My work team and I provide services to patients and the public in our aquatic rehab facility in Central Maine, which means it’s impossible for me to live in a bubble. Thank goodness.
I’ve been complimented, praised, flirted with, yelled at, accused, and blamed. I’ve listened to a wide range of political and religious viewpoints with a polite face on. I’ve dealt with tears and tantrums (not talking only about the kids here). I’ve heard about medical and family history in excruciating detail, often repeatedly. I’ve watched patrons and patients get better, and I’ve watched them get worse. I’ve watched them lose weight and gain weight. I’ve met grandchildren and siblings when they visit Maine. I interact with people who are confused, struggle with memory loss, or are affected by dementia, either their own or a loved one’s.
I’ve seen a variety of sexual identities, gender presentations, and body dysmorphia (and no, I’m not conflating body dysmorphia with homosexuality.) My team has served patrons who are listed on our state sex offender registry.
We serve deaf patrons, autistic patrons, anxious patrons, mentally ill patrons, special needs patrons of all kinds and ages. We serve an occasional minor who gets dumped in our emergency room and lives there for a time while the authorities try to find placement.
Image by Bob Dmyt from Pixabay
People. All kinds of people. All colors, shapes, ages, and sizes. All different.
People just like me.
I notice a thing in the present cultural discourse. People who browbeat others about inclusion and tolerance invariably are the least inclusive and tolerant.
Talk (and typing) is cheaper every day.
As a writer and lover of words, I notice a deluge of new terminology and labels, many of which strike me as ridiculous, redundant, and/or meaningless. Their sole purpose appears to be to increase the ways we can despise and exclude one another. At the same time, there’s an ominous drumbeat in the background about ideas and words some person might find offensive and therefore must be forcibly eradicated. A few months ago one of my adult sons said to me, “Mom, you can’t use the word science in public,” as though explaining socially acceptable language to a child. All I could do was look at him in disbelief.
Science is not a dirty word. Disagreement is not hate, and respect and tolerance do not equal agreement. Asking questions is not a call to arms.
The Word Police are out in force, trolling online and hijacking us in public places. Virtue signaling has begun to take the place of authentic discourse. We’re harshly and instantly judged and labeled by the language we use and the ideas we express.
Toni Morrison said, “Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined.” I think about that every day. Another phrase frequently in my mind is “I’m okay with your disapproval of me.” People have been disapproving of me since the day I was born. I’m used to it. The sky hasn’t fallen yet and somehow I manage to continue to exist.
I’m not the slightest bit interested in disapproval, labels, or sweeping generalizations, which are increasingly idiotic as labels proliferate.
I’ve been reading lately about the “tribe of one,” the logical endpoint to the cultural mandate to divide ourselves into ever-decreasing groups until we’re each completely isolated, believing no one can possibly understand our particular experience as a self-defined ______, _____, etc. Therefore, the world is against us, we’re marginalized and oppressed victims, and we’re owed power, respect, and tolerance no matter how egregious our behavior is. No one is included in our little bubble. Everyone is excluded. Yet we expect and demand inclusion, which is to say, accommodation.
Who benefits from this solipsistic isolation? Is this the kind of human experience we want for ourselves, for our children? Is this social justice?
There are other paths to take. We could focus on our similarities, on the common human experiences binding us all together. We could build a new lexicon of connection rather than division. We could stop using labels, even in the privacy of our own heads. We could value curiosity more highly than outrage, confidence more than a constant state of offense. We could value authentic expression more than virtue signaling.
We seem to have forgotten the real world is not a set of disconnected bubbles. An infinite number of labels (including pronouns) cannot describe the entirety of a human being. Experiences define human beings. Birth. Death. Connection. Feelings. Living in a body. These bind us together. The life we are living defines us, not labels.
Every single one of us in this moment is included in the human family. We all have that in common. Why are we so determined to slash that root into pieces? I ask again, who benefits from this brutal severing? Why are we participating in it? How have intelligent, well-meaning, compassionate people become machete-wielding destroyers, all the while mouthing words like ‘inclusion’ and debating pronouns?
At work (and elsewhere), I’m focused on people. Of course I notice skin color, sometimes eye color, hair, body type, spoken language, cognitive and physical ability. I also notice tattoos, scars, stretch marks, skin tags, moles, and the occasional blood-bloated tick! Swimming suits are revealing clothing. None of these details define anyone, however. For me, they’re value neutral. I don’t connect or disconnect because of someone’s appearance. I can’t make valid generalizations about anyone based on the way they look. We treat everyone who comes in the door with the same respect; our expectations in terms of adhering to our safety rules are the same for everyone. We accommodate differing physical abilities and needs without fuss.
Wheelchairs, walkers, prostheses, oxygen, health status and injury are details, not definitions.
Now and then I interact with someone I hardly know who makes it plain they disapprove of something I said, or wrote, or chose. They were triggered. They were outraged. They were offended. I’m met with a curled lip, judgement, and criticism. I’m made to understand I’m hateful and bigoted, which I don’t take too seriously, as I’m neither. Anyone who knows me at all knows that.
By Landsil on Unsplash
In short, I’m immediately excluded, and there is no court of appeals. There’s no mutual bridge-building. Because of a word or an expressed point of view I’m entirely rejected, now and forevermore. Most of the time I consider the source and shrug off this kind of interaction. In certain circumstances, however, it’s destructive and hurtful in a more personal way. We can’t always choose the people in our lives. I can’t build connections alone.
Situations like this invariably catch me off guard. When someone expresses a view or belief I disagree with, I simply step around it. I change the subject, probing for connection points. I don’t concentrate on our differences or potential disagreements. I don’t expect others to fall in line with my beliefs. I don’t shame or shun others because they have a different point of view. I don’t think of myself as being on higher moral ground, and when others come at me with moral indignation, it makes me smile inwardly. Good grief! Get over yourself already.
I’m willing to include you. Will you include me? I ‘ll give you tolerance and respect. Will you give them to me? I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. Will you give it to me?
I’d rather be curious than outraged. I’d rather have confidence in myself and my experience than maintain a hair trigger on my sense of offence. Most people don’t mean to be offensive. If they do, it’s best to ignore it. Life is too short to spend my days in a constant state of outrage and offense. It doesn’t change anything and nobody cares. Cultivating a sense of humor is more fun.
We’re not entitled to have our triggers, sensitivities, and ideology accommodated.
If we’re all especially vulnerable, broken, or traumatized, none of us are. If we’re all oppressed victims, none of us are. If we’re all vile haters and bigots, none of us are.
What we all are is … human beings. As human beings, not a single soul is excluded. Isn’t it enough to simply be the best human beings we can be and allow those around us to do the same?
When you think of a person in your life, do you think of a list of labels or do you think of a human being? Once someone is labeled, do you ever feel you’ve mislabeled, misunderstood, or misjudged them? If so, do you admit it and eradicate the label?
Can you describe someone you know without using a single label? Try it!
In the first five minutes of contact with a stranger, are you seeking to build connection or mentally applying labels to them? Which labels do you check for first?
Do you turn away from anyone who disagrees with or questions your particular ideology or belief system? Do you view such people as hateful? Is it possible to disagree with you or question you and still be a good person?
Leave a comment below!
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I’ve just read a book titled Dignity by Donna Hicks, Ph.D.
Dignity is defined as “the state or quality of being worthy of honor or respect; self-respect” (Oxford Online Dictionary); “the right of a person to be valued and respected for their own sake” (Wikipedia).
Dignity isn’t a word I hear much these days. Respect is a hot topic, but dignity sounds old-fashioned.
The book was an eye-opener in several ways. Hicks sees dignity as a key component in peaceful negotiations, a refreshing topic in this time of divisiveness, hatred, and violence. Because of her work, the author has participated in and supported peace talks all over the world as leaders of opposing sides work to heal the trauma of conflict. Her observations, experience, and stories of people working together to connect as human beings, even in the context of terrible violence, are poignant and a testament to our shared humanity.
Hicks defines ten essential components of dignity, and ten violations. I wrote both lists down and I’ve been rereading and thinking about them ever since.
Here are Hicks’s ten essential elements of dignity:
As I work with these lists, I come at them from three different directions. One is recognizing the ways in which my own dignity has been violated by others. The second is the way in which I’ve violated my own dignity. The third is the way in which I’ve violated the dignity of others.
This book was published in 2011, before acceptance of identity and inclusion were such politically loaded topics. As I think about these lists through the filter of current social ideology, it’s quite clear to me that working with the concept of dignity necessitates connecting with others through our shared humanity rather than our habits and beliefs. If we insist on hiding behind our labels and pseudo selves, as well as refusing to see the complexity of those we interact with behind their labels and ideology, we will not successfully connect and nobody can experience dignity. Conflict will escalate and divisions deepen.
We each have a right to our own beliefs, feelings, and sense of self. However, we do not have the right to insist others agree with our beliefs, feelings and sense of self. Respect, as I have pointed out before, is not agreement. Tolerance is not agreement. Likewise, dignity is not dependent on agreement, but rather the willingness to understand and accept the experience of another.
The tricky part is if we wish to build and maintain dignity, we must help others build and maintain it as well. Demanding our own dignity be recognized while ignoring that of others demonstrates a desire for power-over and control.
Dignity is an equal opportunity concept. It’s based in our humanity, the ultimate in-group. No one is excluded, and no one is without the power to build their own dignity.
We can’t force others to treat us with dignity, but we have absolute control in how we handle our own, and Donna Hicks has experienced, over and over again, the power of our individual dignity and the way it influences those around us. The forward to this book was written by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, whose wisdom, compassion and dignity have inspired millions. He and Hicks have worked together for peace in Northern Ireland.
One way to destroy our dignity is to violate that of another, which is exactly what I want to do in a reactive moment when I’ve been hurt or witnessed someone else being hurt. However, that kind of reaction only escalates conflict. Hicks’s list allows me to identify other options that do not result in further violation, but begin to heal the original harm. Even if whoever I’m interacting with is determined to undermine both their dignity and mine, I have the power to stop the damage and conflict and protect my own self-respect.
Now more than ever in this country, we are divided. Some of us support dignity for all and some of us don’t. It’s not always obvious which team we’re on, either. Some people wave the banner of equality and justice and identify themselves as victims, but a closer look makes it obvious their agenda victimizes someone else. What they truly want is their conception of equality and justice for themselves and their in-group, exclusively.
Others of us are working for humanity as a whole, supporting such concepts as dignity for everyone, not just those wearing a certain label or set of labels.
Resilience is “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties.” (Oxford Dictionaries.) One of the most prevalent difficulties in modern life seems to be the ever-growing cacophony of Those Who Are Offended. I’ve been thinking about this for some time, but last week I read an interview with author Lionel Shriver that brought my own sense of offense to a head. Here’s a quote from that article:
Photo by Syd Wachs on Unsplash
“Shriver … is not the first to argue that the right to give offense is one of the very foundations of freedom of speech. ‘We’re moving in the direction of enshrining the right not to be offended, which is the end of liberty and certainly the end of good books.'”
Oxford Dictionaries defines offense in four ways:
A breach of law or rule; an illegal act.
A thing that constitutes a violation of what is judged to be right or natural.
Annoyance or resentment brought about by a perceived insult to or disregard for oneself or one’s standards or principles.
The action of attacking someone or something.
Photo by David Beale on Unsplash
The principle of free speech is taking a real battering in the United States. It’s a one-size-fits-all justification for whatever beliefs and ideologies we espouse. Freedom of speech, however, is not absolute. There are limitations around it intended to protect community and individual rights, including the “offense principle,” a restriction based on perceived offense to society. Freedom of speech is a principle that relies on social guidance, which is to say the intelligence and compassion of us, we the people.
This is a problem in a nation where compassion is daily more distorted and taken advantage of and critical thinking and civil discourse are increasingly difficult to come by. Who gets to define “perceived offense to society?”
Everywhere I look, listen and read, I observe people who appear to believe they have a right not to be offended. Freedom of speech grants such people the right to be offensive, as they’re quick to point out, but it’s only a one-way street. Offensive ideas and beliefs are becoming a broad category. Disagreement is offensive (and hateful and bigoted). Certain words, like ‘uterus’ are becoming offensive. Certain pronouns are offensive. Real or perceived exclusion is offensive. A perception of cultural appropriation is offensive. Identity politics of any sort are offensive. Science and evidence-based thinking are offensive. Name any religion or spiritual framework you like — it’s offensive.
When did we become so precious, infantile and entitled that we stopped dealing effectively with being offended?
When did the cancer of selfishness destroy our willingness to consider the needs of those around us?
When were individual distorted perceptions given power over a larger, more common good?
When did disagreement, questions and citing scientific data begin to earn death threats?
Our social, cultural and political landscape is enormously complex, at least at first glance. We’ve become fantastically and gleefully skilled at silencing, deplatforming, invalidating, gaslighting, projection and the fine art of withering contempt. We suffer from an epidemic of what I call Snow White Syndrome. Remember the wretched queen stepmother and her mirror? “Me, me, ME, not you! I’m the fairest, I’m the best, I’m the most victimized, I’m the most downtrodden, I’m the richest, I’m the most offended!”
At first glance, as I said, it’s all so complex. At second glance, it’s all distraction and bullshit. The bottom line is always a power dynamic. Is an individual or group requesting or demanding power-with or power-over?
It really is that simple.
I’m offended every single day. School shooters offend me. Tantruming and pouting politicians offend me. Silencing tactics offend me. Being forced to deal with the sexual fetishes of others offends me. The list goes on and on. You know who’s responsible for dealing with all this offense?
It’s not your responsibility to refrain from offending me, and it’s not my business to tippy-toe around your delicate sensibilities, either. Many of us try to approach others with kindness and courtesy, but that doesn’t mean we’ll receive either in return. I don’t expect the world to accommodate me. Life is not fair. Equality is an ideal rather than a reality. Inclusivity is not a right.
My rights and needs are as important, but not more important than anyone else’s.
Photo by James Pond on Unsplash
Individuals and groups who lobby to take away the rights of others work from a power-over position. They’re weak and fearful and use violence and intimidation to distract others from their impotence. Individuals and groups who lobby to create more equal power dynamics work from a power-with position. They’re confident and seek authentic connection through information sharing and constructive contribution toward the well-being of all.
Resilience, not priggish rigidity or sheep-like agreement with the prevailing social fashion, always wins the evolutionary jackpot. Resilient life flexes and bends, masters new environments, learns and successfully reproduces, continues. Life that doesn’t dies. Evolution is not personal. It makes no distinctions between a human being and a cockroach. Evolution has a lot of time, millions upon millions of years. The ebb and flow of species on earth is nothing but ripples. Patiently, intelligently, life begins again, over and over, building its complex web.
Photo by Biel Morro on Unsplash
If we can’t figure out how to live in harmony with our bodies, our communities and the earth, we will be deselected. Walking around with a mouth like a pig’s bottom because we’re offended, mutilating and poisoning our bodies, creating sexual pathology that interferes with our ability to reproduce our DNA, wasting our time and energy engaging in idiotic arguments and eradicating education and critical thinking will all lead to deselection, and it should. Such a species is more destructive than constructive to all the other forms of life on this planet.
Difficulties of all kinds are a given. They always have been. Difficulties are the pressures that shape us and make us stronger — or deselect us. If we want to survive, we need to put aside our offended sensibilities and concentrate on the things that contribute to the stuff of life: food, water, shelter, connection, raising healthy children, our physical and mental health and the well-being of Planet Earth. It seems to me that’s enough to be going on with. If we can’t begin to achieve resilience, the debate over who gets to use which bathroom becomes as moot as it is ridiculous.
Resilience can be learned. We foster it by letting go, learning to be wrong, exercising our intelligence, and forming healthy connections so we can learn from one another, figure out how to share power and support one another. Life was never advertised as a free ride. The privilege of life comes with responsibility, demands and competition. Taking offense is not a life skill. Malignant destruction of life, either our own or somebody else’s, is not a life skill. Taking our proper place in the food web and the natural cycles of life and death, on the other hand, is essential if we expect to continue as a species.
Life, in the end, is for those sensible enough to live it, and part of surviving and thriving is resilience. Maybe, if we can get a grip and refocus on what matters, we can learn from the cockroaches, viruses, bacteria, mice, flies, ants, crows, soil organisms and many others that have figured out how to adapt and evolve through every difficulty they encounter.
This week I’m exploring the idea of cultural appropriation. In the linked article, cultural appropriation is defined as “Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.” This definition provides a useful starting point, but it begs a couple of important questions.
I approach cultural appropriation from two different directions. I begin with a story I wrote years ago for oral telling. The story was inspired by the wonderful children’s author and illustrator Eric Carle . He wrote several books, among them Draw Me a Star. As a parent and librarian, I’ve bought, recommended and read aloud his books hundreds of times. You can look at ‘Draw Me a Star’ here .
“Sing me a star …” And the Artist sang a star. It was a shining star. “Color me a sun,” said the star. And the Artist colored a glowing sun, a golden lion, a hillside of orange poppies, a burning fire, and a feather. It was a red feather. “Weave me a tree,” said the feather. And the Artist wove branches and leaves and pieces of sky into a tree, and She wove fields and forests and deep, invisible roots, and a spider’s web. “Build me a fence,” said the spider. And the Artist built a fence and sculpted rocks and ice and sand and snow into a world. It was a glorious world. “Tell me a story,” said the world. And the Artist began, “Once upon a time …” It was a wonderful story. “Tell me some more!” So the Artist made all kinds of people to share all kinds of stories. They were strong people. The people said, “Teach us what love is.” And the Artist said, “Sing me a star …”
Photo by Leon Liu on Unsplash
Now set your burdens down for an hour and dance with me. Here’s the sound track I made for our community dance last Monday evening.
“Symphony of the Forest and Mysterious Island,” by Kitaro a Japanese artist.
“Maryam,” by Hamza Shakkur, from the soundtrack to the movie Bab’ Aziz , a Tunisian foreign film.
“Aye Lon Lon Vadjro,” by Angelique Kidjo , an African artist.
“Kozuma,” by Professor Trance and the Energizers, who perform multicultural Trance Dance music.
“Stars Align,” by Lindsey Stirling, an American violinist.
“Mwari,” from the album World of Rhythm.
“Pinguli Pinguli Giuvaccinu,” by Savina Yannatou , a Greek artist.
“Barcelona Nights” by Ottmar Liebert, a German guitarist.
“Symphony of Dreams and A Drop of Silence” by Kitaro.
I wouldn’t steal a pencil or a nickel. It’s easy to make a distinction between concrete objects belonging to me and those that don’t. Trying to define intellectual and cultural property, however, is another thing. Part of my integrity as a storyteller includes rigorously reporting the origins of my material to my audience. Part of my integrity as a librarian and a researcher includes investigating roots and versions of old stories and communicating that information to my audience so they get a glimpse of the amazing historical journey of human creativity and experience. Part of my integrity as a writer is to be open to the world of human beings around me in all its rich history, language, symbol, tradition, spirituality, expression, art, ideas and feelings.
Anyone who creates art or delves into old oral traditions realizes cultures are not so easy to distinguish from one another, and the farther back we trace certain artifacts, oral material, symbols and traditions, the more blurred the boundaries between cultures become. Part of my motivation in becoming a storyteller is to become a link in a long, long chain of humanity that reanimates old stories. Oral tradition survives because it speaks to the culture of human beings. Themes of love, birth, death, war, change and power engage everyone. The repeating horrors of colonization, genocide, slavery, plague and pestilence, massacre and religious persecution are embedded in the history of every culture on every continent.
Photo by NASA on Unsplash
It would be convenient to simplify the history of mankind into good/bad, victim/oppressor and black/white literally, as well as figuratively, but that’s an intellectually lazy and ignorant point of view. Science teaches us life is a complex, nonlinear, dynamic, holistic system, and every culture changes every other culture just by existing. Every species impacts every other species. Every organism impacts every other organism. It’s inescapable.
Culture is defined geographically, ethnically, politically, by religious belief, by shared history, by language and by physical types. All these factors and many others weave cultural definition. I define some of my cultural aspects and others also define me, sometimes accurately, sometimes ridiculously. Defining culture is like trying to catch fish with your bare hands.
Who is authorized to speak for their culture, and what gives them that authority? Who controls the sharing or withholding of cultural information? At what point do we qualify for inclusion in a culture? My own ancestry is a polyglot of Irish, Norwegian and German, at least. Am I Irish enough to be allowed to tell an Irish traditional tale? Does the fact that my skin is white prohibit me from dancing to African music and introducing others to artists like Anquelique Kidjo?
We have ample evidence that cultural purity is a fast track to cultural death. It doesn’t work in breeding animals, it doesn’t work in the plant world and it doesn’t work any better with humans. Life is not about maintaining divisions and isolated islands of purity. It never has been about that. Successful life is about biodiversity, cooperation, adaptation and hybridization. The attempt to maintain cultural purity is an attempt to restrain change, which is an attempt to harness life itself. Human beings, thank all the manifestations of divinity, are not that powerful.
Photo by Lukas Budimaier on Unsplash
What human beings are is creative. We are sensual. We thrive on expression and ritual. We hunger for spiritual nourishment. At our best, we’re observers, recorders, problem solvers, explorers and synthesists. We’re curious. As in the old stories, we go out into the world and seek our fortunes, our mates, our place, our families, our passion, our destinies and ourselves. Yes, there are plenty of madmen/women, megalomaniacs, destroyers and other pitiless, power-hungry, dangerous, destructive people out there. Entire human cultures have disappeared, leaving behind nothing but artifacts and fragments of language. Many, many other kinds of life have vanished as well, and many more are at risk. Yes, there are people who steal real property as well as intellectual property. There are people who would gladly wipe out whole groups of humans and other life, given the power. It’s happened before and it will no doubt happen again.
Photo by Jazmin Quaynor on Unsplash
Have you noticed, though? Life — human, animal, plant — goes on. No one can really steal our heritage or our identity, because those things reside within us. Plagiarism and duplication are sterile things. Culture persists. It might go underground for generations in order to survive, but it persists and eventually shows itself to the world again. Stories, music, traditional arts and crafts, religious rites, dance, clothing, jewelry, language and tools are all seeds of culture. When someone with cultural seeds in their pockets reaches across boundaries to another culture, powerful, life-sustaining, magnificent collaboration happens, the kind of collaboration that allows an ordinary person like me to create a multicultural dance track and lead a small group of people (all kinds of people) in dance, which is a human cultural tradition from the dawn of man/womankind. The mingling of cultures creates new cultures, as well as sustaining the original parent cultures. If one person reading this discovers new music to add to their lives and pass on, a long history of cultural tradition goes with it and is preserved. I’ve succeeded as a link in the chain going right back to the first humans.
Eric Carle has had a hand in shaping my life, along with hundreds of other authors and illustrators. His books were read to me when I was a child, and in turn I read him to other children, including my own. He’s a unique and beautiful artist. My appreciation for his work inspired my own creativity. I was also inspired by my brother, who is a gifted musician, and I dedicate ‘The Artist’ to him, out loud, every time I tell it. I take my copy of Draw Me a Star to every telling to pass around. I’ve told ‘The Artist’ dozens and dozens of times to all kinds of audiences, children as well as adults.
Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash
The story tells my truth. The act of creation is an act of love, appreciation and respect. Creation never happens in isolation. It’s never pure. It’s always a maelstrom of conscious and unconscious influence, memory, and inspiration from things seen, heard, read, felt and experienced. Culture is not static. It adapts, adjusts, persists, learns, discards, incorporates, borrows and contributes, or it dies.
Last week I wrote about making ourselves small. Cultural eradication makes the family of man smaller. Plagiarism kills creativity. Appropriation shrivels our souls. The threat of tribal shaming limits our joy in discovery and exploration outside our cultural boundaries. Choosing rigidity, hoarding and withholding our beautiful languages, our nourishing spiritual wisdom, our rapturous music, our skills and traditions, impoverishes us. Refusing to experience, explore and appreciate other cultures and their richness also impoverishes us. Sterility and isolation in, sterility and isolation out.
The greatest honor I can give the countless musicians, authors, artists, dancers, storytellers, photographers, sculptors, weavers, gardeners, mystics, filmmakers and other creators who grace the world is to see, to listen, to be touched, to weep, to laugh, to dance, to receive, to learn from, to be inspired by, and to add my own work to the dynamic, ever-changing culture of humanity.