Saturday, January 4, 2014

Enjoying being Offended - part 1

I remember my grandmother as a warm comforting presence on those summer vacations. My grandfather and her would come out to California in the summer in their RV. We would do fun things and everyone would get along and then she would make hot chocolate for everyone.
photo by Herrick
I think I must have been a difficult grandchild for her, with inexplicable and occasionally unpredictable dislikes. But I liked how she would like around that. Once she had given up on me going along with something or what would work for me to do, the matter would be dropped and I could just move on from there. It would be like the disagreement had never happened. She was really good at getting us the act like we were in natural harmony with each h other.
She died of breast cancer when I was still a teenager. At a gathering connected with her funeral I was talking to her namesake and in the course of the conversation saying that my grandmother hadn't been perfect. When I was asked how, I pointed out that, while she would create an appearance of agreement and perfect sympathy, it wasn't a reality.
It was based on pretending. If someone said something you disagreed with you couldn't contradict them directly. You had to phrases it as a nuanced agreement so everyone could act like there wasn't a conflict. You could be scolded for being impolite but it was always the form of your expression and not the content of your ideas that was criticized.
Grandma would firmly squelch any topics of real disagreement except ones that were so distant and abstract that no one president was really affected by them. It made for a very comfortable, restful atmosphere. But it was possible because our little family mostly agreed on our general perspective. We were willing to conform our views to a conventional average without really debating anything.
It was a comfortable, safe place for me to retreat. But out want we're I really formed my mind and sharper my ideas. It was a place for recovery rather than growth. But from the outside it presented such a feeling of safety and acceptance that it might.
I think one of the things wrong with public debate today is that there’s an illusion that the whole of life can be like that for everyone. I hear calls for protests over something a public figure said in some magazine. I here whole groups given the identity of “haters” because their tastes or ideas don’t match that of some other group. I see people genuinely upset and hurt because they read on the internet where someone discussed something they identify with in a way my Grandmother would not have allowed one of her grandchildren to be discussed in her living room.
But here’s the thing, my grandmother could only achieve that because she was working with a very small group of people already very alike in tastes and culture. Moreover  the atmosphere was limited in time and space. We could go other places to discuss how we really felt and develop our own opinions.
Expecting to encounter a sampling of people from the real world and not find some dislike your art, disapprove of your choices, or don’t respect the identity you’ve cultivated is setting yourself up for heartbreak. Even just America is too big to be one homogenized culture where there’s a list of values you can endorse and expect everyone to nod their heads in approval. People are really going to disagree with you even on things that are emotionally important to you or that are part of how you identify your place in the world.
The 50s sitcom family where everyone could always be sure that if there would be an apology by the end of an episode was mostly an illusion. And to the extent it wasn’t it is impossible to expand to embrace a group of diverse backgrounds and world view. Instead we need to embrace that fact that we will offend other people and that other people will offend us.

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