“It’s so easy a girl could’ve done it,” he chortled. This particular student was a telecommuter which means I had the distinct pleasure of hearing this shitty comment in stereo over the seminary’s fantastic surround sound. Gee, thanks.
“Really?” I stood directly in front of the camera, eyes burrowing into the lens. The single word hung in the air, quivering in the tense silence of the other students who waited to see what would happen next.
“Oh, no, he was just joking,” another (male) student jumped to his defense.
“Uh-huh,” I grunted wryly, arching my eyebrow.
“It’s his wife sitting right next to him, he was joking with her. He even pushed her shoulder,” he tried to explain.
“How does that make the comment any less sexist?” The question was never answered because at that moment the instructor walked in and class began.
Maybe some of you find yourselves siding with the person defending the joke. I can understand that; he did his best to try and mitigate a situation that he thought had the potential to end in verbal sparring. What he really did was engage in distancing behavior, he allowed it to happen. Perhaps even gave it permission to.
“But look how far we’ve come,” you’ll say.
Yes – look how far we’ve come, and how far we still have to go before this toxic and oppressive culture is transformed. These jokes perpetuate harmful stereotypes to the point of normalization, making it impossible to suck the poison out of the wound because oppression is not only dismissed but also treated so flippantly that it can be joked about.
We need to call out these behaviors, and we need to call them by their proper names; racism, sexism, heterosexism, abelism, ageism, etc. In a lecture I attended 3 years ago I heard Rowan Williams talk about the power of words and while I was moved, I didn’t quite understand (at least on an experiential level) what he meant. Until I experienced an act of violence and sexism for myself and was forced by my friends to stop dismissing the incident and to call it for what it was. When I named the oppression -“abusive” and “sexist” – out loud something transformed within me and for the first time I was able to see the stark truth.
This is what the aim is when when we confront people about oppressive behavior – to transform them, not to shame them or make them feel like bad people. This isn’t a question about whether or not we are nice people – we can still be nice people and be oppressive. The question, my friends, is boiled down to this:
What kind of world do we want to live in and what kind of people do we want to be?
A beloved mentor of mine says that we have, ‘lost the creative imagination to envision a world of peace.’ If that is so then how are we ever to build a world free from violence and oppression if we can’t even imagine what our end goal looks like? Peace work is not a stroll in the park where we wander around aimlessly and just-so-happen to end up at a non-violent egalitarian world. No, we need a strategy and we can’t begin to strategize without a vision of the world we want or the people we want to be.
What do we want? A world of peace, free from violence.
Who do we want to be? Loving, compassionate human beings.
If we want a world of peace, why do we pay into the system that makes war?
If we want to be loving and compassionate beings, why do we do such harmful and hurtful things?
Because violence and oppression permeate our culture to the very root – because it is normative.
This is why we get so defensive when people point out our oppressive behaviors to us – creates cognitive dissonance that begins a rapid firing of questions in our brains. We don’t see ourselves as oppressive people, do we? What does it mean if we are? Am I a bad person? How do I STOP these behaviors?
We stop these behaviors by listening to our teachers: the marginalized. They trigger a transformation of heart that is the watershed moment to the transformation of self. And as each one of us transforms so, too, does the culture we live in.
And remember, this is the growing edge of change. We will forget and slip back into our old habits sometimes. We will get frustrated, angry and defensive but over time this all gets easier and becomes – you guessed it! – normalized. It is when this change has been normalized that we begin to bring about what Christ called the Kingdom of Heaven.