My Thoughts On Cultural Sensitivities In An Age of Sensitivities

I’m old enough to have grown up in and experienced a time when casual bigotry, misogyny, homophobia, and other discriminatory behaviors, thought and speech was a common, every-day experience.  The “N” word was freely tossed about, the idea of women having parity with men in anything was laughed at (and a routine subject of “entertainment”), Gays were often incarcerated – or worse – hospitalized, for their associations and relationships and if anyone said anything about “Trans” people (which I never personally experienced), it was to reference them as genetic “mistakes” and pity their poor parents.

I myself was put up for adoption at least partially because an unmarried pregnant woman was something that needed to be hidden from public view until they no longer showed their “shame” physically (and, of course, because abortion was still entirely illegal back then.)

Please note that I am not advocating any of the preceding, nor do I view it with nostalgia.  I had the unfortunate circumstance of being both Jewish and a male of short stature, and I was routinely subject to insults and discriminatory behaviors of the silent, covert and overt variety (mocked for height, never chosen for basketball, pennies rolled at me in the cafeteria, swastikas chalked on the sidewalk in front of my childhood home).

(One side note:  I present as white and straight and am aware of the privilege I have been afforded as a result;  but I am also aware of numerous discriminatory incidents – job denials, for one – owing to my religious affiliation.  Additionally, I never deliberately or consciously took advantage of such privilege;  most of the physical altercations I have had in my life have been the result of objecting to antisemitism when the presumption was that I wasn’t Jewish and would therefore accept it.)

That background brought  me to a place, very early in life, that told me that such discrimination, almost always based on personal traits the individual does not or cannot control, was inherently wrong.  And it made me angry, especially when I learned that most, if not all such behavior, is based in ignorance and fear owing to that ignorance.

Which is a long way to go about saying that I get the pushback from people of minority status who respond to accusations of going too far with “wokeness” by stating “We’re not taking any shit, any more.   We’ve been dealing with it for centuries and now that we are finally gaining a voice, some actual representation, you want us to shut up?  Ummm, how about ‘No’?”

I also get the upset from the other side of the equation, from those folks who don’t engage in racism or bigotry, who try to be courteous, understanding, embody the idea that different cultures are different, people who ask questions and try to honestly learn how to properly get along with others and who get attacked for innocent, unintentional or admittedly ignorant words and actions which they subsequently apologize for.

What I am seeing these days is that no one is giving anyone else room to breath.  We’re living in a world where someone who accidentally drops a food wrapper on their way to the trashcan is arrested for littering, tried and summarily executed on the spot.  Likewise, we live in an age where those with hate in their hearts have been given the largest stage and loudest megaphone they’ve ever had.

All of that has brought me to one conclusion:  it’s a recipe for stirring up division and perpetuating the impossible idea that people can somehow be perfect in their dealings with others.

I have also come to believe that none of this will change until a significant minority of people embrace the concept of letting their fellow humans be human.  If we expect perfection, we are always going to be disappointed.  If we don’t allow for apology and acceptance, we are never going to have learning.

When I first entered the world of corporate business, I quickly learned that people can have hidden agendas; that those who claimed to be your friends and allies might not be; that there are people who will seek to get ahead at your expense.  Being generally trusting (naïve), gullible and idealistic, it took me a while to understand and believe this.  But I was caught in the workplace dilemma that one will most likely still have to work with someone who had done one wrong.  So I came up with the following coping mechanism:  Forgive, but don’t forget.

We forgive when offered an explanation and an apology.  If  someone knocks you over while running down a hallway, the act gets one response.  If, afterwards, an apology is offered along with the explanation that there was a viable emergency justifying such actions, our reaction to the “insult” is (or should be) entirely different.  We all sometimes make genuine mistakes that we genuinely regret, apologize and attempt to make amends for.  And we all also have to accept the fact that sometimes an explanation and an apology are simply not adequate remedies.

In my own life, one such incident stands out.  During my first year in college I lived in the dorms.  Each floor was “L” shaped and had a lounge with a payphone in it at either end.  (Pre-cellphone era.)  My dorm room was adjacent to one of the lounges.  Early (way early) one fine Saturday morning when everyone on the floor was sleeping off what would become epic hangovers once they awakened, the phone in the lounge nearest to me began to ring.

I was and am a light sleeper.  The phone woke me up.  It kept on waking me up.  No one else was doing anything about it.  Finally, I crawled out of bed, walked to the lounge and answered it.  The caller was looking for another student that lived on my floor.  I walked down the hallway, banged on his door, sent him to the lounge and went back to my own bed, very angry.

Later that day I saw that other student and I said, nastily “That phone call had better have been fucking important, it woke me up!”  His response was the following:

“It was.  They called to tell me that my Mother had just died.”

I’ll let that sink in.  Maybe reading it will give you some small idea of how I felt as soon as I heard those words.

Of course I apologized.  Profusely and multiply.  Did it make a difference to that other student?  I don’t think so and I’ve had to live with that for nearly half a century now.  I learned several big lessons, not the least of which was that even when you think you’ve got it bad (hangover, lost sleep), someone else probably has it worse.

And, again, all the more reason to try and remember that we’re all human, that we’ll all make mistakes, that we’ll all fail sometime, that we’ll all give and receive unintended hurt from time to time.

But that shouldn’t prevent us from trying to remain open and accepting and sympathetic to the circumstances of others around us.

If we aren’t, we’ll never find allies against the forces of true evil.

If the past few years are anything to go by, we’re all going to need allies, and more of them.

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