Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
My dear friend Tom was excited to greet his eldest daughter and new college friends home from college. “So, Erica,” he asked one of the friends, “Where are you from?” She looked offended.
Thinking that she had misunderstood, he said, “Erica, I just asked what town you are from?”
“I heard you Mr. Johnson. I just can’t really answer that question. You see if I tell you where I’m from I will be labeling myself. Instead of you knowing my heart, you will judge me on my geography. I won’t engage in such societal farce. You will be biased based on my bias. And then I will be biased by how you judged me. So, if it is just the same, Mr. Johnson, with all due respect, I would rather just not tell you where I am from.”
Welcome to the world of Micro-aggressions. The September edition of The Atlantic magazine, defines the newish term as words, which on their face have no malicious intent but are thought of as a kind of violence nonetheless.
Our children have lost their sense of humor. Some of our favorite comedians no longer want to appear on college campuses because they feel like even the “clean” jokes will offend.
Asking someone where they are from; using the word “hump day” (apparently offensive to countries from which camels come), or teaching about racism from a book that might include a picture depicting racists are no longer acceptable.
It used to be that both educators and comedians used humor or pointed language and art as intentional modes of exposing the absurd. A fine comedian or tactful teacher would use certain language to purposely make a student or member of the audience feel a measure of discomfort. The idea was the discomfort would compel intellectual and emotional growth.
Any of us who grew up watching television of the 1970s understood the genius of Norman Lear as he shook our spirits with characters like Archie Bunker and George Jefferson. Bunker and Jefferson shouted out phrases that were downright offensive if we took them at their surface level. Instead, Lear trusted his audience to think and delve a bit; to laugh uncomfortably; and to simultaneously face our biases.
Archie Bunker and George Jefferson couldn’t make it through pilot episodes on television these days. The networks would be boycotted and their sponsors would pull their advertising.
I know how painful the use of the wrong words and images can be for all of us. But at the same time, I fret for how we have tried to sanitize society. In our effort to avoid offense at all costs, we are losing our ability to speak with subtlety, grays and layers. While we strive to make everyone comfortable all of the time, we are losing important opportunities to help people grow out of their comfort zones. We generally don’t learn when everything is easy and makes complete sense. It is when I have had to stretch and wonder and cross borders that my mind and spirit have evolved.
In a day and age where we bemoan the fact that we can no longer have civil dialogue about the most important and complicated of issues, I fret that we are making it more challenging by building higher and less accessible walls. We are squeezed by the fact that we yell at each other on one end of the spectrum and are so incredibly sensitive on the other…… we are afraid to utter a word.
There is a middle way.