Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Selective Outrage and Tolerance

Large parts of the Middle East have gone aflame in outrage in the wake of a video titled "The Innocence of Muslims", which has been labelled as anti-Isalmic from a number of media observers. According to Wikipedia:
Sky News said the video was "anti-Muslim" and "designed to enrage".According to Reuters, the video portrays Muhammad as a "fool, a philanderer and a religious fake"; NBC News said the trailer depicted Muhammad "as a womanizer, a homosexual and a child abuser." Time magazine described the dialogue during the scene with a donkey as "homoerotic".According to the BBC, Muhammad's followers are portrayed as "savage killers hungry for wealth and bent on killing women and children."
Response to the video has been explosive in places ranging from Pakistan to Egypt to Afghanistan to Lebanon and Nigeria. Muslim peoples across the world have held demonstrations protesting the films and angrily demanding action as diverse as the criminal prosecution and execution of the filmmakers and annihilation of the United States and Israel. The protests in Libya were particularly tragic, where a number of embassy workers including United States Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens were killed in what may have been a premeditated attack independent of, though facilitated by, demonstrations precipitated by the film.

The United States government has taken a conciliatory approach, with President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denouncing the movie. And you know what? I think President Obama is right to do so, and I applaud him for doing so despite the political pounding that he's getting from some circles. If he feels that the movie is one which is making a contrary point in an incendiary and degrading way which lacks respect, grace and civility - he's certainly right to voice his displeasure and disgust. In addition, I give Secretary of State Clinton kudos in also emphasizing that while the video is "offensive, disgusting, and reprehensible" the violent reactions are unacceptable, citing, "It's important for responsible leaders, indeed responsible people everywhere to stand up and speak out against violence, and particularly against those who would exploit this difficult moment to advance their own extremist ideologies."

There needs to be some "universal norms" around how we deal with differences around things which are sacred to people in a pluralistic society. On one hand, people must be given the freedom to disagree on a perspective, even one which I may hold sacred without fear of persecution or physical violence. On the other hand, we must as a civilized society insist upon a level of respect, honor and civility in the midst of these promoting these opposing views. This is essentially what Secretary of State Clinton is talking about.

This is all well and good, but I can't help but notice the silence is deafening when the blasphemy and disrespect is aimed towards Christians. There are some things that I see on television on how God, Jesus and Christians are portrayed that I (and I'm sure others) find absolutely offensive and reprehensible and my response is usually to turn off the television. Last year, comedian Bill Maher infamously tweeted the following after Tim Tebow had a bad game on Christmas Eve:

Wow, Jesus just fucked #TimTebow bad! And on Xmas Eve! Somewhere in hell Satan is tebowing, saying to Hitler "Hey, Buffalo's killing them"

"Family Guy" creator Seth MacFarlane has crossed the line numerous times, including a scene where a petulant adolescent Jesus angrily dismisses Mary and phones "his real Dad" God who is portrayed lying in bed with a woman. God hangs up on Jesus and leers lustfully at the woman, who holds up a condom. God responds: "Oh, come on, baby. It's my birthday."

Nobody apologized and certainly no head of state apologized to those who were offended. Why? The first reason is that Christianity is the one major religion which people are allowed to mock for laughs. And it's even more cool to make fun of those who are trying to stand up for Christian tenets (see "Focus on the Family", "Family Research Council" and "Parents Television Council") These groups are routine told to "lighten up" or worse. Or as someone once told me, "If you're white, male or Christian, nobody cares if you're offended." On the other hand, it's obvious to everyone that it would completely insensitive to tell protesting mobs of outraged Muslims to "lighten up". 

The second reason is that Christians who are offended generally don't react by forming mobs, burning down buildings and threatening to overrun embassies and government buildings in protests. Who knows? Some would argue that the squeaky wheel gets the oil and to be pragmatist more civil (or non-civil) disobedience should be organized to express outrage towards blaspehmy. But I tend not to be in favor resorting to violence and hate to express offence. After all, getting attention isn't worth violating one's principles and conscience.

Columnist Christine Flowers made some good points in a recent article, similarly highlighting the different standards which are placed upon the need to respect other religions, and how attempts to defend one's religion are applauded ("Protesters! We share you outrage and anger! And please stop raiding our embassy.") and empathized in certain cases and mocked in others ("Lighten up and go back to your cave, you close-minded fundamentalist bastards.").

As I said earlier, I respect our freedom of speech, and it rightfully governs the right to not be legally persecuted for speaking your mind, right or wrong. But that doesn't mean that we can't hold societal standards in which we insist that contrary points of stark disagreement are done with respect, grace and civility. These are where those aforementioned "universal norms" come in. When these lines are crossed, we need to condemn, even if we don't prosecute - and we need to condemn when those lines are crossed across the board, regardless of who and which faith is being mocked.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Joy in the Simple Things

My beloved five year-old daughter celebrated her fifth birthday last week and it was quite heart-tugging to realize that my little girl is growing up. One of the things that I found particularly encouraging was that while she was excited about her birthday, she wasn’t at all focused on gifts and presents, and when she received gifts of clothing from her grandparents, she was genuinely ecstatic and effusively grateful, rushing to calling my in-laws and repeatedly hugging my parents in thanksgiving.

My wife and I agreed that throwing a birthday party for our daughter would essentially be our present to our daughter, so when I brought home a pink (her favorite color) cupcake from Crumbs Bakery in New York City and a doll-sized prop beach chair that my company uses to promote sales incentives trips, my daughter practically hyperventilated with happiness. That was well worth the $4 I spent.

At five years old, my daughter has far surpassed the age where kids like to play with the wrapping paper more than the gift. She’s gone to plenty of other parties and has had plenty of play dates with classmates who are wealthier and have far more things than we do. So it was encouraging to see her be thrilled with a low key birthday. A cynic could argue that she’s anticipating her party in a week or so and the loot that she’ll get from that. I don’t think so – I just think she was happy that her family remembered her birthday and she got simple gifts from people that loved her.

The deeper reflection for me was how so many of us struggle with contentment and joy in the simple things. It’s way too easy to sweat the things that we think are important that really aren’t. I’ll pick on myself - why do I struggle with contentment in a job which pays me well with a boss who is kind and respectful? Am I overemphasizing the need for greater career growth, influence and certain experiences? Why can’t I find even more joy in the more mundane events and encounters of my life, whether it be putting the kids to bed or family talks during dinner? Can’t I view each day of life as something to be savored, as opposed to falling into the trap of feeling that weekday dreariness and drudgery is the price to pay before getting to the weekend? Simple holidays, an evening spent cuddled up with a good book, a family game night and inexpensive day trips and outings… maybe there’s room for more of these.

It’s a good reminder that while novel, exquisite and exciting has its place in our lives, there are some simple things which often give us the most joy.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

A World Without Locks and Keys

Whenever there's concern around children being exposed to obscene or otherwise age-inappropriate content in the media - whether it be movies, television, video games or books - the common reaction from the civil libertarians is:

  1. Screams of "censorship!" and "these fascists or trying  to burn the Constitution and kill freedom of speech!"
  2. Condescending lectures to caring parents that those who express concern are lazy in not being more vigilant and active parents - if they don't want their children to view this materials, they should just be more attentive parents and regulate what their kids watch, play, read, etc.
Both points are nonsense. But I'm particularly galled by point two because it assumes an old world view of the what parental vigilance can do (the answer is very little in this technologically advanced age, if anything at all) in terms of preventing kids from viewing inappropriate content. It completely fails to sympathize with the reality that such oversight is extremely difficult.

I recently read an alarming article which detailed high school football players ordering prostitutes during a road trip from their smartphones. It was bad enough to read that for teenagers "ordering three prostitutes to your hotel room is as easy as ordering a pizza", but it also paints a bleak and jarring look at the futility of being able to "protect" your children against sexually explicit material. 

As recently as a few years ago, you could install parental controls on your family computer in a valiant (yet often futile in the hands of a relatively tech-savvy kid) effort to guard your kid against porn. Think you can out-tech-smart your kid over the next fifteen years? Good luck with that. Remember your parents and how they always relied upon you to program the VCR? Kids have always gained the technological upper hand on their parents. It's a tough tide to turn.

But the real game-changer is the smartphone. With unfettered access to the mobile network or any Wi-Fi network, it becomes almost impossible to what your kids are doing online. Yes, you can set boundaries around use, withhold giving them a device until they're older and confiscate their smartphones during certain times of the day, but that becomes difficult and impractical over time. Individualized mobile internet is here, and from a business and personal consumer perspective, this will continue to grow. A greater percentage of the population will have personal mobile internet, and the those who have this will get younger and younger.

And for people who think this is just normal stuff which accompanies "coming of age" events for kids? They may reconsider that in light of this tidbit in the article: 
Mobile porn has become so prevalent among teens that there is even a nonprofit group, Fight the New Drug, and a micro-industry of treatment camps aimed at teens who have a crippling addiction to it.
Yes, getting children to have a healthy view of sexuality and purity of heart is ultimately about changing hearts, not tying hands. Yes, I understand that shepherding our childrens' hearts - not rigid rules and physical prevention - will ultimately make the biggest difference. But in a world filled with poison, there are just a whole lot less cabinet locks to prevent terrible accidents and slip-ups.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A Window into Race Relations

Our Labor Day weekend was chock full of activity. Apparently riding the wisdom of making the most of a long weekend, we went to the beach on Friday, went to a barbecue hosted by friends from our old church on Saturday, went to another barbecue hosted by current members of our Bible Study on Sunday, and then ate barbecue at my Pastor's house on Monday. Needless to say, it was weekend of fun, friends and a gastronomic delight, even if it didn't exactly fit into my plan to reverse the effects of cruise-induced gluttony. It was a fitting last hurrah for us and the kids before they got back in the groove with another year of school.

We also had an interesting encounter on Saturday which left me thinking a little about how race matters, and how racial sensitivities play themselves out in everyday life. Our friend Charlotte had taken us to a public lakeside beach a few minutes away from her house, and upon getting there, an older 60-something Caucasian gentleman - apparently the wristband-giving park cashier - asked Charlotte if she was a resident. She answered in the affirmative, and after counting the adults in our party, the older gentleman charged us a "local fee" and handed her a set of bracelets. Then it got weird.

An older Hispanic gentleman who was hovering nearby went apoplectic and rushed up to confront the older Caucasian cashier. 

"Aren't you going to check this lady's identification?" demanded the Hispanic man.
The Caucasian man ignored him.
"How do you know she's a resident? Why does she get the resident rate?" continued the Hispanic man.
The Caucasian man, visibility irritated, hissed at the man to back off.
The Hispanic man persisted. "If you ask identification, you need to ask it for everybody!"
The Caucasian man, obviously annoyed, apologetically asked Charlotte for her address, which she gave him, and told him that her wallet was back at her car in the parking lot.
The Hispanic man kept going, "Why do you only ask us for identification? Why doesn't she need to show her driver's license?!!"
At this point, the Caucasian man relented and apologetically asked Charlotte for her license, which I volunteered to retrieve for her.
As I walked back from her car with her license, the Hispanic man walked up to me and talked to me in a conciliatory tone (even though I wasn't angry), telling me that this wasn't personal, at which point the Caucasian gentleman (who was flat out furious at the Hispanic man) screamed at me to ignore the Hispanic gentleman.

The license was shown, and we were ushered in without further incident. Later on the drive home, my wife and I talked about what transpired.

I surmised that this Hispanic gentleman felt that he and his family were racially profiled as they tried to enter this same public beach. There were separate rates for residents and non-residents, and I guess while others were taken at their word regarding their resident status, this Hispanic gentleman and his family were asked to present identification which obviously revealed that they were not residents.

My wife was irked that the gentleman decided to make this big stink using us and our friends as the fodder for his self-righteous rage. The fact that a bunch of young kids had to stand around and witness this bothered her, and at the end of the day, he was rightfully paying the non-resident rate and our party was rightfully paying the resident rate. 

I acknowledge that he could have handled the situation a lot better, but was more sympathetic that when you've felt racially profiled and marginalized, judgment gets cloudy and you become less bound by good sense, which would remind one of things such as "don't scream at and confront other people in front of a bunch of little kids." When you encounter someone who you believe is racially discriminating against you, the visceral reaction is intense rage.

Sarah also noted that we were also ethnic minorities and were treated well, and I responded with my theory that racial prejudice is rarely applied equally across all minority groups. When considering the stereotypes that plague my particular ethnic group, we don't get followed for suspicion of shoplifting merchandise and people don't cross to the other side of the street in fear of getting mugged by us. No, my ethnic group is plagued by things such as the assumption that we're good at math, know karate or are good followers but not good leaders. Or to be blunt, in many racially prejudiced eyes, Asians are the "relatively good minorities" or the "relatively desirable minorities" - the one who will boost housing values as we move into the neighborhood and jack up average SAT scores in the school district. I sympathize with my Hispanic and African-American friends. We may be minorities, but the burden of the prejudice against us is not the same.

Sarah and I also discussed how I would've handle it better. I think for one, you can rarely win by confronting someone of racism directly and in the moment. For example, I read that it's never effective to claim racism to reverse a judgment (take for example, getting a traffic ticket from a cop). Telling the cop, "you only pulled me over because I'm (insert race here)" is a surefire way of getting the ticket because if the cop relents, it has the appearance of validating your claim. I think the more effective way is to observe (document and record as much as possible) a pattern of discriminatory behavior and report it directly to the supervisor, making it clear that you'd be happy to follow up and provide further information as needed. Continue to escalate up the ladder as need be. The key is to document and go "above" the problem person.

At the end of the day, I don't know exactly what happened that afternoon and I can't say for certain that I know the motivations of the heart of the Caucasian cashier or the Hispanic man. But it's clear that racial tension isn't just something that's a deep south phenomena. And it's sad to see.