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.

Hate is hate no matter its shape ableism meme.jpg

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.

Dismissal, excuses and faux neutrality are at the core of racism and ableism

We consider ourselves to be unbiased, color-blind, tolerant and accepting of all. And yet the accusations of racism and ableism against ordinary, good people in our society never cease.

It brings up defensiveness, anxiety and eventually anger. We don’t see the point.

So what if someone made a slip of the tongue? So what if a group of kids smirked in the general direction of a Native American elder?

Creative Commons image by Igor Spasic

Creative Commons image by Igor Spasic

"There are good reasons. The kids were provoked by a weird religious cult that was racist against white people! There you have it. It’s really all reverse discrimination, a bunch of losers whining because they don’t have what it takes to make it in direct competition, so they want affirmative action and cry ‘racism’ or ‘ableism’ at every turn.”

It is rarely said that coherently and in one breath, but it is what a lot of people think.

I know because I used to think essentially that, except for including ableism in it or resenting affirmative action. I was 18 at the time and I was and still am ninety percent blind. I was mildly, quietly resentful of the focus on racial justice at my university. There was almost no mention of ableism back then and I felt that discrimination against people with disabilities was given short shrift.

It was and often still is. But that did not mean that racism was any less of a problem than the students of color said it was. They were exhausted over the endless fight with it and they were far more tired of the topic than I could ever have been. That was the part I didn’t understand.

It took traveling and living in thirty different countries, listening to hundreds of people tell me their stories while I wrote about social justice issues as a journalist and becoming part of an ethnically mixed family to entirely change my views.

Today, I have to say that such dismissal, excuses and faux neutrality, which once had me duped, is not just the mild fringe of racism and ableism, but rather its heart and core.

Two days ago my third-grade daughter came home from school upset. Her hands were shaking while she told me that some boys had been drawing insulting pictures of Asians on the blackboard when the teacher wasn’t in the room. They were laughing and saying derogatory things about Asian people. A few Asian families have moved to our small town in the past few years. Most classes at the school now have an Asian kid or two in them. My daughter’s class doesn’t have an Asian kid, but it does have my daughter, the only person of color in the classroom.

My daughter, who is generally pretty timid, went up to the boys and asked them, “How would you like it if someone laughed at you that way?”

One of the boys turned to her and said, “You of all people had better shut up. You’re the most brown of any of us.”

My daughter went back to her friends. She was upset and one of her friends was sympathetic. My daughter was too afraid to do anything about it or report it. The classroom has an anonymous tip box for the teacher, where the kids can put a note if they have a problem they don’t want to talk to the teacher about personally but want to resolve. My daughter’s friend offered to write a note and put it in the box because my daughter was too afraid.

Then, in the evening I wrote a note to the teacher through the parent-teacher communication system. My daughter’s teacher has generally been wonderful and exceptionally kind.

I had done multicultural sensitivity workshops in the preschool but have since been overwhelmed with work, health problems and family troubles for the last few years. They had wanted me to come back but I just couldn’t do it. It takes several days to plan, gather materials and do the workshops, and I have to take the time off of work. There usually isn’t a budget for any materials, so I have to fund that myself. Obviously I’m doing it as a volunteer, not getting paid.

But I decided it was time to get back into it. I offered the teacher my help in doing some workshops for her class and told her what I had understood from my daughter’s description. I happily anticipated being able to solve the problem with the sympathetic and helpful teacher.

This evening I got the teacher’s reply, And it hit me like a sucker punch. The teacher didn’t dispute anything I said. She said that the note she got in the box completely agreed with the version I recounted. She said she doesn’t think it’s a problem that the boys draw pictures of Chinese people on the board because they draw pictures of the Simpsons as well. “They’re just having fun.”

She didn’t mention what the boy said to my daughter but she said that in general she doesn’t think the incident is important. She said she had heard the children laugh about “Chinese people“ and she doesn’t think that’s a problem. She said maybe I could do a writing workshop for her class.

I was concerned when my daughter told me about it. On the one hand, I wish my children would never have to be exposed to racism, either as a bystander or a target. But I am no longer the naive eighteen-year-old who used to think we lived in a post-racial world. It’s going to happen, and frankly, my concern was tempered by the small, relatively controlled environment of the third-grade classroom and my assumption of the teacher as an ally.

The teacher’s dismissal not only makes the situation many times worse, but it also shows me how much deeper the problem likely runs in the community. Hence my claim that dismissal and excuse aren’t some kind of benevolent mild fringe of prejudice but rather its fortifying center.

There is another scene that haunts me nearly daily from when my children were toddlers. Two family members had been making comments, saying they didn’t think I was “safe with kids” or “could be a safe parent” because of my vision impairment. I had never had a serious safety scare with my kids. My job involved teaching groups of preschool-age children. I had pulled a drowning child out of water four times and none of those was a child I was supposed to be watching at the moment.

I was very physically active and adept with many physical skills, and I was hurt by those comments. I was even more hurt by their practical implications, as I was prohibited from watching my nieces and nephews during my rare trans-Atlantic visits, it impacted my children’s ability to know their cousins.

One of the family members repeated the hurtful comments at the beginning of an extended family camping trip, and I could feel my whole world quaking. But I appealed to the rest of the family and asked for a family meeting. I was sure that with family consensus and the fact of my good track record on my side, I could be rid of these comments and the accompanying stigma.

My family has always been progressive and openly against all prejudice after all. My brothers and I were brought up to be independent and free-thinking. We always spoke out against racism and my vision impairment was rarely mentioned outside of medical necessities. We were the tolerant, accepting, progressive folks. And so I was sure I would be heard.

Instead I learned a bitter lesson.

The extended family meeting decided unanimously that I was overreacting. They agreed that there was no reason to doubt my safety with kids but also declared “neutrality” in the “argument” over it. “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion,” I was told.

My defense of my parenting bona fides was deemed “disruptive to the family,” whereas the prejudiced remarks and discriminatory actions of other members, which actively harmed children in the family, were deemed “a reasonable matter of opinion."

I felt as though I had been frozen inside a block of ice. A week later, I got on a flight back across the Atlantic and the incident was forgotten by most in the family. Water under the bridge.

This was how I learned how much greater harm dismissal does than even the initial prejudice. And I swore I would never again dismiss prejudice when I happened to land on the more privileged side of the equation, as is the case with racism.

That’s why I speak out against it and hold my ground. To truly feel you love people of all colors and shapes is not enough. Even to try to be unbiased and kind is not enough. We must learn to listen when someone says our actions or the actions of those connected to us have caused hurt or appear to come from prejudice.

Certainly, disingenuous accusations have been made somewhere in the world at some time, but believing the vulnerable party is always the better bet. Redress is rarely more than saying with open-hearted sincerity, “I am sorry my words or actions hurt you. What can I do to make sure prejudice isn’t perpetuated?”

Even sincere acknowledgement costs little. The cost of dismissal, on the other hand, is devastating.

Do you believe a woman, a child or a surveillance video?

I wasn’t alive during the US Civil War or even the civil rights protests in the 1960s, but when I study those times it is clear that the United States was divided. There were groups of people who saw themselves as so different that they could not be contained by the same nation. There was such anger and hurt, injustice and resentment that many people at the time did not believe the country could ever be reconciled.

And maybe in some ways, it never was.

Other problems came up and the deep rifts between groups became submerged for a while, but they did not go away. In fact, they have returned with a vengeance. Today it is easy to imagine a war between sides in the United States.

Cornerstore Caroline racism sexism divide.jpg

And I am not a peacemaker. I stand on one of the sides. On my side there is so much rage, pain and fear for the future. I feel rage when I hear the news. Yes, rage. I may not show it on my face because I’m with my kids or sitting in a waiting room with strangers. But my most basic reaction to current events is rage against the greed, indecent selfishness, self-destructive delusions, raw bigotry and careless destruction going on at the highest levels of our society.

But I am also steady enough to understand that on the other side there is deep fear and resentment as well. And they too feel rage.

The other side feels unjustly blamed and accused. They have only been trying to get by and build good lives for themselves. They are sick and tired of always being the ones who have to give back and retreat—for that is how they see themselves. The people on the other side—not the insanely wealthy few, but the people—have watched their hard-won standard of living slip, their income shrink and their self-image be trampled.

I’m not claiming to be objective. I do believe there is right and wrong. But I believe wrong can fiercely and truly believe it is right.

Take for instance the incident at a Brooklyn corner store that has been going around the internet. For those, who heard about it even later than I did or have been doing healthier things than staring at screens, let me explain.

First, a video surfaced of a woman at a corner store in Brooklyn who was distraught and calling the police. She said someone had grabbed her “ass” and it was a nine-year-old boy. This would be enough for any controversy, but add in the fact that the woman is white and the child is black and you’ve got an explosive American brew.

In the video the woman acts indignant and injured and is clearly also anxious, feeling outnumbered by people who disagree with her handling of the situation. Even another white woman comes up to her and tells her to stop. Her reasoning isn’t that she doesn’t believe the other woman. She is simply saying that you don’t call the police on a little kid. You handle it. You talk to their parent or give them a stern “no, that’s bad touching.” You don’t call the police.

The 911 operator seems to agree and although the voice of the operator isn’t clear on the video, the woman hangs up unhappy with the result.

Now given the recent confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court justice over the vehement objections of about half of the nation because of untried allegations of sexual assault the issue of believing a woman alleging harassment is a fiery topic.

On the one hand, this was a child—not an older teen like Kavanaugh was but a small child. On the other hand, as any parent of a smaller-than-average or disabled child knows, kids that age can still be vicious. And just as the allegations against Kavanaugh pointed out, although sexual harassment by a minor may not warrant prosecution, it can point to a lasting problem of character and ethics.

Should the lady have called the police? No, if she had been grabbed on the buttocks by a boy, there would be reason for a discussion with him and his parent.

Except… a week later surveillance video emerged showing that the boy simply walked by the woman in front of his mother and a younger child. His backpack brushed against her. That was all.

Some will take this to mean that the woman maliciously made the whole thing up. Some will even grasp at it as an example to put up when women accuse men of sexual assault. If this woman could “make it all up” then how can we say others don’t do the same.

It is worth considering the social atmosphere of extreme tension and division this is taking place in. Here is a woman at a corner store in Brooklyn. She is part of the powerful, white majority in the country, a majority that has been blamed very publicly for much of what is wrong in our society because of the history of white colonization, racial oppression and structural racism.

But she is also a woman and as we know, the vast majority of women really do encounter sexual harassment and a huge portion experience violent sexual assault. This woman could easily have experienced sexual assault in the past.

And whether we like it or not, in Brooklyn she is likely a racial minority in the immediate area and likely to feel both resentful and threatened. Most people of color treat white people like people, sometimes with a bit of caution and hesitation, but without open hostility. But there are those who, in reaction to structural racism, are hostile to white individuals, particularly to those who may be oblivious to their role in continuing racial injustice.

This woman likely felt a lot of racial tension in her neighborhood. She was likely afraid of young black men because of stereotypes and the social divide that keeps her from having positive experiences with them.

And she fears sexual assault from all men, because statistically it’s a real danger.

So, I am not one hundred percent convinced that she intentionally made it up. A couple of weeks after the incident there was another interview with her in which she still claims she was grabbed, despite the obvious proof of the surveillance video. I hazard to guess that she felt some ridges on the child’s backpack and mistook them for fingers. I can easily believe she thought the child had scraped his fingers across her “ass.”

Trivial? If it were real, it wouldn’t have been trivial. It would have warranted a good talking-to and any black mother worth her salt would have been on the kid like a ton of bricks. Life expectancy is short enough for young black boys as it is. No mother needs to add actually being disrespectful toward women to the already considerable risk factors a black male child faces.

To those who point to such an episode and say “See! You liberals only believe women when it suits you,” I would say that our outrage is not against the woman’s allegation per se. Our anger is over two things. First, you don’t call the cops on a nine-year-old who is unarmed and non-threatening. You talk and you be a grown-up. The fact that she did call the cops and did not try to talk about it shows that she automatically saw this boy as so bad that discussion would be pointless.

Second, at least part of her wrong assumption in the first place came from her racist conditioning to see young black boys as bad and dangerous. She felt an uncomfortable sensation and turned around and saw a black boy and her immediate thoughts were negative.

Should she have turned around and checked to see what was going on when she felt an odd sensation brush by her? Sure. If she’d met the kid’s eyes she would have seen that he hadn’t even noticed her. If that wasn’t enough, she could have engaged in conversation and quickly understood what was what.

It is not a racist infraction to feel something brush suggestively against your butt and spin around. Unfortunately, women have good cause.

What is racist is to let indoctrinated and unsubstantiated fear take over and make judgments of others far beyond the facts because of their race (or other irrelevant characteristics for that matter).

And people, I know things are tough and divided right now. But could we at least agree not to call the police on little children?

Who would I have been in the days leading up to Nazi Germany, Stalinist Prague or US slavery times?

In 1996, I sat in a class of American college students on a study-abroad program in Olomouc in the Czech Republic. A Czech man just a few years older than us came in to give a lecture about life in the 1980s under Stalinist totalitarianism and the Soviet occupation. I don’t remember the exact details of the lecture but it was good. It was moving and detailed and real.

I was the only one in the class who knew much of it already and who spoke Czech. I had been to the country before in 1992 and had my mind exploded during a week in a rustic cabin with a group of young people who had been quiet dissidents three years earlier, copying down illegal protest songs by hand in tattered notebooks.

Creative Commons image by Xabier Otegi

Creative Commons image by Xabier Otegi

I absorbed the university lecture eagerly, asking several questions at the end to draw out interesting parts of the man’s story. Then I made myself stop. I didn’t want to hog the space and I knew I should let the others ask. But when I looked around there was not one hand raised.

One of the American college students, sprawled in a chair at the back of the class, drawled, “Yeah, that’s the difference over here. Americans would never have put up with that.”

It sounds like a cliche but I really felt like something hit me in the chest. I had no breath. Before I could recover, the class broke up and the lecturer exited quickly, while my classmates put their notebooks away and went out for an afternoon of Czech beer.

Listening to the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the US supreme Court and the protesters screaming for all they were worth from the gallery, I thought of that remark and of Jan Palach, the student who lit himself on fire in protest of the Soviet invasion of 1968. Palach is a symbol of the final and most extreme protest when oppression has become so immense that dissent is easily silenced, dismissed, buried or imprisoned.

Things have gone from bad to worse in the US in the past two years. The quiet corporate coop that made a mockery of electoral democracy for decades has become overt. The extreme racist, misogynist, eco-cidal ideology that was threatening before has taken more and more power by more and more unjustifiable means.

Plenty of readers will sneer at my title and say that I should not compare this to Nazi Germany, Stalinist Czechoslovakia or slavery times. We are not seeing people shot in the streets… well, except when they are black and vaguely suspected of something. We can still protest. We cannot compare ourselves to Jan Palach and those who had all of their other options taken away.

And that is true. We still can protest. And that is why those screams made me think of Jan Palach. Those protesters hauled off by security were mocked by many. They screamed as a man credibly accused of sexual assault, a man with clearly stated misogynist and extremist views was given lifetime power over us.

They yelled and made a scene and they were ultimately powerless to do anything. The charade of “democracy” went on with smug indifference. Those in power snicker and call their “tantrums” futile and petty.

But it is not nothing to scream at injustice and the destruction of a democratic country. It is not nothing. It is the one thing that still stands between us and the likes of Jan Palach. We can still scream where it is heard. He couldn’t without ending up being tortured in a dark cell.

There is a meme on Facebook that says “You now know what you would have done in Nazi Germany. You’re doing it right now.”

The idea is that the early days of Nazi Germany did not look so different from our current situation, a terribly polarized country with a ridiculous, extreme right-wing faction gaining popular support among a certain frustrated portion of the population while most of the traditional powers tut-tutted and insisted that any resistance be done through their channels. Most of the middle class and intellectuals were sure for a very long time that it wasn’t really that bad, that these nuts would not get total control. They considered the Nazis to be deplorable certainly but not a real threat.

And most people either were swept up into the extremism because they were easily swayed by advertising and razzle-dazzle or they disliked the extremists who gained power but just grumbled quietly about it and mostly made sure not to take any great personal risks.

The thinking behind the meme is that the beginnings of Nazi Germany looked a lot like the United States today and so it is now easy to tell what kind of person you would have been then. And in some ways that meme is right. We have far different technology and public discourse and we are more aware of totalitarianism than most people were then. But the same dynamic is clearly visible, the same divided groups and the same vulnerability to manipulative extremism.

I don’t compare our times to the height of Nazi Germany, Stalinist Prague or slavery times. I do compare our times to the run-up to such moments in history. We are still in the stage where we can scream and not be shot—most of us. We are not yet faced with the choice Jan Palach perceived—to live in utter oppression or to die loudly enough that the scream will at least break the oppressive silence.

And so I ask myself who would I have been in the days leading up to the darkest times in history?

And today I know the answer.

I would have been a writer who wrote the truth even if it meant losing jobs—and eventually a career—over it. I have done that. I have lost jobs and lost my hard-fought career in newspaper journalism with one of the best national newspapers in large part because I wouldn’t tow the line and I broke out of the mold of the celebrity-focused, reality-impaired news too often. I had a couple of run-ins with censorship of historical facts and ended up on the NRA’s journalist “hit list” before I was done.

I would have been a member of a vulnerable group who could not get work or participate in mainstream society in my own country because of the self-destructive way that country was organized which directly excluded my group. Because of that I would have been forced to leave the country and spend my life far from my home and family. I left the United States twenty years ago because as a legally blind person I could not be independent and fully participate in society without public transportation, which is today one of the greatest needs for everyone to combat climate change. Because I am legally blind, the community I emigrated to does not entirely accept me either, but I do have public transportation and so I can have a normal life, a family and a job. The same was true of many who fled destructive regimes for other reasons—less-than enthusiastic welcome but a chance to live.

Whether I stayed or left, I would have been active in protest movements, organizing as long and as hard as I could. I led protests against the war in Iraq in my city, even though it cost me another job and impacted my health. But for a long time I would not have been among those who dropped everything to protest full-time or risked the most. I participated in actions to support Greenpeace blockaders who did risk their lives to protest US imperialism and environmental destruction. I was terribly afraid when I was almost caught by military police while bringing food to an encampment. All I risked that time was a trip to the local jail, a fine and a record. But I quaked with fear and because I was trying to adopt children and didn’t want the possible bureaucratic repercussions, I didn’t ask to take on a riskier role in the protests.

In those other times, I still would have adopted children from a vulnerable group, despite disapproval from many sides. I have done that. I would have been one of those people who held down a hearth and cooked food and let people traveling to protests or fleeing from danger sleep in their home. That too I have done.

Creative Commons image by Michelle of flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Michelle of flickr.com

I would also have been among those who eventually became too exhausted by hand-to-mouth work and health problems to go to most protests. I am exhausted. Most protests are too far and too difficult for me to get to anymore. Then again, needy children keep me tied down. I would have been one of those who found a small corner to hide in when I got older and less physically strong. I would have continued in small ways to resist personally and to give help to the endangered ones who crossed my path.

I would have been among those who wished to do something significant, to join the “real resistance,” but didn’t first because of fear and later because of those who already depended on me. I have fantasies of helping refugees from war-torn and climate-devastated regions. I have fantasies of going off to live in camps at places like Standing Rock to put my body between the corporations and the destruction of the earth’s climate and our children’s future. But I haven’t done it. I am less afraid now that I am older. There is less at stake because there is less of my life and no career or adoption process left to lose.

I would have been a quiet ally to those most targeted by the oppression. I would have stood up for them against social bullying and helped if I could. But I wouldn’t have had either the energy or the capacity to do much that really mattered, because I am also not among the privileged and because even when I don’t fear for my own life and livelihood, I fear for my children, and because of distance and lack of funds and reticence toward cold, hard living.

I would not have been a hero or one remembered by history. I would not have been a collaborator or someone who willfully didn’t see what was happening. I would have been willing to sacrifice a job or a career, but not my family in order to tell the truth. I would have done small things to help those worst affected and felt guilty that I didn’t do more. I would have been among those taking carefully measured risks. And unless I was among the unlucky few—like say Heather Heyer— I wouldn’t have paid the highest price. I know because that is the kind of character I am in our current story.

Have you let yourself think this through? Who would you have been?

Avoid falsely easy answers. You may be among those targeted by hate today but there are likely others who are in greater danger—assuming you have the leisure to be reading my blog.

If you are among those most targeted today, consider that victims also had options back then. Would you have been among those who left early, who found a way out or a way to fight back? Would you have been among those who covered their ears and prayed that it would not go so far? Would you have been among those who blamed your friends and neighbors or joined with them in mutual aid to survive? What is it you are doing today? Are you lashing out at allies or frozen with fear or getting your children to safety and building alliances?

And if you are part of a group that is not yet targeted, who would you have been then? Would you have been the bystander who knew a bit of what was going on but chose not to get too involved? Would you have been the one who who shut their ears and eyes to the suffering of others and the devastation of their homes? Would you have had the courage to use what rights you had to say “no,” to protest loudly when you could and to give aid quietly?

Who would you have been? A lot of the wondering has been resolved in the past two years. Who are you now?

Exclusion: The abled-privilege knapsack

Shutting down "the privilege Olympics"  should not be code for "screw the disabled"

You too are wearing an invisible knapsack. 

In 1988, Peggy McIntosh explained white privilege in terms of an invisible knapsack filled with unearned benefits and assets that white people carry with them almost entirely regardless of class, economic status, citizenship or other conditions.

It's a good analogy. I am now much more aware of my knapsack of white privilege and I can observe the effects of its contents on a daily basis. 

I have never seen a similar analogy used to describe abled privilege, but it is time someone did. In the last few years the necessity of acknowledging abled privilege has been shoved in my face ever more frequently. Even in social justice circles where such things are typically read, people with disabilities are continually being marginalized and silenced.

Creative Commons image by Woodleywonderworks

Creative Commons image by Woodleywonderworks

It is worth noting from the beginning that people carrying the white-privilege knapsack but not the abled-privilege knapsack or visa versa might well enjoy some of the benefits of the one they do hold, but there are assets in both of these knapsacks that are very difficult to enjoy if you don't have the corresponding assets in the other knapsack.

So, as a white woman brought up to be aware of white privilege, I can pick out instances of white privilege that I enjoy. These are not so much unearned privileges as they are privileges earned by every human but accorded only to those who are white--the privilege of driving or walking without a well-founded fear of being accosted by law enforcement for trivial or non-existant reasons or the privilege of relaxing into a social situation in which my race and culture is in the majority most of the time.

Having children who are not white has taught me even more about my own privilege and a few privileges I gave up by being part of a racially mixed family, such as losing the ability to shelter my children from the societal realities of racism and the very real dangers they face because of it. 

However, there are some assets in the white knapsack that I have pulled out broken or severely dented because of my disability. Unlike most white people, I am beset daily by the assumptions and prejudices of others, both unconscious and conscious. I rarely to through a day without being yelled at in public and someone pushes my "difference" in my face at every turn. 

I was once told explicitly that I was denied a job that I was qualified for because of my disability and I have wondered about the reasons behind many other rejections. I have faced social isolation, rejecting neighbors and hostile school teachers as well as accusations of stealing in stores.

I do not claim that it is the same as what people of color face. In fact, I know it is not the same. But people of color who are not disabled do also enjoy privileges that I cannot.

Please note that this inventory has very little to do with the actual health problems people with disabilities may have. It has everything to do with society’s reaction to and ultimate rejection of us. The benefits of privilege represent the minimum of respect earned by every human being from birth and this is true of abled privilege as well. It is our right to be treated with respect and dignity, to have opportunities and to be judged by our actions rather than by attributes we cannot choose.

So, here is an inventory of the abled-privilege knapsack with some prompts drawn from McIntosh's essay and the writings of Emestine Hayes.

Creative Commons image by Honza Soukup

Creative Commons image by Honza Soukup

If you are temporarily abled, you are wearing an invisible knapsack and in it you will find:

  • You can, if you wish, arrange to be in the company of people who view your physical body and neurological setup as normal and acceptable pretty much all the time.

  • You can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper or open a random Google search and see people of your shape or appearance widely represented.

  • You can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys, and children’s magazines featuring people that look vaguely like you.

  • Your body shape is reflected in media, movies, books, magazines, online and in most people's imagination as good and capable, even if sometimes not perfect. As a result, while you may have insecurities or anxieties about your looks, they are not a barrier to social interaction.

  • Beauty, handsomeness, masculinity and femininity are personified by people of your general appearance and body shape. 

  • You can be fairly sure of having your voice heard in a group, even if most of the group has different abilities, body shape and speech from yours.

  • Authority most often rests in people who look like, speak like and perceive the world like you.

  • You do not need to make an in-depth study of the social habits and customary communication methods of your immediate neighbors in order to avoid daily conflicts of misunderstanding and unintended offense. 

  • You can criticize the government and talk about how difficult it is to access basic services without being seen as a moocher, a whiner, ungrateful or a burden. 

  • You can go home from most meetings of organizations you belong to and social gatherings you attend feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, rejected, unwanted, unheard, barred at a distance, or dismissed.

  • You can attire yourself, if you choose, in a way that most people in your community seeing you and hearing you speak will assume that you are capable, responsible and trustworthy until proven otherwise. If you happen to belong to a group where this is not always true, a community of people who do look and sound like you and where you would be respected and trusted does exist somewhere in the world. Even if you don't live there, the knowledge that such a community exists bolsters your courage and self-confidence and in most cases you could move to such a community if outside pressure became too intense.

  • People make eye-contact with you and you are able to make eye contact with them. People make small-talk with you and you are able to make small talk with them. This initial social contact often leads to social connections, builds bridges and defuses potential conflicts. 

  • While you may have been teased at school, your chances of suffering from extreme bullying or complete social isolation in childhood are dramatically reduced. Your chances of suffering from PTSD and other acquired barriers to communication with others are significantly reduced.

  • Teachers at schools and universities almost always look like, speak like and perceive the world like you do.

  • The vast majority of students and teachers all through the education system sense the world, communicate and access textual materials in the same way that you do.

  • The entire education system is custom made and designed with scientific precision to benefit your type of brain and calibrated to meet the needs of your particular senses.

  • The language and writing system of your culture was designed by and for people who communicate and perceive language in the same ways that you do.

  • Public buildings, including schools, were built using models of your body, to make them comfortable and easily accessible to you.

  • You have probably not been called a burden. You were not called a burden to your school while you pursued your education.

  • If you are denied employment for which you are qualified, you can be pretty sure it isn't because of an attribute you did not choose and which does not affect your job performance.

  • If you are given an award, you can be pretty sure it is something you deserved rather than a publicity stunt by the patron of the award. 

  • You can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having co-workers on the job suspect that you got it because of disability hiring incentives.

  • If your day, week, or year is going badly, you need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it is disability related.

  • You can choose public accommodations without fearing that you cannot enter or will be treated with disrespect in the places you have chosen.

  • When you plan social engagements, your way of getting to and into the venue is the same as that of most of your friends and you don't need to strategize, beg for assistance from friends or go to extreme expense to get to or enter the social venues your peers take for granted. 

  • You can always ensure that your living, schooling, work and or social environment will be among people you can communicate with and among which you will be considered "normal" if you desire.

  • You can always find a living, schooling, work or social venue that you can physically access and fully participate in locally if you desire. 

  • If you should need to move, you can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing which you can afford and which you can personally enter and use fully and from which you can get to schools and places of employment.

  • You can be pretty sure that your neighbors in such a location will view you as a full adult, if you are over 18 years old. .

  • You can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that you will be able to access merchandise and that a reasonable portion of it will fit you and be usable by you.

  • Whether you use checks, credit cards or cash, you can count on not being infantilized, shamed or dismissed by cashiers and other people you interact with in public..

  • You can arrange to protect yourself from harm most of the time.

  • You are twenty percent more likely to finish high school than a person with a disability who has similar intelligence. You are twice as likely to finish college.

  • You are at least three times as likely to have any sort of job than a person with a disability and much more likely to have a job that is of some interest to you, that provides some social prestige, that pays your bills and in which you can progress for a career.

  • You are half as likely to be hungry as a disabled person. 

  • You are a third as likely to be a victim of sexual assault and half as likely to be a victim of violent crime as a person with a disability from a similar social or economic group and geographical area. You are half as likely to be a victim of domestic violence.

  • You are twice as likely to have family and friends nearby or who you can contact in an emergency. You are likely to have a circle of friends to enjoy leisure time with and to network with for mutual benefit.

  • You are twice as likely to have a long-term relationship. You are many times more likely to have children.

  • You can swear or dress in second-hand clothes or not answer letters without having people automatically assume these choices indicate low intelligence, shaky mental state or poverty.

  • You can be temporarily out of work or sick without being called a burden or assumed to be unemployable.

  • You can do well in a challenging situation without being called "an inspiration" or used to further the religious or social agendas of others without your consent.

  • With education and credentials, you could become an an acknowledged expert on people who look, speak and perceive the world differently from you and you would not be asked why you did not choose to study your own group.

I am sure I have missed some. It's a large knapsack after all. 

This is one of those posts that will inevitably draw flack. It isn't that I don't care. I have simply decided that the amount of verbal shrapnel I'm getting in "progressive" circles these days for being an uppity person with a disability has reached a point where the potential flack from this post won't be a significant change. 

So let me lay it out there. I am sick of the dismissal of people with disabilities in activist circles. I am sick of being told, "you are white so you need to practice being silent for a while," when I have been silenced, dismissed and sidelined my entire life.

I am sick to exhaustion of being excluded, rejected and sidelined in supposedly progressive groups because I didn't take an insult or bullying in silence and answered back withotu profanity, without insults but nonetheless with unpalatable truth. . 

I get what people of color, indigenous people, speakers of languages other than English and people living in absolute poverty are talking about when it comes to wanting those with privilege to stop yammering about their perspective on society, their perspective on history, their perspective on underrepresented people and their perspective on social justice long enough to listen to the perspectives of those less heard.

I get it because while I have the privileges in the white-privilege knapsack, the English-speaker's knapsack and the resources-beyond-bare-survival knapsack, these are usually not enough to be heard without abled privilege. 

This is not "the Privilege Olympics." It is not a matter of whose usurped privilege is worse. It is almost always so different that it cannot be compared. Still mentioning "the Privilege Olympics" or equivalent is routinely used to dismiss and marginalize people with disabilities in activist circles.

We have huge, life-threatening threats to people of color. The crises for people of color are so extreme in some places that there can be no other priorities or even distractions.

Many of us, myself included, have agreed to this, stepped back and ceded precedence because while there are life-threatening and devastating issues for people with disabilities as well, the numbers seem to indicate that our problems are at least statistically less severe. We activists with disabilities have often felt that we can wait a little while and trust that our progressive activist communities would do their best to include us in the meantime. 

But that trust has been misplaced. 

Not once but again and again. Not only do people with disabilities encounter a lot of social exclusion, bullying and discrimination in society at large, we encounter much the same atmosphere inside social justice organizations and groups claiming to be against bigotry and hate. 

My experiences and the experiences of those I have spoken with are clear. People with disabilities are welcome in these groups primarily as mascots or symbols. We are not respected for in our fields of expertise and study. We are often silenced and rarely given a voice. 

I've been told that my voice and experience are not welcome in progressive and social justice groups on multiple occasions. Usually this was not specifically because of my disability but rather because of my race. I was told that as a white person I am privileged and my role is not to speak. As a blind person, however, given that no other people with disabilities were present or given a voice, I felt that our voice was needed. 

I have been rejected quickly from several groups when my politely phrased protestations against being silenced were regarded as going against group authority. I never used profanity or insults against others in my responses. I did not talk over others but only refused to be entirely silent.

For that reason, this inventory of the abled-privilege backpack is necessary. I welcome any additions that others may find while rummaging through it. 

Do the blind understand what the sighted see?

Being an out-outspoken visually impaired blogger and author has one annoying side effect. I get asked the darnedest questions. 

The latest one was this zinger, "How do blind people know they are blind?" Taken at face value it's ridiculous and my first inclination was to give it a flippant, humorous reply that would put the assumption that blind people are stupid in it's place. But the inquirer followed up with a bit of explanation and I saw a deeper question in the botched phrasing.

How do little blind children know they are different from sighted children? How do blind people know about what sighted people experience through sight? Those aren’t such silly questions, so I let them have it.

When I was a baby and they found out that I was almost entirely blind, my parents decided that they would act like it wasn’t true or at the very least didn’t matter. We lived on 20 acres in remote, rural mountains in Oregon. We built our own cabin, grew a lot of our own food and rode long distances to a small school on yellow buses that made it up the gravel road most of the year.

Creative Commons image by Neticola Sny

Creative Commons image by Neticola Sny

I had two rambunctious brothers and my dad was always building something. There were hand tools, boards and debris scattered all around the cabin and beyond that there were the woods and the rocky high prairie. Many days in our middle childhood, we spent the whole day outside and didn’t come back until evening. We’d eat miner’s lettuce and camus roots or sit down under a pastured cow and drink milk right out of the udder.

I don’t remember realizing that my eyes were different. It seems like it was a fact that was always there. I could see some but very little. I ran after my brothers. I was a loud, complaining child and I was always yelling, “Wait for me.” They didn’t. I learned to keep up.

I don’t know when or how but I discovered that if I picked up pebbles and threw them ahead of me, I could run faster and avoid most scrapes. There were irrigation ditches in the lower areas that my brothers would jump across and run on without slowing down. I threw my pebbles, listened for how far I had to throw before they stopped dropping into the bottom of the ditch and then I jumped too.

I was slower sometimes. But not on a bike. I could see enough to make out the basic contours of the road and our gravel road was so rarely frequented that a car came along once in a few hours. And when one did, my brothers and I would not only scramble to the side but well off of the road, skittish as the deer.

So I had a bike, just like my brothers. One brother is two years older than me and one is four years younger. My older brother once rode his bike five miles to the tiny down of Summerville, population 250. I copied him the next day, insistent that he wouldn’t outdo me.

Then a few months later, I decided I would ride ten miles to the town of Imbler which was bigger. My brother laughed. But I got up in the morning and packed water and food. That was one of the first times I remember my mother showing any concern about what I did from a safety standpoint. She wasn’t entirely thrilled with the idea but didn’t seem to forbid it. My older brother jumped up from his place by the woodpile and grabbed his bike and rode off fast. I scrambled onto my bike and followed. He wasn’t going to beat me. We eventually agreed to cross the city-limits line together.

I wore huge thick, coke-bottle-bottom glasses to slightly improve my vision. Think of it this way: without the glasses I saw about five percent of what most people see. With them it was closer to eight or ten percent. My family obviously didn’t have much money and the glasses were worth an entire month’s income.

I lost them, of course. I hated the glasses for one thing. As a toddler I threw them away willfully. Later I lost them a couple of times because i put them down. The glasses were so heavy they carved red sores into my face. But by the time I was old enough to remember, I knew I had to have them and I didn’t resent them.

Whenever my family rode in a car, they were constantly pointing out deer, hawks and eagles as we drove along the country roads. I listened from the time I was a baby and there must have come a time when I realized that they were seeing things I wasn’t. I wanted to see those things too but there was never a moment when I asked to see.

Sometimes my mom tried to describe something like that to me, but I knew what a deer and an eagle looked like. I could see them up close in picture books. Of course, what I saw even there was indistinct and lacking in detail. I just didn’t know it.

I remember one conversation in the car in particular. My mother was talking about the new leaves on a tree with my older brother. I think they were discussing whether or not the leaves were healthy. This was at some small distance. I could see only fuzzy green blobs on the sides of the road where the trees were. I imagined that my family could see those blobs better. They could see their exact shapes and maybe some branches in them, like I could in a picture book. But I stopped my mom in the middle of the conversation and demanded that she not jump to conclusions about the health of the tree unless she examined it close up.

“You can’t possibly see the individual leaves, let alone what spots are on them,” I said.

There was silence for a moment. And then she told me somewhat sternly, somewhat in awe, that in fact she could. She said she saw each leaf, individually, etched against the background, each twig, each blade of grass. I thought about that for a long time afterwards. I couldn’t imagine. It seemed like it would hurt to have to absorb that much detail. The image i tried to imagine was so sharp it was painful.

I knew about blurry and sharp because I had the glasses. When I took my glasses off the world looked blurry. When I put them on the world looked sharp and clear and brand new. I was still seeing a world that was blurred beyond recognition for sighted people. If a sighted person suddenly saw what I see even with the best correction, it is unlikely they could walk even a few steps. It would be blurry, disorienting, distorted and lacking in all depth perception.

But to me, that was the best and clearest image I could imagine. I asked my parents how things could be clearer. They said they just are and that what I saw was actually still blurry.

I didn’t entirely believe them until I was nine years old. That was the year I first tried on contact lenses. Because they were closer to my retina the contact lenses could correct my vision a little bit more. I will never forget the moment I first blinked my eyes open in a doctor’s office and looked at the opposite wall. I had been to that office countless times during my childhood. My parents may not have wanted to pay much attention to my vision impairment, but they didn’t neglect my care.

I knew that wall all too well. It was green. Or it was supposed to be green, a kind of muddy, unpleasant green. But when I blinked my eyes open with the contact lenses in I saw for the first time that the green wall was actually a much brighter green. The muddy impression I got was caused by the fact that there were thin orange and purple stripes on the wallpaper. I had always seen it as one muddy color.

In that moment, I knew my mom was telling the truth.

Therefore, if there was ever one single moment when I realized how different my vision was all at once it was probably then. I got the contact lenses and could see a tiny bit better. Again the world seemed ultra crisp to me. Only going back to my old glasses at times made me realize that what I had thought was clear before had not been.

Creative Commons image by Mike Behnken

Creative Commons image by Mike Behnken

The older I got the more I realized how much other people could see that I couldn’t. They saw the blackboard at school and every detail on it. They saw details on people’s faces that allowed them to tell instantly which person was which, even if the people were the same height and gender and had about the same kind of hair. I could never see the details of faces and had a hard time understanding how people could recognize others so quickly and easily.

Later as an adult, I read about the special, neurological functions of the human brain, in which the exact specifications of human faces are prioritized so much that sighted people can tell minute differences not only individual to individual but in the same individual, the tiniest flicker of emotions or thoughts crossing a face.

I memorize who is who by painstakingly adding up what details I can get and cataloging them, like this: short, thin lady with the bouncy blond hair who has a tinkling laugh = Jane. Sighted people remember dozens of faces in that amount of time with their facial-recognition priority function. 

This isn’t just sight, it is specially enhanced sight made possible by the adaptations of our brains. Human touch and human voices are important to the brain, but there is nothing apparently with quite the power of eye contact. Looking into another person’s eyes is, according to science, profoundly important to humans. It supports social, psychological and neurological development.

Studies have documented the huge health problems experienced by babies in institutions, who do not receive enough human contact and no single, secure bond with a special caretaker. And one of the most important treatments for these problems is eye contact.

I have never known real eye contact, not the kind that imparts all those neurological benefits. My brain had to make do with the human touch and voice inputs, which can be enough if a child does grow up in a loving family. But not having known about eye contact from an early age, I did not behave “correctly” around sighted people. I didn’t look at people while they talked when I was a teenager. I would study my hands or stare off while listening.

No one really understood this or realized the difference. They just felt that I was rude and aloof. Those words were used a lot about me, though I was anything but aloof and desperately eager to please others. It was only when specialized teachers explained eye contact to me and trained me to try to aim my eyes at their eyes and pretend to make eye contact that things improved.

The exercise in faked eye contact is still exhausting for me because my eyes move erratically and it takes a lot of effort for me to get them to hold still and try to look like I am making eye contact. But like any other social courtesy it is worth doing, to show respect to the person I am talking to and to avoid conflicts.

Now after many years of study, I have a better idea of what normal sight is probably like. I have pressed my face close to video screens and watched expressions cross the faces of actors. I probably can’t see every detail, but I can have some idea of what other people’s expressions look like. I can see distant natural features and animals that I would otherwise not know in the same way--by looking close at photographs and using a magnifying glass. It isn’t the same of course. But there isn’t much else I feel the lack of.

I have experienced some amazingly beautiful sights and scenes in my life. Once as a young adult I had the opportunity to travel alone in Nepal. I went high up in the foothills of the Himalayas to a remote mountain-top village to deliver a letter from a Nepali friend to his wife and children.

I was still very good at navigating natural environments, camping out alone and all that, given that I grew up doing it. I slept outside the cabin of my friend’s family in my sleeping bag and in the morning I went out to the edge of a massive cliff to take in the sunrise and cook a cup of hot chocolate over my tiny alcohol-tab stove.

Before dawn the whole world was silver and blue. I could make out hazy ridge lines in front of me, jagged streaks of indigo against the silver, tapering down to the rose tinted mist above the plains of India to the south. To the north there were shining white peaks against an azure sky.

Then shivering streaks of gold, peach and pink began tracing out from the east like a painter’s brush bleeding into fabric. I watched in awe as the sun, emerged onto the horizon, like a jewel rising out of viscous honey. The light from it truly seemed to pour like slow liquid. Gold, rose and peach splashed over the ridges, turning the indigo lines to flame. The valleys and canyons were still dark and the mist that curled up out of them shown with color and light.

I am sure there are many details I missed. I missed the birds soaring in the canyon below me. I missed the leaves on the vines growing on the cliffs. I missed the detailed sparkling contours of the Himalayan peaks far to the north, that I could barely make out as white shining gods.

But what I saw was no less beautiful. And combined with what I heard and felt and tasted and smelled in that little village in a time and place in history when there were still little villages built with stone and branches with no electricity and no mail service… well, I experienced plenty.

I felt the rough grain of the wood under my hands, investigated the geology of the rocks, listened as the children taught me Nepali from their tattered school notebooks, ate the meager rice and lentils of the village, spiced with both sharp hunger and whatever the mothers put in it. And I never wanted for more.

I knew that I was visually impaired the way anyone knows their basic characteristics. You know your arms and legs and hair and senses. You learn your body, particularly if you live a physical and rugged life as a child. Later the tests of doctors told me exactly how different my eyes are. That is something no one could know without science and measurement. I had the good fortune of not knowing for the first several years of my life how the world would view me as different and lesser because of this minor physical difference.

Because my parents chose not to pay much attention to it, I gained an active, healthy body and great mobility skills and I lost a lot of early understanding of the social cues I was missing. It was a blessing and a curse. My mother now often regrets not paying more attention, not realizing how different the social experience of a blind person is, the lack of recognizing faces and expressions, the lack of eye contact.

And I agree that if I had the raising of a blind child, I would talk about that. I would train them in social courtesy and try to bring those key experiences in. But I would also let that child run wild too, as much as any child gets that these days.

I would never let understanding sight or what part of it was lost become a major topic or obsession. Because it is just one thing, one piece of life experience. And the others can and do make up for it more than society believes.

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.