Friday, October 14, 2011
Rage against the shrinking of the pale!
A "Pale", according to Wiktionary, is "a jurisdiction under a given authority; often held by one nation in another country, hence suggesting that anything outside their control was uncivilised. It was in use by the mid-17th century. The phrase may be a reference to the general sense of boundary, but is often understood to refer to the English Pale in Ireland. In the nominally English territory of Ireland, only the pale fell genuinely under the authority of English law, hence the terms 'within the Pale' and 'beyond the pale'."** Colloquially, we often hear about certain kinds of behavior that they're "beyond the pale", that is, that they may be unacceptable in polite society.
The problem with pales is that they are designed by people in (supposed) power/authority to define who's "in" and who's "out". Given the administrative nature of their origins, that's understandable. The colloquial use, however, reveals something else: our need to define ourselves over against something, or someone, else . . . . and to preserve our privilege. "Protection" may be nothing more than protection against unwelcome opinions or ideas. In other words, those folks "over there" disagree with us; they MUST be "outside the pale" . . . and therefore we can dismiss them, OR fight them.
Well, it seems to me that, in the colloquial sense, the pales keep shrinking. Nations/states define their borders to define who is "in" or "out". The USA has certainly done that -- and, in recent years, hardened those definitions with walls in the south and requirements-for-passports in the north. We have done a lot to create smaller and smaller pales within these borders. We define them by color, by religion, by language. "You're either in, or you're beyond the pale!" And we have seen in the very recent months and years, the "pale" defined by ideology, or sectarian differences with religion. The comments about Mormonism by Baptist pastor Robert Jeffress is a case in point (in my opinion). Calling something a "cult" is an easy way in our culture to dismiss it, imply it's wrong (as everyone should know) -- in other words, cast it and its adherents "beyond the pale."
Mr. Jeffress is not certainly alone in this, and it is not just a contemporary problem. I was in college at a time when LOTS of religious groups that the mainstream didn't understand were labeled "cults". And, now, we see it happening from both the right and the left -- the religious, as well as political, right and left. And it is true within many different religious traditions; I can certainly think of examples in Christianity, Judaism and Isalm. Cast someone outside of the pale, and they don't have to be heard from. And, of course, we don't have to listen, because we are RIGHT!
Well, I disagree! And I ask that others join me in raging against the shrinking of the pale.
For the sake OF the pale-of whatever size, we need to engage all those within it in constructive, respectful, conversation. And, then, expand the conversation, include more voices, increase our capacity for compassion, and enlarge the pale.
*With apologies to Dylan Thomas, and his poem "Do not go gentle into that dark night"!
**It also refers to a portion of Imperial Russia where Jews were allowed to live -- but, outside of which, they couldn't live permanently.