On the final day of the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce convention, I ran into a woman spoken to quite a bit during the previous few days—a straight woman there on behalf of her company, founded and run by two gay men.
“So how was your night last night?” she asked. “Did you go out after the reception?”
“Last night?” I said, “I went to bed with Rachel [pause] Maddow.”
It’s a pretty reliable joke. But on this occasion, it went somewhere completely unexpected.
“Oh,” she said, sort of laughing. “But she’s married to a man, isn’t she?”
[GIANT PAUSE] And then I set her, you’ll pardon the expression, straight.
I know what happened. At least I’m pretty sure—I was too stunned at the time to ask. But I did the important thing: I corrected the record.
I think at some point she heard that Maddow is married and then unconscious bias kicked in. Married woman = woman with husband, right?
Marriage has been legal for same-sex couples everywhere in the country for several years now. It’s past time to drop the assumption that a married person must have an opposite-sex partner.
And this from a woman who works for gay men, who chose to attend an NGLCC conference, who self-identifies as an ally.
Unconscious bias can happen to everyone
Do you have unconscious bias? If you’re a human being, the answer is yes. I mean, maybe the Dalai Lama has escaped it, but the rest of us all form opinions about things. And sometimes we base those opinions not on facts but on stories we tell ourselves.
Regular readers know I’m a great advocate of story-telling, but only the conscious kind. When we tell ourselves stories about people without having any facts to back them up, that’s called stereotyping. Or, if it’s done by law enforcement-types, profiling.
Now this particular instance of unconscious bias didn’t cost anyone their job—although if the woman’s gay bosses found out she thought Rachel Maddow was straight…well, who knows what would have happened?
But her unconscious bias gave me the perfect opening story for the panel I participated in less than an hour later. I used it to illustrate the idea that we LGBT people must continue to be visible, because some people will unconsciously “straighten us out,” as the woman did to Rachel Maddow.
LGBT people can have unconscious bias, too—like when we hear someone’s a Christian and automatically assume that means they think we’re going to hell. Hey—I’ve been an Episcopalian for nearly 30 years; I know not all Christians hate us. And I still get wary when I meet someone who identifies as a Christian.
We’ve got our work cut out for us—all of us. But we can’t eliminate the evils of racism, homophobia, and all the other -phobias and -isms out in the world until we tackle the -isms and -phobias that live in our own heads.
I’ve been in Texas this week, well, in a hotel. Well, no, in a hotel room—I’ve been ill. It has not been the trip I expected it to be. But the few times I’ve interacted with the natives, I’m always shocked when they call me “Miss Elaine.”
It’s a Southernism, I guess, or a Southwesternism. A sign of respect.
Another time, I might not have even noticed it. But respect seems in short supply in our country these days. This week, the administration announced that it’s ending the DACA “Dreamers” program—gearing up to deport nearly a million young people who’ve lived exemplary lives in this country, the only home they’ve ever known.
I’ll tell you what—I’d be happy to live in a world with less reflexive “respect” and more actual respect.
Sorry, that’s all you get for today. I’m still under the weather. But BTW, yesterday:
I noticed a strange woman getting personal on Saturday. I was on Seattle’s marvelous light rail system, heading to the airport—cost me all of $3 from downtown to Delta. That’s insane.
New York City may be the queen of public transportation but you can’t get a subway straight to any of its airports these days, and when you still could—back in the late 20th century—the $5 fare would cost you nearly $14 in 2017 dollars. Plus, the stop where I boarded the light rail, underneath Nordstrom’s flagship store, looked less like a subway station than a hotel ballroom with a train running through it. Swear to God; it even had chandeliers.
But the strange woman. Okay, so she wasn’t talking directly to me, but she was presuming an unwarranted degree of familiarity with all of us. In New York, you’re lucky if you can hear the conductor barking the name of the station: “Christopher Street!” If you’ve got an exceptionally polite conductor, they might add “next” before they order you to “stand clear of the closing doors.” In Seattle, the conductor not only tells you what station you’re approaching, but what side of the train to exit. “SeaTac Airport Station is the next stop. Exit to my left.”
“…to my left.”
That’s what got me: “my left.” Because the nice lady with the impeccable diction doesn’t have a “left.” Or a right. Or a body at all. Seattle’s light rail is fully automated, except for the occasional clerk wandering the train, checking to make sure everyone has a ticket. The lady getting personal with all of us was a computer-generated voice. Only a slight digital pause gave her away—well, that and my local friend had explained the system to me when we took the train to see the Mariners steamroll my poor beleaguered Mets last week.
I found a Q&A thread of Seattle-ites (Seattalians?) wondering about their transit voice. A user named “vdcidet” also found the conductor’s word choice overly personal:
Light rail modified the voice not to long ago. It is 1000x better. It was all “fake nice sing songy” like the spokeswoman that only lasted a few years for the local mattress company (can’t recall what company but those commercials drove me insane). Now it is a little cooler but still tries to be Star Trek (not doors to “my” right…).
Look, any transit system that builds subway stops like ballrooms is okay by me. But spare me Artificial Intelligence with a personal touch. I don’t know about the Star Trek analogy, but it is pretty creepy.
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I’ve been in Canada this week, loving how friendly and polite everyone is. But this sign along the seawall in Victoria takes “polite” just a bit too far.
Deposits? Someone on the by-law committee clearly misread “barking dogs” as banking dogs.
And “any deposits”? As a dog owner myself, I shudder to think.
Cities the world over require that people clean up after their dogs; Victoria is the only one I’ve ever encountered that legislates it by euphemism.
Still, it’s Sunday so I shall deposit this song here. I thought about giving you singing dogs, but instead I’ll let Dick Van Dyke and company explain the wondrous results of even a small deposit in the “Fidelity Fiduciary Bank.”
I try to confine my political posts to Fridays, but due to user error, my Friday blog posted yesterday. I was just going to link to it again today but then I came across a Vox article about how the current political climate has become a collection of meaningless words.
That’s a helluva headline. And the subhed isn’t any sunnier:
This is not normal, and it is not sustainable.
Writer Ezra Klein doesn’t pull any punches
“This has been a policymaking process built, from the beginning, atop lies. Lies about what the bills do and don’t do. Lies about what is wrong with Obamacare and lies about what the GOP’s legislation would do to fix it. Lies about what Republicans are trying to achieve and lies about which problems they seek to solve.”
Lying is immoral, of course. Think about that the next time these lawmakers piously try to restrict women’s access to abortion and defund programs designed to prevent teen pregnancy. But a bigger challenge than the havoc their policies are wreaking is the havoc created by their policy-making.
As Klein notes, the political system
“…is built around the idea that the signals sent by the central players are meaningful, even if the rhetoric is often slippery.”
Politicians may spin but we can generally count on them to do something approximating what they say they will do. Klein again:
“That is not the case here.”
McConnell’s meaningless words
Klein offers some choice selections from “Restoring the Senate,” a speech Mitch McConnell gave in 2014. It includes gems like:
“…if you approach legislation without regard for the views of the other side. Without some meaningful buy-in, you guarantee a food fight. You guarantee instability and strife.”
He also bemoaned the demise of the Senate’s “vigorous committee process,” and promised he would restore it, if given the chance:
“There’s a lot of empty talk around here about the corrosive influence of partisanship. Well, if you really want to do something about it, you should support a more robust committee process. That’s the best way to end the permanent shirts against skins contest the Senate’s become. Bills should go through committee. And if Republicans are fortunate enough to gain the majority next year, they would.”
If the Democrats got the opportunity to filibuster this healthcare bill, forged “in the Majority Leader’s conference room” (a practice McConnell decried just three years ago)—if we had the opportunity to filibuster, I think they should take the floor, one after the other, and read McConnell’s words into the record. Because the things he spoke out against are a blueprint for everything he is now doing.
Meaningless words, empty gestures
John McCain, former American hero, returned early from his taxpayer-funded brain surgery and spoke passionately on the floor of the Senate about returning to the “normal order” of things—the committee process, bipartisan cooperation—the kind of utopia McConnell laid out in his 2014 speech.
Opponents of the bill needed just one vote to stop McConnell’s Motion to Proceed. McCain’s vote. In an alternate reality, we might expect him to vote against the motion. Sadly, we’re living in the reality where words have no meaning. Of course he voted Aye. UPDATE: Except to John McCain, whose 11th hour No vote struck the final blow. Had he signaled his intention to vote No earlier, his Republican colleagues might have had time to retrench and try again. “Wait for the show,” he told a Democratic colleague as they headed to the Senate floor.
“Skepticism is healthy in politics. But this era requires more than skepticism. This is a total collapse of the credibility of all the key policymakers in the American government. Our political system is built on the assumption that words have some meaning, that the statements policymakers make have some rough correlation to the actions they will take. But here, in the era of bullshit politics, they don’t. If this becomes the new normal in policymaking, it will be disastrous.”
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How do we find common ground?
Is it even worth trying?
These days, the most prevalent answers to these questions seem to be:
Who the hell knows?
The political scene in the United States in 2017 looks more like the battlefields of World War I circa 1917: Two sides dug in firmly. Neither of them willing to give an inch; neither of them gaining any ground.
Yeah, that last sentence concludes with a bit of wishful thinking. I don’t count Mitch McConnell out as of any fight, but I certainly hope the GOP doesn’t gain any ground with their deadly “healthcare” bill.
And that—right there—that’s the problem. It seems like the best I can hope for is stasis, paralysis. Is this any way to run a country?
So how do we find common ground?
The answer—well, one answer—came from an unexpected place this morning, as I was preparing to lead my advanced writing class. I re-read a passage from Seth Godin’s book All Marketers (Are Liars) Tell Stories in which he outlines the qualities great stories have in common. The final quality in the list:
Great stories “agree with our worldview. The best stories don’t teach people anything new. Instead, the best stories agree with what the audience already believes and makes the members of the audience feel smart and secure when reminded how right they were in the first place.”
That explains the entrenchment, right? The Republican side listens to Fox News and that awful, racist website whose name I can’t bear to repeat and parrots their talking points (see last week’s post about Ana Marie Cox interviewing people at a Trump campaign rally in Iowa). The Democratic side listens to Rachel Maddow and reads The New York Times. The same New York Times that our president has branded as “failing.”
Having a self-appointed media critic as president only heightens the divisions. As he succeeds in sowing distrust of media outlets (“fake news CNN”), his supporters become even less likely to accept any objective reporting they may stumble across. How can we reach them with the truth?
Maybe we need to start with their worldview. Instead of fighting it, slip into it for a moment. Not all of it—of course, some of the president’s supporters have reprehensible views—but the worldview of the average person on the street. Or, in my case, behind the counter at the dry cleaner.
The Dry Cleaner & the Humpback Whales
A couple of weeks ago, I went to retrieve a jacket from the dry cleaner’s. The lady working the counter was listening to a talk radio show host rant about womyn’s studies—”spelled with a Y”—and dying humpback whales. The bit about the whales featured mournful background music, like one of those movies where the teenager finds true love just as the deadly disease claims her life. It was way over the top.
And I got offended. I felt disrespected. I mean, listen to whatever you want on your own time, but when you’re working in a public-facing role in a business, don’t make your customers listen to it too. After all, some of those customers might care about endangered species. Or be “womyn.” Okay, back in the late ’70s I too mocked “womyn”—but that’s not my point. Or maybe it is.
Common ground—there’s common ground, if we just care to look for it. Now, I wouldn’t have engaged the dry cleaner’s salesclerk in a discussion of male privilege and language. But I could have said something more constructive than what I did say—basically, that I thought they did great work but I wouldn’t be coming back because of “that crap you’re listening to.” Nope, no common ground there.
As soon as I got back to the car I realized I’d missed an opportunity. I could have found something we’d both agree on. After all, the Congressional Budget Office had just published its score of the Senate’s healthcare bill. Millions of people would become uninsured, and those of us with insurance would face drastically rising premiums and drastically reduced coverage.
I wish I’d talked to her about healthcare. Maybe said something like, “Why are they talking about humpback whales on your radio show when the Senate is ready to vote on a healthcare bill that will affect everyone in the country?”
Or that’s probably even too partisan-sounding. Common ground: “Man, there sure is a lot that needs fixing in this country. Do you think whales are really the most important thing to talk about? I’m worried about my healthcare. How about you?”
Maybe I’d open her mind a little, get her to think for herself. Maybe the next time I saw her, we could find a little more common ground. That’s how cultural change happens. In one-on-one interactions, millions of them. Every single day.
One British soldier, Murdoch M. Wood, speaking in 1930, said: “I then came to the conclusion that I have held very firmly ever since, that if we had been left to ourselves there would never have been another shot fired.”
Can we take it upon ourselves to stop the verbal assaults? Stop the mudslinging? The politicians won’t stop on their own. The media won’t stop either; even the more objective outlets cover politics like it’s a blood sport.
But we can stop, individually.
Let’s fight the politicians with every argument we can muster. But when we talk to each other, let’s choose to look for common ground. It’s pretty much literally the least we can do.
Warning: This blog contains profanity, like the “ph-word”—phooey—and its descendant, the more straightforward “f-word.”
When my mother was a kid, back in the first half of the 20th century, she and her schoolgirlf friends used to camouflage their curses with Latin. Latin? Conjugate the verb “to be”: “Sum, esse, PHOOEY!!! futurus.” You can almost hear Cicero rolling in his grave.
Nobody camouflages curses these days. Nope, they’re right out there, front and center, a routine part of what used to pass for political discourse.
“Vulgarity,” my parents would have called it. And no one can dispute that an exceedingly vulgar man sits in the highest office in the land. But I’m not just talking about the “p***y-grabber-in-chief.” Apparently the Chair of the Democratic National Committee, Tom Perez, has thrown the s-word around at public rallies several times recently. And I don’t mean my mother’s s-word: “SHHHHHH-UGAR!”
Even Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has dropped the f-bomb:
“If we’re not helping people, we should go the fuck home.”
CNN commentator Mel Robbins asks an excellent question with the headline of her piece this week:
Robbins offers an explanation (or justification) for all this salty talk. Apparently it works.
A team of researchers from the United States, Netherlands, the UK and Hong Kong found that people who use profanity are less likely to be associated by others with lying and deception.”
Still more research finds that we process most language on the left side of our brain, swear words get shuttled over to the limbic system, where we process emotions. The emotional connection makes you sound less scripted, more trustworthy. And these days politicians will do anything possible to seem more trustworthy. Shit, even the ones who are trustworthy seem shady.
Robbins paints a world that would be completely unrecognizable to my parents. I have to say, it’s even inconceivable to me:
“Now that we’ve stepped into the Swear Zone, there’s no turning back. Indeed, when Gillibrand dropped the f-bomb, people actually floated the theory that she’s swearing because she’s gearing up for a presidential run.”
Would I like to see Gillibrand explore a presidential run? Fuck yeah. But I would also love to return to a time when leaders also modeled class and decorum. I say “Sum, esse, PHOOEY!!! futurus” to the profanity of the Trump era.
I wrote this post about “difficult conversations” two weeks ago. But it was late and I was tired and it’s such an important subject I didn’t want to publish it before I had some sleep and re-read it. I found it in my drafts folder today; turned out it didn’t need much cleaning up at all. And, sadly, the subject remains relevant So here you are.
I’ve been resisting Anna Marie Cox’s new podcast, Friends Like These for a while. She advertises it as being about the “difficult conversations” we have with one another—or, more accurately, don’t have often enough. I’ve heard her talk with a pastor whose flocks (he has churches in two different counties of some midwestern state I’ve forgotten) both voted for Trump. And she draws heavily on the expertise of her colleagues at MTV News, which brings more people of color to the microphone than the white bread podcasts run by her colleagues at Crooked Media (yes, that’s the company’s real name).
But the podcast I listened to today—already a couple of weeks old—got me thinking in a new way. Part of it focused on conspiracy theories. Cox and her guest Adam Savage contended that while the crap that’s going/has gone on with Russia is clearly important, our pursuit of the conspiracy at least partly serves to distract us from the even more depressing thought of the millions of Americans who needed no outside persuasion whatsoever to vote for Velveeta Voldemort.
That’s the real scandal here. We have turned into a country of intolerant people.
No—it’s a more difficult conversation than that:
“We have always been a country of intolerant people, but it’s no longer possible to ignore that.”
For many educated white people like me, who have been living in a Disneyland Shondaland where Diversity and Inclusion seem to increase daily, this comes as quite a shock.
Lava pools of racism and sexism, religious intolerance, xenophobia, homophobia have been bubbling beneath the surface of our society for decades. It was only a matter of time before they burst to the surface, like the volcano that lurks beneath Wyoming. There’s a volcano underneath Wyoming? Yes, according to yet another podcast, Stephen Dubner’s highbrow trivia contest, Tell Me Something I Don’t Know.
Difficult conversations with myself
Anyway, the bubbling lava pools of intolerance shocked the hell out of me, and a good percentage of polite society, when they burst out, seemingly ten minutes after the election results were announced. I said “polite society,” meaning the kinds of people who don’t go around creating swastika-covered cupcakes at birthday parties. But really “polite” is not the right word, though it rhymes with it:
Yep, even though I like to think of myself as “diverse”—y’know, because I married a woman and all—I have had no freaking clue what’s been going on in my own country to people whose skin are, as Oscar Hammerstein put it, “a different shade.”
Oh, I haven’t been living under a rock: I know about the black youth killed by police, the unrest. I know Black Lives Matter. And Muslim Lives. And Trans Lives. I know we can’t disappear them into the seemingly tidy package of “All Lives Matter,” because one of the things that matters about Black and Muslim and Trans lives is that they deserve to be visible.
But the daily drumbeat of unconscious bias, the kind of stuff you’ll find under the Twitter hashtag #BlackWomenAtWork—really, I thought we were past all that.
Someone said “When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”
My particular “hammer” is communicating. But, really, wouldn’t that help? If we all learned to speak our truths, if we had the guts to call out people who behave like this, and the tools to make our case forcefully—wouldn’t that help? Would they be difficult conversations? Sometimes, you bet. But the alternative is allowing these unconscious biases to stand. And that will not end well for anyone.
We allies have a responsibility to speak up. Grab that word-hammer and use it. Even—especially—when the conversations get difficult.
Even as a kid, I found Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood a little too saccharine for my taste. But I do agree with Mr. Rogers’ saying. Or I used to.
Stories seem a remarkably tame weapon against the hatred being stoked by President Bannon the elected and un-elected officials currently running our government. The idea of swapping stories with these people is as ludicrous as sending Fred Rogers out into a firefight wearing his trademark sweater instead of a flak jacket.
Kindness only goes so far.
Storytelling remains the best way to connect with people. But only if those people are willing to hear. And…
I guess you could say I have “writer’s hopelessness.”
I have been telling stories for as long as I can remember. Decades before I started doing it professionally.
I know stories have power. But…
[two days later]
Stories propelled the LGBT rights movement forward, as non-LGBT people learned we aren’t some strange breed from a glitter-filled planet. We’re their neighbors, friends, family. The person praying next to you in church. The teacher, the rabbi—and, yes, sometimes your hairdresser too.
In the 1960s, stories—aided by video and brave television correspondents—stoked the opposition to the Vietnam War. Stories and film of water cannons unleashed on defenseless schoolchildren ratcheted up support for civil rights.
Stories told by primly corseted middle-class women in 1800s America helped stoke the fires of Abolitionism. And stories told by enslaved people who’d escaped to freedom brought slavery’s evils into sharp focus in the parlors and assembly halls of the north.
Story-telling has a long history of helping “them” to understand “us”—whoever the oppressed us du jour may be. I know this.
Mr. Rogers, I surely want “them” to love me, us. But I am not at all sure I want to love them back.
I want to understand why they hate me—and hate so many others, even more marginalized than I am. But I am nowhere near ready to love them. Or even to “learn to love” them.
And that’s a terrible place to find myself in, both as a story-teller and as a Christian.
I was about to type the cliché “The only way out is through.” But I decided to source it, so I turned to Sir Google and found it appears in contexts as diverse as Robert Frost, religious writing, Psychology Today, and—of course—the World of Warcraft video game. It seems to be the title of an episode, if that’s the right terminology: “Quest: The Only Way Out is Through.”
“…is caught up in a deadly race to save her people from their grievous error before she succumbs completely to the mindless state of a withered.”
Grievous error, mindless people: that sounds like the right analogy for us, doesn’t it?
So we don’t have a choice, do we?
Tell stories, listen to stories—as Mr. Rogers commands us. They’re our magic swords, or pointy eyebrows, or whatever weapons Thalyssra uses. Stories can bind us together in solidarity. They can move us to action. They may—and I do hope Mr. Rogers is right about this—even be able to help us understand each other. Let just hope they can work their magic before we succumb completely to the mindless state of a withered.
“Blue language” usually means swearing. Why? Not even Slate knows, though this article “Sacré bleu! Why is blue the most profane color?” offers some historical tidbits. But these days “talking blue” might describe a liberal’s inability to communicate with a conservative. You can articulate the liberal worldview until you’re blue in the face, but if the person on the other side of the conversation holds a conservative worldview, you will never understand each other.
Talking blue to your mirror
Or as social psychologist Robb Willer says,
“…when we go to persuade somebody on a political issue,we talk like we’re speaking into a mirror.We don’t persuade so much as we rehearse our own reasonsfor why we believe some sort of political position.”
That’s from his TED Talk “How to have better political conversations.” Have a listen and learn how to use “moral reframing” to step away from the mirror and begin the process of connecting with people more challenging than your reflection.
Like George Lakoff, Willer sees partisan messaging as rooted in different core values:
“…liberals tend to endorse values like equalityand fairness and care and protection from harmmore than conservatives do.And conservatives tend to endorse values like loyalty, patriotism, respect for authority and moral purity more than liberals do.”
I get it: To me issues like LGBT rights are unquestionably about fairness and equality. And I don’t have to abandon that belief—but if I want a Conservative to hear me, I’d do better to talk about how it’s also an issue of patriotism. “We don’t treat people differently in this country; we don’t interfere in people’s bedrooms; that’s not what Americans do.”
I don’t know. I haven’t got all the answers. But Willer’s argument made me shout “D’oh!” and hit my forehead. We need to replace shouts with conversations; we need to replace contempt with empathy; we need to replace disdain with respect. And yes, both sides need to do this. But the more we embrace empathy and respect, the more the other side will as well.
So how do you do that?
Notice the way Willer combines liberal and conservative language at the end of his TED Talk:
“So this is my call to you:let’s put this country back together.Let’s do it despite the politiciansand the media and Facebook and Twitterand Congressional redistrictingand all of it, all the things that divide us.Let’s do it because it’s right.And let’s do it because this hate and contemptthat flows through all of us every daymakes us ugly and it corrupts us,and it threatens the very fabric of our society.We owe it to one anotherand our countryto reach out and try to connect.We can’t afford to hate them any longer,and we can’t afford to let them hate us either.Empathy and respect.Empathy and respect.If you think about it, it’s the very least that we oweour fellow citizens.”
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