Wednesday, 11 March 2015

A Common Blindspot

Alright. So recent conversations (online and in person) have made it necessary to say the following: If you are a person of faith, raised in faith or even just searching, and you are involved in any -- any-- artistic pursuit, you spend your life either directly or indirectly dealing with hostility, mockery, or dismissal, often from people you otherwise largely agree with.
And you know what? A lot of the time it's fine, you can deal, some of the stuff that's said is legit funny, mainly accurate, or at least understandable.
If you're a person of faith in artistic circles, chances are you've dealt with your share of lumps from churches/etc. But running into it, seeing it on feeds, etc day in, day out takes a toll. I'm not talking about debate around specific issues, I'm talking about the lumpen trolling that isn't/wouldn't be tolerated around any other group of people-- the fat dumb idiots sorts of jokes/sayings-- that you just get used to. But every now and then, you have to say something. Forgive, sure. Forget, probably, there's too much not to. But that doesn't mean we won't every now and then call you out on it, and its a good idea to listen.

I posted this a few days ago to my facebook after an online kerfuffle that was ultimately resolved with a phone call. I promised a blog post unpacking that a bit more.

I'm going to start with a few caveats; there may be more in footnote form(the footnotes are denoted by asterisks, which reset after each five. because.) But here's what this post is not intending to do: 
1) This is not intended to portray myself or any other person of faith (any faith, though folks who deal with what I'm about to outline tend to come from more structured, "organized religions") as some sort of oppressed minority. This is not a post to elicit sympathy or to call people out, but rather to talk frankly about a recurring experience that is shared, rarely gets mentioned, and maybe help people understand what's ultimately problematic about it. Because if I don't say anything, I can't expect you to know.
2) This is not going to be a post comprehensively outlining my own beliefs, background, or experiences of belief. That information may be included for context, but it's not my intended focus.
3) This is not a piece about interactions of people of faith/spirituality with the non-spiritual in the world at large, or in the greater swath of american culture. That's a very different picture. What I'm dealing with in this post are the specifically artistic -- music, writing, visual art, dance, theater, etc. -- and many academic worlds, often (but not exclusively) within the context of large, left-leaning cities (Seattle, in my case) or fairly insular college towns.
4) This is not a "how to not offend your Christian/Mormon/Ex-Jehovah's Witness friend" post, though in the interest of being constructive, I may include one or two tips.
5) This post (and the author) has no interest in a compare/contrast around different types of belief, or being some sort of rebuttal to new atheism, or converting people, or decrying evils that have been done in various religions' names. There's a whole internet out there for that. 
6) This is not an apologetic piece.

Get through all that? Okay. Let's go!

This was triggered by a couple of specific online conversations* in which most of the participants were writing fairly offhanded comments about "religious people" that ranged from slightly insensitive to broadly cruel. The general sentiment (which a few were quick to prop up with studies) was that "religious people are stupid, ignorant, racist, fat, ugly, smelly, non-couch-leaving, sexist homophobes who don't know how to tie their own shoes."**

This is the sort of thing I hear, or read, or catch offhand in comments weekly, if not daily. At work, with my friends, on any number of sites I read, in the standup comedy of artists I enjoy, in the stage banter of bands I enjoy, in social media, in offhanded comments nestled into columns I otherwise largely agree with, everywhere.
My response used to be a very earnest: NO! We're not all like that! Let me tell you about ______ and their work on behalf of marriage equality! Let me explain to you what I specifically believe regarding ____ part of theology that you don't like, a lot of us are very nice, really!

And that's a conversation I'm still happy to have in person, if I really fucking have to, but I shouldn't have to, especially to people who know me. You should know I'm not That Guy, and you probably have a friend or several who also aren't that person, so how many exceptions does it take to rethink whether it's such a strong rule?

Another thing I find telling, discouraging, and disappointing is how the strawman of the "religious conservative"*** also tends to serve as a cipher for other prejudices. Sizeism, classism (SO MUCH CLASSISM), sexism, and racism all frequently find their way into "critiques" of religion, both by the classically liberal/progressive types and the more misanthropic followers of dawkins/hitchens/carlin.

"Yeah, but a lot/so many of you/them are that way that I'm not going to change my language because I hurt some church kid's feelings." I've heard and seen variations on this cry-me-a-river response a few times. Mainly when I was younger. Late 20s-early 30s I get a lot less of this, but it's still a sentiment that persists.

To it I would say two things: Take that statement and apply it to another group of people. Go on.  What does it give you? Secondly, even if this is your take, consider the following: In painting The Religious in such strokes, you help perpetuate the sort of ignorance you claim to be against. For every strawman, there is an equal strawman on the opposite side; it makes it easier for folks on that side to prop themselves up as persecuted, to perpetuate equally lazy stereotypes about Artists and City Liberals as baby-eating, wine-drinking, drug-taking, shallow hedonistic elitists**** who don't love their families and have no time for those less moneyed, hedonist, or educated than them.

Okay. Now, briefly, on to the much rarer, darker, more violent hyperbole I've seen throughout the years. Once again, not feeling like I should have to explain why a bumper sticker like "So Many Christians, So Few Lions"***** or friends in college saying "they* should all be rounded up and shot" is so fucked up, but here goes: there are parts of the world where that has occurred recently, and still occurs. More the shooting than the lions, but let's not limit people's creativity, hrmmm?
Beyond that it once agains mirrors the violence of language of the most dogmatic and cruel iterations of organized religions, and chances are you have at least one friend who is in this country specifically because their parents, grandparents, or great grandparents fled here specifically to escape being rounded up and shot.

Alright. Let's get less heavy now, and talk about some greyer areas.
First, as I alluded to earlier, if you are a person of faith who also arts, you've probably taken some lumps from the organized institutions. Sometimes the people making these generalizations are coming from a place of deep pain or trauma, and a good, uncensored vent is part of a healing process. If you weren't religious (or operated in a spiritual practice considered "fringe" by mainstream america) and grew up in a church-controlled town, county, or school, it's likely you had a rough go of it, and that knee-jerk urge is really understandable.
Conversely, if you grew up in an atheist household in a big city and had one, maybe two religious friends all growing up (if any) the whole concept can seem like an anachronism, one that's hard to take seriously. In this case, I suggest trying to relate to people of faith as a foreign culture; there's a lot you'll see on the news that is either outright misrepresentative or represents the most extreme/dogmatic examples.

That said, as many teachers, pastors, and my longsuffering parents know, I know a thing or two about not taking things seriously, and overvalue a smirk from time to time.

So. I like a joke I can laugh at myself. But let's do some fine-tuning: when you're talking about your personal experience you should/can say whatever you want. If you grew up around really toxic religiousity, it's totally fair to say "everyone in my town/family/school was. . ." But acknowledge that that is your personal experience, rather than a universal one. If someone counters with an example from their life that runs contrary to your experience, that doesn't invalidate your experience. But it might be useful to add to your perception when talking about a group of people as a whole.**
I'm also not angry when it comes to vents of frustration around a single issue, or set of issues where an religiously institutional take has dictated a lot of opinions.

In fact, much of the time even the harshest, most intellectually lazy takes can roll off my back with a quick eyeroll. But as the fact that I've written a sprawling, multi-take blog on this shows
1) I can't do this all the time. Both out of respect for myself, my family, and my friends-- both of faith and simply those who really should know better- I gotta say something.
2) Just because one or two of your friends are really cool with you making jokes that could be seen as at their expense, don't assume all of them who fall into whatever-the-category-in-question-are.

Likewise, to avoid being easily misunderstood, if you have involved, differing definitions between being "spiritual," "of faith," "religious," "a believer," and have a rant/vent or what-have-you, for the LOVE OF GOD*** do not assume people share these definitions. To a lot of people these terms are, if not interchangable, highly overlapping. Parsing the differences between these terms can also lead to really rewarding conversations.

One last thing to consider is the displacement factor: people who have left*** the faith they grew up in often find themselves in communities of their choosing, and surrounded by the sorts of language I've talked about above. Like I've mentioned, sometimes they get in on some of the jokes, sometimes they don't, but when the talk gets monolithic, violent and dismissive, it re-enforces the fact that just like they felt excluded, dismissed and rejected in their old communities, they can't be themselves, or express their full experiences in their new communities.
Just because your lapsed catholic friend is now a _____**** does not mean that they don't love their devout catholic granmother. Or that they don't retain some sort of internal struggle around their beliefs.

So to that end-- when someone you know does say something, listen. Don't interrupt with "well you know what I mean" or "I wasn't talking about. . ." They probably know. But that sort of backtracking serves only to block communication or serve as a very mild form of gaslighting. Your friend probably wanted today to be one day of their life when they didn't have to rationalize/justify away the ignorant and jerky blanket statements you just made about their old friends, family and past selves.

It gets old, you know?

*The specific conversations are beside the point by now, as it could have been one of any number of conversations I've been privy to over the last 18 years. I didn't link because I'm not trying to restart fights, and in fact the resulting conversations from it were good.
**hyperbolically overstating, but not by much.
***who embodies everything that is bad about people and nothing good.
****when frances bean cobain starts her absurdist literature appreciation society, this'll be on the t-shirts.
*****kinda ugh funny, in that quarter-jewish-comedian-who-makes-oven-jokes way.
*In this case we're not just talking about "faith" in general, but christianity, or mormonism, or if you're dealing with new atheists, they may include muslims and practicing jews, but lib/progressive set tends to be a little less monolithic.
** I'm also not angry when it comes to vents of frustration around a single issue, or set of issues where an religiously institutional take has dictated a lot of opinions. See: climate change, marriage equality, The War, reproductive health, welfare, etc.
*** intentional.
****or radically re-imagined, or don't like being associated with, or whatever.
***** fill in whatever you would describe to yourself or others as being "opposite of" catholocism/mormonism/etc. I had a couple, but kept bumping up against wanting to explain why such-and-such "shouldn't" be considered opposite of. . .

1 comment:

Tina said...

Thank you, Graham. Well said. Reminds me of the time there was an apt. bldg. fire on 13th Ave. at 4:30 AM on a Sat. morning. Pretty soon Rick Reynolds and I and several others were over at the A.C. church basement, opening it up, inviting folks inside, making tea and coffee, etc. I overheard one conversation: "Who ARE these people?" "I think they're Christians." "No......" (this was the mid-80's and the era of the Religious Right). We didn't fit the stereotypes they had. You are right; we all need to listen better. Peace.