Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Post Civil Rights Reflections

Occasionally I'll meet a person who went to Catholic school or otherwise had strictly religious parents and who now feels permanently harmed by the whole experience. They talk about being fearful of the nuns commands or of attending all manner of religious services and performing associated rituals, giving the impression that they've never been the same. And they now reject the whole experience and call it a scar on their past. A similar set of cultural baggage is associated with Jewish motherhood; certain people (mostly Jewish women) complain of the guilt or other emotional trauma associated with having a Jewish mother.

Both experiences have been exaggerated enough to become in some instances the stuff of stand-up comedy these days. The whole Catholic school-as-torture makes for good copy, probably because so many Americans feel that they share the experience. George Carlin turned his experiences into very entertaining banter. And the Jewish-mother-guilt-trip schtick has gotten plenty of mileage from those in show business.

I didn't face either of these circumstances as a young boy. I went to public school in a liberal suburban district of Washington, D.C. I attended Episcopal church but stopped after I was about 8 or 10 years old. However if I could say that I have any experience even closely comparable to the Catholic school survivors, it would be the  teachings of a secular nature but equally as dogmatic, it turns out. As a child in Montgomery County (Maryland) Public Schools, we were taught early about civil rights and taught to revere equality at all costs. Montgomery county was (and perhaps still is) one of the most liberal jurisdictions in the nation and we were told again and again of the parallels between the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the founding of our great nation.

In the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam War and the assassinations of Dr. King and Robert Kennedy, U.S. popular culture embraced a "Do Your Own Thing," ethos. In fact this slogan appeared on bumper stickers and t-shirts in the late '60s and early '70s. Conformity was out and individualism was in.

Around this same time the seeds of the diversity movement were planted. We began to see t-shirts saying, "Kiss me, I'm Polish" or "Proud to be Irish," when in the first half of the 20th century those traits may have been treated as a handicap.

[Incidentally this movement never really died, rather it morphed into the multi-cultural and "celebration of diversity" that became popular in the 1990s and beyond. This recognition and welcoming of diversity is undoubtedly the best thing for our culture and civilization in the long run but in the short term, it is tearing us apart. Many see the "culture wars" of the 1990s as simply the logical outgrowth of the civil rights movement and subsequent liberalizations. But that's another story.]

Television and movies of the 1960s and 70s denigrated what we would call type-A personalities, preferring to heap praise on the flexible, easy-going types. The message was that the latter would enjoy their lives more and especial emphasis put on the sexual opportunities of type-Bs. If you want to get laid, you're going to have to leave the shirt and tie at home, was what we were taught as youngsters.

This over emphasis on acceptance of an ever-wider circle of behavior is my equivalent of Catholic school or Jewish mothers. I am so molded by this experience that I have a hard time making any judgments at all about a person based on physical appearance. A man can approach me on the street with all the characteristics of a criminal and I will accept and engage with him, having been taught that appearance is not to be used in any judgement of character.

As an example, I have a difficult time understanding the rejection that some men or women display toward a potential mate but who is of a different economic status. We were all taught as youngsters that love conquers all and that different backgrounds can be overcome. The Civil Rights era emphasized that. But the truth is that matches like these fail very frequently despite utopian ideals.

I suppose I should just get over the free-love, do-your-own-thing message that characterized the period in which I grew up and just call it a freak cultural accident. Of course this period freed a lot of people from a degree of racism, homophobia and sexism (although not entirely) and we should all be thankful for that.

But should I really ignore a person's physical appearance, grooming and speech when deciding whether to allow him or her into my house or trust them with the care of my children?

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