Tuesday, April 17, 2012
I try not to write about work because I have this fear that it'll get me fired. I have a rather a bad history with writing. While my writing has gotten me published and it's gotten me accolades and compliments and speaking engagements and even a luncheon in my honor, it's also almost gotten me thrown out of college, and it also got me fired from what will go down as probably the only teaching gig of my life. A friend of mine insists that it wasn't the writing that got me fired, it's that I was Jewish-- but I doubt that's true.
I've got to be more careful with my words. I'm normally a careful man. I drive a Volvo with six airbags in it. When I make a steak, I cook the everloving shit out of it, just to make sure that there isn't a speck of bacteria that could survive and fuck up my intestinal regions. Instead of moving to NYC to give acting a shot, I came home to roost and took a 9-5 job. There isn't a car or house or office door I stand or sit behind that isn't locked, and I like it that way. But I'm not so careful with my words, and maybe that's why I love writing so much, because it's my time, it's my way, it's my venue for recklessness-- and being careful and reckless at the same time, well, just doesn't work.
Maybe that's why I never became a professional writer, because I could never quite figure out how to reconcile the two. Or maybe I wasn't reckless enough. So, today, I'll write about work. And I'll be a little more reckless than I'm comfortable being.
I went to a Cultural Diversity seminar last week at work. In preparation for this seminar, I did some practice work on my Earnest Listening Face. I don't know what your face looks like when you're listening earnestly, but my brow knits, my head cocks very slightly to one side-- not in the dog-listening-to-Jeopardy! way, but in a you-really-have-my-attention-now way-- and I worked the muscles in my neck to give those imprecise, at-key-points nods of approval and I-get-it-ness.
You have to practice before going to something like a Cultural Diversity seminar-- especially when it's run by your boss. And practice I did. It's a good thing I'm a trained actor, or it would have been written all over my face that I'd have rather been rubbing my face into a gravel pit than be at this seminar.
Truth be told, it wasn't all bad-- as few things are. I learned something about my own culture, actually, that I didn't know. An Israeli psychologist spoke about a Jewish custom whereby a first-born Jewish son must be "bought" from God by its parents, and the boy is placed on a silver platter and surrounded by jewels, as an offering of sorts. It's a good thing our daughter was born first-- we're fresh out of jewels and silver platters. Had our son come out first, we could have managed a Fiestaware plate covered with broken pocket watches.
A black psychiatrist spoke about what it was like growing up in the segregated south. I hate to sound arrogant, but she didn't say much that everyone in the room didn't already know, except for the fact that, where she lived, white folks and black folks did some social activities together, but more regimented activities like meals and school and such were done strictly apart.
She spoke about how we are all equal, all human-- about how race is an artificial construct devised to wield superiority over others. She spoke about how, the instant one group asserts its will over another, or attempts to dictate behavior or morals or influence, that this is disrespecting the ideals of cultural diversity.
Then, this same psychiatrist caught my attention with an offhand remark about genocide.
"Y'all remember that genocide in the '90s, the Hutus and the Tutsis? Thousands and thousands of people killed and, to me, that was even worse than the Nazi holocaust, 'cuz the Hutus and the Tutsis-- you couldn't even tell 'em apart to look at them-- they were the same."
It became harder for me, at that point, to look respectfully attentive. My brow knit harder and my throat got thick. I hate the word "outraged" like I hate the word "amazing", because I think both are overused to no effect, but I'm beginning to think I was outraged-- outraged not because she was minimizing the systematic attempted annihilation of my religion-- but because of the blatant, shameful hypocrisy she exhibited by, at one turn, speaking of how one human life is just as valuable as the next, and how we are all part of the one human race, and then to put two mass murders on a scale and proclaim one worse than the other.
I wanted to walk out, but I'm too chickenshit. Only reckless in word-- remember?
The fact that this Cultural Diversity seminar imploded at the exact moment this psychiatrist made that comment only serves to prove that such seminars should not exist in the first place. Should we be talking about matters of race and ethnicity and prejudice and shame and pride and culture and sex and virtue and vice? Sure. Yes, we should. Of course we should. But let's do it by the water cooler. Let's talk about it at the chartroom table-- over lunch, over coffee, at a diner, at a bus stop-- let's take this out of the boardroom. Let's lose the PowerPoint. It's so stifling, it's so belittling. It's insulting, frankly.
Mark Twain once said that change begins at the edges-- in the thousands of little interactions that occur between every day people, every day-- the postman, the dentist, the librarian, the taxi driver, in the hellos and goodbyes of daily life. To me, cultural diversity means going through your life not treating people like shit because they go to a funny place on Sunday, or on Friday night, or not at all, not because of the color of their skin or because of what they eat or what they don't-- it's treating people like shit because they deserve to be treated like shit-- through their actions and their behavior. Because they're mean or because they're impolite or because they're intolerant. See, not everyone deserves to be treated equally. And, unfortunately, in this society, we do impose and impart our will on others-- especially at a psychiatric hospital, where we take away peoples' freedom because we believe that you don't have the right to kill yourself, we sometimes force medications, we restrain, we lock you in your room. We do that-- because we have keys, and you don't. You're crazy, and we're not. Well, at least, not on paper we're not.
If you put it down on a handout, if you talk about it upstairs around a round table, if you have to spend forty minutes defining terms like "Ethnicity" and "Race" and "Culture" then you're just wasting your time and everybody else's. Because Trayvon Martin's getting gunned down in Florida. Because this country still won't let institutionalized and sanctioned prejudice against homosexuals go. Because people in America the beautiful still hate "THE POLICE", even though every day gays, blacks, women, Asians, Latinos, Muslims, Jews, and 800,000 people in between wake up and pin badges onto their starched polyester shirts to make a buck and enforce some laws they probably don't agree with anyway. Because we still judge at the drop of a hat, and that isn't always a bad thing-- we're just not yet smart enough to recognize when it is and when it isn't. And if a seminar where every third person pipes up with an inane comment that's meant to show how progressive they are is supposed to fix that, well, count me out.
In fact, don't count me at all.