Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, FEB 28, 2006
His relatives talk about “fags” and say girls in miniskirts deserve to be raped.
I have met a lovely guy at last after years of being single or dating disastrous men. I am now happy and secure and this man wants to marry me and we talk about our future children. It’s wonderful! He is very caring and treats me so well I am amazed.
The problem is this: When I attend family functions with his family they say things I find really offensive. For example gays are called “fags” and the men joke about having to “run away or get hit on by the faggots,” then everyone laughs. I don’t find this funny. Then there is the younger brother who, at 16, says that girls who wear short skirts deserve to be raped … and his father backed him up, saying that most magistrates would agree! I have been raped and know the devastation it can cause. Hearing this opinion from a young and ignorant person is hard enough but then hearing the possible future grandfather of my children agree is almost unbearable. I spoke to my boyfriend about it and he said he can’t stand it when they talk like that and doesn’t agree at all. I believe that talk like this is a form of violence and if I had the choice I would choose never to hear it. I want to get along with my boyfriend’s family and I don’t want to offend them but at the same time I don’t want to be exposed to this ignorant and (I feel) dangerous talk. Any suggestions as to how to get them to stop talking like that when I am around, or how to handle it better so that I don’t get so upset at opinions that are different from mine?
Dear Really Offended,
I don’t blame you for being offended. I too am offended by such speech.
But I must admit that I was not always offended by such speech. I grew up around it. It was not used in my family, but it was common in my childhood neighborhood and in the places where I later lived and went to school and worked. I did not always know that such speech was offensive. I had to be taught that it was offensive and why it was offensive. I had to be taught by people who knew better than I did. Sometimes the ways in which I was taught were unpleasant.
And so if possible I would like to make a point that is somewhat controversial but well meant. It is likely to stir some passions, and that is good. It is a point that cannot possibly be made without being misunderstood to some degree, so I am ready to be misunderstood as well. But I will try to be clear.
My point is that our sensitivity to such speech is the result of hard-won victories by activists, and that this fact has implications for how we should respond to such speech today. We should not respond with arrogance, as if we were superior. Our insights into the nature of rape and homosexuality didn’t happen by magic. We are not born that good. We are not born that fair-minded. We are not born allergic to categorical putdowns. We have learned to be better than we were. We have been taught to be better by people who took risks and made sacrifices so they could teach us to be better. And these people are not necessarily the famous heroes of feminism and civil rights that we hear about in speeches. These are people we knew, perhaps people in our own families, or people who married into our families, who stood up and countered the errant bit of racist nonsense, who caused some uncomfortable moments, who made us think.
My hope is that you would be one of those people, strong, levelheaded, clear-minded, not superior in your views and not dismissive of others but sure that what you have to say deserves to be heard and thought about. For that is how I myself was disabused of some of the notions I picked up along the way. I feel grateful to those people who had the courage to tell me that some of the things I used to say were hurtful nonsense, unworthy of a thinking person. I pay attention to people I know. I think this is how societies change.
We aren’t better than those who spout such trash. We are just lucky. We do not have to become lifetime reformers. But we do have to say what we think. It is our turn.