It’s all about perspective.
Let’s face it – from where you sit, it really is all about you. Same here. That’s not narcissism or a lack of empathy – because the degree to which you’re able to feel empathy and genuinely care about other people is a big part of what makes you you. And if you’re a reasonably empathetic person, reading some anecdote here about me, my life, my experience – odds are, you can relate to some or all of it. You can extrapolate, apply your own experiences and emotions, and “get” where I’m coming from, even if our life experiences are vastly different.
If I say that a loved one has died, and you say that you’ve experienced the death of a loved one and know how I feel, I’m not going to get angry and say, “How dare you! You can’t possibly know how I feel!” (Just don’t use the word “exactly” before “how you feel” and it’s all good.) I might roll my eyes if you compare how you feel about the death of a beloved pet to how someone feels about the death of a child, but I do know people who love their pets that much, or certainly think that they do – and as insensitive as they may sound in trying to draw such parallels, I’m pretty sure they have an inkling of how bad it feels, and they mean well. If they share their experiences, they’re not necessarily trying to focus the conversation on them, either – they’re trying to explain their frame of reference, to share why they think they “get it,” and to maybe establish a little credibility.
I tend to forget there are people out there who really can’t draw those kinds of inferences – who see the world much more narrowly and literally. Like one former classmate of mine in law school – a card-carrying member of Mensa whose very high IQ didn’t mean that she could apply the facts from today’s Case B to the facts from last year’s Case A and figure out whether and to what extent A should be controlling as precedent. It was a fascinating glimpse into the shortcomings of intellect and the importance of intuition and experience and the ability to synthesize all those things and draw conclusions. Brilliant as she was, she flunked out after her first year.
There are people who lack the intuition and imagination to really step into someone else’s shoes – virtually speaking – and to feel something akin to what the other person is probably feeling. Those people are understandably less likely to believe that anyone else could imagine what they feel or understand where they’re coming from, unless they’ve literally shared the same experiences. That doesn’t make them bad people, but I’d urge them, especially, to work on giving others benefit of the doubt.
It came as a bit of a shock to me, recently, when a couple of folks jumped down my throat for commenting on posts dealing with racism. Ultimately, my take-away had nothing to do with race. No, there are mean-spirited, cruel, quick-tempered, determinedly put-upon people of all colors, genders, sexual orientations, and income levels. I think they distract attention to real issues and problems – like women’s rights protesters wearing pink, fuzzy vagina costumes distracts and detracts from the point (they had one?) they were trying to make at the RNC. My take-away was more along the lines of: “Back away, slowly. This is like preaching ‘gun-control’ at the NRA, not having a discussion on human rights at the U.N. No one wants to further peace and understanding, here. You weren’t invited to this party. Now…RUN.” Brian Gardner wrote a similar post, “An Open Letter to Every Man Who Reads a Woman’s Blog,” and I felt bad, as a representative member of my gender, to think that men would feel unwelcome or awkward or alien in reading and commenting, and hoped they’d feel comfortable here, on this blog.
Sometimes, people work really hard to find reasons to take offense, rather than reasons to give benefit of the doubt. I’m used to seeing this in political discussions – particularly during an election year. I know to avoid the comments on mainstream media sites. Read enough of those, and it’s hard not to want to see half of humanity walk off a cliff. Whether you think President Obama is a saint or a sinner, you have to give the man props just for getting up to face the day – to go to work, focus on the job, and smile, every damned day, even at his harshest critics – given the level of vitriol and threats directed at him and his family 24/7. I don’t think I could do it.
I have a pretty good sense of what’s a legitimate, debatable point and what’s just narrow-minded and bitchy. And some days, when I’ve seen and heard too much narrow-minded and bitchy from the folks I feel I will never persuade with kindness and rhetoric – when I’ve seen people try to make the case for telling me what I can and cannot do with my own body; or when I watch, dumbfounded, as they proclaim to the world that a woman’s body is capable of “shutting that whole thing down” so that no woman gets pregnant after being “legitimately raped” – I get pretty bitchy and inclined to find excuses to be hostile towards the world, too. I find irony in the fact that these are usually the same folks advocating for less gun control. Are they really that clueless?
So even though there’s no denying I’m a privileged white woman (and make no mistake – I’m thankful for that happy accident of birth, but it doesn’t make me better than anyone, just luckier), I’m not ignorant, stupid, mean-spirited, or speaking in some kind of condescending white woman code if I use a particular word, like “articulate,” in a particular sense (giving a compliment to a fellow writer) simply because I like to use all the varied shades of meaning in the unabridged dictionary. Nor would you be ignorant for misunderstanding, if that’s how you took it – if in your experience the word “articulate” was seen as some sort of subtle put-down. Your experience isn’t mine. It would be a kindness if you’d take a moment to clarify, though, before firing a bullet between my eyes. You have to admit, “condescending insult” is not one of the dictionary definitions of the word “articulate.”
After stewing over this (yes, I stew – until I’m pretty sure that it’s really not all my fault) – I realized something. I actually can relate to the offended person in the above scenario. I’m guessing this doesn’t matter to her, and I feel too unwelcome, now, even to go back and set the record straight, but I do “get it.” You see, my friend Abhi Balani would not be my friend, today, if I’d not given him benefit of the doubt when he called me “Dear.” It’s a cultural thing, I learned – after getting a little (Abhi, please tell me it was just a little) snitty over what I heard as condescending and inappropriate, coming from a man who barely knew me, who was young enough to be my son. And we wouldn’t have stayed friends if he took offense every time I asked him a question in Facebook IM without first saying “Hello, how are you?” and inquiring about the health and happiness of his mother, father, and sister. It was never my intention to be rude or abrupt; I didn’t want to waste his time. Fortunately, instead of angrily dismissing me as a rude old American woman who habitually forgets to wish him a happy birthday, he kindly reminds me that little pleasantries are still appreciated, and I try to slow down and join him for a cup of tea, wishing I could one day meet the rest of his family, because they have so clearly raised a nice young man. One who will now know, if he visits the US, that older women of short acquaintance probably prefer not to be addressed as “Dear.” I hope, one day, I can bake him a big, chocolate birthday cake.
We all have baggage. How I heard “Dear” wasn’t Abhi’s fault – not in the least little bit. Nor was it my fault that in my experience, “articulate” is a good thing – a positive thing. Not some “code” word for being surprised someone can string words together coherently. My husband said, for him, it would be a question of context: If he wrote an article for the New York Times and was called “articulate,” he’d see it as a compliment; if it was for People Magazine, he’d think they meant “wordy.” So clearly, we all project our personal baggage and experience onto whatever the dictionary definition of a word is, and it’s not always helpful in conversation, since none of us are mind readers. He laughed at my exasperation. “Now you know what it feels like to be a man!”
This is why people don’t want to talk to each other, sometimes. It’s not race or religion, gender or politics, culture or nationality that divides us nearly so much as our assumptions and our unwillingness to give each other benefit of the doubt. I don’t have a dictionary of all the words that might have double meaning in someone else’s personal experience; frankly, the world is both too big and too small to rewrite the dictionary every time someone abuses a word and turns it into “code” for this or that. I have not made a life study of race relations, gender politics, and such. I can only assure you that I do not know this mythical white person code; if it exists, and it may, it has not been shared with me, either. I’m too direct to bother with someone’s “code,” anyway. We have got to give people benefit of the doubt, where there’s even a shred of doubt. If what I said might be taken two ways, assume I meant the kinder one. Otherwise we can’t have a conversation – it’s too much work, for too little return. It’s a dangerous thing, though, when human interaction becomes a battle field strewn with land mines.