Friday, January 28, 2011

Well, bit my tongue!

I am teaching an Honors Seminar entitled "Pets, Partners or Pot-roast" this quarter. It is NOT solely about whether or not to eat meat, nor is it focused on animal rights; both of those topics are, however, part of the course. It is really a opportunity for us all to consider how we make decisions in a complex world, especially when we may make decisions whose outcomes conflict with one another (e.g., "Livestock=bad; leather jackets=good." Huh?).

One of our readings for this past week was in an article by CU professor Marc Bekoff*, entitled "Deep Ethology, Animal Rights, and the Great Ape/Animal Project: Resisting Speciesism and Expanding the Community of Equals"**. In the article he reports the hesitance of some researchers to name the animals with which they work; Jane Goodall, for example, was criticized by some colleagues for giving the chimps names rather than numbers. He then observes that many scientists keep pets (and name them), but those same scientists will not give animals of the same species names when they are in the lab. Animals at home are part of the family; animals in the lab are something else: "lab animals", and thus safe to experiment on.

This got me to thinking about how we use names, or other words, to distance ourselves from people (or other animals!) who are not like us. This is so obvious when we demonize an enemy, using very pejorative language (and/or overdone visual caricatures) to drive this point home. An easy example is the word "barbarian" -- a pejorative term used by the Greeks to describe anyone who didn't speak Greek (the non-Greeks' speech sounded like "bar-bar-bar-bar"). But the same "distancing" shows up in non-political ways as well, and in English. When we sit down at table we rarely refer to the piece of meat on our plates as "pig" or "cow" or "sheep" (unless it's a lamb, in which case we have a very different moral ambiguity going on -- as there is also with chickens/ducks or fish). No, most of us buy our "beef", "pork", or "mutton" out of a cold-chest at the supermarket, not even connecting our dinner with the animal who gave its all so that we might eat.

Don't misunderstand me! I'm still so un-reconstructed that I love that slab of hickory-cured pig, or that slice of cow muscle. On the other hand, I have lived on a farm, and have seen an animal go from hoof to table in a matter of hours. No, what I'm recognizing is how my words hurt. They hurt others, certainly. No-one likes to be described by a vulgar epithet. But my words can hurt me. I become desensitized to individuals by the words I use to describe them.

"Right speech" is one of the Eight Noble Truths of Buddhism. Gossip and "loose speech" are warned against in the wisdom traditions of every religious tradition I know. And now we, in the U.S., are being called upon to become more "civil" in our dealings with others-in our speech with others. And I fully agree. What I find on websites/blogs/Facebook, however, regardless of persuasion, is a lot of "othering" language. On the one hand, it doesn't seem in keeping with any notion of civility. But, on the other hand, it keeps the authors/speakers from realizing that there are real people at the other end of their categorizations. Just like cello-wrapped tenderloins help keep us from realizing that there were living animals who were bred and raised for the purpose of feeding us.

I've long felt that "category-lumping" speech does nothing but end conversation and increase resentment-words do hurt. But what I'm recognizing is that when I do it, I'm not only doing damage to the other, I'm hurting myself. Time to bite my tongue and see how that tastes and feels.




** in Susan J. Armstrong and Richard G. Botzler's The Animal Ethics Reader, 2nd Edition (Routledge, 2008: 151-6).

Friday, January 21, 2011

It was, I suppose, a mean question . . .

. . . but it wasn't meant to be. I was on DU's Driscoll Bridge this week inviting passers-by to share their dream for social justice. Folks were given the opportunity to write, or draw, their dream on a piece of paper (with a dream "bubble"). We then posted the collection on the Bridge (temporarily) for others to see.* A recording of Martin Luther King's famous "I have a dream" speech played in the background.

As is often the case for those of us who "table" on the Bridge, we have to "hawk our wares"-or extend an invitation-to get the attention of the folks walking by. So the question I frequently asked was "Do you have a dream for social justice?" Sometimes people would stop, ask for more information, and record their dream. Sometimes people would walk by, either NOT hearing, or PRETENDING not to hear. And I understand! I do the same thing when I'm focused on getting to my next meeting, or not wanting to engage someone selling knives that cut through tin cans.

What struck me, however, were some of the answers that I got from people who didn't stop, but who did respond verbally. (And, again, I'm NOT trying to be critical or judgmental!) In no reflection of frequency:

"I'm late to class (or a meeting)."

"I've got a dream, but I don't have time to write it down."

"I'll think about it."

"No, thanks." [Note: It's not as if I were selling something!]

"I'll do it on my way back." [Note: A few did!]

And my personal favorite:

"I'm good."

Folks cross the Driscoll Bridge many times a day, and have to deal with the tablers all of the time. I suspect that a lot of the answers were stock replies, a verbal response to a verbal cue, having nothing to do with the content of the question asked.

What provoked my reflective response, however, were two things. First were the people who genuinely stopped, thought for a moment, and couldn't identify an issue of social justice about which they were concerned; they frequently said "I'll think about it" before moving on. I would reply "Great! Thanks!" Second was the "passing by" of so many folks, hearing my question, but not responding. I had to take a step back and look at my reflection.

In my work-a-day world, how often do I think of issues beyond the boundaries of my desk, my skin, or that of my family? Hearing the question, "Do you have a dream for social justice?" might just stop me short, tongue-tied, and a bit chagrined that I didn't have a good answer. I may have even resented the question. Similarly, how often do I walk past an apparent need, or opportunity to serve, simply because I don't want to get involved, or I can't SEE what's right in front of me.

Last Monday, I was on a bike trail in Cherry Creek State Park. A fellow cyclist was walking his bike towards me. I stopped and asked if he needed help. He did -- he'd had two flats (thereby using his one spare tube). I swapped my good spare for his punctured one, and let him use my pump so he could get on his way (he would have had a five mile walk -- not comfortable in bike shoes!). There is a sort of "code" among cyclists that you at least offer help to someone stopped. I was simply observing the code -- paying it forward, I suppose one might now say.

That cyclist's code is nothing less than general codes of care for the other. So many of our traditions suggest that we de-center our concerns in favor of those in need. Stopping to help a fellow cyclist was not social justice, but given the coincidence of that occurrence with my experience of tabling, I want to keep my eyes/ears a little more open to opportunities to do something. And after which I've done that something, I could honestly say, "I'm good."



*It is my hope to put the "dreams" in some sort of digital format for sharing. The responses were fantastic!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Turn off the CAPS Lock!

Late in the evening on Saturday, August 30th 1997, television viewers in America were hit with the news that Princess Diana had been in a horrific car crash in a Paris tunnel. Her death stunned, and saddened, England and, indeed, the world. Immediately, almost instantaneously, accusations were leveled in every which direction. The one that had (for a while) the most traction was that she'd been hounded, literally, to death by the paparazzi. Certainly those photographers would made dollars by getting pictures of famous folks HAD indeed followed Princess Di around. They were an easy target. (It turned out, by the way, that the vehicle's drive had a blood alcohol content far above a legal/safe limit.) In the sermon I preached the following morning (yup, I had to rewrite the whole thing!), I pointed out that the paparazzi -- even if they WERE in some way responsible -- would have no market for their photos if consumers around the world stopped buying People magazine, Weekly World News, etc.

And so, last week, in the wake of the tragic shootings in Arizona, the fever pitch of accusations was apparent again. The Right shouted at the Left; the Left shouted at the Right. Gun control advocates shouted for legislation; the NRA shouted back. My Facebook page, with my friends' updates, mirrored the debate, pointing me to this newscast or that one. All of the commentators, of course, shouting (figuratively and literally). And then, blessedly, came the appeals for calm. The shooter -- once some research was done -- was apparently not being egged on by one political faction or another. Imagine that!

Yet, in a column in this morning's Denver Post, author Chuck Plunkett writes: "Any expectation that the national political debate is headed for reform in the wake of the Arizona shootings will likely face disappointment, as polls show most Americans don't blame heated rhetoric for the murders and experts note that OUR SYSTEM IS ADVERSARIAL BY DESIGN (emphasis added). . . . Even if [Sen. Mark Udall's bipartisan effort to eliminate party-affiliated seating in Congress] were to succeed, IT WOULDN'T CHANGE THE BIG MEDIA MACHINE THAT AWARDS MULTIMILLION -DOLLAR CONTRACTS TO TALK-SHOW PERSONALITIES WHO MAKE THEIR LIVING STOKING CONTROVERSY(again, emphasis added).

What is it that compels us to jump to conclusions without evidence? What is that compels us to lay blame at our adversaries even if they may not have anything to do with the situation at hand? What is it that compels us to spend our earnings on photos of celebrities, or, by our viewing/reading/listening habits to support loud-mouthed opinionators (and, yes, I made that word up!)? In short, why do we spend so little time on introspection, cleaning up our own house, listening, learning -- and so much time ON SHOUTING, BLAMING, DISTANCING OURSELVES FROM RESPONSIBILITY?

A different columnist, David Brooks, in a piece entitled "Tree of Failure" in today's New York Times poses an answer: "Civility is a tree with deep roots, and without the roots, it can's last. So what are those roots? They are failure, sin, weakness and ignorance. . . . [And] over the past few decades, people have lost a sense of their own sinfulness. children are raised amid a chorus of applause. Politics has become less about institutional restraint and more about giving voters whatever they want at that second. Joe DiMaggio didn't ostentatiously admire his own home runs, but now athletes routinely celebrate themselves as part of the self-branding process. So, of course you get narcissists who believe they or members of their party possess direct access to the truth . . . Of course you get people who gravitate toward the like-minded and loathe their political opponents."

"Failure, sin, weakness and ignorance." Those are both individual and social maladies. They are very difficult to address in any meaningful way while shouting. Maybe, if we as a individuals and a people were quiet and reflective long enough, some sense might weasel its way into our hearts, minds and spirits. And we might be led to repentance.

As one starting point, LET'S TURN OFF THE CAPS LOCK!


now, let us pray for ourselves, and others, and especially for the victims of the shooting, their families, our nation . . . as well as for jared loughner.



Friday, January 7, 2011

The Man with the Yellow Gloves

In my neighborhood, there's a young man who, every so often, sits down on a park bench at a semi-major intersection and simply waves at drivers passing by. From what I understand, he's been doing it for more years than I've lived in the area. And we never know when he'll be there; time of day and weather don't seem to deter him. Indeed, I saw him just the other day in sub-freezing temperatures. I've taken to watching for him when I approach the intersection, and doing everything I can so that he'll see me wave to HIM. He waves back with a BIG smile on his face. Pure delight -- for both of us.

And every time I drive by him I recall Joseph Charles, Berkeley's "Waving Man". For several decades, Mr. Charles would step outside his home on Martin Luther King Blvd (old Grove Street) at the morning commute, don big yellow gloves, and wave at folks on their way to work/school. As you can see in the photo above, it was a BIG wave with a BIG smile. And for people on their way to (what might be) a stressful day, it was a spirit-uplifting encounter. I relished those rare days when my commute would take me past his house. Charles died in 2002, but he has been memorialized in numerous ways around Berkeley. There's a Facebook page dedicated to him (Friends of the "Waving Man of Berkeley")! And on what would have been his 100th birthday last March, dozens of folks gathered at "his corner", and waved at the commuters.

Neither my neighborhood "waver" or Joseph Charles receive(d) anything tangible for their actions. But making people smile, lifting their spirits, changing the nature of life, creating a space of good will -- in the words of the commercial: "Priceless!"

I have no idea whether either of these men do/did what they do because of any religious motivation. But I can't help but sense an encouraging face of the Divine reflected in theirs. And when I think of "religious" directives, such as "do unto others as you would have them do to you," their actions ARE religious. We wave back. We smile back. A different world is created.

On Charles' Facebook page there is a quotation -- unattributed:
"A friendly smile and a wave are free. Don't be afraid, bend the edges of your lips to the sky and say hello!" I invite you to join me this-coming week and do just that. The recipient doesn't need to be anyone that we know; we're just taking small steps to create a better place.

Not having yellow gloves is no excuse!

Blessings for the New Year,