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.

Jokes that hurt without meaning to

This post is not about racists, homophobes, ableists, sexists and other recognized deplorables telling deplorable jokes that we can all agree are damaging and not funny.

Sorry. It’s been done. Here are some links (on people who get mad that women don’t fake laugh at sexist jokes anymore. and how bigoted jokes change who it is socially acceptable to hate), if you need a post about that. It is also a real issue.

This is the “dig a little deeper” post.

Jokes that hurt image.jpg

We—and here I mean progressive, kind, good-hearted people who don’t want to hurt anyone—need to think about what happens when we accidentally or carelessly tell a joke that hurts someone.

There’s a Facebook meme that says, “If I ever confuse ‘their’ versus ‘there’ and ‘its’ versus ‘it’s’ in the same post, you should take it as a sign that I have been kidnapped and I’m signaling for help.”

I’m a linguist, a grammar buff and an ESL teacher. I get why this is funny.

Those who know and care about the differences in words and who feel that the integrity of language matters get frustrated with the apparent lackadaisical attitude of many on social media toward the written word.

To many of us, sloppy spelling and grammar is the equivalent of going out in public with your fly down, food on your chin, morning breath, body odor and your hair not brushed for three days. It reflects poorly on the person posting a message and discredits what they have to say.

Meanwhile, to many people on social media, typing is simply a different way of talking and the faster it’s done the better.

The joke is funny because:

1. The person who posts the joke is poking some fun at her/himself for being a bit of a grammar nerd,

2. We all know a lot of people online who just don’t care whether they make those mistakes and there is a light rivalry between them and the grammar nerds.

3. Some people’s grammar and spelling is really hilarious.

Um… What? Wait just a minute there.

Number three is a problem. If poor grammar on social media is the equivalent of going out in public disheveled, then laughing at people who present poor grammar is the equivalent of ridiculing a person in public who looks disheveled.

And that person might just be homeless.

Or in the online version, they might be dyslexic, blind, an ESL learner, uneducated due to generational poverty or so stressed by difficult life circumstances that they can’t check over their posts.

Imagine if you will a similar Facebook meme stating, “If I ever start stuffing my face and turn into a fatty, you should take it to mean that I’m trapped in an abusive relationship under threat of violence and that’s how I’m signaling for help.” Imagine a really slim friend posting this.

Okay, it is no longer funny at all. We can probably all agree that this would be insensitive and cruel.

The analogy is closer to home than you may think. Obesity is often considered a product of lazy, lackadaisical habits, just as poor spelling is. But both are often actually caused by or exacerbated by factors beyond a person’s control. Both are also the focus of a lot of overt harassment and ridicule.

I cannot count the number of times someone has called me out online for mixing up a homonym, for a dropped comma or for not catching a bad autocorrect. My specific reasons for these mistakes are being 90 percent blind, using voice recognition to type and being a stressed-out parent on modest means. I’m geographically isolated enough to need social media for both work and social interaction. So I try anyway, but my online escapades are far from perfect.

I’m a professional writer and I graduated suma cum laude in linguistics, so I shouldn’t be sensitive about this

But... ridicule is hard to take, and growing up with a disability I’ve received my full measure. When I see other people ridiculed for it online, even when they are my political opponents, I feel threatened.

Okay, I’ll agree that a president really should check over his tweets. If I were president, I wouldn’t be sending out anything I hadn’t had checked by someone else. There’s having a text disability and there’s being smart about your personal strengths and weaknesses. Presidents can afford line editors and so there isn’t much excuse beyond arrogance and lack of care.

But I still don’t engage in those particular jabs at 45.

I think I did once find that grammar meme funny, years ago, when I first got on social media. I had the same problems I have now with text, but I had not yet encountered the online ridicule over it. A person’s experience of having been ridiculed about the point of the joke does matter.

I recently overreacted to such a joke and called out a friend over it. I felt bad later. I don’t want to be harsh or mean, especially when I’m pretty sure the person who posted it had the first two reasons for humor in mind, not so much the problematic third.

But it is an issue worth thinking about. I have seen my friends who are only intermediate in English be dismissed and laughed off of social media, when it took significant courage for them to speak up in a foreign language. I have been ridiculed for posting in the language of the country where I am an immigrant. It is also a second language for me and I know I make mistakes.

And this is by far not the only joke that many of us may find funny, while it hits someone else like a sucker punch. Some jokes about family relationships may really hurt people who have lost family through adoption or estrangement. Some jokes may reference something sensitive for one group that the individual telling the joke genuinely didn’t realize would be sensitive. Think bananas, jungles and “gypsy” fortune tellers for instance.

I may be experienced enough to personally avoid these, but I’ll guarantee you one thing. There is a joke out there somewhere that I will think is hilarious and either laugh at or share, which will actually hurt someone. And I can pretty much guarantee that the same is true for you.

We don’t know for sure and we’re all likely to make this mistake, no matter what our personal background is. A lot of people will take that as a reason to dismiss the whole thing and say that we should all grow thicker skins and learn to take a joke.

But we know where that leads.

If we say it is all right to tell jokes that hurt people with invisible disabilities or ESL learners, we will be that much closer to social acceptability of overtly racist jokes.

And yet laughter and humor is in desperately short supply. Our hearts cry that the solution cannot be that we walk on eggshells around sharing anything funny.

The best I have for you is this:

1. When I am hurt by such a joke or comment in the future, I will say simply, “That hurts. Here’s why.” I will go back to psychology 101 and use statements starting with “I” rather than accusing the other person of something. I invite you to join me in this resolution.

2. When that unhappy but inevitable day comes when I am told that my humor hurt someone else, I will listen and truly think it through. I will delete jokes that hurt people if it’s online. And I’ll apologize for hurting that person, even if I had no intention of doing so, even if I don’t quite think they are justified.

The experience of hurt is a fact. If it comes from me then I did the hurting. Intention is not irrelevant but it is also not everything. Neither is reasonableness. Saying, “I’m sorry my joke hurt you. Thanks for letting me know. I will try not to hurt you in the future,” costs little.

This isn’t going to solve all the problems of social media or dinner party discourse, let alone the broader world. But it can make our personal circle of social interaction more aware and safer for those who have already had their full measure of hurt.

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.

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?

Strike a blow against bureaucracy: Freedom for multicultural names in the Czech Republic

My path to parenthood was a rocky one, slogging through infertility, an Eastern European adoption system and the judgments of many who felt a blind person shouldn't parent in the first place.

As well as those large boulders, there were some small, sharp stones on that road, not barriers but merely unpleasant jabs to endure. These were, for instance, lectures from bureaucrats about how wrong I was--wrong to think I could parent, wrong to adopt, wrong to accept children of another ethnicity, wrong in naming my child...

Creative Commons image by Jason Pratt

Creative Commons image by Jason Pratt

That last was one of the final rocks in my shoes, but one that I knew about from the beginning. I had heard rumors about the Czech Republic's name czar, an elderly linguist with the antiquated opinions of the 19th century. 

You see the Czech Republic has a name calendar. Each day of the year has been given a name, sometimes two. These were originally the feast days of saints and the custom dates to a time when immigrants were few and knowledge of the world beyond the little valley of Bohemia and the hills of Moravia was very limited.

Name days are still celebrated by many in the Czech Republic. Friends and family members give flowers, cards, chocolate and alcohol to those named after the saint in the calendar. As a result, being given a name that isn't on the calendar could represent a distinct denial of small gifts. 

This may have been one of the motivations for appointing a linguistics expert to control all foreign and uncommon names given in the country. Another reason given was to prevent people from having to correct the spelling and pronunciation of others.

I will admit that there are some small perks to this rigid naming system, once you have learned to pronounce all 365 or so names--no small feat with names like Zbyněk, Wilhelmina, Břetislav, Otýlie and Zdesislava--just to name a few. If you are ever called upon to pronounce another person's name without help, you theoretically have no problem. 

But the most commonly cited reason is the fear that classmates will ridicule a child with an uncommon name. Those who wished to give their child a common foreign name like Doug had to apply for a permit, while one could cheerfully and freely name a child Bonifác--one extremely rare Czech name that sounds just as ridicule-prone in Czech as it does in English, but which—none the less—gets a day on the calendar (May 14 to be exact).

That's why when I went to name each of my kids and didn't want to choose either the 30-odd actually used names on the Czech calendar--which results in my children's classes having only three names to share between eight girls and the like--or any of the ridiculous ones not in general use, I had to approach the name czar with polite pleas of supplication and suffer through one last lecture about my wrongness. 

The name czar warned me that my children, named Shaye and Marik, would suffer terribly in school because of their odd foreign names. In both instances, the name czar originally denied my request and I had to document the common use of the names in other countries.

Beyond the fairly popular English name "Shaye", "Marik" is a Slovak variant of the common Czech Marek and it saves my son from sharing his name completely with two other kids in his year. But the name czar did not like my choices.

Exhausted from years of this kind of ordeal in the adoption process and still unsure whether or not the authorities could revoke our children if we were too disobedient, my husband and I bowed our heads, produced all the needed paperwork and stuck to fairly standard names even when applying for something different.

But not everyone is such a lightweight, thankfully. Another mixed couple--an American of Native American Indian background and her Czech husband--won their two-year court battle with the name czar this past summer. They had to go all the way to the Czech Constitutional Court, the highest court in the land.

Tthe court struck down the name czar and the power to intimidate and harass families of diverse cultures. The court decreed that the law says only that parents must provide documentation, such as a mention on a baby-names website or another registry of names or evidence that a name has been used in the past. Upon the filing of this documentation with a county clerk, the parents’ name choice will be automatically accepted. 

My children are well into their school years with their mildly unusual names and they don't report any major difficulties. My daughter has mentioned that mean boys will occasionally chant bastardized versions of her name, but they do it to all the girls. She is mildly dismayed that her name rhymes with so many things because this gives the boys a bit more fodder.

Still she is strong-willed and does not want to use her bland second name Hana (mostly given to her to ensure that she would not miss out on name-day treats).

My son, on the other hand, is slightly sad that his does not rhyme with anything in English or even that much in Czech. I have had to correct officials a few times when they heard his name and assumed it was the more common Marek, instead of Marik, but my son is happy with is little bit of uniqueness and that is what matters in the long run.

I am relieved to hear of this small victory for common sense over bureaucracy and grateful to those who fought the long fight in court.  

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. 

Author portrait.jpg

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. 

To cane or not to cane.jpg

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.

How sure are you of right and wrong?

Thirty years after the war was over, a young father and history buff bought the shell of a house in the hills near a hotly contested border. He was a poor factory worker, but it cost only the equivalent of a month's salary because the old stone and timber dwelling was in desolate disrepair and the local fire department had been planning to destroy it in a practice drill. 

The new owner started to rebuild the house bit by bit. He wanted his children to grow up in the beautiful natural surroundings and he loved to learn about the tragic history of the land. He saved to buy new tools and materials and slowly over many years he rebuilt the old house to look like the pre-war photographs in the village archives. 

Creative Commons image by Heather Katsoulis

Creative Commons image by Heather Katsoulis

Then one day after the border was reopened, a middle-aged woman approached the house. She said she had lived there as a child, that the house belonged to her parents. Forty five years earlier when she was a child, militia men had come with guns and forced her family to flee. The armed men had stolen the family's bicycle, their only means of transportation, and forced them to walk over the mountains into the neighboring country with only those few things they could take with fifteen minutes warning. 

This is a real story. I knew both the man and the woman. They are real people. It's the kind of story that happens on contested borders. 

Ordinary people looking for a place of home and safety buy or stake a claim to land and homes. Other ordinary people are caught on the wrong side of a political, national, linguistic, racial, religious or economic divide are killed or forced to leave their homes. And so it goes.

And now tell me this. Who should own that house?

Should the man own it? He bought it with his hard earned wages, worked on it with his own hands and saved it from destruction. 

Should the woman own it? She was an innocent child forced to flee her home and she still has the birth certificates, deeds and other documents to prove that she should have inherited it. 

Your answer will probably depend on which border, which side of that border and which war you think I'm talking about. This isn't ancient history but a relatively modern and well-documented situation in which most of the questions can be answered. 

Take note of your instinctive answer and then consider whether the following facts change it.

The woman was part of a German-speaking minority and the house stands in the border region of the Czech Republic, then Czechoslovakia. The war was World War Two. Hitler annexed this border region of Czechoslovakia at the beginning of the war and the German-speaking minority was noted for significantly supporting the Nazis. 

That was the reason for their mass expulsion. Many, probably most, of the woman's group supported and cheered on the Nazis. And so--brutal and indiscriminate as it may have been--some people justify the forced expulsion of German-speaking people from Czechoslovakia.

But this woman was a child at the time, living in a remote rural cabin, no more to blame than any other child and less powerful than some.

I tell this story not to win sympathy for the Sudetten Germans. But rather to promote the practice of skeptical, mindful ethics.

If you were sure in the beginning of the story that the new owner should be compensated but the house should be returned to the old owner and then you changed your mind based on the added facts, you must admit that moral certainty is hard to come by. 

We want children of about ten years old to "know right from wrong." And yet educated and caring adults often find it difficult to say exactly what is right or wrong in a complex situation and which way the scales turn can depend on details that require an understanding of social, political, economic and historical forces. 

I don't personally have a definite answer for which is right or wrong in this real-life story that I stumbled upon as a teenager new to Czechoslovakia twenty-five years ago. The law here has retained the rights of new owners in that case. The man's claim is upheld by the law. But if the house had been confiscated by the Communist authorities and the family expelled after the Soviet invasion in 1968, the law would favored the old owners.

The law is not ethics. It's just the law. And one would be naive to believe that laws are consistent. 

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

I am happy to say that this woman did not demand her house returned or even seem bitter about the law. Instead she was thankful that the house had been preserved and reconstructed, so that it looked much like her beloved childhood home. The man invited her to come and stay and lovingly helped her to reclaim her memories and a family treasure buried on the property. Theirs was a story with a happy ending.

But so many similar stories are not. 

The past few weeks have had me thinking a lot about ethical dilemmas. The news has hit on story after story in which passions run high and there is more than one side with a claim. 

It isn't that I don't have strong opinions. I can clearly say that the killing of unarmed Palestinian protesters by Israeli soldiers is wrong, even a crime against humanity. But what exactly should be done to solve the situation? Whose homes should be sacrificed in a small country with limited land and water? 

That isn't so simple. One way or another in our crowded world, there are people in need without homes, often with a valid right to the land or homes where others, including those innocent and unaware of any injustice, are now living.

My entire native country is based on stolen land. And yes, we can say that those who have been wronged should be compensated, but by whom? Some of the descendants of those who stole from or enslaved others are wealthy from the profits of exploitation. Others are barely scraping by. And yet if there is a debt to pay, shouldn't everyone be required to pay all the same?

Even the question of the infamous Chinese prom dress leaves me befuddled. A white girl decided to go to the prom in a traditional Chinese dress, which she wore in inappropriate ways and seemed to mock in one photo. Many people are furious over this. It's called cultural appropriation, taking something from another culture, particularly one that has been exploited by your own in the past or present, and either claiming it as your own or using it inappropriately or mockingly.

Don't get me wrong, I can't abide people who set up shop as a "Shaman" or pen books on Native American spirituality who have no legitimate connection to either Siberian or Native American culture. Making a profit off of a stereotyped fakery poached from the struggling remnants of cultures nearly destroyed by exploitation is clearly wrong. 

But as I put Vietnamese spring rolls made with my own fresh garden greens down on the table for my children, while wearing a shirt with Guatamalan patterns, I am not so sure where the line is. I know where these things come from. I love them and treat them with respect. I want those cultures which have been endangered to be represented and kept alive. And I simply prefer the cuisine and color coordination of some cultures over others. But I can't say in every instance what is right and what is wrong.

If the girl with the Chinese prom dress had not publicly shared a mocking photograph of her dress, would it still have been wrong? Western prom dresses are, in my not-so-humble opinion, a fashion travesty of modern times. Please any culture that is willing to save us from them, please  step forward! Despite the problems, I still say the Chinese dress was the--hands down--prettiest in those photos.

Looking at all these less-than-clear-cut situations and modern problems, one is tempted to say that it all depends. Certainly, we should be critical thinkers and respect the opinions of others. It is tempting to say that there is no absolute right or wrong. Even when we teach children right from wrong when they are ten years old, we end up pointing out that a child in a storybook who steals food to survive is not really so bad. 

But these are terrible times to abandon ethics and claim moral relativism. Are the opinions of Neonazis equal to all other political opinions in political discourse? And if not theirs, then where is the line? 

We live in a time when political leaders preach an extreme religious doctrine and claim to be for high morals, while dallying with pornography, blatantly lying, taking and giving out huge bribes, poisoning their rivals, fixing elections and claiming it's legal, and abusing anyone vulnerable they can touch--without the scandals even making a large ripple. Gods help us, if we don't even know what is right and wrong anymore ourselves. 

Many intellectuals I have discussed this with say that an opinion is valid in so far as it is not against someone else or does not harm someone else. That seems like a good rule, but it is easier to to say than to apply.

Among the most vicious arguments I have seen in the past few days have been over the silent and non-violent actions of people protesting what they saw as deeply wrong. A week ago, dozens of graduates and their family members silently stood up and walked out of their own graduation ceremony at Notre Dame in protest as Mike Pence gave a graduation address.

When questioned, the protesters specifically mentioned Pence's support for extreme racist organizations and for Donald Trump's rabidly anti-Muslim policies. Pence is also noted for pushing extreme religious agendas and promoting the interests of large corporations, specifically the Koch brothers, in public policy. But regardless of whether one agrees with the reasons the protesting students walked out, the vicious verbal attacks and threats against them imply a certainty of the wrongness of protest. 

Pence himself called the banning of athletes who kneel to mourn the killing of unarmed African Americans during the National Anthem "winning." There is no question of right or wrong in that statement. It implies a game with winners and losers 

The actions taken to penalize the protesting and mourning athletes and their teams and the words often deployed against them are extreme, while their actions are mild, respectful and silent. 

I can understand a parent being upset if their child walked out of graduation to protest something the parent didn't understand or feel is important. I can even understand people brought up to believe that the National Anthem is sacred disagreeing with someone kneeling during it. But none of these are violent acts that harm another, and yet violence is threatened against those who take quiet actions in defense of their ethics. 

There are plenty of situations where I cannot say with certainty that I am right and another is wrong. Ddetails and historical context do matter. But I hope we will not lose the most basic concepts of right and wrong through this. If a person quietly stands, sits, walks or kneels to protest violence and hatred, they should have that right. I may not always agree with their side of the story, but I can always respect a quiet statement of ethical concern.

No comparison: Privilege is a big deal

It's one of the first warm days of spring. The kids are playing together for once, instead of tormenting each other, and I'm taking full advantage of the moment, turning the soil in garden beds and planting peas and carrots as fast as I can.

Then I hear a horrible screeching from the empty lot next door. There are words in it, though barely.. "Get out... like rats... this is ours." 

There's more but that's enough. It's an adult voice yelling but it is followed by the shrieking laughter and pounding feet of children, fleeing from the sounds of it.

I put down the shovel and strip off my work gloves. But I don't have to search far to find the kids. They are breathless and covered with fresh black dirt. I pry the story out of them. The neighbor lady from down the hill, someone who wants nothing to do with us, yelled at them for playing in the empty lot. 

"She said it's hers but it's not!" my nine-year-old daughter fumes.

Creative Commons image courtesy of Stefan Lins

Creative Commons image courtesy of Stefan Lins

She's right in that the lot belongs to an absentee landlord and local law supports  recreational use of unfenced land. I pry further though and learn that the children discovered a nice tall dirt pile in the empty lot and they were "sledding"  down it.

Thus the condition of their clothes... and no doubt the reaction of the neighbor.

I explain that the dirt pile probably does belong to the neighbor, even if it's in the empty lot. The kids are unrepentant. They don't understand about the need to keep a load of dirt in it's pile, not spread all around and packed into the sand and weeds. My daughter refers to the neighbor lady in distinctly disrespectful terms. I reprimand her but part of me is also livid inside.

Rats? That's what I heard the lady shriek at them and my stomach is roiling--not with anger so much as with fear.

The kids also don't understand the potential consequences of getting into trouble with the neighbors in this little town, which is already not particularly friendly to children with olive skin and dark-lashed, "striking" eyes. The kids from our street--otherwise all particularly pale white--roam around freely and I've never heard the them scolded by a neighbor,. But my kids seem to run up against hostility on a regular basis. I don't think my kids are exactly angels, but this was the first time I'd heard of them doing something harmful off of our property..

Having a mixed family has enlightened me about many realities I did not used to understand, such as the heightened risk of trouble kids of color run and the fears of their parents.

Most white people don't grok "white privilege" because it is a term that encompasses things that we not only take for granted but feel are merely the way life is. If you go to a coffee shop in clean clothes with money in your pocket and wait for a friend, nothing negative will happen. You go golfing and you just golf. You walk down the street, shop, get in your car and talk to your kid's teacher and it's all placid and uneventful. If you're a kid and you slide down a dirt pile, you might get told off but that will be the end of it. 

To white people this seems like life as usual, simply enjoying the experience of a peaceful and prosperous society. The hitch is that this experience of peace should be for everyone.

After nine years, I know that it isn't.

There was the time my son pushed another kid and nearly got expelled from preschool, even though the teachers agreed that sort of thing happens every day among the boys and my son is no worse than any of the others. He did get banned from school once over ant bites on his knee and the resulting concerns over contagion from "dirty people." My daughter came home at four years old crying because people called her "black" and she was terrified that meant she was going to turn the color black. How was she to know that olive-skinned Roma are sometimes called "black" in lily-white Central Europe?

So I give the kids a lecture I never got from my parents, my voice low and deadly serious. "You treat adults with respect! Period! Do you hear me? You listen and speak respectfully to adults. I don't care if you think the lady is wrong. You apologize and walk away. That's it."

I never needed that lecture, even though I was a wild kid who chased the neighbors cows. I was white. Now I feel like I'm channeling the father in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. 

On the weekend my Nigerian friend from the city comes over and confides in me the struggles of dealing with white teachers in the Czech schools. Her youngest son is under constant attack because a teacher insists he is "dirty"  and doesn't have "basic hygiene habits." 

She's honestly confused. Sure, he sometimes has to be reminded to wash his hands. He's only five. But he willingly goes to wash if told and he's quiet and respectful to a fault, which I envy. 

But I know the Central European short-hand. Whenever they want to question the presence of a child of color in the classroom they default to concerns over "basic hygiene habits." It's like a code phrase. 

Creative Commons image courtesy of C. Thomas Anderson

Creative Commons image courtesy of C. Thomas Anderson

This year we are more and more aware of the entitlement and privilege that fuels injustice. It is good to see awareness growing. More and more people are seeing privilege and entitlement for what it is--the driving force of deeper injustice. 

The weekend is over and the kids are back in school. On Monday afternoon I get on my electric scooter, which helps me get around since I can neither drive nor walk long distances due to disability. This is how I pick up my kids from school and do the shopping The scooter can move at a walking pace and stop instantly. It works well, even on the narrow sidewalks in our small town. 

The kids walk downtown next to me, except when we have to go single file in the narrowest spots. My daughter has a dance class on the town square. My son and I go into the delicatessen next door to get him a sandwich. The nice man behind the counter greets us in English. We chat back and forth. His English is really quite good.

Then another man--fifty-ish--walks in and stands at the counter. Before our acquaintance can ask what he wants, the newcomer says loudly to the cashier, "Why don't you tell that lady there to get off the sidewalks?"  

My heart starts pounding. Again I am not offended, so much as terrified. This is what I have feared, since a few angry people started yelling at me on the street. I have been so careful, making sure to yield to anyone on foot. The sidewalks are narrow here after all and I'm not certain about the legalities of my situation, since my mobility device isn't actually a wheelchair.

The man behind the counter looks stunned, his eyes wide.

"Please, sir,"  I say to the belligerent customer in as conciliatory a voice as I can muster. "Please let me explain. I'm legally blind. I can't go in traffic. And I can't drive a car." 

The man turns toward me a bit. "I know," he grunts.

"We live on the edge of town. It's two kilometers to get to the pediatrician or the post office," I stammer.

"I know where you live." His voice is gruff and unforgiving.

"I have problems with the bones in my legs and I can't walk all that way. That's why I ride that scooter," I explain.

"I know."  

"I'm very careful. It doesn't hurt anyone." 

His tone has become a bit less confrontational at least. "I know all that. I just think you shouldn't take up the sidewalk." 

"I'm very careful. I always let other people go first if the sidewalk is narrow." 

"Whatever."  He has managed to make a purchase during our discussion and he walks out. 

But the fear is still there. I know my situation is precarious. The local police could forbid me to use the scooter on the sidewalk, since it isn't officially a wheelchair and I can technically walk. I just can't walk two kilometers without significant pain. If these grouchy people complain to the police or if I make a tiny mistake, the consequences could be severe. 

I understand now that it is the same for my kids, even without a disability. Where white kids would get away with a scolding, they could be reported to the police or expelled from school. The stakes are higher and the stress is chronic.