One of the things I try to do as an ally is to, “go to the people,” in a sense, whenever I am out and about on my daily excursions. When I say this, I don’t mean that I stand on a literal or metaphorical soapbox, but I do make it a point to interact with others out in the public on as regular a basis as I can. I go about my own business, and like most, I almost always wind up conversing with people I’ve never met. Sometimes conversations are more light hearted than not, but occasionally someone will make a less than enlightened statement, often times regarding causes that I have allied myself with.
These statements made to me by others range in nature, but I generally try and handle them all in the same way. I do what I can to open a dialogue about why that individual thinks that particular way. I usually ask the person in question what exactly they mean, and give them an opportunity to really think about what it was that they were truly attempting to articulate and restate it more accurately. Sometimes this brings an understanding to the other party about why the initial statement isn’t good to use in general, and we both share a laugh before parting ways.
This isn’t always the case though, especially when it comes to matters involving the LGBT community. When asking someone what he or she means when they use a particular colloquialism, you kind of have to feign ignorance for a moment to give the other person the benefit of the doubt without seeming skeptical or critical in some way. With matters of the LGBT community however, what often gets trotted out as the better articulated idea is a somewhat more offensive statement that you thought was at the core of what they initially said. This is where I have found things to generally fall apart.
When proponents of given causes have these sorts of interactions, it’s always important to remember that at that moment in time you are representing an entire group to the person you are speaking with. As humans, we’re eternally looking for patterns to help us more quickly understand what’s going on around us; it’s a survival mechanism left over from when we were constantly threatened by predators trying to eat us. This often leads to people using a few negative experiences to create a less than accurate paradigm with which to guide them through future interactions with people from different groups than their own.
I had originally chalked up the lack of getting through to people as a set of isolated incidents, but I’ve noticed a more disturbing trend emerge as I have more of these interactions. It’s almost as though being wrong is seen as one of the highest forms of shame. And that’s sad if you think about it. If we all put up walls or just shut down every time we were wrong about anything, no progress would ever get made. The funny thing is that while erring is treated as a learning opportunity in an academic setting, it’s not looked at the same way in a social setting.
I see this sort of mentality appear everywhere, this notion that one of your personal beliefs is wrong or harmful to others means someone has insulted you personally and that it’s an attack on your character. And it needs to stop. Why can’t we treat moments like that as learning opportunities? Why can’t being informed that making statements that are ignorant and bigoted be looked at in the same context as a student who tries to complete a math problem, but arrives at the wrong answer? The student doesn’t view the teacher’s help as an attack on the fiber of their personality, why should anyone?
Like I said, I see this sort of mentality everywhere. Part of me wonders if it’s born out of a sense that “people are entitled to their opinion” and “it takes all kinds.” I submit to you that it doesn’t. Some kinds can just be done without, particularly those who are alright with bringing undue harm to others. As if that wasn’t enough, opinions don’t mean anything if you’re not backing them up with empirical data or at least sound logic.
Gay Life November 2014