Sunday, July 31, 2016

No such thing as evil

Slaveholders, rapists and serial killers are evil.

No, they're not.

In his book The Gift of Fear, Gavin de Becker argues that defining people as evil is not only unproductive, it's dangerous. It's dangerous because we conceptualize evil as being so pervasive that you can see it in someone's eyes, you can sense it just by looking at them, etc. This is dangerous because it causes us to watch out for people who "look evil" while people who look perfectly ordinary swindle, rape, rob and kill us. De Becker tells us to stop looking for evil people because most murderers, torturers, robbers and rapists are just like everyone else, which is to say that we all have the capacity to do awful things. All of us do, so there's no point in trying to distinguish the good people from the bad people.

Michele Obama's recent reference to the White House having been built by slaves has resulted in renewed discussion of American slavery. I've heard people call American slaveholders monsters, but when we do that we falsly distance ourselves from them. How long does it take us to learn that the worst of human nature happens because ordinary people go along with what everyone else is doing? American slaveholders and their wives and children were regular people just like us. They believed their treatment of Blacks didn't count in the eyes of God. They didn't think Black people felt pain or love or fear the way whites did. Their monstrous treatment of slaves resulted from the culture in which they lived. They weren't evil. They were ordinary men and women motivated by ordinary desires to take care of their families, prosper in their vocations, put in an honest day's work, contribute to the community and be good Christians. They had the same hard-wiring we have. They just happened to live in a racist culture. They just happened to live in a climate that brought out their worst tendencies.

Here are some other people we call evil: a police officer who panics and kills an innocent person, a woman who drowns her children, the soldiers at Abu Ghraib, murderers, embezzlers, kidnappers. Some people do these things because they suffer a break from reality, but others do them with clear minds. And every time we call someone like that evil, we know we would never do anything like that, never, ever, not in a million years.

But that's bullsh*t.

When it's our family that's in danger, when it's our life on the line, when we stand in the truth that someone must be handled and we know how to do it, we reveal how capable we are of terrible things. We can't know how we'll behave in a situation until we're there. Most of us will luckily never face the circumstances that test how truly monstrous we can be. We will continue to enjoy the privilege of believing that we don't have evil tendencies and can pretend we're better than those who do. But we're not.

The list of groups of perfectly ordinary, nice, loving people doing inconceivable things is endless. From American slavery to the Nazis to the Cambodian killing fields to American enhanced interrogators, perfectly normal people find themselves doing things they might have never imagined. There is no such thing as evil. There are only ordinary people doing horrible, nightmarish things.

During the 1994 Rwandan genocide, the ethnic Hutu part of the population slaughtered a million Tutsi Rwandans. Were the Hutu men who swung their machetes day after day, hunting down whole families, monsters? No. Jean Hatzfeld's Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak, Hatzfeld shows us regular men who had to overcome their own emotions on their first kills, but who adjusted to the "work" because if they didn't do it, they faced their own murder. A Hutu man married to a Tutsi woman was ordered to slaughter a family of Tutsis in order keep his own wife alive, so he did it. And so on. To prevent the death of ourselves and our loved ones, who isn't capable of going beyond their usual capacities?

Please stop calling people evil. Don't even call certain actions evil. To do so is to fool ourselves into thinking we can recognize a certain kind of danger and insulate ourselves from it. And especially do not call racism evil. Racism isn't evil. It didn't come from the devil or get cast out of heaven. Our racism today is the result of our nation having been built on treating human beings as property without rights, agency or even feelings. Americans learn racism from infancy, just as other countries pass on their prejudices to their children. This is why I sometimes insist, "The nicest people are racist!" We must uncouple racism from the idea of evil. As long as racism is evil, it's easy for us to believe that we can't be racist because we aren't evil. In fact, what we call evil lives in all of us, and although it's usually dormant, it can be activated under circumstances most of us will be lucky to never face.  (Post on heroism HERE.)

Friday, July 29, 2016

No such thing as heroism

Last night I noticed that Amazon Prime now offers the movie Hotel Rwanda. It's based on the true story of a hotel manager who shielded 1,268 people from certain slaughter during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. I couldn't resist watching it (for my fourth time). What I'm drawn to is that the protagonist is motivated by a very simple drive: to take care of others' needs and make them happy. Hutu Rwandan Paul Rusesabagina is an excellent hotel manager because he derives personal satisfaction from providing the best service to his guests. He simply lives to take care of others. We look back on the Rwandan genocide of the Tutsis and marvel at Rusesabagina's heroism to stand up to soldiers, police and Hutu murderers, but his motivation is simply that these are his guests and he must take care of them.

Hotel Rwanda shows that the simplest of drives can take you very far. We almost worship people who risk their lives for others, who give when we can't see them getting anything in return, but actually the mechanism that causes people to act in these ways is usually very ordinary. Rosa Parks was tired of giving in and tired of being on her feet. Captain Sully wanted to land his plane safely, just as he'd done hundreds of times before. Animals who we call heroes (dogs and cats) act on instinct. None of these people or creatures considers that their actions might set off a chain reaction that will have far reaching effects across the decades, or make them famous or will prevent a death that would have devastating ripple effects. They just do what they're hard-wired to do.

Moments of heroism happen when an unusual situation both activates and challenges someone's regular, everyday response and that person follows through on that response regardless of risk. We think it's amazing because after the incident is over, we can see all the risks and stunning outcomes and unforeseeable results. We weigh all the things the hero didn't have time for and that forms the basis of the myth that this person has a bravery we don't. But that's not true. They weren't being a genius or a saint. They were just doing what came naturally.

We all have unremarkable drives that, under the right circumstances, cause us to act in remarkable ways. If we de-mythologize the idea of heroism, we can stop thinking that some people are brave, but we are not. We can stop excusing ourselves from taking action because that's not us.

Between April and July 1994, Paul Rusesabagina did what he was hard-wired to do. Remarkably, he kept doing it even when he knew his life was in danger, but his motivation was quite ordinary. When we find ourselves in a situation that challenges us, and we don't waver from what comes naturally, we are similarly being as heroic as Rusesabagina was. Human beings have all the same instincts and responses. We are all just as capable of what we call heroism as of what we call evil. (Post on evil HERE.)

Don Cheadle in Hotel Rwanda (2005)
P.S. Part of the reason I've watched this movie four times is that the character of Rusesabagina reminds me of my ex-husband, who has spent his life in hospitality and has some of Rusesabagina's character traits.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

50th Birthday

As of July 24, 2016 I am 50 years old and I feel like I've finally reached my prime.
(Cake was yellow layers with buttercream frosting on the outside and mango mousse on the inside. It was from Swedish Bakery in Chicago.)

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Trump, immigrants and the RNC

Now that I'm building a new blog for my business, Welcome Dialogue, I choose between my two blogs, depending on the content. Today's post is here:

Friday, July 15, 2016

I love turning 50!

As I get closer to my 50th birthday on July 24th, I'm getting tired of people trying to tell me I'm not old. They obstinately don't understand that for me old is good. I have always been happy to get a year older because I experienced no great benefit to being young, even as a child. After that, my 20s and 3os were years of low self-esteem, weak confidence, painful family dynamics and fear of almost everything in the world. In my 40s I finally began to build self-esteem and feel more hopeful about my life. At 50 this is the best I've ever been.

When a ten-year-old declares on her birthday that she's all grown up now, no one tries to take that away from her. They don't say, "No, you're not. You've got a long way to go. You're just a little kid." No one says that to a ten-year-old because they understand the context: compared to how old she used to be, being 10 is a big deal! Please give me a similar response. When I say, "I am now officially old!" respond with a statement like, "Congratulations!" not "You're not old. You're still a youngster." When people say things like that to me, it feels like they're dumping a bucket of discouragement over me.

Being told that 50 isn't old also sounds very patronizing, especially when it's said to a woman. The stereotype is that women want to stay young forever and we require constant assurance that we are succeeding. F@#$ that. (And don't give me that "50 & Fabulous" crap either.)

I suspect part of the problem is that my peers take my claim of "oldness" personally. They worry that if Regina is old at age 50, how old does that mean they are? This is just insecurity and overfunctioning. If a 10-year-old calls herself "old," does that make a 25-year-old think, "Damn, then I'm ancient. Oh, no!" No, the 25-year-old knows the 10-year-old's statement has nothing to do with her. Please, people. Let's keep in mind that we're all separate.

So I thank you in advance for not trying to talk me out of my age and wisdom and I leave you with this list.

(Just Some) Reasons It's Great To Be 50 Years Old:

1. You have more authority to talk about things that happened, even in the distant past, because you were there.
2. People can no longer give you that patronizing “Wait until you get older. You’ll change your mind.” (For example, when a 50-year-old says "I don't want children," you have to believe her!)
3. Your opinions count more because they’re based on actual experience and not speculation (such as managing employees, child raising, running your own business, divorce, surgery).
4. The cost of auto insurance goes down.
5. It's easier to rent an apartment, get a loan and do other things that people size you up for based on your appearance.
6. You have more confidence to not put up with the same bullshit as when you were young.
7. You're closer to the end of that annoying, painful, expensive process called menstruation!
8.  It's the age when the senior discounts begin.
9. Salespeople who think you have more money (than young people) are often nicer to you.
10. Women have a brief window of time during which we're neither too young to be taken seriously nor too old to be taken seriously. When we're 50, we're in our prime for being seen as authorities!

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Friday, July 01, 2016

NPR's This American Life: "Tell Me I'm Fat"

National Public Radio's This American Life program recently broadcast a show called "Tell Me I'm Fat." On their website, it's described like this:

The way people talk about being fat is shifting. With one-third of Americans classified as overweight, and another third as obese, and almost none of us losing weight and keeping it off, maybe it’s time to rethink the way we see being fat. A show inspired by Lindy West’s book Shrill.

I haven't read West's book, but I listened to this episode and was impressed with the forthright way the storytellers talk about being fat and how others respond to fat people. The episode features a lot of honesty and a lot of bravery. (I was disappointed and angered to find out that Dan Savage, who I respect, has a history of shaming fat people and making jokes about us.)

One early point West makes is that there's a coming out process to declaring your fatness. But it's not coming out to others, who can see that you're fat. It's coming out to yourself. We fat people often think of ourselves as thin people who are going to fix the problem any day now. We don't want to claim our bodies as they are, so we try to live in a future when we will have shed what we see as extra pounds that aren't really ours. When we stop living in this denial, we can become more comfortable with ourselves and how others see us. West describes her coming out as the point at which she told friends to please just call her "fat." Not "overweight" or "heavy" or anything else; just "fat." It's the reality of who she is and she's done pretending that she's not really living in her body.

Lindy West is way ahead of me.

December 2011
I was a skinny kid, a thin young adult and didn't start to wrestle with weight until my mid-30's when I began restricting food and going to the gym at 5:30 a.m. five days a week. In 2008 I got married later than most: I was going on 42 years old. Like many women I was a slim bride but by my divorce had become straight-up fat. 

In the final seven months of my five-year marriage, I put about 45 pounds on my five foot, two-inch (57 cm) frame. In 2013, two months after my then-husband ended our marriage, I hit 50 pounds up. Yes, I gained 50 pounds (that's over 22 kg) in nine months, almost like pregnancy pounds.

I thought it was temporary. I saw that weight as a temporary response to specific conditions in my life that I would overcome and move past. I willingly bought size 18 and XXL clothes in 2013, knowing I'd only need them for a year at the most. Never having been fat before, I had no idea how hard it would be to lose weight. Never having been 47 before, I didn't know how much harder it is to lose weight in middle-age. I've been learning.

In 2015, a severe health problem forced me to cut out sugar, grains and dairy. By last fall, I had made it down to size 14 and could feel size 12 right around the corner.

I still don't know what happened in January 2016. Financial stress? Fear of being attractive to men again? Not being ready to shed my protective layer of fat? Some other subconscious self-sabotage? Whatever it was, I began eating sweets again and my health problem had improved enough that I could now get away with it -- unfortunately. I went back into depression and eating sweets and feeling bad about myself and eating more sweets and struggling with depression and feeling out of control. By spring, I was back up to size 16:

June 2016
I am not at all with Lindy West in accepting myself as a fat person. I wish I were. It would be so much better to be at peace with where I am, although I've actually been calling myself "fat" all along, wearing my big body like a costume. I have proclaimed my fatness on this blog, in person, in the doctor's office and everywhere. I'm fat. Of course, I'm fat. No one can deny this. But in my mind I keep adding the word "temporarily" to the phrase. I've accepted my fatness, even to the point of posting fat pictures of myself online, because I want there to be a record of how fat I was before I lost all the weight again. And there it is: I'm living in a future where I'm thin again, just like the people Lindy West describes as being in denial.

I'll turn 50 on July 24th, which would be the perfect time to declare that I love myself completely, exactly the way I am, but I still believe who I really am is that thin person I was up until four years ago. I admit that's delusional. Even if I somehow dropped 50 pounds next month, I wouldn't have the same body I had at age 46. I wonder if this is how post-pregnancy women feel: bewildered that years later, they still haven't gotten back their "true" slim body, certain that they aren't going to be this big forever, but unable to find their way back. The weight's going to disappear any month now, right?

At the age of almost 50 years old, I've finally joined the yo-yo dieters. I had managed to avoid that pattern for so long, but here it is. I have a choice as I face my landmark birthday: come out of the closet as a fat person, or keep struggling with myself indefinitely.