We need better ways of saying, “I’m not against whatever group it is you identify with, I just dislike you, personally.” It’s important to be clear on this point: disliking someone in particular does not make a person racist, sexist, ageist or any other -ist, but our failure to communicate insult when it’s intended and our reluctance to specify exactly why and what we dislike about the person in question often makes it seem so.
We are conditioned to avoid any display of genuine emotion or feelings. We are taught never to say “I hate you,” because “hate is too strong a word.” Acted upon, with violence, it’s a crime. But even just expressing disgust or strong dislike is now treated as a loss of emotional control, a weakness to be judged as harshly as crying or having a temper tantrum in public. Normally polite people, we are made to feel ashamed of thinking, let alone saying out loud, “I don’t like you.” We’re not taught to say, “I don’t like you when you [do this thing],” or even just, “I don’t like this thing you do, and when you do it, I don’t want to be around you.” Under a constant barrage of mustn’t-judge-each-other, I think we end up simply disliking and avoiding each other even more.
We habitually say “nothing personal” or “no offense,” deflecting our anger or disgust at some caricature, some abstraction, some stereotype, when what we have to say is, in fact, very personal. We don’t really mean “no offense intended,” we just don’t want our front teeth knocked out and don’t trust the listener to receive criticism or negative opinion like a mature adult.
By the time we’re ready to voice our criticism, it has been bottled up for so long that it surely feels like an assault. It explodes like a soda can dropped from the roof and gets negativity all over everything and everyone in its purview.
How ridiculous it is to dislike anyone based on the color of their skin, the texture of their hair, their choice of body art, or the nation in which they were born! How ridiculous it is to dislike someone for whom they love! What business is that of ours? How does it affect the quality of our lives at all? It is lazy shorthand for any rational reason to dislike anyone – and there are plenty of those when we get specific.
But try these on for size:
- “I dislike you because you think for yourself and disagree with something I have said.”
- “I dislike you because you don’t agree with me that I am better than you are.”
- “I dislike you because you don’t obey me.”
- “I dislike you because you have your own religious opinions and refuse to be converted by me to my beliefs.”
- “I dislike you because you were born in another country.”
- “I dislike you because you have green eyes.”
- “I dislike you because your skin is a different shade of beige or brown than mine.”
- “I dislike you because you speak more than one language. But I’m better at English than you are, so nanny nanny boo boo.”
- “I dislike you because you speak my native language better than I do.”
- “I dislike you because I am envious of the variety of colors and styles that look good on you.”
- “I dislike you because your body art disturbs me.”
- “I dislike you because I think your clothes are ugly.”
- “I dislike you because your body art makes me question my own ability to make a long-term commitment.”
- “I dislike you because you’re not having sex with a person I think you ought to be having sex with.”
- “I dislike you because you are having sex with someone not of my choosing.”
- “I dislike you because you choose not to procreate.”
- “I dislike you because you choose to procreate and your children are annoying to me.”
- “I dislike you because another [man, woman, child] hurt me in the past, but I can’t hurt them so you’ll do.”
- “I dislike you because you don’t accept that a man has the God-given right to tell a woman what she can or cannot do with her own body.”
These reasons are pretty ridiculous reasons to dislike people, and don’t hold up to scrutiny in the light of day, do they? Still, they are more honest than the ones people often use to justify their hurtful attitudes and behaviors towards others. Looking these real reasons in the eye, how can we not laugh at ourselves and re-examine our relationship with ourselves and others?
It is difficult to express strong opinions honestly and directly, using straightforward language rather than trendy or pretentious psycho-social babble. We speak of “intersectionality” when what we really mean is, “Don’t pigeonhole me with your stupid stereotypes!” Stereotyping and lumping people together in groups is something anyone over the age of 40 had drilled into their heads as wrong, wrong, wrong. Individuality is to be celebrated! Until it’s not. Until it somehow threatens the homogeneity of the herd. So of course when criticism is leveled at us – say, at “white people” or “men” or “Boomers” or “cis-gendered, heteronormative Christians” – it feels hurtful. But if the shoe fits…
Consider how long some of these groups – white people and men, in particular – have been doing just that, to others. So of course it’s #NotAllWhitePeople (and everyone knows that, except that ones feeling overly defensive because they know there’s a grain of truth in the stereotype). Of course it’s #NotAllMen (except for the ones it is). What happened to the old fallbacks of, “I wasn’t talking about you, you know that!” or, “Oh, lighten up, Blondie!” and “Have a sense of humor!” boys? If you can’t just scroll on by, certain that the criticism doesn’t apply to you at all, or look inward and really think about how it does apply to you, personally, when it’s your group coming under fire, maybe think twice about ever doing it to others. It hurts when the tables are turned, doesn’t it? Doesn’t feel fair, does it?
Why aren’t there more jokes about white men? Oh, right – they’re not funny.
The larger point is, if it stings – go talk to your fellow “white people,” your network of “men” or “Boomers” or “cis-gendered, heteronormative Evangelical Christians.” Work to fix the nasty little underlying truths of the stereotypes from within, because maybe it’s not a group you chose membership in and it’s not a group you can easily leave, but it is a group that you are best suited to talk to in terms it will understand.
That said, we also have too many performative, wannabe allies whose only contribution to anti-racist discourse is to try to outdo one another in their sanctimony as they stoke the fires to burn their own groups in a sort of auto-da-fé. They demand forced apologies and public struggle sessions, without allowing for real change in thinking or hope of redemption. They are almost as tiresome and exhausting as the disingenuous bigots who just need it explained to them one more time that racism still exists in the world.
Well, almost as tiresome and exhausting.
You know what’s hard? Loving the “unlovable.” Forgiving the “unforgivable.” It’s an aspirational goal; few of us will ever get all the way there. But let’s not turn every error in thinking, every slip of the tongue an “unforgivable” crime of the “unlovable.” No one’s going to pass that purity test when the spotlight is turned on them. There is a reason psychologists urge parents to focus on the unwanted behavior, and not on the person or their immutable characteristics.
A friend once introduced me to the term “misanthropic humanist.”
Misanthropic humanism is a useful term because it explains how a body of work can seem committed to a radical project for progressive sociopolitical change, while simultaneously holding forth a constant reminder that cruelty, injustice, stupidity, and death are inevitabilities that strike at all in the end.
I think I’ve found my people.
Now, do I hug ’em or shove ’em off a cliff?