Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Ain't I A Human?

    Once again, in an effort to get some stuff out of my brain to make room for new stuff, I'm going to hash out some thoughts I've been having as of late. There were two instances in the last week that sparked very similar feelings for me, and I would like to dissect them here for you guys. The first was a meme I saw popping up all over the place. It went something along the lines of "I've never heard of a well dressed, well spoken black man getting assaulted by the police for nothing" or something to that affect. The second is a conversation I peripherally participated in. A person made the comment that if women wanted to be respected, they needed to dress a certain way otherwise they were "asking" for mistreatment.

   Now I'm just going to call it- those two things were incredibly racist and sexist, respectively. But what scares me is that the inherent racism and sexism in those statements wasn't apparent to some people. What's more, the sentiment that underlies both of those examples is the same, and it's what I want to talk about. Both center around the idea that humanity is something that must be earned. That treating people like actual people- with kindness and respect- is something you only have to do after a person has proven themself worthy of being treated like a human being. Until they have proven themselves, you can treat them like shit and feel completely justified in doing so. But let's back up and unpack this a bit.

  A lot of how you respond to this discussion will depend on your basic concept of morality. I am coming from the belief that all people (really, all living things) deserve to be treated with the most basic kindness and dignity if only because we are all sharing this planet and this space. There are similar beliefs in many religious institutions- the Golden Rule and whatnot. If you don't have any beliefs like these or your personal moral standpoint is that all people are basically bad, or bad until proven otherwise, or that they must earn your respect in someway, we are probably diverging at this point. However, I urge you to reflect on this moral belief system as we continue.

  For one, consider how it comes back on you. If your standpoint is that other people must meet your own requirements in order to be treated well, it would stand that you must meet the requirements of others in order to expect decent treatment. It should be obvious that people have very different opinions about what is good vs. bad or right vs. wrong. Let's take the examples above. If you think people should dress well and speak well in order to be treated like human beings- do you never make grammatical errors? Are you always in an overly presentable state? What about sweats or work out clothes? Ever left home in your pajamas for a quick trip to the store? Hair unkept? Or the sexist example. Maybe you think mini skirts reek of ill repute. But what about tank tops? Women who wear pants? Your hair uncovered? I can easily find you examples of people and places where any of the above would be considered "bad" or "wrong". So which standard should you be personally held to? And are you ready to accept being mistreated under the rule that no one has to treat you well until you meet their qualifications?

  Another thing to consider when we talk about these rules for behavior and their implied justification for maltreatment is where these rules come from. It's no surprise that the majority of the people I saw passing around that racist meme were white. Who gets to decide what speech is proper? There is a long history and scholarship on the evolution of Ebonics and African-American dialect. And American English is itself a bastardization of sorts of English. Who gets to decide what is proper dress? "Proper" is entirely culturally dependent. And when you have a dominant culture or sub culture holding institutionalized power, it's easy to use "proper" as a means of subjugation and disenfranchisement. We (the dominant culture in power) use Our power to create standards that reflect Our own comfort level and custom and hold Them up to those standards-standards which They may not share, had no part in establishing, and may not be interested in emulating- and use Their failure to assimilate (whether due to inability or unwillingness) as justification for furthering criminalizing and vilifying Them and securing Our own place in power. It's a rigged game.

  But I urge you also to consider not only the larger cultural implications of these attitudes, but your own internal thoughts and feelings. Namely, why do you feel the need to set these "rules" about how people should/should not act in order to be treated like basic human beings? To be completely honest, when I catch myself trying to play this game in my head, it's usually for one of two reasons. One is that sometimes I find myself trying to justify my own mistreatment. By saying that people deserve to be treated like shit if they don't jump through whatever arbitrary hoop, I can maintain the thought that people in my own life treated me poorly simply because I deserved it. I missed the mark of being "good" in some way, so I was "asking for it". The alternative, of course, is to realize that I did not deserve to be treated badly, but that means that someone I cared about/loved/trusted/whatever was mean, or worse, maybe didn't care about/love/trust me back. And that can be hard to swallow. So sometimes it's easier to pretend that we actually have control over how other people treat us and the we are responsible for our own mistreatment. And by extrapolation, so is that person who got shot down in the middle of the street or raped on their way home from work. The second reason I sometimes fall into this mindset is because to acknowledge that all people deserve to be treated with basic humanity is to also acknowledge the vast number of ways this doesn't happen. It's to realize that slavery and rape and abuse and racism and hate are rampant and problematic. And it's really hard to hold that and not do anything about it. And doing something about it can seem overwhelming, and not wanting to do anything can seem selfish. And let's face it, it is selfish. And feeling overwhelmed and selfish leads to guilt and shame and none of those are pleasant feelings for us. So it's easier to pretend once again that those that are mistreated are somehow responsible for their own fates and that there really isn't a world full of sadness that we should be doing something about.

    So my one last point of order is to point out that, even if you buy into the idea that people are necessarily bad and deserving of mistreatment- that they are criminals and whores until proven otherwise- you still have a choice in how YOU treat people. I choose to default on kindness and hold the basic belief that we are all human and all entitled to being treated as such. I fall back on the idea that how we treat those that we consider the lowest of us counts a lot more than whose ass we kiss. Even if you truly believe the world operates based on these rules and you find them legitimate, that doesn't mean that they can't be changed. And if you really do see that we as a species have some serious problems in how we treat one another, you can do something small. It doesn't have to be overwhelming or earth shattering. You can start by treating other people like people. Regardless of how they look, speak, or act. And then you can start encouraging other people treat people like people. And then you can start demanding it.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

A Seat at the Table

       By now most people have heard of the family being screamed at and basically kicked out of a restaurant because of their crying toddler. It's been all over the news and blogs. There have been discussions upon discussions. I've seen a half a dozen polls about whose "side" people would take (side note: What is with all the polls about things? Why should anyone care about whatever percent of some audience thinks about their personal situation? I don't get it). I didn't really address it because I was kind of of the mind that someone else would probably say it better. And I'm working through some really intense reading right now and didn't want to get distracted. But I have found some ideas rolling around in my head that don't appear to be represented completely elsewhere. And there are other ideas about other things also rolling around, and it's getting kind of crowded. I need to clear some space so I can process what I'm reading. So here goes...

    For those of you unfamiliar, the basic gist of the situation is this- A family with a toddler went to eat at a crowded diner. The toddler was restless and some version of whining/crying for the 40 minutes it took the food to come. The owner/manager then came over, yelled at the toddler, asked the family to leave. When the family complained on social media, the manager double down, cussed them out, and all in all didn't seem to be to caught up in customer service. There have been three basic reactions 1) Wow, it's not really acceptable to scream at your customers. 2) Yeah! Right on! Kids in restaurants are the worst! and 3) We can't be sure what actually happened; maybe both the manager and parents were at fault.

  So let's just back up for a second. I don't really want to discuss the manager at all. I can think of very few situations where screaming at people is acceptable, and this one just doesn't cut it. Moving on, I want to back up to the family's behavior and the general commentary around it. Now, in no accounts I read was the toddler accused of physically imposing on anyone. She didn't throw things. She didn't hit someone. She was in her own space. She was making noise. The transgression we are talking about here is a toddler making noise.

   Now, I saw a lot of "they should have left" or "get a babysitter" or "take the kid outside" or whatevers. Apparently it was raining, so outside wasn't an option. Leaving would mean getting to another place to eat, waiting for a table, waiting for food all over again- exponentially lengthening the amount of time before the toddler gets fed. I also saw "why didn't they bring their own snacks?" which is hilarious to me because I've also seen parents get berated for bringing outside food into restaurants. Damned-if-you-do type scenario, really. And I have to laugh at the whole "leave your kid with a babysitter" comment. First off, these people were out of town. Secondly, not everyone can afford a babysitter. Third, well, just keep reading....But once again, worst case scenario- these parents were letting their child make noise.

    So what a lot of people appear to be saying is that toddlers are unwelcome in public space, because they make noise. Now, let's talk about toddlers for a minute. Toddlers make noise. They just do. They don't really understand volume control. They have short attention spans. There brains are underdeveloped and they just don't have the capacity to act like adults. They aren't adults. Their children. We were at a restaurant the other day. You know who was louder than my toddler? An elderly gentlemen who seemed to have hearing issues. He was basically shouting his entire conversation with his table. But that is pretty developmentally appropriate for him, given he has trouble hearing. Just like it is appropriate for some people to make sudden, jerking movements or random outbursts of noise and words. Yet children are held to a standard outside of what can be reasonably expected from them. So the solution that is often is offered is simply "don't bring them". If you can't act like a fully capable adult, you shouldn't be in public. Which seems kind of odd to me, because I'm not sure when we decided adults are the only humans that count.

   The other retort I keep hearing is "entitlement". These parents feel entitled to bring their brats everywhere or that kids are somehow entitled to be out in public. Like taking up space is something you have to earn. But what most people don't recognize is that statement is it's own kind of entitlement. Adults feeling like they are entitled to control and micromanage their environment. I have been at a restaurant and had to sit within ear shot of some horribly racist/misogynist conversations. I have been in places where people were talking louder than I liked. And a big thing for me being prone to migraines and being sensitive to smells- I have been near people wearing entirely too much fragrance that required me medicating myself to be comfortable. There are people who are horribly racist and would rather not eat in a restaurant with certain ethnic groups. There are people who may feel revulsion at the sight of some physical disabilities. There are people who don't like the way others dress. Are we really going to argue that we are entitled to dictate who gets to take up space?  That attitude reeks of entitlement.

  Anyway, back to this idea that children don't count as people and if they do, certainly don't have rights to pubic spaces, and if they do, only if they follow strict guidelines that most adults are not held to. Ok. You know what that results in? Children not being visible. But if that's your attitude, you probably think that's a good thing. But hold on- someone has to care for the children. And for all the "hire a babysitter" or "leave them with the grandparents" comments- the reality is those aren't always options for most people. So not only are we erasing children from public, we are erasing parents, and most of the time that means erasing mothers. Motherhood/parenthood is relegated to behind closed doors. Don't you dare leave your house unless you can guarantee you mere existence will never ever inconvenience another person. Don't let people see you. Don't impose, simply by being. So now we have this world where parenting and child rearing is nearly invisible. It's not honored, hell, it's not even acknowledged. The continuation of our species, the social fabric of our future (cliche, I know, but true) is shut away because somehow we decided it was less than.

   I'm really sure how this happened, but I'm certain it's complex. I think it has to do with how we value monetary gain over other types of productivity. Child-rearing in a traditional sense doesn't bring home a pay check, so it's not relevant. It's how we view women and motherhood. It's our constant desire to divorce ourselves from the natural world of reproduction and life and focus on the clean, shiny industrial world we have created. It's involved, to say the least. But what has that left us with? In most cultures, everyone is included. The elderly, the young, the middle age, the new parents- they all interact int the same spaces and learn from each other and teach one another. Our culture is becoming fairly unique in the way it is organized by age. We take spaces which were traditional familial and communal- such as places of worship- and make Kid's Church. Now the young ones are here and the adults over there. We segregate schools by age, with children now not having regular interactions with peers of different age groups. We lose the interage relationships, we lose those experiences. And then we sit back and wonder why children can't interact well with adults or why adults have trouble cooperating generationally.

   Did it never occur to anyone that if you want a toddler to know how to act at a restaurant, they at some point need to be in a restaurant?  That they might not be great at it right off the bat? For all the woes about the upcoming generations of young adults (which I don't really buy, by the way), did anyone think that maybe they would integrate with society a little better if they had had any practice at all before being flung out into the mess of it at a late age? These are the thoughts I had reading the comments and discussions around that restaurant incident. How utterly sad it makes me that we as a culture have this value of children being seen but not hear, or really not being seen at all. That adults some how are "better than" and that it is all tied basically to developmental capacity, even at the risk of the adults who may not quite meet the bar. That there is an expectation that children (and by extension, their parents) should only be welcome in public space when they meet some ridiculous arbitrary requirements, without having to acknowledge that they learn by being in those spaces.

  In my humble opinion, this creates a situation where everyone loses. Yes, you enjoyed a child-free restaurant experience. Good for you. But at what cost to how we view ourselves and the rest of humanity? At what loss of community? Let's get something straight- children are people who need to eat. They sometimes need to fly places. Their parents need to go to stores. If there is a place that is inappropriate for children, make it 21 and up or 18 and up or whatever. But let's just acknowledge that a space open to people is a space open to children, and if you can't handle that, I would say you don't know how to handle yourself in a public space and may want to consider staying home.