Not Racist at All

I think I’m a pretty good writer. (Okay, let’s cut the crap – I think I’m a really good writer.) But I’ve still got a lot of areas to work on. I over-focus on plot and under-focus on characters. I spend hours fiddling with sentence-level changes while my settings remain lifeless and nondescript. And, no doubt, I have other weaknesses in blind spots I don’t even know about.

I’m working on it. Trying to get better.

Tolkien was a truly great writer, but he had his own problems, including a tendency to write long, dull, over-descriptive passages. Frank Herbert was brilliant, but he was deathly allergic to humor. Herman Melville wrote gorgeous prose poetry when he wasn’t rambling on about the skeletal properties of baleen whales.

Everybody’s got their weaknesses.

The athletes at the Olympics must surely be among the best in the world. Do they believe they’re perfect? Of course not. (Otherwise why would they have coaches?) You don’t get to be the best in the world unless you’re hyperaware of your own strong and weak points. A relentless drive to improve presupposes imperfections to improve upon.

Or look at the great Christians of history: theologians, missionaries, monastics, comforters of the sick and hopeless. Did Martin Luther claim to be perfect, free of sin? Did Thomas Aquinas, or Thomas Merton? Does Pope Francis say that he never breaks a commandment? No, no, no, and no. They are great Christians partly because they know very well that they’re not immune to sin.

If I met a writer who said he was amazing at every aspect of writing, that he didn’t need to improve at all, my first thought would be amateur. If I met a Christian who claimed to be without sin, I’d think they were confused about what “Christian” means.

We all know that nobody’s perfect – at anything. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s a simple fact of life.

Why, then, does anyone, anywhere say that they’re “not racist at all”? Or, as Ivanka Trump recently claimed of her father, “colorblind”? (The latter term has its own problems, but let’s charitably assume that by “colorblind” she meant “not at all racially biased.”)

Any psychologist will be happy to tell you that the human mind is not a straightforward rational machine. We are full of biases of every kind – about people, about cars, about varieties of vegetables, about regions and religions, about driving habits, about childrearing philosophies, about anything you can imagine.

There are ways to (partially) overcome these biases, but it’s extraordinarily difficult and takes a huge amount of effort. No method has yet been discovered to eliminate bias from the human brain, whether we’re talking about the color of skin or the color of wallpaper. Straightening out your thinking is a staggeringly complex task. Doing so perfectly – not being racist at all (or sexist at all, or xenophobic at all) – amounts to a superhuman feat. So why do people keep saying they’ve done it?

Actually, I can answer that, because I used to think that I, myself, wasn’t racist at all.

I think I believed that racism was solely a conscious phenomenon. That is, because I wasn’t consciously aware of any racist ideas, they must not exist. Also, I had the idea that anyone who was at all racist must be bad, and I wasn’t bad, I was good, so surely I wasn’t like that. I didn’t see it as claiming perfection. I only saw it as claiming ordinary decency.

What I didn’t realize is that ordinary decent people still have racist tendencies, just like ordinary decent drivers still get in accidents and ordinary decent parents still yell at their kids sometimes. We’re just human.

This isn’t liberal guilt, because I don’t feel particularly guilty. This isn’t white-bashing; some of my best friends are white. It’s simple self-awareness.

Rereading this post, I notice that I gave seven examples above of great human beings, and all seven were men. You can debate exactly how or why that happened, but it is inescapably gender bias. The probability of that happening by chance is less than 1% (0.5^7 is about .0078). Does that make me a bad person? I don’t think so. It just means that, as in every area of life, I have to be careful with my thoughts.

And if I ever write more than a thousand consecutive words about baleen whale skeletons, I want somebody to tell me politely but firmly that I have a problem.

Current Happenings

  • Betsy and I assembled a sort of hanging/swinging motorized baby rocker device yesterday (evidently I need to brush up on baby tech nomenclature). Packages ordered from our registry are appearing on our front porch with alarming regularity.
  • Betsy now answers the questions “How are you feeling?”, “When are you due?”, and “Boy or girl?” approximately 735 times per day. I have postulated that learning a person’s emotional state by asking how they’re feeling is like learning a quantum particle’s position: The act of measuring changes the status.
  • Baby shower coming up this weekend. Just like in that song: “Hallelujah, it’s raining men babies.”
  • Why do we give plush toy bears to babies? The bear is the baby’s natural predator.
  • Recently ripped the carpet off the front porch. (Yes, there was carpet on our front porch. No, we didn’t put it there, but we did leave it on for about five years longer than we should have.) Now I’m midway through the much more difficult process of scraping off the carpet glue using a de-gooping agent (the technical term).
  • Now that Trump is officially the nominee, I’ve started putting real thought into what I can do to oppose him. I’ve got a small project in the works that I hope to unveil next week. Nothing amazing, but hopefully a start. Not that I’m crazy about Hillary or anything, but I really don’t want to explain to my kids someday how Trump became President and I didn’t do anything to try to stop it.
  • Speaking of which – I don’t have too many nice things to say about Ted Cruz, but his non-endorsement of Trump was pretty great.
  • Star Trek Beyond (coming out tomorrow) is currently at 93% on Rotten Tomatoes, which is about 90% higher than I would have guessed, based on the initial trailer. Always glad to be wrong about things like this.
  • I’m seeing that Batman Killing Joke animated movie on Monday. I don’t have high hopes for that (although I liked the graphic novel), but – as with Star Trek – I would love to be wrong.
  • My Great Bible Read (with Betsy) continues apace. We recently finished Leviticus, which is a truly horrifying book if you take it at all seriously. Leviticus 21:9 has God himself explicitly ordering people to be burned to death. As a Christian, you have two choices: Believe in a God who commands people to be tortured to death, or believe that not everything in the Bible is the word of God. If I were a Christian, I’d go emphatically with the latter.
  • We’re on to Galatians now.
  • The Ohio chapter of the EFA (which I’m the coordinator of) recently had its third meeting. Lots of exciting plans in the works, including some strategies for recruiting new members.
  • I’ve stopped putting the hyphen in “email,” upending a decade of personal tradition. TIMES CHANGE AND WE MUST ALL CHANGE WITH THEM.
  • Yesterday I finished reading Bart D. Ehrman’s book How Jesus Became God. Regardless of your religious beliefs, it’s a fascinating historical study that will open your eyes to all kinds of important but seldom-discussed information about the theological development of the early Church.
  • Still doing a bunch of copyediting for Dragonfly Editorial. I have thought more about hyphens and dashes in the past twelve months than in the rest of my life combined.
  • Congrats to Ben Trube. He knows why.

The New York Times Recommends Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Just sayin’.

Binders for Women

I made Betsy a binder for all the pregnancy papers, pamphlets, and forms we’ve accumulated over the past seven months.

binder

She’s so lucky to have me!

Must-Haves

Must-Have-Fashion-December-2013

This penguin shirt and faux-jewelry purse fall into the category of “needs” rather than “wants.”

I was with Betsy at Kohl’s yesterday, looking for baby clothes, when a sign caught my eye. It was advertising MUST-HAVE fashion accessories. I was shocked, then terrified, as I realized that I owned none of these strictly mandatory items. What would become of me? Nightmare visions flashed through my head: Cranial gout? Hair cancer? Inflammation of the homunculus? I simply didn’t know; the sign provided no details.

Betsy noticed me twitching on the tile floor and helped me to my feet, assuring me softly that I would be okay.

The sign, it turns out, was lying.

And thank heaven. Because it isn’t just those Kohl’s products that are labeled “must-have.”

That last link, with the tech toys, is from 2014 – and I don’t think I bought anything on that list. Two years later, I have yet to suffer duodenal implosion. Was the headline, perhaps, misinformed?

The really striking thing about the “must-have” label is that it’s never applied to anything that is actually must-have. When was the last time you saw an ad for “Water: The Must-Have Liquid of 2016”? Or “This Season’s Must-Have Parenting Item: Unconditional Love”? I studied my depression medication bottles carefully – you know, the things that prevent me from spiraling into a horrific pit of self-loathing and apathy – and was unable to find the phrase “must-have” on them anywhere.

In fact, this arrangement is rather convenient for you, the consumer.

Because “must-have” is never applied to things you must have, it follows logically that anything labeled “must-have” is automatically something you do not need to have. Think of it as a badly mistyped warning label that says “Unnecessary.”

It’s a public service, really.

Your Move, Leviticus

I haven’t written about it lately, but Betsy and I are still doing our Great Bible Read, working our way through the Book (or rather, books) one chapter at a time. Right now we’re reading Leviticus, which is a fascinating, enlightening, and surreal experience.

A few days ago we came to Leviticus 18:22.

You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.

Thoughtful pause, and then Betsy said:

“So I guess that doesn’t rule out girl-on-girl, huh?”

Touché.

side effects may include

The Problem With “Whatever You Want”

A woman looks at her husband and asks something like:

  • Where should we go for dinner?
  • Do you think we can afford to buy this?
  • What kind of tile should we get?
  • Should we let our kids go to this party?
  • What kind of car should we buy?

The husband smiles and says calmly, “Whatever you want is fine.”

Maybe he wants to be flexible and easygoing, or maybe he has no preference, or both. He may even feel that, by offering her maximum freedom, he has given the best possible answer.

In a few cases, that may be true. But the vast majority of the time, “Whatever you want” is a lame answer, even a terrible one.

Here’s why.

First, it assumes that she has a preference in the first place. But she may have no strong feelings about what to do – she may even feel totally lost. If so, “Whatever you want” signals that she’s going to remain lost, and furthermore, you have no plans to help her with that.

Even if she has a strong preference, the answer is still problematic because it dumps the decision-making responsibility on her. She has to weigh the options and pick the best one. If the decision is wrong, she (and perhaps you) will feel that it was her fault. Rather than offering to share the weight of that responsibility, you have effectively told her to carry it alone.

Furthermore, because she is not completely selfish (we hope!), she would like to take your feelings into account. “Whatever you want” gives her no information about your own preferences, if any. Maybe you’re truly indifferent, or maybe you’re being polite, or maybe you’re sacrificing your wants or needs for hers. She doesn’t know.

Finally, “Whatever you want” is just a big turn-off romantically. Confidence is attractive. A take-charge attitude (not to be confused with a bossy or controlling attitude) is attractive. Shrugging your shoulders is weak sauce.

So what’s a better answer?

For starters, saying “I don’t have a preference at all” – if it’s true – is actually a better answer than “Whatever you want,” because it contains more information. It doesn’t just tell her that she can make the decision – it tells her why. This relieves part of her burden, since she no longer has to worry (as much) about making you unhappy with a bad decision.

Even better is “I don’t have a preference, but how about doing X?” Since you truly don’t care, it should be easy for you to suggest an option. This gives her a starting point, offers an option that you’re definitely okay with, and suggests that you’re willing to help with the decision-making.

What if you feel lost about what to do? Maybe you’re not clear what the options are, or you don’t understand the pros and cons, or it’s all just too complicated to get straight. Again, simply saying that you’re lost is much better and more informative than “Whatever you want.” Even better: Offer a path forward, such as “I could do some research,” or “Let me ask around,” or “Can you explain this for me?” All of these focus on turning words into action, and show that you’re engaged with the problem, although you may not know (yet) how to solve it.

Better still, be proactive rather than reactive. Don’t make her ask the question in the first place. Start a conversation: “Did you hear about that party tonight? The kids want to go, and I think that’s probably okay. What do you think?”

Or, if it’s a relatively small decision, you may not even need a conversation. If she doesn’t usually care where you eat, then rather than asking about dinner, just order takeout from Jumbo Gerald’s Bibimbap Emporium & Delicatessen. She’ll probably be fine with the food, glad to be saved a decision, and pleased that you were thinking about her. And if not? Worst case, you’re out a few bucks, and you’ll know for next time.

Plus, you’ll have bibimbap. And how could that be a bad night?

Note: I used a wife/husband relationship for simplicity, but the concepts apply just as well to husband/wife, or any other gender pairing, or all kinds of relationships.