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If we believe that all humans are both intrinsically valuable and intrinsically fallible, then we are compelled to be tolerant of others in recognition of their worth and dignity and of our own humble and partial and likely flawed perspective.
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First, some background:
I come from a very privileged family. We are white, upper-middle-class Americans, and nearly all members of some respected profession or other, mostly teachers and physicians. We belong to a religious minority, but to my generation that minority status has never been anything worse than a minor inconvenience. I am proud to say that we are fiercely liberal, and my sister and I were always taught to be consciously, doggedly, endlessly accepting of all people we might come across in our lives.
My father especially has always instinctively sided with the underdog in any conflict, anywhere. At every turn, he has encouraged me to challenge and overthrow the powerful, even when the powerful was only an unfairly biased middle-school teacher. Having grown up in a much more difficult financial situation, he was cognizant of the obstacles facing the powerless, and he taught me to use all of my resources to help anyone I could, wherever I could. It’s a lesson that I thank him for and am still trying to live up to.
So when I returned home from my most recent year of college, brimming over with new (to me) and galvanizing knowledge about microaggressions, marginalization, and othering (among other things), I knew I had to share it with him. I also knew that he can be extremely stubborn, and that he always plays devil’s advocate to any new thought or information before he accepts it. So for a long time I didn’t say anything, just mulled over what I wanted to communicate and how best to go about it.
As a first step, I wanted to convince him of the power of language, to get him to drop words like ‘lame’ and ‘retarded’ from his vocabulary, as I had from mine. He wasn’t using them maliciously, and would get defensive and shut down at any insinuation that he was. I had to get at it a different way somehow.
At some point, during an evening discussion with a conservative neighbor, racial inequality came up, and I found myself trying to explain to my family and my neighbor’s family a whole clutch of new sociological concepts that I hadn’t even fully grasped the scope of yet. I brought up my concerns about othering vocabulary to my dad, and we got into much the sort of debate I’d been expecting.
I don’t remember what his precise counterarguments were, because I wasn’t answering him point for point; instead I was trying to weasel around his rhetorical defenses and find a way to get what I was saying to the very heart of him. I had to make him see that it wasn’t about new rules, or imposing the restrictions of society or ‘political correctness’ on him from the outside; he’d never stand for that. Instead, I had to convince him that I was showing him ways in which our empathy, our tolerance, and our consideration of others desperately needed to be expanded.
My first task became convincing him that in addition to the power he knew he had (which was largely financial), he unwittingly benefited from all sorts of other kinds of heteronormative power that he wasn’t consciously aware of. That took awhile, but once it was done, the rest was easy.
“It’s about using that power for good,” I told him. “Not evil.”
He got very quiet for a minute. “Okay,” he said at last. “I see what you mean.”
And he did. Since then he hasn’t said any of the words I pointed out to him, and we’ve talked a lot more about addressing hidden inequalities as well as visible ones. Neither one of us knows very much yet about the ways in which our society is inherently othering — but now at least we can learn about it, and do what we can to fix it, together.