Enter political correctness, and . . . wait for it . . . a story.
My dad and I were watching an indoor soccer game, and my nephew was tearing up the field. Now, I'm no athlete nor do I play one on TV, but there was another kid on the field, besides my nephew, who was just a joy to watch play. He moved with ease and precision and the grace of a ballet dancer. My dad is a little hard of hearing, which means he can be loud without meaning to. Add that to the ambient noise of the arena, and he didn't stand a chance. With no ceremony, he asked, loud enough for the whole county to hear, "Who is that negro kid? He's good!"
I know my dad, and he wouldn't use the term "negro" to denigrate or be intentionally offensive. He comes off that way sometimes, but, when the smoke clears, he's really okay. Now, back in his day, referring to black people as "negroes" was a way of not using the more common "n word." As ridiculous as this may seem now, the past prevalence of the "n word" brought a veneer of tolerance to anyone who used "negro" instead, when describing Sammy Davis, Jr. Today it begs the question, what exactly is there to be tolerated?
Back in the day when I was a glorified babysitter in a facility for troubled adolescents, I gave a kid a timeout for using a racist term. After about half an hour of pretending I couldn't hear him asking how much looooooonger he'd be on a time out, I sat down with him. When I asked him why he felt it was okay to use that term, he said that everyone there was white so it didn't matter. He embraced his ignorance and celebrated it. Since I wasn't his therapist, I just laid down the boundaries around the use of such words. As if on cue, he shot into lawyer-style questioning about exactly how far he could go before getting busted. I wasn't in the mood to play, so I reminded him I could get arbitrary on his ass anytime it suited me. Guess what he called me.
Every morning at the facility, I started my shift as a driver. I'd pick up the kids from their porches where they waited, slumped over and still halfway into the sleep they were dragged from just a few minutes before. My days usually ended the same way, depositing students one by one, from a van full of tired kids. On this particular day I was left with one kid to drop off before I could head back to the barn. Once we were alone, he asked me why it was wrong for ass-clown to use racist terms. [Please: no flames from ass-clowns who find my language offensive to their group.] Caught off guard by the obviousness of the question, the best I could do was to tell him that those terms come from ignorance and a lack of exposure to those they disrespected. His silence screamed that he thought I was full of shit. Hey, it's all I had at the moment. So I tried again: "We all get along better when we try not to piss each other off. So, let's leave such language behind. As this world shrinks, you'll be sharing it with different kinds of people." He didn't seem to get his mind around that either. So, I just told him watching what you say will reduce the number of times you get your ass kicked. He nodded and sat back in his seat.
So, the majority of us get through our days understanding that everyone else is just trying to get through their day, too, no matter how much energy they put into perpetuating their particular stereotypes. Such perpetuations can make it hard for the less intellectually agile to find common ground with them. Add to that, people of all stripes have a vocal minority who seem to set linguistic snares from which to hang the pseudo-insensitive. A dear friend of mine once said, "I don't mind being call a dyke, so I still have to work at not using 'oriental' instead of 'Asian.'" I think one of the many reasons we have remained good friends for so long is that we both walk with big feet through the minefield of political correctness.
More than a few people in my life pick out curtains with their own gender. Many of them would lay down in traffic for me. So, it is particularly upsetting when another friend tells me he's going to pass on attending an event because it involves being around gay people. Now, if this friend happened upon a flamboyant antique dealer in a broken down Miata convertible with a rainbow license plate frame, stalled out on the side of the road, I have no doubt he would do everything he could to make sure the fella was okay-then never admit he even stopped. But, on this day he made it clear he wasn't going to be involved in anything that involved homosexuals.
It feels a little like a junior high school playground. "If you like him, then you can't play with us." This is where it can get a little hard to practice what you preach. If you think tolerance is the only way we will be able to live together, then we have to accept that there are those who have a good spirit in their hearts, though it may not be evident from their vocabulary. I'd like to believe that there is not a single person, even if they protest in front of the courthouse, who would turn his or her back on a soldier returning from Iraq. Yes, the war makes no sense, but there are plenty of casualties who suffer their injuries after they return home. Do we shun these people because they were on an unpopular battlefield? In this town, there are more conservatives in the closet than Californians, and I suspect they remain in the closet because they would feel discriminated against if it was known that their answer to stopping global warming isn't at a Toyota dealership, or that 9/11 wasn't a government plot. Someone who would fight an overseas war to defend their beliefs is not that different from those who would put themselves between an old growth forest and a bulldozer. Ideology is just noise compared to the character of both these people.
It is all the rage to wax tolerance while poking cruelly at those who do not share your views. The word "tolerate" is a verb because it's an action-it's work. The work comes in making the effort to get along with those whose opinions you do not share. Calling someone a bigot (or ass-clown) never helps them get closer to embracing their brothers and sisters of a different stripe. I have an acquaintance who is very guarded about her personal life. As she moved into middle age, circumstances made that impossible. A huge part of me reveled in watching her outspoken relatives deal with their discomfort. Frankly, that enjoyment was short lived, as it usually is in such circumstances. My insensitivity to the pain of all parties involved was the manifestation of my prejudice-a life-long intolerance of those who intone arcane scripture at the first sign of discomfort. In this instance, I dehumanized these people for my own amusement and sense of self-righteousness. Maybe part of making that right is letting my friend wander his own path to the root of his bias. How it works out for him ain't on me. He'd still lay down in traffic for me, and I for him.