Friends, when I think back about the titanium cub I used to be I am often dreadfully embarrassed.
The fact is I was kind of a jerk. And for much of my childhood I was, by modern standards, pretty racist and homophobic.
Dedicated readers will probably, upon reading that sentence, have sprayed their coffee all over their computer screens, given my much-documented views on the subjects, but it’s true.
I grew up in Apartheid South Africa. In the 80s! It would’ve been weird if I hadn’t held some pretty messed up beliefs.
But I became the stalwart liberal that I am now by being able to admit when I’m wrong (although up until recently I wasn’t even very good at that). And as you might expect it was a slow, painful road.
Having gone through this transformation I am highly sensitive to the plight of people who are also evolving their views and I have encountered a paradoxical problem.
Often it is my fellow arch-liberals who unintentionally stop people from evolving their views, by imposing unrealistic expectations on them.
Recently I was discussing rape culture with a friend and said that some guys just lack the balls to accept that the women they like don’t always like them back.
She responded that she agreed but that my use of the term “balls” to indicate courage was mildly sexist and it might be better if I tried to find other terms.
And here is the problem: she is absolutely right, but our language doesn’t currently have enough alternatives to our sexist language.
“Don’t be a pussy”. “What a cunt”. “He’s such a dick”. “He’s a true gentleman”. “Man hours”. “The man in the street”. “Salesman”. “Fireman”. “Mankind”. “Man made”. “Man the desk”.
There are so many sexist terms in English that we often have little choice but to use them.
Let me briefly deal with the objection that this “doesn’t matter”.
The truth is that, well, it really does. There has been quite a lot of research on this and it’s pretty clear that sexist language does influence opinions.
Let me illustrate this with a classic example that some of you have probably already heard.
A man and his son are in a car accident and are rushed to hospital.
Both of them are injured and need surgery. The father is rushed into ‘OR 1’ and his surgery begins.
But when the son is wheeled into ‘OR 2’ the surgeon exclaims in a horrified voice:
“I can’t operate on this boy! He’s my son!”
What’s going on here?
Up until the 90s most people would be totally baffled by this tale. How could the boy have two fathers? Maybe the surgeon is just confused? Perhaps the father is suffering amnesia from the car crash, and is a surgeon, and forgot that the car crash happened, but still remembers his son, and wandered out of the operating theatre?
Nope, the solution to the problem, which these days is much easier to get, is that the surgeon is the boy’s mother.
But this still often doesn’t occur to people because we tend to think of certain power positions as being exclusively male domains.
The good news is that this is such obvious bullshit that it is starting to change. People no longer refer to a “chairman” they just say “the chair”. It takes some getting used to but it makes just as much sense as the original.
But the problem is that this is a little bit of a slippery slope.
When a female friend says she has a date and I ask “what’s his name?” I am being ‘hetero-normative’ (biased in favour of straight people) because I am assuming that the person is a male. I have often heard gay men claim that bisexual men “do not exist” and that they are merely “bi now, gay later”.
This is a blatant form of Bi-sexism or Bi-phobia.
When Bill Maher, whom I love, makes jokes about Leonardo DiCaprio accidentally sleeping with a man whom he thinks is a woman (it didn’t actually happen, it was a joke) he is being transphobic, i.e. he is implying that there is something inherently disgusting or troubling about having sex with a trans person.
And while I don’t want to keep harping on about the same people Maher is actually the perfect example for this post, because of the huge amount of good he does. He exposes corruption and irrationality in politics. He fights for healthcare and human rights. He promotes genuine debate between competing sides on important issues. He opposed the Iraq war before it was cool to do so, and even lost his TV show because he dared to take a stand. He ceaselessly beats the drum on the importance of addressing climate change and so on.
But then, out of nowhere, this happens:
Leaving aside the casual misogyny the fact is that Bill Maher has drunk so much Israeli kool-aid that his eyes are starting to turn white and blue.
Watching that interview he did with Benjamin Netanyahu was embarrassing. Bibi is a neo-con who opposes gay rights, is casually racist and panders to a group of ultra-conservative religious fundamentalist nutcases. He is against everything that Maher stands for.
But Maher can’t see it, because Netanyahu is the prime minister of Israel.
But should I disregard all of the many, many good things that Maher does, just because he is completely wrong on a few key issues?
I sure hope not, because I’m not going to. I still love the guy.
But this problem is similar to what happens when friends of mine, who come from very conservative backgrounds, encounter the real world and start becoming more liberal. They will encounter my other, long-time liberal friends and clashes of understanding may occur.
Because even though both sides are good people, they have different understandings of what it takes to attain that title. Things that seem obvious to my more liberal friends like not using the term “gay” to describe something that is unenjoyable, seem to my less liberal friends as unnecessary political correctness.
There are always going to be disagreements about which issues are most important at any given moment and which changes we need to make in ourselves.
But this leads to angry debates between groups of people, who are both liberal and concerned with human rights, over where the lines should be drawn.
They are allies, and they tear each other apart.
The truth is that there are a great many things that need changing in society. Racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, ableism, ageism. The list goes on and on.
So expecting a person to go from being totally wrong to being totally ‘right’, over night, is crazy.
And by using the term ‘crazy’ I was just insensitive to people with mental health problems.
But I think I have a solution and for it I’m going to borrow a concept from the great Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky: The Zone of Proximal Development.
In brief Vygotsky’s idea was that there was a zone in between the things we know and the things we don’t know within which learning is possible.
The first key implication of this is that it doesn’t matter how smart you are, you can’t learn something complex without first learning the basics that underlie it. You can’t learn quantum physics without learning physics. You can’t do physics without doing advanced math. You can’t do advanced math before you’ve done basic math and so on.
So if we want people around us to be more sensitive about those key issues I mentioned we might first have to start with the basics, whatever that might be. The first step in turning someone not-racist might be to point out the people of a different race that they know personally, who don’t conform to stereotypes.
And if it seems that what you’re asking is just too much of a leap well, it might just not be within that person’s ‘Zone of Proximal Activism’; the area within which they are able to change and promote change. And you might want to just accept that and leave it out for the moment.
Which brings me to Vygotsky’s next key point: almost all learning requires someone else’s help.
The world is a very bigoted place and changing that is going to take time and effort. When you see or hear someone behaving in a bigoted manner it is your duty as a human being to oppose that bigotry.
But there is a right way and a wrong way. Attacking them won’t help anyone. It might boost your ego or help you to vent but it won’t promote change, at least not very much.
It does bear mentioning that in many cases anger is an entirely normal and justified response. I’m not saying that people don’t have a right to be angry about bigotry or sexism. But I am saying that angry arguments promote less change than quiet discussions.
Talking to people about these issues, about why you disagree with them and what a better way might be, that is the kind of thing that can work.
This is providing of course that you consider that the person who is wrong might be you.
My point is this: if we want to fight against bigotry we can either get pissed at people for not being perfect, or we can applaud them for the growth they’ve gone through, and then help them to keep on growing.
And if they really can’t change, like me with using gendered language, then perhaps it’s just not in their zone of proximal activism.
Try again later.
And in the mean time be glad that things are changing as quickly, and positively, as they are.
[Standard Disclaimer: this post was entirely my own opinion and was not paid for in any way, directly or otherwise, by anyone or anything that stands to gain in any way from the ideas expressed herein.]