Monday, June 16, 2014

What are you really trying to say?

Everyone has something to say. Some of it is well thought out, some not so much. We hear so many points of view in the run of a day it's astounding: with the media, the internet, our personal relationships, our own thoughts - it can seem like a cacophony, and we often only hear things when they actually disturb us.

Jonah Hill disturbed people recently when he said something homophobic to a reporter. Then he apologized publicly on the Tonight Show:

What really strikes me about Hill's speech is that he offers a genuine apology. Although he explains the situation in which it occurred, he does not in any way blame the reporter for his words. He acknowledges that they were a mistake, and that they were harmful to some people.

This is a change from the "non-apology" that we tend to hear from people these days. The non-apology is when someone says "I'm sorry that you were offended" rather than "I am sorry that I did something offensive". The non-apology tends to come from celebrities, but more often from politicians and religious leaders. This is because they do not want to back down from the ideology that birthed the comment in the first place. This is like apologizing for calling someone stupid by saying, "I'm sorry you're stupid".

It's also possible to not really know what you are apologizing for. When my youngest son, Elias was about five or six years old, he started responding to gifts that he was displeased with by bluntly telling the giver that he didn't want it. As shocked parents, we informed him that it was not polite to do that and that if a gift did not meet his approval he should say thank you anyways. He took this advice to heart, and the next time he was given a gift that he did not like he expressed his faux-appreciation by saying, "Thanks anyways." He obviously didn't get the point.

How adults handle crappy gifts.

Jonah Hill knows exactly what he said wrong. Jonah Hill is also repentant. Those are the ingredients for a proper apology.

Of  course, I have offended others; I'm probably doing it right now. It can't really be helped when I publish my thoughts publicly like this. And I have been offended by others as well. I generally don't go around looking for apologies from others, but I do want people to ask them of me as much as possible. This is the only way I can make sure that the message I am delivering is actually what I am trying to say. Sometimes I need to fix my message, sometimes I need to fix my ideas, and sometimes I simply get to have a discussion with someone where we agree to disagree. I try my best to respect every person, and if you think something I have said doesn't do that, please tell me.

If not, please ask for clarification!

Of course, I do not respect all ideas, even if I respect the person who wants to promote those ideas. Some ideas are even worse than others, and if I think you're willing to listen to me I might try telling you why I disagree with you. I extremely dislike the passive-aggressive approach to promoting ideas. When we promote an idea but doesn't openly endorse it, it's often because we think we can get out of criticism for it by claiming that the person who is offended didn't really understand us (see non-apology above). This stifles discussion, as it delivers the criticism while making clear that the critic does not want to talk about it. To me, it is better to just say what we mean and take our lumps, or else just keep our mouths shut.

I was completely floored a few days ago when I googled "God's Not Dead" and found my own blog post as the fourth item in the results; right after the IMDB page, the YouTube link to the trailer, and the Wikipedia entry. Obviously, Google knows who I am and is trying to flatter me, but the fact remains that I got a lot more traffic than usual on that post. I also ended up having some interesting discussions about a lot of things because of it, so I am happy the post did its job.

Graph of my projected readership after my previous post. Just change the titles.

What caused the furor was my claim that the movie is essentially a vehicle for the message, "Christianity is the way, if you don't understand that you are either deluded or angry; and so stop thinking so much about it." I felt the message was exaggerated by what appeared to me to be little other redeeming value in the movie - so heavy-handed that I claimed I could see this without even watching the movie. What I found out is that many people didn't recognize what the message was that they were actually getting behind. They hadn't analyzed the movie in the same way that I did. This compelled me to let everyone know what I was hearing from it so that they could know how this made others feel.

It's all well and good to have a different interpretation of something. But when people like me recognize a message like this, I like to think that someone will at least consider the thought I have put into it and acknowledge that I am not making things up. I don't expect an apology from anyone. After all, you may actually believe that questions of philosophy are irrelevant red herrings asked by confused deviants, and that doubters should just *ahem* "Let go and let God". But you should own that message if that is what you are trying to say. Now, I would not say this to someone because I find it dismissive and disrespectful. But I would rather someone admit this than to see them pretend it is not what is being said. You may not see this message in the movie yourself, but you should at least acknowledge that others do. If it's not what you are trying to say then make that clear.

...probably not what he was trying to say.

It hope it is obvious that I am not preaching political correctness; it's sort of the opposite. Political correctness tries to avoid saying anything controversial by avoiding sensitive language. I am saying that people can be genuinely offended by things that I might think are perfectly fine to say - and when I find out they have taken offence I should try my best to see things their way, genuinely understand why I have offended them, and try to make it right, even if we disagree. This is the minimum of mutual respect.

It's also important to separate who a person is and their beliefs from what their actions are. Where this gets foggy is when people express their beliefs: the beliefs themselves are not the problem, it is the action of expression that makes someone accountable. This does not equate to suppressing freedom of speech: I am just pointing out that if you state what you believe, and your belief is offensive, then you should not be surprised when people hold it against you. For example, if you believe that homosexuality is wrong, you are entitled to that belief. But when you start talking about how you believe homosexuality is wrong, you will not be received well for it. You may have nothing but the best intentions, and you may honestly think you're right. It doesn't matter, because a consensus of people think that your belief is bigoted and outdated.

Here's a George Takei reference, because... gay.

I openly admit that all of this doesn't always work out the best for me. Sometimes I try too hard to appease people who I have ticked off when we truly just hold a difference of opinion. I actually did a whole blog post on why some people might think I'm a jerk. Sometimes I really am a jerk, and I can't see it. But I always try to be respectful.

I am at a distinct advantage when I have a discussion about something I have written in this blog. For one, I have thought out what I am saying or else I wouldn't be writing it. Also, I can avoid expressing opinions if I don't want to defend them. Of course, I screw these both up all the time. But overall I think when I say something that could be interpreted as a criticism or offensive, it is in earnest and I hope the reader will try to see things from my point of view before they come after me with pitchforks. Even so, pitchforks can be used to separate wheat from chaff, and I welcome the opportunity to be separated from my mistaken ideas.

With all of this said, I know that I have been holding back a lot of my opinions. I see stuff everyday that makes me cringe, and I just let it roll. I also have a lot of thoughts in my head that are definitely offensive to many of my friends, yet I really want to talk about them. So you should expect my next few entries to piss people off. When I am out of bounds, I will gladly accept correction. But there are a few things that I need to say to people, so be advised. Feel free to predict what kind of stuff I'm going to say in the comments below, or call me out for the hypocrisy or poor choices of words I have used in this post or any other.