Monday, April 09, 2007

True tolerance much deeper than word choice
March 30, 2007

While there’s something charming about New York City’s new ban on the use of the “n-word,” the problem is that those who want to say ugly things will just find a new word.
Most recently it’s been former Seinfeld star Michael Richards wearing it for using the word, which he hurled with considerable racist invective at some poor black guy who heckled him during one of his comedy performances a few months ago. In the ensuing fallout, New York City decided to ban the n-word altogether.
A nice show of brotherhood. But if a community really wants to fix the problem that Richards’ rant brought to light, it takes getting at the underlying reasons for why people are so quickly given to judgment and hatred.
The words being used? They come and go, barely mattering in the grand scheme of things.
The hurtful words my mother once endured due to being half-Chinese were endlessly variable, and were valued by those who used them for their ability to wound.
So it wouldn’t have helped her to live in a town where “chink” was banned (sorry, Mom), because the people who wanted to put her down would have merely pulled some other term from the air to make her feel small, shamed and different. Words were just the way to deliver the message.
The latest invective making headlines is “faggot,” which is apparently undergoing something of a resurgence among those who never quite signed on to the gay-rights movement.
All of a sudden, TV stars are hurling the term at co-workers, and tiresome U.S. commentator Ann Coulter is tossing it around in her public addresses.
As discouraging as it is to hear that people are still making comments like that without so much as a wince, the debate around word use is at least stirring up some discussion around the racism and homophobia at the root of the name-calling.
That’s where we want to be putting our attention.
The thing about name-calling is that it’s much harder to do once you know and like somebody who fits in the category. You’re not likely to call your gay friend a faggot, unless you’re gay yourself.
(Pejoratives used by “insiders” are more about being in the club, not about trying to put a person down.)
As a kid, for instance, it was easy for me to join everybody else in speculating on the “retards” who took classes in some distant wing far away from the rest of us. But then my class spent some time teaching those same kids how to play the recorder, and I got to know the people at the other end of that label.
And that was that. I suspect it would go that way most times if we had the chance to get to know each other as people. Ultimately, that’s the challenge: To open ourselves to meeting people who aren’t like us, and seeing how very much like us they actually are.
Doing something about that hasn’t exactly been a government priority in the last few years anywhere in North America. I can’t remember the last time I saw a campaign pitching diversity and tolerance with any more depth than a Benetton ad, or a public undertaking aimed at bridging the cultural gaps that separate us.
Homophobia in particular has yet to have its day, which I guess is how you end up with some retired U.S. basketball player musing on-air about how he’d like to see all homosexuals removed from the world.
Could he have possibly made such an outlandish comment if he’d known some of the people he was talking about - or at least been aware of how many gay people he probably already knows and likes?
So if we’re calling people names these days, perhaps it’s because we don’t have a clue about each other. We’re busy sorting people based on skin type, sexual preference, and skewed news coverage that leaves us suspecting that all Muslims are potential terrorists, and all aboriginals unemployed and incompetent.
Banning the n-word or any other pejorative can never get at that. No, that one’s going to have to be about getting beyond our significant cultural divides. Canada has prided itself on its multiculturalism, but the truth is that our country badly needs a long-term strategy to keep our many solitudes unified and respectful of each other.
Folkfest was one such tiny opportunity in our own community.
The demise of the annual event this year, and the Latin Music Festival as well, signals a loss of much more than interesting music and good food. Such events were among the few to draw people from across a wide cultural experience to celebrate each other’s differences.
Getting at racism, homophobia and all those other “isms” comes down to sharing common experience. Ugly words will stop when we get to the root of why we use them.

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