What Kittens Taught Me About Prejudice

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I’m a dog person. I’ve loved dogs since I was a child and am currently the proud owner of two beautiful and sweet yellow Labs.

I’ve also believed that there are “dog people” and “cat people” and never the twain shall meet. I was taught to be fearful of cats and their “sneaky” ways at an early age and never actually interacted with a cat until grad school. I was visiting a classmate’s house and he and his wife had a cat with a litter of kittens. I was in kitten heaven playing with them for hours until my face and neck broke out into hives, my eyes started itching and tearing, and my throat tightened. My love affair with felines ended as quickly as it began.

Over the next several decades I came into regular contact with the cats belonging to friends and family – and always left with itchiness and tearing. I was so allergic to cats that I once agreed to stop by a friend’s house while they were away to check on their cat’s food and water supply – and when the crazy cat escaped his designated room, I had to chase him around the house holding a towel so I could pick him up without skin-to-fur contact. I figured I’d never experience a long-term relationship with a cat. Not that it bothered me at all. I still harbored negative views on their disposition and core character.

But then a funny thing happened. At the ripe old age of 66, it appeared that my allergic reaction to cats disappeared alongside boundless energy, flexibility, and the ability to eat as much as I want whenever I want.

So, four days ago I became the proud owner of two kittens: Boris and Natashya. (Boris is featured in the accompanying video.) I was a bundle of nerves as we brought them home. I worried that my allergies would return. I wondered if they would turn out to be wickedly sneaky co-conspirators focused on my demise. And I was concerned that in my heart of hearts I was truly a dog-person who could never fully embrace a non-dog.

All those worries were for naught. This brother-sister duo captured my heart from the first moment I held them against my chest and heard them purr with contentment. They love exploring their new home, learning how to navigate stairs, and playing with boundless enthusiasm. They make me smile and laugh out loud.

I learned that the sneakiness I was taught to fear was nothing but an innocent curiosity about the world. Had my allergy persisted I would never have realized that fact. I would have kept cats and kittens at arm’s length. I would have continued to dis them as grossly inferior to dogs.

I like to think I’m not prejudiced. I espouse no bias based on race, gender, sexuality, age, religion, etc. But I have to wonder whether I have implicit biases – akin to the sneakiness of cats – that do serve to keep people who are different from me at arm’s length.

It’s not an easy question, but it’s one I will ponder – and I’d ask you to do the same.

The Unequivocal Why in the Horror of Nice, Orlando, and Istanbul

indoctrination canstockphoto5952193The American philosopher William James often argued that human beings were blind “to the feelings of creatures and people different from ourselves.” It is this blindness that, if left unchecked, can progress from a simple preference for similar-looking/same-thinking people to ideological fanaticism.

Everyone is prejudiced to some degree. We may suppress those feelings from being outwardly expressed, or we may deny them even to ourselves. The key to keeping biases to a minimum is to turn off the personal filters that cloud judgment and focus instead on accepting other people’s realities. Acknowledge the differences and then accept, embrace and appreciate them.

The importance of personal reflection and self-knowledge to creating a blinders-free perspective cannot be overstated. People who truly know themselves and feel comfortable in their own skin tend to be the most open-minded – i.e., the most impartial and the least judgmental. They are confident about their own values and beliefs and, as a direct result, do not feel compelled to force those values and beliefs on others. On the other hand, people who have never delved deep inside to test and question their beliefs and values are far more likely to fear and denigrate the mass of others who do not look, sound, or act exactly like they do. These less reflective individuals are driven to persuade and/or punish the “others” to accept and validate their particular worldview. It’s “my way or the highway” for those whose self-knowledge is constrained by ideology and indoctrination – as well as a lack of general curiosity about and appreciation for the larger world around them. Their life’s journey consists of a single track in the shape of a circle. They go round and round seeing the same things over and over again. And the more they see those same things, the more partial they become towards them.

This circular journey drives the why in every terror attack and hate crime, and it’s the why that becomes the focus of law enforcement and the media in the immediate aftermath. Why would this or that seemingly normal person turn into a senseless killer? Why attack so randomly knowing that many innocent people (including children) will be among the dead and injured? The focus is on the search for a specific cause – a specific rationale – ranging from Islamic jihad to ethno-centric separatism to religious fundamentalism, homophobia, and pure racism.

Whatever the “specific” cause, the root cause is unequivocally indoctrination followed by blind faith to a person, organization or orthodoxy. Blind faith refers to beliefs that are held without true understanding, reasoned discrimination, or experiential proof. While an argument can be made that all “faith” is “blind” by definition, let’s focus on the articles of faith that serve to dehumanize and engender hate.

Take a moment to consider your most deeply held beliefs, and then focus on those that originated from an external source. The beliefs you hold because you were taught to hold them. Examples might include the belief that women are subservient (and belong in the kitchen and out of the boardroom), homosexuality is an abomination (and gay marriage will destroy traditional marriage), Muslims are terrorists (and shouldn’t be allowed to build mosques in “our” neighborhood), Jews are stingy and greedy (and plotting to take over the world), and Mexicans are lazy (and so we have to build an electrified fence on our southern border to keep them out and stop them from taking our jobs). No one – and I truly mean no one – ever derived these beliefs on his or her own. They are the result of indoctrination by one or more of the groups we belong to (family, school, church, friends, etc.), and the lack of a questioning mindset of our own.

Our educational, corporate and community institutions have trained us to repeat and regurgitate. Introspection and personal reflection are unvalued, ignored, discouraged or – in extreme cases – punished. We’ve become a world of blind followers with little insight into our personal character, and our society suffers as a result.

Most people believe what they’ve been taught to believe. They do what other people tell them to do, and say what others expect them to say. That’s why the “lives of quiet desperation” that Thoreau described are so prevalent today and why civil discourse has been replaced with the coarse language of divisiveness and disdain.

Few people take this blind faith to the extreme of the Orlando and Charleston shooters, the Istanbul bombers, or the maniacal truck driver in Nice; but we all suffer from it. The only way to truly overcome and eliminate blind faith – and the indoctrination that nurtures it – is to focus on personal reflection and self-knowledge. If you can’t explain what you believe, then you don’t truly “believe” it. You’ve simply been taught to believe it.

Adapted from content in 20/20 Mind Sight by Phil Fragasso and Jillian Vorce.

Would Jesus Define “Different” As Better or Worse?

Jesus testThere’s a Yiddish proverb that suggests, “If God lived on earth, people would break His windows.” The point is that even the ideals that live in our minds would not survive the harsh light of reality. This point is even more important today where far too many politicians and pundits wax poetic about the good old days and traditional values.

Consider the likely response if Jesus suddenly appeared in the twenty-first century in the exact human form he embodied in Jerusalem. How many people do you honestly think would accept his divinity, sing his praises, and offer adulation? As you’re thinking about your own response to a modern-day Jesus, remember that he’d probably be around five feet tall, the average height for that time. He’d probably look more like Saddam Hussein than the blue-eyed, sandy-tressed Adonis pictured in prayer books, paintings and religious magazines. And, if he remained true to his teachings, would look with love upon all men and women regardless of race, sexual orientation and political beliefs. He’d also shower love upon the adherents to any and all non-Christian religions. He would fully understand that very few people choose a specific religion on their own – they simply adopt the religion of their family. He would understand that even the most fervent Catholics and most devoted Muslims would likely be impassioned Jews if they’d been born into a Jewish family.

This modern-day Jesus would ask how could anyone hate or scorn or commit violence against someone whose only “crime” is following in their parents’ footsteps? Those footsteps will likely be different than the path your own parents took, but different is not a judgmental term. Different just means different – not better or worse. That understanding – simple yet profound – provides the bedrock to a lifetime journey on the path to human compassion, love, and understanding.

If the Character Is an A-Hole, Is the Author One Also?

stupid-man-punchEdna St. Vincent Millay said, “A person who publishes a book appears willfully in the public eye with his pants down.” I’ve long agreed with Millay’s observation, but never more than since the publication of my new novel, Still Counting.

Based on the early reviews Adam, the male lead character, is universally disliked. Readers find him dumb, insensitive, clueless, and far worse. Here are some of my favorite comments:

  • “This is a great book for any woman who has dated a moron in the past.”
  • “Adam truly is a male archetype (duh, get it: Adam?)”
  • “The fact that he just kept digging himself a deeper hole is a typical man.”

The thing is I’m okay with all of this as long as readers don’t feel the same about me. That’s where it gets complicated. Is Millay’s “public eye” viewing me with my pants actually down or only imagining my pants being down?

As the reviewers wrote these comments, they carefully danced around the issue of whether the author had actually intended this reaction and purposely created such an unlovable character. They seemed to hope so – partly, I assume, to not insult the author and partly because they hoped and prayed there was at least one non-A-hole male in the world.

The good news is that I did intend that reaction. Adam is a fairly typical twenty-something guy who tends to believe the universe revolves around him. Women are there for his pleasure; and they need to accept him, warts and all, even if he can’t reciprocate the courtesy. To top it off, if he can’t understand something, he attacks it rather than asking questions and taking the time to learn more.

The bad news is that the author – that would be me – shares some of these traits and is an admitted A-hole in many ways. Like most men I’m significantly over-confident regarding my intelligence and abilities (and maybe even my attractiveness to the opposite sex?). I have a hard time looking a woman straight in the eye if she’s displaying serious cleavage (or even not so serious). And – with sincere apologies to all womankind – I have a deep-seated belief that women are inherently better at cleaning and cooking than the mass of men. On the flipside, particularly as a husband and father to a young woman, I have never underestimated or demeaned women. The two best bosses I ever had were women. In the classes I teach at Boston College, the female students tend to be more engaged, diligent, and insightful than the males. And I think it’s an embarrassment that the U.S. has never had a female president.

One of the reviewers brought a smile to my face with this comment, “The author clearly loves women and thinks men are idiots.” I think that’s my full monty in terms of Millay’s adage. Female readers might view Adam as a cretin but give the author credit for shining such a harsh light on male obliviousness. Male readers, on the other hand, will likely point a finger at the author and curse him out for having broken the bro blood-oath. I’m okay with that as well.

Black Words Matter More

Of course all wordBlack Words wordclouds matter. Every word in every language has a specific meaning, and when we speak or write we choose our words carefully to ensure our message resonates and is understood. But black words truly matter more. Why? Because I’m referring to the dictionary definition of black as “full of anger or hatred.”

Black words are purposely chosen for maximum impact. They cut deep, linger in the air, and endure in one’s consciousness. I’m sure several examples have already popped into your mind – perhaps the N-word, some misogynist adjectives and nouns describing women, or ethnic slurs that span multiple continents. But those black words are easy to recognize and avoid. Those are not the black words I’m most concerned about.

The most dangerous and insidious black words are those that appear innocuous. Words whose denotation is factual and reasonable but whose connotations represent a fomenting cauldron of exclusion, repression, and hate. Those connotations are communicated via the broad context of place and purpose, the speaker’s tone of voice, or the words that immediately precede or follow.

“Refugee,” “illegals,” and “Muslim” are the best current examples of how disparate the literal meaning of a word can be to its implication. Refugee used to mean the “huddled masses” who came to the U.S. as their last best hope. Now it’s become a form of NIMBY, fear-mongering nationalism. Illegals used to refer to people who were “in a country without official authorization.” One could argue it still means that today, but it also means dark-skinned criminals and rapists who are stealing American jobs and destroying our culture. And Muslim, of course, literally refers to followers of Islam. As used by reactionary zealots, however, it means 1.6 billion non-Christians intent on death and destruction to all things non-Islamic.

At this point it’s only fair to give equal time to the black words often employed by the more liberal side of the political spectrum. “Evangelical” is defined as a wing of Christianity that views the Bible as the literal word of God. Now it’s often used to demean Southerners and Midwesterners who are pro-life and against gay marriage. The term “1%” refers to the top one-percent of earners. Today it’s spit out as an epithet for a culture of greed and corruption. And “climate deniers” refers to people who do not believe the earth is warming and/or do not believe it’s caused by human activity. As used by many on the left, however, it means anyone who receives campaign contributions from the Koch brothers and/or hails from an energy-producing region of the country.

Martin Luther King Jr. told us, “Racism is evil because its ultimate logic is genocide.” Today’s corollary is this: “Black words are evil because their ultimate logic is fear, loathing, disrespect, and oppression.” Black words are sometimes delivered with a wink and a nod. Sometimes with a smirk or Cheshire grin. And almost always with a clear and present understanding of the inference the speaker is hoping to engender. Black words serve as a proselytizing shorthand that allow one to quickly backtrack and take shelter beneath the refuge of the literal meaning.

No one can know for sure exactly what resides in a person’s heart when he or she uses black words. I’m tempted to suggest “no one can be sure except for the speaker,” but I don’t believe that’s always the case. The first time someone turns “Mexican” or “born-again” into an insult, it’s certainly intentional. Over time, however, it simply becomes part of the vernacular. The surprising becomes commonplace. The overt becomes nuanced. People become desensitized to the feelings and interpretations of themselves and others. It quickly becomes a mixed metaphor of vicious circles, slippery slopes, and rabbit holes with no light at the end of the tunnel.

Black words matter today more than ever. In what we say or write. At home. In the workplace. In the community. We are what we say.