Reaction

Let Me Womansplain Something To You

Is it officially a word because it made it into Merriam-Webster? Your guess is as good as mine. Either way, here’s the definition of mansplain: “(of a man) to explain something to a woman in a condescending way that assumes she has no knowledge about the topic.”

I was going to say that people either love this term (usually because it illustrates a frustrating reality they’ve dealt with their whole life) or hate it (usually because it sounds like whiny name-calling).

Except that’s not true at all, because you are allowed to have a more nuanced attitude toward something than either loving it or hating it. Hooray! Freedom from extremes! Also, you are free to read this post and disagree with me.

I’m sorry for everyone whose experience has been like this.

I’m one of those in-between people.

For starters, I’ve never been in an environment where men repeatedly treated me like I didn’t know or couldn’t contribute anything. Sure, I’ve had conversations where someone underestimated my knowledge, clearly wanted to show off, or made me feel like they were about to pat me on the head. But they were mostly one-off encounters, not repeated interactions with coworkers or relatives. For the most part, I’ve been listened to and treated with respect, but for the ladies out there who haven’t, the term “mansplaining” probably rings true—and gives a feeling of being understood.

I also know that the point of the term is general cultural commentary on a widespread problem: men are often in charge, women often don’t stand up for themselves, and sometimes the person with the biggest ego (and biggest mouth) doesn’t have the greatest knowledge.

I’m just not sure the term itself is as effective as a social critique as it should be. Accusing someone of mansplaining tends to shut down dialogue instead of starting it because:

  1. It’s an unclear term that’s easily misinterpreted. (“Oh, so if a man explains anything to a woman, it’s not okay?” That may not be what you mean, but it sure is what the word sounds like it means, and that matters when communicating.)
  2. It puts the other person on the defensive, which can be a good way to make a dramatic point but a bad way to suggest growth and change in a way that will get results. (Who likes to be name-called into personal improvement? That’s right. NO ONE.)
  3. It assumes a position of superiority that sometimes comes across as meeting condescension with more condescension…which is the kind of cycle I try to zip out of as quickly as possible.

But most of all, I personally don’t like using the word “mansplaining” because it focuses on the bad communicators—often a minority of arrogant/oblivious people—and doesn’t let us point to examples of how to do things right. Which is way harder and way more important.

Basically, when we complain about mansplaining, I think we miss the chance to celebrate something about women. (more…)

How Do We Respond to a #MeToo World?

So. People have been asking what I think of the Brett Kavanaugh hearing, and the #metoo movement in general.

I usually only weigh in on controversial political issues when I might have something new to add to the conversation or at least something I haven’t seen it being discussed in my circles. On this subject, I’ve seen thoughtful questions about due process and standards and political bias. But my favorite is this one: What does it look like to create a culture that doesn’t encourage or enable abuse (as a first step)? How about one that actively fights it?

My thoughts on this might need more context than I can properly give them and I’m still working through the implications.

So I will say it quietly and as carefully as I’m able, trusting you to read all that I’ve said before and after it. It feels like stepping into a circus ring with a PowerPoint, but here it goes:

It’s going to be very difficult to create a culture that values clear consent, protects women, and stands against abuse while at the same time glorifying sex without commitment.

Hear me out. No situation causes us to take advantage of others—not the campus culture of drinking and hooking up, not provocative dress and entertainment, not ads that have used women as props to sell everything from potato chips to pick-up trucks. What those practices do is give us a wildly uneven standard for our behavior. (more…)

A Different Perspective on the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal

Let’s talk prairie.

For those of you who aren’t part of adorably nerdy bookish communities, here’s the short version of the controversy.

In the 1950s, an award was created called the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal in honor of Wilder’s contributions to children’s literature. (She wrote the Little House series, among others, turned into a beloved T.V. show still re-running late at night somewhere.) It is given to someone who has had a significant impact in the world of kids books.

In addition to displaying family and faith values, Wilder’s series, a fictionalized version of her 1800s childhood, contains stereotypes of Native Americans and is not nuanced about the complex history of the American West. In the Little House books, the homesteaders are good, and the books remove most of the uncomfortable aspects of exploitation, forced removal, and taking away of rights from native people.

This week, the American Library Association decided to change the medal’s name to the more generic Children’s Literature Legacy Award. And a lot of people are really angry.

Disclaimer: I read some of the Little House books as a kid, but didn’t care for them, probably because I read them in that stage where every other little girl was devouring countless books about dogs, cats, and horses which I HATED, and Laura and her family regularly interact with cute animals.

So I don’t have emotional stakes in keeping the Wilder name attached to the award, because it’s not something dear to my heart. For other people, it’s touching a raw spot…and it’s also become politicized.

I made the mistake of reading the one-star reviews people have left for the ALA to protest this choice. Some of them were thoughtfully articulated, like, “I have a hard time understanding this decision, since it seems that Wilder was a product of her times and even apologized for and changed an offensive passage when it was pointed out to her.” (A reference to the edit made from “there were no people, only Indians lived there” to “no settlers,” for which Wilder apologized in the 50s.)

Other responses were…less helpful, using profanities against PC advocates in between references to 1984.

After reading and thinking, I settled on a few thoughts to help me decide how to think about the new non-Wilder award.

It is not really censorship or book burning.

The ALA isn’t suggesting that no one read the Wilder books, or even that schools remove them from their curriculum or libraries take them down from shelves, as far as I’m aware. They just want to have an award that fits with their values. Maybe you disagree with how they’re applying their values, or don’t think the Little House books are really that offensive, but no matter what, this isn’t a dystopian book burning situation.

It may or may not be erasing history, depending on what you mean by that.

For the “it’s not erasing history” view…history isn’t a string of facts, it’s the story that pulls those facts together. It has a bias, especially history taught to kids. And it’s safe to say that for generations, patriotism made edits to American history to minimize certain uncomfortable facts, from the Founding Fathers as slaveholders to the atrocities committed against Native Americans. Part of the story was told—George Washington was a great leader, there was violence from Native Americans against white settlers—but another was often left out.

With that in mind, changing the name of the Wilder medal is actually correcting history—it’s making a statement to kids that “This is only one highly-biased side of a very complex story.”

But for the “it is erasing history” side, kids can learn a lot from the Little House books. Why they shouldn’t complain about modern chores, for one, but also the biases and dangers of a certain way of thinking, one that said, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Now, kids often need parents to discuss those issues with them and point out flaws in characters’ thinking, especially the “good characters,” but if we never let kids encounter media that shows the ugliness of who we were and what we believed, we’re more likely to repeat the same mistakes.* (But again…remember that the ALA isn’t telling people not to read the books.)

It is deeply influenced by current-day values.

This choice was made because we’re going through a season of sensitivity to issues of race. You can think that’s good or bad or well-intentioned-but-with-some-negative-results. But it is true that the Wilder medal was renamed because of what our generation values.

Every single historical figure has a mixed legacy. We are human. We are so deeply influenced by the biases of our time that we can’t even recognize them, and generations from now, people will look back and point out our own blind spots. They’ll remove 2018 heroes from honors in their names, strip them from awards and tear down their statues, all because the particular sin and selfishness within a particular saint has suddenly become the issue of the day. I guarantee it.

(As a Christian, this doesn’t particularly bother me, because it removes the temptation to idolize people instead of God. But that’s another blog post.)

Now, maybe you’ve read about the content that some people are calling out in Wilder’s books and don’t find it offensive, given all the good aspects of the books.

Think about this, though: how awkward would it be to give the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award to this year’s recipient, Jacqueline Woodson, who is an African American writer, when you know her community is protesting Wilder’s treatment of people of color in her books? In the often chalky-white kiddie lit world, authors of color care deeply about issues like these.

It would be kind of like if someone gave the Paula Deen Medal for Excellence in Culinary Publishing to the National Heart Institute’s Low-Cholesterol Cookbook.

Or if we celebrated Willie Robertson of Duck Dynasty as the latest winner of The Huffington Post Media Sensation Award.

Or if John Piper won the Joel Osteen World Impact Award.

(Have I covered enough groups to make everyone feel included? Good. All of those awards are totally fictional, by the way.)

Granted, all three of those scenarios are much more exaggerated than the Laura Ingalls Wilder legacy. But in each case, the award recipient is part of a group that opposes something the namebearer of the award contributed to.

So if you’re mad about the name change, I get it. To be honest, I don’t know that I’m convinced yet that it was the right move. Beyond that, it’s difficult to live in a world where what is offensive seems to be constantly shifting, where complete strangers can get into shouting matches online, where it feels like we’re so focused on being outraged that we’re forgetting how to love one another.

But even if you don’t agree that the decision was necessary, be sure to think about why it was made, because the more we understand people we disagree with, the easier it is to love them. And that’s one way you can be on the “right side of history” when judged by future generationsby taking a stand for gracious and reasonable dialogue in an era defined by noisy division and outrage.

*Stuffy Historical Footnote for the Dedicated Reader: You may have read my post about why I’m fine with the removal of some Confederate statues. Summary: some of those memorials were put up with the express purpose of championing a certain set of ideals over the coming change of civil rights. They are there to honor the cause the men fought for, not just to record the history that happened. Because of that, it makes sense to let legal, democratic processes in a community remove them. This is not the same issue, in my mind, because the intent (the award honors Wilder’s contribution to children’s literature, no hidden agenda) and figure (Wilder was a product of her times as much as any of us, but she’s not a symbol of racism like a KKK leader such as Nathan Bedford Forrest is) are different. Although the reactions to the choices are pretty similar.

Why Are We So Lonely?

If you try to describe the plot of Twelve Angry Men—all the action takes place in one room as a jury deliberates on a murder trial—it sounds mind-numbingly boring. I promise it’s not.

Somehow, I’d never gotten around to seeing the classic film until this weekend. After a slow start, the tension in the room and the unfolding clues grab your attention, and I found myself drawn in particular to Juror 9, the old man.

In my favorite part of the movie, the jurors are arguing about an apparent contradiction in the testimony of one of the witnesses. When asked what the witness would stand to gain by lying, Juror 9 says quietly, “Attention, maybe.”

And so he goes on:

“It’s just that I looked at him for a very long time. The seam of his jacket was split under the arm. Did you notice that? He was a very old man with a torn jacket, and he carried two canes. I think I know him better than anyone here. This is a quiet, frightened, insignificant man who has been nothing all his life, who has never had recognition—his name in the newspapers. Nobody knows him after seventy-five years. That’s a very sad thing. A man like this needs to be recognized. To be questioned, and listened to, and quoted just once. This is very important.”

Breaks your heart, doesn’t it?

And I thought: people shouldn’t feel this way anymore—but we still do.

Technology gives us a way to be recognized, questioned, listened to, and quoted. Anyone can post on Facebook, react publicly to current events, upload a YouTube video, give unsolicited advice to the world, or write on a blog. (more…)

Some Thoughts Before You Post Strong Opinions

I’m not writing this to the trolls, who auto-share memes and fake news from their favorite sarcastic voices or share opinions in real life and on social media out of hatred or mean-spiritedness.

This post is for the ones trying to fend off the people I described above. For the ones who have (often painful) personal experience with a question everyone is discussing in the abstract. For the ones who are angry for a good reason about something that’s happening in the world and with those who are approaching that issue in a way they think is wrong.

To you, I say: be careful.

Please.

Here’s why. Over the past year, I’ve seen many statements, especially on Facebook, that contain lines like “if you have the audacity/stupidity/cruelty to believe [this usually-overgeneralized-and-extreme-version of an argument], then you don’t get to join the conversation.” Sometimes in those actual words or words like it.

“You don’t have the right to speak if you think…”

“I don’t want to hear anyone say….”

“Don’t you dare respond that….”

“You can just go ahead and unfriend me if you’re going to protest that….”

And the list goes on.

I think I know where this is coming from, because I’ve felt it too. We set up these challenges, not because we’re afraid of being proved wrong, but because we’re tired of interacting with views that offend us. We’re emotionally exhausted by the fact that anyone on Facebook can take a few seconds to dash off something racist or sexist or just plain stupid, that they are leeching off our platform to get attention their misguided view doesn’t deserve.

But we keep using social media because we still want to be heard. We want affirmation of what we believe. We want to be the loudest voice, and we want all of the comments to help others understand the truth or just tell us that we described the truth in a powerful way.

This isn’t about hate speech vs. free speech in public dialogue, just about how we conduct personal conversations and debates, especially when we announce which perspectives are acceptable and unacceptable on a particular issue. I can believe, sometimes, that it’s a well-meant desire, that we hope that this time, maybe, we can warn away the people who type before thinking or who dispense clichés or who just want to start a fight.

But there are consequences to silencing voices that disagree with us.* I’ve been thinking about them lately, and here are a few I see:

One: We start hearing only those like us.

By letting those who are different know they aren’t welcome, we pick teams and create our own ideological echo chambers. Among other things, this slowly chips away at our ability to feel empathy—to understand why people feel the way they do, even if we don’t agree. When we lose the ability to listen, even to the outrageously misinformed, we lose a lot of our humanity with that.

Two: We miss the chance to become smarter and stronger.

How are you going to get better at well-reasoned arguments if you’re only posting unchallenged monologues? Let me bring in my 19th century frenemy John Stuart Mill describing why he considered it “evil” to silence other views: “If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

Couldn’t our culture use a clearer perception of the truth? I know I sure could, and I don’t think it can happen if we chase away everyone whose opinions differ from ours.

Three: It forces us to make calls on who’s “in” and who’s “out.”

Klan members and Nazis might seem like easy targets, but after that…who gets to stay in the club? Whose disagreement is too extreme to earn a spot at the debate table? If you’re pro-environment, do you exclude the people who think proposed solutions to global warming aren’t worth the cost, or just those who deny that global warming is happening at all? If you’re pro-life, do you exclude people who believe that abortion is an issue of women’s rights, or just the people who deny that the fetus is actually a life?

There are voices that you may want to counter strongly, particularly if some crazies associate themselves with a group you’re a part of. (For Christians, I’d put Westboro Baptist and prosperity gospel preachers in this category.) But the fact that those voices can still be heard and engaged with makes for better debates with the best chance for getting at the truth. We can’t come to right conclusions if we have a mile-long list of biases and perspectives we are not willing to even consider.

And don’t forget: you can feel free to ignore or respond with polite dismissal to crazy opinions, which especially on social media, I would highly, highly recommend.

Me all the time.

Four: It gives an unhealthy weight to emotion in our decision making.

Before I go on, let me say this: if you’re a survivor of sexual abuse or a teacher who goes through shooter drills or a person who has experienced countless acts of racism, then you have a credible and emotionally impactful perspective on current issues. Your opinion is supported by experience. You can feel what other people are just talking about.

But I do think it’s a mistake to let even important, valid emotions take certain solutions off the table before they’ve been fully discussed. If you’re going to accept or reject a policy or opinion, acknowledge your feelings about the issue. Use them to add to your passion in explaining the best solution as you see it. But don’t let them replace careful research and analysis of responses to a problem. (I’m an ENFP on the Myers-Briggs test, so I believe feelings are too often discounted as a weakness in debates instead of being leveraged as a strength…but I’ve also seen them used badly in logical arguments.)

To sum up: I’d rather see more people countering or ignoring stupid arguments on Facebook than telling those who hold them to shut up before they’ve even spoken, because I want to see all of us be a little braver, a little more humble, and a little more in love with the clear and lively truth than we are in being cheered by a crowd of those who already agree with us.

 

*Stuffy Devil’s Advocate Footnote for the Dedicated Reader: Let me think of the most extreme example I can think of: say you’re in a conversation about genocide with a Holocaust denier. She repeatedly cites false statistics and rejects all of your actual photographs and primary sources and war crimes court transcripts. You feel like you’ve reached the point where you cannot have any kind of productive discussion, and you certainly wouldn’t want to invite your Jewish friend to join in, because this view is not an opinion about how to interpret facts, but a deliberate distortion of facts, and also deeply offensive.

I’m totally fine with saying, “Look, we aren’t just using different logical arguments; we’re referencing a different set of facts. Because of that, there’s no way this conversation can move on in a way that is helpful to either of us.” (Basically, the nice way of saying, “One of us has to be misinformed or delusional, and if we keep talking about this, I may be tempted to drop-kick you all the way to Auschwitz.”)

To me, that’s very different than saying, “If you disagree with me about how to approach gun control/whether “safe spaces” are necessary/what to do with immigration, you are not welcome to express that” which is what I’m talking about here.

Let’s Talk About Cain Killing Someone With a Rock

Most people know the general plot of the story, whether they think it’s history or myth: Cain and Abel were the first brothers on earth, and because his offering wasn’t accepted by God like his brother’s was, Cain killed Abel in a jealous rage. (You can read the full story here—and you should, because source material matters, people.)

There’s something deeply disturbing about realizing the first death was a murder. Christianity teaches that because of sin, we all die…but also because of sin, we sometimes kill.

Which brings us to today. More than in the aftermath of past mass shootings, I’ve seen arguments from both sides that reference Cain. Here’s the most common one:

Full disclosure: I’m not a huge fan of discussing complex societal problems on the Internet, partly because I’m not an expert in basically anything, and partly because it’s not a good medium for listening and responding well.

But as soon as I see people posting Biblical verses or references to support their position, it’s like beaming the bat-signal into the sky. Time to break out the cape and exegetical utility belt. Gotham needs me.

Don’t worry. I always give myself a cooling-off period when I’m in one of those moods, so I’m not about to go all vigilante justice on you. By now, I know that I’m not the hero the world deserves or the hero it needs. I don’t have all the answers. I can’t solve all the problems. But I do have some thoughts.

If you had asked me a week ago what the story of Cain teaches us, before the memes and the rhetoric, I would have said things like “God deeply values right worship,” “God deeply values human life,” and “We are held responsible for the moral choices we make.” All of those are major themes of the story. None of these are referenced by the meme.

That’s your friendly reminder that the story of Cain and Abel isn’t actually about gun control. It exists in the Bible for much more important reasons than to get name-dropped on Facebook after a terrible tragedy.

Okay. So, let’s talk about the part that is directly relevant to mass shootings and what we should do about them. One of the themes of the story of Cain is…

We are capable of great evil.

All of us. Not just the mentally ill or the marginalized, not just the shooters and the psychopaths. Need proof? Later in the Bible, when John says, “Do not be like Cain”—referencing choices to hate others instead of love them—he’s talking to his fellow Christians. (1 John 3:12)

Have you felt what that means, lately? It means we could be like Cain. It means sometimes we are. Sometimes I am.

If you believe this, thousands of conclusions follow, some of which I think relate to the meme-ification of gun violence. Because I believe that all of us are capable of great evil, I also believe…

My friends on the political left are correct when they say it’s all too easy to let greed and selfishness blind us to potential solutions to this problem.

And my friends on the political right are correct when they say that no matter how many laws are made, people determined to break them will find a way to do so.

Some of my friends are wrong because, really, there is no such thing as a “good guy with a gun.” We are all corrupted by sin, and even our good intentions for gun ownership—protection or public safety—can be twisted by fear or prejudice or pride. (Ex: controversial police shootings and questions about “just wars.”)

Some of my friends are wrong because they put too much faith in rules, and maybe even in the government (made up of corrupted people) by being willing to trade freedom for security. It’s an age-old question of risks and gains that needs to be made carefully with an understanding that we’re just as bad, maybe worse, institutionalized into a group than we are individually.

So to the people talking about how Cain killed with a rock, I’d say yes, he did. But now we can kill with weapons that have more power and potential, and that changes things. That’s true of every new invention—guns are just one example. Technology shows both our capacity to create and progress, and our tendency to corrupt and destroy in more far-reaching ways. That’s the difference between a rock and a gun. And the point of the story of Cain and Abel isn’t to say we shouldn’t have laws just because we are lawbreakers at heart.

And to the people saying that Abel’s blood cries out for justice, I’d say yes, it does. But it cries out against us, in our confidence of our own rightness and righteousness. The references to Abel’s blood crying out in the New Testament (Matthew 23:34-36, Hebrews 11:4, 12:24) aren’t given as a reason why we should have more restrictions to prevent murder. The point of the story of Cain and Abel is not that it tells us how to respond to violence, but that it symbolizes all of our rejections of God since then.

All that said, the story of Cain and Abel does have application to the crazy, messed-up world we live in. The main one I see is in its honesty about the human condition. What you think about people’s goodness matters when you talk politics and policy…but it doesn’t mean you don’t have a responsibility to talk about those things.

Let’s refuse to accept platitudes and easy answers as we try to find wise solutions…but let’s also remember our tendency toward corruption when we think about how those solutions will play out.

The Church’s Biggest Problem

If you’re ever bored with small talk and have a group of Christian friends around, try asking what they think the major issue in the American church is. You will almost always start a colorful discussion where everyone throws around serious issues like cynical confetti.

When it’s my turn, I’ve never been able to summarize the area I’m most worried about. That is, until I finished my latest read, which is actually not an examination of the church, but instead something much more personal: a memoir called Single, Gay, Christian by Greg Coles.

What I love about this book, the need I think it fills in the church, is that it isn’t a practical theology book (although there is a chapter that explains why Greg couldn’t interpret the Bible to allow same-sex unions even when he wanted to). It’s a story.

From the first lines of the book’s prologue, you get the sense of an invitation to empathy: “Let’s make a deal, you and me. Let’s make promises to each other….If you’ll listen, I promise I’ll tell you everything, and you can decide for yourself what you want to believe about me. Wait until you’ve heard everything. Wait until you know me.”

Greg

Seriously, read this book. It’s amazing.

As I read, the story became less a justification of Greg’s stance—why he uses the term “gay” to describe himself even though he’s committed to celibacy or what he thinks about the insistence that prayer can “fix” sexual brokenness—and more a challenge for me and the church in general. (Have you noticed that we’re much more open to being confronted about something when we feel like we know and trust the person saying it? That’s the effect this book had on me.)

When Greg said, “Obedience is supposed to be costly,” sure, I heard it as a reason why he felt he shouldn’t act on his attractions. But I also thought of something larger when he went on to explain, “In the Western world, lulled by freedom of religion and unprecedented opulence, we so easily lose sight of what words like suffering really mean. We begin to believe that ease and safety are the baseline experiences of humanity.”

(more…)