One of my favorite quotes and strongest beliefs comes from the 18th century philosopher Voltaire who said: “I may not agree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”
Those are tough words to live by because there are some pretty extreme beliefs in the world and no shortage of people eager to express them, often in an openly antagonistic way. But if you have a right to your belief, so does the other person.
Here’s a question: are you responsible for another person’s emotions and reaction to stimulus? I would say in most cases no, but that isn’t always the case. I think we can all agree on the extremes, but what about the middle?
This isn’t intended as a dry philosophical exercise, I would love to hear your thoughts on the subject because this dovetails nicely into several recent incidents in the national media and every moment of every day on “Twitter.”
Is it not incumbent upon us to respect the feelings of others? If we were to knowingly trample someone’s feelings or trigger something with them – don’t we then bear at least some responsibility for their feelings or reaction? The key word here is “knowingly.” Intent is everything.
I believe there was no intent to harm on the part of Katie Couric when she asked Carmen Carrera and Laverne Cox about the state of their genetalia. It was asked out of ignorance and she was gently corrected and life goes on.
Piers Morgan’s treatment of Janet Mock was a little further down the scale of “antagonistic intent” though still rooted in journalistic laziness and ignorance, the graphic used on screen throughout the interview was insensitive at best and sleazy at worst.
So on the extreme, we have someone who is well aware of someone’s hot buttons and chooses to push them anyway. That is bullying pure and simple.
On the other end of my scale is what some would call “political correctness run amok” where one can not have a comfortable conversation for fear of stumbling across a bevy of seemingly innocuous words that become metaphorical land mines that can cause a person to feel as though they are walking on eggs. If one is determined, they can take offense at nearly anything.
The result is a severely diminished chance of a productive exchange of ideas for fear of offending.
I would like to suggest some middle ground.
- Give the other person the benefit of the doubt. Unless there is unequivocal intent – assume they are unaware of the sensitivity of a certain group. An example is Gabourey Sidibe when she used the word “Tranny” several times while being interviewed by Arsenio Hall. I felt no malicious intent although the word is certainly emotionally charged in the Trans* community. Once she was educated as to the nature of that word, Gabrielle apologized right away and I don’t see her using it again. She has had to fight her own battles against the insensitivity of others.
- Respect the opinion and experience of the other person or group. If you come from a place of compassion and openness and you happen to say something that hurts someone; listen to them and respect their opinion. Nobody gets to tell someone else what offends them. Make amends. This simple act, if genuine, can diffuse a lot of anger.
- Remove yourself from the situation. I remember at the Cedar Springs Halloween Block Party (For those not in Dallas, it’s a huge street party in the heart of the LGBT district of Dallas) there was a group of religious zealots that were clearly trying to get a reaction by shouting at people who were just trying to have a good time that we were going to “Hell”. Rather than engage these people, I just removed myself from the situation. They have every right to be bigots. I have every right to turn away from their messages of hate.
To advance our cause, and I’m speaking here to the Trans* community, but it could apply elsewhere – it is important for us to pick our battles and make it as easy as possible for those in power to have productive dialog with us. There are many critical issues facing us, mainly demanding the same civil rights extended to non Trans* people. Getting overly caught up in being offended can potentially send the message that we are unreasonable or that there is no pleasing us.
On the flip side, to those who don’t see the harm in “little slurs” like “Tranny” – you need to understand that if people can use slurs to describe us, it devalues us as people and to some, those words devalue us as human beings enough that it makes it OK to commit horrific acts of violence against us. For many of my sisters, that word was the last one they heard before their skulls were caved in. That’s why that word hurts me.
It boils down to respect on both sides.
To quote the late 20th century philosopher – Rodney King – “Can’t We All Just Get Along?”