Over the last week, Joan and I have been musing about three basic facets of human nature:
- The Good
- The Bad; and
- The Ugly
Lately, we’ve seen a lot of examples of all three.
For sure, the bad:
- Stubborne refusal to take basic measures against the spread of COVID-19;
- Violence in the streets;
- Hateful commentary about race;
- Normalizing racial slurs; and
- Demonizing folks of different races, political beliefs, and even education levels.
Think about the front-line folks who keep us safe and the wheels turning during the biggest health crisis of our lifetime. Or, some wonderful police officers who work hard in scary conditions to calm down angry crowds, talk to protesters like fellow humans, and seek understanding. I include in all of this, the ongoing public debate about how we remember historical figures without glorifying the evils of our past.
But what happens between these two poles? This is the place where we make the choice between good and bad. I call this space the ugly. Perhaps I should say “the messy”, but all too often it’s increadibly ugly.
In the ugly we confront day-to-day micro-aggressions. These stings may not even be intentional. Folks often repeat words and actions normalized through habit. These are the things that creep into our day-to-day lives that may hurt others, yet we believe are harmless.
Ugly Systemic Racism
“I didn’t mean to hurt you. It is your responsibility to understand what I really mean and not take offence.”
For me, this is systemic racism, and whether we meant it or not, it still harms others. It transfers ownership of the hurt from the perpetrator to the victim. At its best it’s insensitive. At its worst, it’s pure and simple bullying. The victim has to be the adult in the room and if they act out, they are held accountable for all of it.
The ugly mounts up over time, building pressure that sometimes we release in anger and violence over a seemingly trivial comment or action.
Most of us stockpile the ugly in a little vault hidden deep in our psyche. The last straw may be trivial, but the outburst is a genuine reaction to what is often years of ugly garbage. Yes, we are all accountable for our actions, and the outburst may be out of proportion, but the anger is real.
And, when the explosion finally happens, calling somebody “over-sensitive” or the one I truly hate, “snowflake”only feeds the flames.
These words are examples of “labelling” one of many things we do to justify our bad behaviour. When we label folks, we strip them of their humanity and their dignity. We deem them insignificant and beneath contempt. By doing this we give ourselves permission to indulge in more micro-aggression, or slide into outright bigotry.
Just as bad, we give ourselves permission to just not give a damn. If a person is a “snowflake” they deserve all the bad stuff that happens to them. We turn a blind eye and offer moral support to an environment where the bad can thrive.
We use a ton of labels. They are convenient and lazy. I think of words like:
- Antifa; and
- A lengthy list of bigoted, sexist, and homophobic slurs I don’t need to go into.
Our Words Must Match Our Intentions
Yes, words matter, but our intentions matter too. We can’t communicate when the words we use express beliefs and feelings we don’t really mean. We have to be sensitive to how others perceive our words, and more willing to share how words affect us. Most of all, we can’t be complacent about how others use hurtful labels.
We can only fix things if we work together, and we can’t work together if we can’t communicate. We use words to share ideas and understand each other. We have to be sensitive to the unintentional messaging we may share.
Turning Micro-Aggression Into Micro-Kindness
So, I have taken a vow to strive to do better, to make my words more precisely match my true beliefs and feelings. While this is not as easy as it may sound, I hope you can join me in this challenge. We can change the world and turn the ugly into the merely messy. We can convert micro-aggression into micro-kindness. We can give ourselves permission to do good.