes of intolerance and hate.

Those Muslims I do tolerate are those who have been, in my substantial experience, considerate and accepting of others. I do not claim to understand why they believe in a faith I don’t always like.

All I ask in return is that they don’t instantly judge me for the actions of white supremacists who steal Pagan symbols and defame my spiritual path.

Those people I befriend are those who are willing to have open conversations, those who come into my home and treat me, my family and my beliefs with respect and care. Again, I don’t have to like or agree with all of the beliefs of my friends, although to be friends I do hope to have conversations about such things and at least seek to understand each other’s perspective.

Europeans who fear Muslims often ask me, “How can you trust them? I read that Muslims are taught to lie to non-believers and behave nicely so that they can get into a position to either kill us or force us to convert.”

I have read the same allegations. And I know for a fact that some Christian groups teach this very thing in the US: “Work your way into their confidence. Use gifts and friendship to get close to them and then bring them to Jesus.” I haven’t personally encountered an emphasis on killing unbelievers among American Christians, but my pacifist brother was once beaten by kids in a youth group while Christian adult leaders looked on and encouraged them to “beat the devil out of him.”

So, yeah, I believe Muslim extremists probably teach something like this too. I don’t have real personal experience or evidence of it. But it stands to reason, given the similarities to other religious extremists and their preferred interpretation of the “Verse of the Sword.”

Do I believe that my Muslim friends are secretly plotting to someday stop being nice, force us to convert and kill us if we refuse? No, I just don’t believe that.

Why don’t I? I have several other friends who were raised Muslim but aren’t practicing Muslims, who are critical of the religion or just turned atheist. And I have no doubt that if Muslims across the board were taught that doctrine, many such people would have talked about it openly by now. It just is not a mainstream Muslim thing,

So, I don’t actually find it at all difficult to tolerate or befriend Muslims who probably hold beliefs that I dislike. They don’t bludgeon me with their beliefs. They are tolerant and respectful of others. Do I understand? No, not really. But I’m willing to have deep philosophical conversations with them and maybe someday I will understand.

I find it harder to tolerate and befriend racist and isolationist neighbors. I mostly do it because I have little choice. I have friendships where I have to avoid a lot of topics of conversation. Those friendships are shallow, utilitarian and mostly for the children involved.

And even so, I entirely avoid those who really go overboard with expressing racist and isolationist opinions. I don’t want that around my kids. I don’t really even want it in my own ears.

Do I fully understand them? No. I am willing to have deep philosophical conversations, if they’ll stop bludgeoning me with their caustic opinions long enough to have a deep philosophical conversation, and maybe someday I will understand.

Not all opinions are equal

I have always wanted to be for peace.

The peacemakers of today’s well-connected world cry, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion! Just scroll on past!”

And I find that I cannot be a peacemaker because all opinions are not created equal.

There are opinions about whether this or that candidate is better. There are opinions about how we should manage the city water problem. There are opinions about which health care or tax policy is best. And generally those opinions are all equal. I may disagree with one or more, but I am happy to listen and let live.

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It’s when an opinion is hate against a person or group of people due to circumstances beyond their control that it is no longer an opinion, or at least no longer equal.

Many pundits blame social media for the angry divides of today’s society. And I can see why. Social media is where a lot of arguments happen.

But social media is designed to send us what we like. The algorithms of the various sites don’t send us everything available but rather place us in bubbles of mostly those who agree with us. We only encounter a fraction of the differing opinions out there.

Social media doesn’t set out to create conflict. Quite the opposite. But technology has become a great leveler.

I think it is more that relatively cheap and portable technology has given voices to everyone and blurred lines of geography. It makes the saying, “Injustice somewhere is injustice everywhere,” more palpable.

The fact is that the world was NOT less divided thirty years ago or a hundred years ago. It was more divided.

But privileged people didn’t know about most of it and those experiencing the most injustice had only each other to talk to about their exploitation. The world was more segregated and groups deemed unsightly either stayed out of sight or were put out of sight.

Today the world is not any more divided than it was, but we know about more divides than we used to. Opinions and the actions they engendered which harmed less privileged groups were not often challenged because the harmed groups had no voice and no access to the places where the privileged relaxed and talked.

Now that social media is that place and technology has allowed almost everyone in, we are confronted by those we have opinions about. And they talk back..

I grew up in remote, rural Eastern Oregon, an area that voted 70 percent for Trump in 2016 and which was almost entirely white when I was a child.

When my mom first arrived in the area to homestead with my father, she saw a black family at a gas station in the tiny town of Elgin. She went up to them gladly. Black people had taken her in when she had to leave home at seventeen and she was overjoyed to see their faces. But the father told her they were leaving because of the rampant racism and ostracism in the area.

They left and that was that. No more “divide” in the community.

When I heard racist jokes at school as a child, I didn’t call them out the way I do on Facebook. I kept my head down because as a kid with a disability, I got plenty of bullying as it was. It wasn’t a “divide” because I had no voice, no possibility of standing up, and People of Color were simply elsewhere.

Now we see a divide. Before we could pretend it didn’t exist because those who were vulnerable hid it to survive or were so far removed from us that we never saw or heard from them.

Opening up, people who were shut away walking out in public, the formerly silenced having a voice—these things are not divisive. It is not the “evil” of social media that creates the strife.

It is bigotry and judgementalism. It has always been there. Now it is being challenged.

I welcome differences of opinion when they are not about judging and mistreating others. It is really that simple. Not all opinions are equal. You are entitled to your opinion so long as it does not incite hatred or judgment against others for characteristics they did not choose… or even for things they did choose in so far as they have no bearing on anyone beyond themselves.

Ridiculing a person with a disability, accusing them of “faking” or declaring what you think they should not be allowed to do or have responsibility for is not an “opinion.” It’s an attack for the purpose of silencing and dismissing people.

I am fine with discussing health care policy and climate policy and immigration control and medical ethics with varied viewpoints. What is not open for discussion and what will get comments deleted without warning are those opinions which specifically judge and attack people for reasons that are innate to them.

People standing up to judgement, on the other hand, are welcome. Our voices only sound strident or hot-tempered because they are rusty from too much silence.

Fair warning.

Political correctness, dismantling the English language or reclaiming basic decency

Donald Trump--with the help of a few like-minded fellows--has unleashed an on-going tidal wave of racist, able-ist and sexist muck by giving bigots a socially powerful role model. This may allow us to see who has been secretly resentful of modern realities, such as black people are no longer their slaves, disabled people appear outside cages and women can vote. But I'm not even sure that qualifies as a bright side.

At the same time, it feels like many of us are doing the equivalent of using Trump's famous paper towels to clean up Puerto Rico, dabbing up droplets that somehow splashed all the way to our homes in distant states. I'm going to get some flak for this from people I really do agree with on everything that matters, but there are times "political correctness" has become ineffective, has been hijacked by people with an oppressive agenda or has become a game piece for social jockeying. 

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The term "politically incorrect" implies that the use of a word or idiom is a problem only because it is incorrect from the standpoint of politics, i.e. it wouldn't be a good idea to say that if you want to be popular. This is the reservoir that stored up all the resentment which fuels the tidal wave of openly bigoted remarks both in public and in private.

The irony is that the people who are now claiming not to be politically correct actually were the only ones being politically correct in the first place. They were refraining from saying things they truly believed in order to be socially acceptable.

By contrast, many of us were never politically correct. We didn't use the N-word because we felt it is disgusting and demeaning both to Black people and to anyone who uses it. We didn't use the R-word because it is filthy, and much more than an F-bomb, it actually does real harm to children in schools all over the English-speaking world. 

It isn't political correctness that should keep a person from using insulting, disgusting, demeaning, hate-filled and violence-inciting terms and idioms. It's basic decency. 

So let's call it what it is. When the use of indecent and bullying terms is labeled "politically incorrect," an implication is made that this isn't actually ethically wrong, just politically unpopular.

When I realized as a young person that the verb "to gyp someone" is a slur against Romani people, it was not difficult for me to remember not to use it ever again. It immediately took on such a disturbing connotation that I simply stopped, even though it was common slang used in the rural area where I grew up.

I learned some years ago about the origins of the rhyme "Eenie, Meenie, Miney, Mo"  in the slave trade and it only took reading about it once to make it very uncomfortable to me. It is not the disapproval of others that makes me cringe and redirect children in my ESL classes who start singing it, but rather my own understanding of the facts and my sense that it assaults the self-respect of anyone who knows its history. 

There is such a backlash against the concept of taking care not to harm those most often excluded with thoughtless words that it has become politically correct to insist that one is not politically correct. Put another way, political correctness is merely a term for what is believed to be widely supported.

This backlash comes, unsurprisingly, from some of the same sources as the current tidal wave of bigoted rhetoric. I recently ran across a list of mostly fake "politically correct" terms on the website of the far-right British National Party. The list was not presented as humor but rather as information to help readers avoid conflicts, and therefore implied that these terms were truly advocated in mainstream society. Mixed in with real examples of polite language, the list gave rise to many claims about how ridiculous the movement for inclusive language is. 

Among listings suggesting a person use "gay" instead of "homosexual", "sex worker" instead of "prostitute" or "homeless person" instead of "tramp," there are fictitious listings advising readers to use "ethically disoriented" instead of "dishonest" or "nasally disturbing" Instead of "smelly." The point is to manipulate far-right readers to believe an exaggerated and patently ridiculous version of inclusive language.

Unfortunately, this manipulation is made easier by some activists for social justice who don't differentiate between confusion, customary idiom and even honest ignorance on the one hand and blatantly harmful, hateful and bigoted terms on the other. If we equate a person not knowing whether another prefers the term "Black"  or "African American"  with intentionally racist slurs, we cheapen the experience of those who encounter the real deal. If we equate a deaf person being called "hearing impaired" when they prefer "deaf" with the R-word, we make it much less likely that disability activists will be taken seriously.

It is reasonable for a group to request that society refer to them by particular terms and refrain from others. Trying to comply is good manners, but not complying is the equivalent of neglecting please and thank you. It's rude if you know better, but it isn't the same as being a morally degenerate bigot.

Not everyone has equal access to information and social interaction. And groups are not homogeneous in their requests. Trying to politely use the terms a group requests is admirable and difficult. If a person uses a term we dislike but their intent is obviously not insulting or demeaning, that should be handled in a much different way than the use of intentional insults. 

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The case of "blind"

I was recently asked to personally weigh in on one of these terms on a public forum. That was, of course, about the word "blind." While most deaf people and their organizations today have been very clear that they prefer the world "deaf" and do not like the term "hearing impaired," many blind people swing the other way, saying they don't like the word "blind" and would prefer the term, "visually impaired." 

In my view, abled people can be forgiven for being confused about this. I appreciate those who try to politely use the preferred terms of whichever group they are talking to. And I beg everyone involved not to make this into either the privilege olympics or a verbal fight. I appreciate our need to define our own identities, but let's not forget the fact that thirty years ago, when I was growing up, we were all mostly just referred to with the R-word. 

I was born legally blind and I have been active in disability rights organizations and efforts since I first learned to read nearly forty years ago. I have been a vehement advocate for the integration of people with disabilities in schools and for non-discrimination in employment. 

I have also been the target of just about every insult and slur against people with disabilities that exists in at least four languages. A stronger reaction to such insults, you won't find.

We don't need to stop pushing for respect just because we've rid ourselves of the worst insults. We can and should progress to defining positive identities for ourselves. However, what we are experiencing just now across the United States and around the world is a reminder that the bulwark against hate and bigotry is a barricade that must always be guarded.

There will never come a time when we can say, "The N-word and the R-word and their ilk are dead and buried. We can now turn to more subtle exclusionary terms and bury them the same way."

That is because they are a different species. "Retard" was used as a vicious insult. Several other terms were also used to put people with disabilities in institutions, sterilize us, deny us education and kill us. Those words, like the N-word and similarly vicious racial slurs are not even in the same dictionary as "blind" and "hearing impaired," which aren't and weren't widely used as insults and which have regular definitions.  

Sometimes "blind" is used as an idiom meaning stupid and ignorant. (Examples: “That politician is just a blind idiot.” "He was blind drunk.") There is no context here meaning something related to senses, just to intellect. This tends to equate blindness with intellectual deficits. If someone is stupid or ignorant or uneducated, call them one of those words, if you must. It isn’t cool or necessary to insult people with physical or developmental disabilities by comparing bigots, the willfully ignorant or bullies to us. Even if these idioms are often unconscious, they can be harmful over the long-term and it is reasonable to ask that they be avoided.

However, I can't personally support calls for the word "blind" to be discontinued in general in favor of "visually impaired." Some partially sighted people, especially those who have not been visually impaired their whole lives, really do object to the word "blind" and if I know that about them, I will try to refrain from using it around them out of personal courtesy and respect.

But it's a word with a definition that has not been profaned by common use as an insult. When it is used with technical accuracy, it has my support. And attempts to draw an equivalence between such a term and much more grievous abuses of language are unhelpful and potentially harmful. 

That's just the opinion of one visually impaired person. Due to my very poor sight--less than ten percent of the "norm"--I'm on that line where I could be called "visually impaired" or I could be called "blind." I often use the term "legally blind" if the point of the conversation has to do with official status as a person with a disability, rather than someone who wears corrective lenses but is not disabled. 

But if someone refers to me as "that blind lady who does herbs" or something of the like, I'm not offended and I don't see any reason to correct them any more than if they had said, "that blonde lady who does herbs." Both are technical descriptions and if someone in the conversation doesn't know my name, they are simply choosing the easiest way to identify me. 

The use of a term like "blind" all depends on the context, tone and intent both when using the word according to the dictionary definition and in idioms

I don't get on anyone’s case about using expressions like, “The blind decisions of the CEO drove the company into the ground.” It’s an idiom and the focus is more on the decision being "short-sighted" or lacking in long-range information, rather than on it just being stupid or unaware. Blind people are not stupid or unaware. We do, however, often lack visual information.

In a sentence like, “the blind obedience of the cult followers is creepy,” the idiom means that the followers don’t consider anything external and act ultra focused, as if they had blinders on like horse going through a tunnel. And yes, "blinders" is another thing that is just a word. I'm not going to stop saying "blackboard" or "whiteboard" if that is the actual color of the board. And I'm not going to stop saying "blinders," "blindfold" or "blinds" on a window. These are not demeaning and don't make people subconsciously think less of any group. 

If someone loses their glasses and laughs about being “blind as a bat” or gets new glasses and moans, “I’m going blind.” I’ll probably slap them on the back and chuckle, “Don’t worry. You’re in good company," even if their glasses are really nothing to moan about. The ability to laugh at one's self is a key survival skill.

But there are situations where the tone or context is hostile. I’ve had people say “I’m going blind,” as an excuse to deny me a seat close to the presenter at a workshop, when they just wear glasses that fully compensate for their minor vision impairment. I can’t count the times someone has lashed out with, “Are you blind or something?” when I failed to recognize their face or read an instructional sign.

I'm fine with the word "blind," in appropriate idioms, in factual description and even in good humor. I am also fine with "visually impaired." I am fine with the word "disabled." I prefer terms that demystify and inform without being insulting. 

I dislike euphemisms. I do not like the term "visually challenged," except in good humor. Vision isn't that much of a challenge. I just don't have that much of it. A challenge implies that if I just tried harder, I might be able to see more. Not gonna happen.

I also don't like the term "handicapped," which comes from a racing practice in which superior horses had to carry heavier weights. I know the term was used to denote people with disabilities as a way to imply that some higher power chose better people to deal with the difficulties of disability. I find the connotation unhelpful because it implies a justification or reasoning, rather than just the factual lack of a certain sense or attribute which is the fact.

I have always felt that actual disabilities are not the primary problem we face, but social stigma, reasoning and machinations around them. Let's keep terminology to the facts and keep society's interpretations out of it as much as possible. Those who argue that their issue with society is not a "dis-ability" because they don't lack any particular ability but rather have a different way of functioning are welcome to avoid the term "disability" and I'll still advocate for their rights to be respected as simply different. 

But not all visually impaired people agree with me. Some truly prefer the softer, euphemistic terms. To me they imply that visual impairment or blindness is something too horrible to say right out or conversely a challenge that I should just overcome on my own without society adapting at all. To me it is neither. It is a lack of a specific sense. It doesn't define the whole person, any more than some other single characteristic, but it is a piece of information that matters enough to be mentioned.

It is my hope that those asking for inclusive language changes can be kind, tolerant and inclusive when asking for them and not assume those who don't know mean harm. I also hope that time will change our language to be more inclusive and technically correct, rather than euphemistic.

We don't need to soften facts. We need to open-minds to the reality that those facts are not a curse.