aim higher: on smoking and toxic speech

If you listen closely to the stories of people born to a generation different than yours, you will quickly remember that cultural norms are always in flux. What we think of as normal is actually a set of loosely held beliefs, shared collectively by those similar in age, geographical location, religion or ethnicity. Normal for you might not be normal for me.

We know this, and yet those very norms are incredibly powerful. It is easy to shake our heads as kids lose their way in the face of peer pressure, but are we any different? Adults, claiming to live with free agency, often mimic their younger selves, following the herd in which they find themselves, doing what everyone else does. We easily replace our own sense of right and wrong with those who claim the right path is the one that doesn’t ask me to change.

For good or for bad, norms are comforting because they help us understand the context in which we live, revealing good ideas and bad ones as we decide which habits must change. When such change comes, it is easy to lose the sense of comfort that came with knowing what ‘normal’ felt like. When norms change, some people feel alienated, and left behind.

Consider smoking. My extended family was sitting on the beach recently, and one of the ten grandkids started waving her hand flamboyantly in front of her nose. “What’s that nasty smell?”, she nearly yelled. “Smoke!” another kid answered, “someone is smoking out here.” Kids groaned, parents rolled their eyes, and then looked around indignantly, as if to say, “Who dares to think its okay to smoke out here? Disgusting!”

Full disclosure, I was also appalled, bothered that we were being subjected to such a destructive habit. Later though, I heard my family tell stories about past vacations where aunts and uncles smoked incessantly, inside, outside, and most certainly on the beach. Our thoughts about smoking are a direct reflection of the cultural norms that surround us. Apparently everyone used to smoke: pregnant women, folks lounging in bed, and matriarchs rolling out biscuits for Sunday lunch…it was neither appalling nor disgusting 50 years ago.

Not a fan of cancer, I am thrilled that smoking is now considered taboo. I’m thankful my kids nearly think it is a sign of moral destitution to light up regularly. What about the smokers though? If you came of age in a time when smoking was ubiquitous, the changes that made smoking frowned upon labeled you an enemy of public decency.

That is the tricky thing about norms: They constantly change, and yet our attachment to them can make us feel dislocated when changes inevitably occur. There is a pervasive alienation that comes when the thing that is normal for me is suddenly outlawed out in the real world. If unexamined, it can begin to shape our understanding of our place in the world. Feeling as if my habits or instincts are not appropriate for public spaces can make me feel desperate for a place to fit. Moreover, it can make me feel as if I am a victim of public progress, a person now deemed unfit for proper society.  It can make me long for things to go back to the way they were.

It is easy to imagine the resentment smokers feel when obnoxious children loudly condemn them on a random beach. As we think about expanding our embrace of the different folks around us, it is also helpful to imagine the resentment people might feel who are increasingly told their opinions are disrespectful toward women or bigoted toward certain others. To be clear, I find misogyny, racism, homophobia and xenophobia even more toxic than smoking. Nevertheless, I have come to understand it takes hard (and perhaps unfamiliar?) work to recognize the evil and abusive nature of a set of opinions one has held for decades—that were once widely shared among his ancestors.

Rather than loudly condemning them as toxic, could we help them see the norms they have long accepted are destructive? When it is okay to insult and denigrate others based on gender or race, inequity, exclusion and power imbalances become the natural norm. If we want to live in a country with liberty for all, then this change is good and necessary. It is also worthwhile to recognize it takes humble reflection and courageous curiosity for those who found the old way of interacting acceptable. Rather than simply accusing them of disgusting behavior, it would be more productive to make space for their questions and frustrations, giving them a place to belong as they change their way of speaking.

I should say here that so many women and men from minority communities have been creating space for bigoted folks to learn to be less bigoted for centuries. And many of them are done with that work. It is incredibly costly for a person to sit with another person and explain to them why their perspective is hurtful, demeaning or oppressive. It is a cost borne by those who are not served by the status quo or norms of the past. Every time they step forward to sit across the table from someone angry or just confused by the need for norms to change, they are required to face dismissive prejudice or outright hate. Folks historically marginalized have been inhaling that cancerous smoke for longer than I’ve been alive, and the effects are often toxic.

It is incumbent on the rest of us to pull a chair up to the table and talk openly about why blaming other people for the alienation one feels is not the path forward. The task before us is to ask those who feel left behind to stop blaming women and men already victimized by prejudice. We must also make every effort not to condemn those who find themselves outside societal norms for being frustrated as they learn to respect and even honor the new norms for public interacting. Habits won’t change unless people are willing to calmly explain why it is necessary.

 In an age where every other podcast discusses the power of tribal connectivity in this political moment, it might help us to acknowledge that some of our tribes become strong because the rest of us point our fingers at those who need a little time and help in discovering how our old norms dehumanized and hurt a lot of people. Let us not talk falsely now, but instead commit ourselves to support any effort made to reflect on how our commitment to some norms hurt the people around us. Offer people a seat at the table instead of kicking them out of the house.

This is not who we are!! Right?!

This week US Border Agents sprayed tear gas on men, women, children and babies trying to illegally and legally enter our country as immigrants or asylum seekers at our Southern border. In Alabama, at a mall crowded with holiday shoppers, police shot and then refused medical intervention to a black man—a veteran—who was there. They mistakenly assumed he was killing people, while the real shooter escaped unharmed. In elections earlier this month, we elected leaders who openly use dehumanizing language to describe non-white people or who were credibly accused of sexual assault or fraud.

As we view this recent history, our responses vary. Outraged, some protest, screaming, “This has got to stop!” Others grieve, sobbing, “Lord, have mercy.” Many refuse to look, calling it “fake news.” Overwhelmed, some shrug their shoulders, choosing apathy instead of compassion. Still others, bewildered, utter a desperate plea: “This is not who we are! Right?!”

This is exactly who we are, though. An examination of our history (importantly, not the history reflected by most secondary school standards) reveals that our country, our wealth and our cultural norms are built at the expense of people who are neither white nor Christian. I don’t say this as political accusation or hyperbole, but as a person who has studied a country and a church that I love. We are faithful and brave and willing to sacrifice for others. We also have a history of choosing ourselves first, of excusing unspeakable horrors in the name of God’s blessing to us. The protestant underpinnings of our founding affirm racial hierarchy as part of God’s good design. This led us (and leads us) to justify mission work toward and violence against people of color who were not aligned with the faith. These beginnings are rarely acknowledged, and despite the fact that we continue to take steps toward equality and universal human rights, our majority is suspicious of non-white people, and our cultural norms protect this perspective.

Interested in our national cognitive dissonance—we support a status quo of racialized injustice, while also insisting we do not have a race problem—I think a lot about how we got here, and believe we privilege greedy theologies and nationalistic governance. The great news is that we don’t have to stay here. You can decide to be different today, and you can start by examining our collective history, your individual bias and instinctive beliefs about others, about normal, about right. If we do not engage in these ways, we’ll stay here, and the news of this week will continue, indefinitely.

We have to learn to speak up, not just for the bad, but for the good. As my mom often reminds me, speak up for the good you see, for the choices that value life and honor dignity! Celebrate courage and quiet generosity. Do justice and love mercy. We the people are forming the America we live in. If you think we are better than our most selfish, grasping instincts, then you must develop a capacity to acknowledge and confront those instincts in yourself. We are the people we complain about and those we believe in, and we need to examine how we got here in order to agree with the direction we are heading. If we understand American culture and wealth is built on hierarchies, we can begin to engage in rejecting the fruit that grows out of those systems.

If you find the courage to name and challenge the poison of assumed superiority, though, you might lose your own capital in the process. We tend to demonize folks who challenge the status quo because it can lead to changing the status quo, removing any comfort found there. It is worth noting that cultural norms typically do not support points of view that challenge unacknowledged bias. Consider with me a group of wealthy men gathering for poker or to fish or for drinks, who feel they don’t have to be “careful” in their environment. Imagine one of them referring to women in less-than-honoring ways, and uttering statements about other races or ethnicities based on uninformed stereotypes. His derogatory speech offends those around him. He dehumanizes fellow humans, adhering to notions of gendered and racial hierarchies that are outrageous and inappropriate. It is not okay, ever, under any circumstances to speak of another human the way that he does. The men hanging out with him KNOW THIS to be true, but they freeze, caught between what they know to be wrong and what cultural norms approve. If a man finds the courage to speak up, to confront him or even engage him in conversation, quietly confessing he is bothered by this language, that brave man would ruin the moment. Cultural norms are so powerful that they absolve the racist, sexist man and indict the man who dares to say, “I’m bothered by the way you speak about the women and people of color with whom we all work and worship and live.” The man who speaks up becomes the man who steps out of line, not the man who uttered hate speech. This is the power of cultural norms to destroy us all.

In order for equality and universal value to become normal, we have to challenge every norm that asserts the opposite. It is tempting for some to choose apathy, to stand aloof, to shrug our shoulders when we see evidence that we are erasing our history or assuming value based on race or gender; nevertheless, choosing apathy props up the America we all claim does not exist. Others are tempted to protest, to launch a non profit, to wage war on Twitter or reddit, even while they remain silent when a colleague, churchgoer or family member speaks with bias against another group. We must learn to speak up in every arena we enter.

 We are actively creating the America we inhabit, and as long as we give biased norms the most power, they will control and divide us. We will stay exactly as we are, in hierarchies of race, gender and wealth that refuse to acknowledge themselves, unless we take the brave steps required to change our norms. For the past few weeks, these essays have discussed the courage and independence required to challenge the status quo. I’ll end this series with this final thought: If we want to be a country where everyone is treated as a valuable human, then we must take responsibility for, and speak up against, messages we hear that conflict with this idea.

speaking up (even around turkeys)

I am an infuriating parent (Yes, I am sometimes also infuriated, but that’s a discussion for another day). I find phrases that apply to multiple situations, that might hold true over decades, and then I repeat them ad nauseum until my children want to file for emancipation. When they were in the early stages of language acquisition, I heard parents absentmindedly remind their whining children to “use your words.” I understand where this phrase is coming from, and what it is supposed to accomplish. I’m not a fan.

Despite the fact that I don’t tell my kids to use their words, we have to teach children to articulate their perception of their needs, wants and opinions. In our house we use, “speak up.” I say it to them when they are 2 and can’t get the right sounds out, when they are 5 and whining, when they are 9 and punching someone, and when they are 15 and moodily brooding. “Speak up,” I say! Articulate how you feel and what you need. It is crucial in relationships to speak up when you feel uncomfortable, wounded or treated badly.

I suppose we learn to use our words, but many adults don’t know how to speak up. Some of us don’t feel worthy, or are uncomfortable with discomfort, or struggle to find the right words at the right time. There is another reason though. Increasingly, our cultural norms teach us to stay quiet. Norms can be subtle, hard to acknowledge or even recognize, but they hold great power. Lately I have observed the power of norms to help people betray their own stated values. In the cultural context of Nashville, we are taught it is bad manners to disagree. It is rude to argue publicly. It is “getting political” to express concern over dehumanizing policies or speech from an elected official. For many Christians, it is “losing sight of Jesus” to speak up against oppression. It is causing trouble to defend a peer when they are treated unfairly.

Instead, we are taught to stay loyal, even through silent support. Stay loyal to the power in charge, loyal to your tribe, loyal to the status quo. We are primarily committed to our hive, not our convictions. We easily get the two confused, and our cultural norms reinforce the idea that speaking up is not a good idea. I understand these impulses, but as a person trying to imitate the convictions and habits of Jesus, I can’t follow them.

The life of Jesus, as recorded in the Biblical text, is a tale of speaking up. When he publicly announced he was the Messiah, Jesus claimed that he was the One the prophets spoke about. In the early days of the Kingdom of Israel, and later of Judah, the people had a king, but God also gave them a prophet. Prophets spoke up. They reminded the people they had a loving God, and they reminded them God cared about how they treated each other. They challenged kings who led with corrupt power or who led the people to care more about idols than about doing justice and loving mercy. Jesus indeed came to fulfill those prophecies, preaching good news to the poor, and challenging news to the powerful. Over and over he spoke up to defend the vulnerable, to challenge the greedy, to address brokenness. He enraged people with his willingness to rock the boat. He was murdered for speaking up.

And yet, I see the community of folks calling themselves Christians around me rejecting that life altogether. I hear pastors warning against those who speak up, as if they are an example of those who have lost sight of the Gospel. I see the discomfort at lunch if a person utters concern about the policies or bigotry of a “Christian politician.” If the hive says support that person, then an individual in the hive better not speak up in a way that might undermine them, even as an act of faithful obedience to the teaching of Christ. Having lost the will, and atrophied our ability to speak up, we keep our heads down and remain silent when the people who represent us behave and speak badly.

I recently heard about an elementary school in Tennessee where the kids are celebrating Thanksgiving with costumes and a play. The handout told parents their kids could choose to be an Indian or a Pilgrim, and should dress as such. In addition to using a word to describe American First Peoples that they themselves have described as offensive, the assignment contained no suggestion of intercultural awareness, humility or curiosity. I understand why a parent wouldn’t want to speak up. No one wants to be “that parent.” A parent might not feel like they know enough about history to speak up, or might not have time to get involved. What if you did though? What if we could speak up in a way that created new possibilities and offered a way forward for the teacher?

I know one parent who felt uncomfortable but did not speak up. Another taught me how to imagine speaking up in this context. She read the assignment and then asked if she could meet with the teacher. She spoke up with solutions, not accusations, with honesty, not blame. It went something like, “When I read the assignment I was very excited the kids get to celebrate this holiday. I was sad when I saw the word Indians instead of Native Americans. I think this simple change teaches our kids culturally competent language, and helps all kids feel welcome in our classroom. I wanted to offer a few ideas on how we could honor the legacy of First Peoples that we celebrate at Thanksgiving, since our history together is much more complicated than a shared harvest meal. I also totally understand that it might be too late to change for this year, and if we can’t I wanted to let you know I’ll keep my daughter home that day. I want her to understand that pilgrims learned a lot from Native people, and they also abused their trust and treated them badly. With a little tweaking this lesson could teach us to celebrate our good moments and learn from our mistakes.” This is a lot! I get it. But our kids and their teachers deserve parents willing to speak up to improve learning. Remaining silent in this instance teaches a class full of kids false history and to use a word hurtful to other Americans. When is the dignity of other people worth risking your comfort and capitol for? In what situation would you be willing to speak up?

Speaking up is seen as a threat to the status quo because it is a threat to the status quo! Importantly, speaking up does not have to be denouncing. It can be an invitation to reflect, to align one’s actions and behaviors, to be a part of a larger community. Speaking up can start a conversation that never ends where we share the work of making meaning together. Speaking up can inform, creating space for curiosity and examination. This week if you find yourself sharing a large table with a group of people from various hives, can you find courage to speak up when hurtful words are spoken? This Thanksgiving, instead of stuffing down your wounds or discomfort, try to speak up, and see where the conversations leads.