Saturday, 31 March 2012

Compliments don't make Racism go away!

I'm coming to understand my own views about what racism is. What prejudice is, what bigotry of all kinds is. We are moving towards a better understanding of each other, but we are doing it slowly, like the relentless creep of a glacier. You only need to take a look at the decades and the views held to know this is true. The TV show Mad Men is not just great drama, it’s a chance to look with horror at who we were only a short time ago.

My Grandfather's generation is racist. His parents and school taught him people of dark skin were inferior to white skinned people. He was taught to fear the 'yellow peril' of Asian nations as the Japanese threatened to invade and inflict atrocities on the men and women they captured as prisoners of war.

It's not good enough to dismiss and excuse this generation because they're from a different age. But we do. We laugh off the incredibly offensive comments because Granddad has become inoffensive as dementia makes him more and more obsolete to any intelligent debate.

But should we allow it to slide without comment?

There is great acceptance and humour to be had in second hand bigotry. Ricky Gervaise, Chris Lilly, Little Britain and many others have discovered the freedom a character gives to get politically incorrect laughs out of material that, owned directly, would damn their career.

A woman who throws up because a person of a foreign country has baked the cookie she’s just eaten is so shocking it’s funny. The comedian is not saying foreigners are so disgusting they can't bear to risk eating something they’ve touched – they’re saying the humour is in a women existing who is so bigoted she has this reaction.

Ricky Gervaise would never knee a dwarf in the face. But the character he plays would. In fact, Ricky is smart enough to remove himself twice from the insult. First the character he plays, in whatever incarnation, is the one doing the offensive thing. Second, that character didn’t mean to do it. It's all a misunderstanding that's come about through a series of unfortunate events. And people howl with laughter. In Ricky's case they laugh three times: once because the character mistakenly gets labeled as insensitive. (How embarrassing for them!) Secondly, because of what the character does in the moment, (He lifted his knee to protect himself and accidently kneed the dwarf in the face – that’s awkward!). Third, because an outrageous social misdemeanor has been perpetrated - (A dwarf got kneed in the face). So now twice removed from something socially offensive, even the people who find dwarf abuse funny get to laugh with Ricky. Same goes for racism, homophobia, handicapped issues, sexism and all the other group injustices out there. It’s a loophole that gives us license to laugh.

For a long time I’ve been trying to work out where I stand on this incredibly complicated issue. It is complicated. Political correctness made it complicated. There are still people who are bigoted and don’t care. We also have bigots who are ignorant of the fact they are bigots and others who dismiss complaints as being overly sensitive.

As a gay man I have faced condemnation from family, friends and strangers. I’ve listened to kids and adults alike allow ‘so gay’ to become part of the lexicon. A phrase that means something isn’t enviable, isn’t masculine, isn’t the sort of thing a ‘self respecting’ person would want to be seen doing/wearing/saying. And if you raise the issue and declare you’re not happy about it being used, you get dismissed because, Gay is not being used in the same way that it refers to people - silly!

The same argument was used and shown to be ill informed with words like Jewish and others. Because words have power and they do inform and guide our social thinking and agendas.

And no, none of these issues are alike, nor do I compare them. Being of a race, or having a disability, or being a male or a female, being gay or straight – none of these things are like the other. They get grouped together and argued for or against in the same breath simply because they are subsets of our whole. We all fit into groups within our larger group and we all suffer positive or negative discrimination because of these groupings. Whatever religion you are, places you in a group – and even being atheist puts you into one of those groups – you cannot escape being grouped even if your group is defined as ‘others’ – you’re still in a column.

Every one of these groups can and does attract behaviour that is inclusive of and restrictive of opportunities being offered by a bigoted world. There are times in your life where you will have been judged, for good or bad, because you’re part of a group and that group is seen to share traits. These commonly perceived behaviour patterns will be transferred onto you.

You are Christian? Therefore you think and behave in a certain way. It’s so simple and it makes so much sense. It’s the perfect system for our simple Disneyesque black and white world.

Why is bigotry of any kind such a complicated and decisive issue and why is it so hard for us to come to terms with and understand?

I ask these questions because I keep hearing good intentioned people being interviewed and trying to make positive statements that end up far worse than saying nothing at all.

It often happens with leaders who get asked difficult questions about a ‘socially sensitive’ minority within a society that is often denigrated or causes social friction to the majority by their very existence. The socially conscious leader of the community tries to use the opportunity to make a positive contribution.

How many times have you winced when someone began by assuring you some of their best friends were of a particular kind? Or they’ve gone so far as to declare that they aren’t prejudice against a group… but…

Racism, sexism, denial of human rights against any group is illegal. It’s wrong. It’s antiquated and will slowly become something belonging to past generations.

But we have to stop grouping people as if that group makes a significant comment towards its members in any way before that can happen.

Australian Aboriginals can be proud of their incredible abilities and contribution across many sporting fields in Australia. This is said so often it has become law in this country. Few ever consider that it’s a key to how a person thinks. It’s racist. It’s not true. It’s a grouping that needs to stop. Australian aboriginals can be proud of individuals who have brought pride to our country through sporting achievement.   

Those people, like any other, reached the top because of their own individual abilities and hard work.

Asians aren’t smart because they’re Asians – the Asian’s who are smart got that way by working damn hard. Australian Aboriginals are not gifted because of some magical gene that gives them a sporting talent above others – they are gifted because as individuals they had a talent and then worked hard to make the most of that talent. There are just as many dumb Asians and un-athletic Aboriginals as there are those who are gifted.

The reason those who try to make a positive comment towards the debate of race, or acceptance towards a group of any kind, fail is because they keep using the group.

We’re individuals. We all fit into many subsets within a larger group that makes up our communities, our cities, our countries and our world. Within those groups are individuals who are incredible role models, who are leaders, who are great men and women to be admired and to aspire to. There are just as many who are law breakers, lazy, lowlife good for nothings who serve as a warning against taking the easy or disreputable path in life. But these people too are individuals. They didn’t end up where they are because they are part of a subset of society. They ended where they ended through opportunity and individual choice.

Prejudice and injustice towards people comes from treating people as their neighbour. We are all individuals and two identical people, with like backgrounds, experience and opportunities can and do end up at different ends of the social spectrum regarding success and failure. How do you place their group? Is the group lazy or hard working, smart or dumb, honest or lawless? Because those two people, at opposite ends of the social spectrum, come from the exact same group. And this example occurs in every group, across every walk of life.

As long as we insist on trying to find connections and similarities in each other based on arbitrary factors, we will have bigotry, racism, prejudice and injustice. It doesn’t matter how good someone’s intentions are or how positive a compliment is being made – if it’s being made to a group because of the actions of an individual or a few from within that group, it represents a prejudicial remark against the whole. The speaker believes all people of that subset share like attributes.

That’s where the complication and difficulty comes from in the politically correct debate. That’s where the humour comes from in comic sketches using characters who take this notion to the extreme. But it’s also what we have to come to terms with if we are going to break the cycle.

Nothing should be assumed of anyone until they are met and understood as an individual. Once that is done I have no problem with them being labeled stupid, lazy or dishonest, to be lauded as hard working, inspirational or a genius intellect. But wait until you have the facts on a person first hand. You still may be wrong about them, some people don’t make a great first impression, others talk a great game but can’t play at all, but for the most part, there’s a greater chance you’ll know them better given you’ve considered them first hand.

Credit for actions, good or bad goes to the individual. Any other view makes a person ignorant of what prejudice is.