cowardice versus diplomacy

May 13, 2009 at 5:10 pm (thinking, this and that) (, )

Today I received an incredibly bigoted email from a family member. It contained a re-hash of the whole Danish cartoons depicting Mohammed controversy that happened in 2005, and an incredibly racist, inappropriate email (warning: do not read if you are both easily offended and even mildly not-racist toward Muslims) that a professor named Indrek Wichman composed in response to a Muslim student protest at his university. The group had apparently committed sinister terrorist acts such as serving cocoa at a meetup and claiming that the cartoons constituted hate speech. Professor Wichman’s electronic letter contains many classy sentiments toward Muslims that you can read in the article, but the worst part is that this man is being used now as part of a whole crusade (yes, I am using that word intentionally) against so-called “political correctness,” an irritating bit of neo-con terminology that should have, along with endearing terms like “feminazi,” fallen out of common usage with the close of the 90s.

This should stir up an overwhelming “wtf?!” in the minds of all rational people. Apparently, according to the email sent to me this morning we are “in a war” and “this political correctness crap is killing us.” Excuse me? Apparently in the minds of my family-members and I assume whatever batshit-crazy conservative penned the original email “not being an asshole” and “having the decency and intelligence to not paint an entire group as being identical to their most vicious, vocal minority” is akin to “political correctness.” Whatever “political correctness” is. So OK.

I wrote a response regarding the wisdom of using this delightful piece of bile as a rallying point for anti-Muslim sentiment and how the ethics behind championing this man as some sort of hero are spurious at best. It’s long. I think it’s good. It’s sitting in my drafts box on my Hotmail account.

Why? Because I am a coward. 

I am afraid of controversy. It’s the same part of my personality that makes me shy away from confrontations about veganism, politics, animal rights, etc. I hate “stirring the pot” as my mother would say, especially with close friends and family members. I can only recall one instance where I did so, and I kind of regret it even though it ended up being pretty OK.

Usually I justify my cowardice by saying “I’m being diplomatic” or repeating to myself that “It’s not worth it, you won’t change anyone’s mind.” But I can’t help but question that. I am a person who (at least this summer) goes into a classroom every damn day and tells people stuff they don’t like to hear. To wit: I used the words “penetrator” and “penetrated” several times in class much to my students’ evident dismay. So why am I afraid to stand up to my family (and, if I was truly daring, the entire email forward list)?

I don’t usually think of myself as someone who is afraid to speak her mind. But I guess I am. Maybe it’s the family thing– I have a vexed relationship with my family in that we differ wildly in our perception of the world, and typically we just agree to disagree. This leads more often than not to great silences on both our parts, but it works. Years ago I asked to be taken off the list for conservative email forwards and they’ve been pretty respectful of that. But this, today, was kind of a violation of that agreement– and I’m not sure what to do. Fire a warning shot over their bow by requesting again to not be sent crappy emails? Ignore it? Declare open warfare by sending my response?

I think my family would find it inappropriate of me if I were to respond to the entire listserve with my thoughts. I don’t think they would read my response if I sent it just to them. Or, if they did, it would just piss them off. 

Argh. This is dumb. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m leaning toward just reiterating that I do not wish to receive such emails from them in the future. It seems easiest. But I’m not sure if it’s the most honest way of handling the situation. 

For anyone curious about reading my response to the championing of Professor Bigot as a spokesperson for “values” in the “war against political correctness it’s behind the cut:

What a sad email. 

 

While I respect the university for protecting the free speech of their Muslim Student Association and the professor in question, I find the professor’s email to be incredibly unsettling and troubling. It is truly tragic that such highly educated people still manage to be so bigoted, and so willing to believe that all members of group, be it ethnic, religious, or social, are as terrible as their most extreme, most vicious vocal minority. These students, who I can only assume (because they are still members of an American university and not in prison or dead) have never personally suicide bombed a building, never beheaded a priest, never raped a Scandinavian woman, and never engaged in the slave trade. Yet, in the mind of this man, I can only assume that because extremists in their faith have done these things, they are not allowed to be offended by representations of their most holy figure, which were not only (in this non-Muslim’s opinion) offensive in content but also in their representation in picture form of the prophet Mohammed.

 

I see this kind of blindness constantly in my colleagues. Typically I see it as relates more to Christianity than to Islam, but that is my unique situation. I work in a department with more Muslims than Christians, so that probably accounts for part of it (none those Muslims them have done any of those things said by that professor, just for the record– nor do they agree with those who do those sorts of things). Because of this, I have personally many times had to speak up to defend my best friend, who is a Christian, from shameful behind-his-back attacks from our academic peers that occurred not because they had ever spoken to him about his faith, but simply because being a Christian “was enough.” I have heard him lumped with Rick Warren and with even more troubling bigots like Fred Phelps, even though he is a Christian in support of civil liberties for gays, a supporter of free speech for members of other faiths, a defender of the rights of women, and someone who has worked hands-on in person to alleviate the suffering of people in Haiti. He is also a relentless interrogator of his own faith who has the guts to wrestle with the theological issues that come from a centuries-old faith that has warped and changed over time– just like Islam. 

 

When university professors speak this way about Christianity they are labeled as Liberal Mafia, brainwashers of our youth, iconoclasts set on destroying American values, and other ridiculous things. If this man had said similar things about a Christian student organization, holding young Christians offended by some sort of unfair cultural representation as responsible for, let’s say, the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, the slave trade, the missionary-cultures that obliterated native peoples, the current oppression of homosexuals in the United States, the statements of Miss California and Sarah Palin, the hate-killings of queer individuals, and even the religious bullying of young half-Jewish girls like me when I was a kid living in Georgia, I would have the same reaction: do not blame individual members of a faith, ethnicity, race, gender, or class for the actions of their vocal minorities. When I hear that someone is a Christian, I do not assume that person is the same as one of the mothers in my elementary school who told her child not to sit next to me on the bus because my father was Jewish. I do not assume that person shares the values as the leaders of the vacation bible camp I was invited to who told me I was going to hell because I hadn’t been baptized. I have, in my life, found it much more productive to judge people of all faiths on their actions as individuals, and the merits of their individual characters, rather than to assume the worst about them based on the actions of people they might not even know, agree with, or support.

 

It is entirely possible that these students were horrible people who did terrible things on campus. I don’t know the whole story. Perhaps they had recently staged a book-burning, or beheaded someone on camera in the campus television studio. I find this unlikely, if they are anything like the Muslim Student Association on my campus. What I do find likely is that a bunch of college kids staged a protest against offensive images to their religion. Perhaps they contemplated the first amendment implications of their protest, perhaps not. What I do know is that the professor here was in the wrong in what he wrote, both in terms of the nature of his sentiment and the direct content. The reasons that professor gave for his distain of their protests were entirely inappropriate. Calling a group of students “brutal, slave-trading Moslems” is horrible, and I am guessing, entirely undeserved. He could have brought up the idea of first amendment rights in an appropriate, educational manner, and hopefully changed the minds of a few young kids. Instead, he chose to be a bigot and draw on the same kinds of stereotypes that fuel religious hatred across the world.

 

Being of Jewish ancestry, I would be very upset to be associated with the murder of Palestinians or any of the other recent violent, oppressive actions in Israel if I were to protest the representation of anti-Semitic stereotypes in the media. The whole “go home” attitude is so sad, given I believe, perhaps naively, that we can be a salad bowl in America, a beautiful place for people to express themselves in various ways. I would, again, hate to be told to “go home” to Israel– a place I have no emotional connection to– simply for expressing my opinions on a university campus.

 

As someone who has lived in academia for the last three years, I know first-hand how ridiculous academics are. We are people, just like anyone else, given to bigotry, mouthing-off, grandstanding, and idiocy. Just because we have degrees doesn’t actually mean we’re any smarter than anyone else– just trained in a certain discipline more than our peers. I firmly believe, however, that to provide a safe space for all students to learn is the primary, perhaps sacred trust of the educator. And that, I think, is the most offensive part of this professor’s email. 

 

It also tends to make us wordy, as you can clearly see. That said, I will wrap this up.

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3 Comments

  1. Raechel said,

    Having now read the entirety of your email, I am even more convinced that you should send it. It doesn’t read like an attempt to stir up shit or call out your dad for sending it. It’s informative and personal and intelligent– everything that a response to this kind of bigotry should be. I don’t know if your dad, or anyone, could justifiably be angry that you are speaking largely from personal experience, much of which fuels your anger at the original email. And if he, or anyone, does become angry with you, it’s because your argument is eloquent and, in my opinion, something that cannot be logically argued against, and as you know well, people hate reason when it confronts their personal beliefs. A large part of our job involves confronting attitudes like the one you’ve confronted here, and I think its important that you share your thoughts with your family, and the whole listserv, because perhaps you’ll make at least on the readers think about the way he or she perceives and treats others.

  2. Jesse said,

    Having dealt with similar shenanigans on semi-regular basis, I’m all for firing away. That said, I don’t ever actually have to see the family members I’m calling out, nor are they as immediate. I tend to go for passive aggressive shaming, personally, but if you actually respect the person in question than a less mocking tone is suggested.

    David’s idea has merit, though: rather than arguing or calling them out, find something even more ridiculous that is still in line with the reasoning of the original post but will serve to confuse the recipient. For example, with my End of Days cousins emails I think in the future rather than arguing I’ll follow David’s advice and instead send him links to UFO abduction sites and youtube “documentary footage” of David Icke:

  3. molly said,

    Yeah, I didn’t send it. I waited too long dithering over it and it lost its relevancy. Next time, Gadget! I think the next one of these I get I will say something. But it’s hard– I think my family is already weirded out enough by me so I kind of don’t want to make them feel even more like they’ve raised some strange alien creature and not a daughter. Feh.

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