Sticks and stones and verbal attacks are equally unnecessary.
In my last post I noted my appreciation of returning to a land where I can have conversations that go beyond the basics. But the drawback to speaking and understanding the local language is that I’m also privy to conversations I would rather not hear—conversations covering topics that are not only shallow but downright mean. In the past ten days I’ve repeatedly heard people discussing the physical appearance of celebrities, roommates, classmates, enemies, and friends. I’ve heard these conversations in kitchens, at parties, in living rooms, and on trains. Rarely did the speakers discuss positive qualities of anyone’s appearance.
These conversations don’t impress me. In fact, they upset me. I’ll never forget the time last year after descending from the bus when my roommate described another passenger as a “troll,” indicating her disgust at the woman’s looks. (Ironically, that roommate had more than once admonished me for not meeting her standards of “friendliness.” The common perception of surface friendliness as sincerity and shyness as snobbery is an injustice I’ve felt very personally throughout my life.) In scenarios like the “troll” one, I usually stop participating in the conversation and fade to the background as much as possible, wishing I had the world’s best earplugs. For days or months afterward I wonder if I could have said something that would have altered the way the speaker was talking. I lament the fraction of my life wasted in the presence of such ugly (ha) conversation and energy, and I make lists of the much worthier topics that could’ve been discussed in those moments.
It really bothers me, you see. But as a rule, “correcting” other people’s behavior doesn’t usually go over well. The most likely result is censorship, as opposed to behavior change. For example, I was an outspoken opponent of using “gay” as an insult in my homophobic high school. One day, walking in the hallway with a friend, she used the word derogatorily and then quickly corrected herself: “Sorry, I know you don’t like that word.” That gave me pause…obviously I don’t dislike the word “gay” and moreover, my goal in speaking out against its use as an insult was not to have people stop using it around me, but to stop using it or thinking it as an insult at all. At 16 I didn’t have the tact to achieve that goal.
Nowadays, I’m self-aware enough to know that ranting and condemnation—however much these tactics are valued by the Westboro Baptist Church—are ineffective methods for me to share why I dislike a certain behavior. There are probably better responses to shallow and rude remarks than silent frustration, but I haven’t figured them out yet. Navigating those situations in a way that leaves people thinking instead of bristling requires a certain finesse that is an important trait for any educator to develop. Some people must have that finesse…
Maybe Jesus or Mohammed had it, but not being religious, I often wonder what my friends Mary or Elli would do. I lived with them my senior year of college in an incredibly welcoming, affirming, and intellectually stimulating environment. I can’t imagine anyone saying something like, “she’s got a great body, but the problem is her face” in that house because the whole atmosphere moved you away from thinking anything like that. How was that so?
Superficial trash talk sprouts from insecurities—people make themselves feel good by criticizing others, but in the end the worry that somebody is better/prettier/skinner/richer/happier remains, and so the trash talk will continue. Insecurities’ roots are tangled up with similar roots to lots of other problems—like the fact that some people make a ton of money off the rest of us being insecure (imagine what would happen to the beauty industry if suddenly every human liked their appearance without the aid of cosmetics, diet pills, designer clothes, etcetera). Mary once hung a hand-painted sign in our living room that read, “We must cultivate our garden.” If we are to cut off the poisonous roots of insecurity, fear, and division, we must do a better job of nourishing the plants we want to grow. As I said, shouting at people that they’re drowning their plants won’t work…I know what seeds I want to plant, but I need to find a spade.