Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Microaggression and Nuts – Part 2

Previously…I ranted a bit about microaggressions and how everyone seems to be getting on the microaggression bandwagon. I gave the example of asking about a person’s ethnic background as one thing that many people consider to be a microaggression. I also mentioned that nuts had a lot to do with this.

This week I’ll try to tie up all those loose ends.

First let’s go back to the issue of where you’re “from.”

Let’s say that the asker gets the form of the question correct, and asks where are your ancestors from, rather than where you’re from. It turns out that nowadays it’s not polite to ask about a person’s ancestry…or at least not to start out the conversation with it. That’s because that automatically pegs the other person as an “other.” And pegging someone as an “other” is a microaggression.

I don’t quite buy that…nor do millions of other people my age. There was a time when we all talked about what we were and where we were from…I mean where our families originated. This didn’t make anyone into an “other” but just another one of 57 varieties around us. And knowing what variety you were made it more interesting. And finding out that someone else had the same ancestry as you, and that their grandparents did the same strange things, made you feel not quite so strange. Similarly, finding out the "unusual" traditions of some of your friends' families was very cool.

But now we’re told that because some people are offended by this, because some people perceive this as a microaggression, we can’t ask this question at all…at least not in the very beginning.

This is where I think some people are being just a little bit too sensitive…and this is also where the nuts come in.

No, not the crazies (although sometimes some people on the microaggression bandwagon strike me as being a little so); I’m talking about actual botanical nuts.

Like the kind my daughter is allergic to.

Her allergy to certain nuts means that she is sensitive to them. In fact, I might say that she’s overly sensitive to them. And saying that is not a value judgment on her. Her body just goes into overdrive trying to fight off what it thinks is an attacker, and ends up trying to kill her instead.

I think about my daughter’s allergy because many people I’ve run into who have an issue that’s their particular microaggression seem to want to make the world safe from anyone having to deal with that issue…they want to start from a position of assuming that everyone has that issue, even though 99% of the population may not have a problem with it. In fact, I might say that some of these people are macroaggressive about microaggressions. To me, it’s as if I wanted to make the entire world safe for people for whom nuts are kryptonite.

However, I realize that I can’t rid the world of nuts…nor should I try to. My daughter is one of a very small number of people for whom certain nuts are kryptonite, and for the most part it’s our issue to deal with. We won’t prevent anyone else from having all the nuts they want, but it’s her responsibility to keep away from certain foods.

Looking at certain members of the microaggression crowd as being like my nut-sensitive daughter allows me to say that they’re sensitive about, or even overly sensitive about, a certain issue without it coming off as a value judgment. It’s just a statement of fact. My daughter’s body is overly sensitive to nuts and Chris is overly sensitive about gender pronouns.

The difference, however, lies in what they each think the rest of the world should do about their particular sensitivities.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Microaggression and Nuts – Part 1

I admit it...I have a problem with microaggression. Not with people being microaggressive to me. Not with me being microaggressive to others. But with the entire concept of microaggression. It seems that in the last few years we’ve taken what used to be called “having a conversation” and turning it into a minefield where the most innocently asked question can be seen as yet another case of a microaggression.

The program website for a conference I’m planning on going to lists a session on microaggression in one of its tracks, and in the description it says, “Microaggression has become a phenomena…” I want to scream, “Microaggression has not become a phenomena. The concept of microaggression has become a phenomena...and everyone is jumping on the bandwagon!” But as I learned at a conference I was just at this past April, to do that would make me guilty of a microaggression.


One of the things I learned at the April conference was one thing you should never do is to say that the person or people who claim that something is a microaggression is being overly sensitive, because to say that is yet another microaggression. One of the basic concepts is that no one can tell you what you are or aren’t offended by.

Well…I can buy that. I can buy the fact that I can’t tell you what you are or aren’t offended by. I mean, if you’re offended by something, then you’re obviously offended by it. I can’t tell you that what’s part of your reality isn’t a part of your reality. But what they’re really saying is that I shouldn’t tell you what you should or shouldn’t be offended by; and to suggest that you may be a little sensitive about a subject or a question is doing just that. Not only that, but to suggest that you’re overly sensitive about a subject or question is doing that in spades.

There’s just one problem with the idea that you should never tell someone what they should or shouldn’t be offended by; and that’s that there are times when people are offended by things that they shouldn’t be…and that even members of the microaggression crowd would agree that they shouldn’t be. Take for example interracial relationships; there are a fair number of people out there who are still offended by them. Do we have to say that they have every right to be offended, or do we get to call them troglodytes (with apologies to the real troglodytes out there)?

The tricky thing about microaggressions is that the offending comment doesn’t even have to be made with malice aforethought. It could’ve been an innocently-made comment that came out wrong. It could even be what the speaker innocently thought was a compliment, but that annoyed the hearer for the 40,000th time. It’s something the particular hearer is sensitive to, but once again, to call them overly-sensitive is another microaggression.

One of those tricky situations is asking where someone is “from.” Now, I know some people who get bent out of shape over simply the form, and not the content, of the question. Their particular microaggression is people who ask where you’re from (Bethesda, MD) when they really want to know what your ancestry is (Dutch). They wouldn’t mind the ancestry question if it were asked correctly. And yet, my particular microaggression is people who are pedantic about things like that when they know darned well what you mean.

This is one of those things that used to be considered part of normal conversation, but as much as I’d like to talk a little bit more about that, it’ll have to wait; because I want to get to the part about the nuts.

And that will have to wait too…until next week.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

For Better or Worse...But Not Off the Charts!

A few years ago I was sitting at home suffering for a nasty stomach bug that seemed to be sweeping across the country, leaving millions of people gripping their stomachs and running for the bathroom. I lost three days of my life to that thing, and at the risk of giving you way too much information, not only was it the first time I’d thrown up in over 35 years, but Cheryl also said that when I did, I exploded.

And as Cheryl did yeoman’s work taking care of me and cleaning up after me, it solidified in my mind something that I had said many years earlier: When I become old, infirm, mentally incompetent, and leaking from all my orifices, she is most decidedly not to try to take care of me herself. She is to find a nice nursing home, put me there, and visit me every now and then…with her boyfriend. After all, the staff members there get time off. There’s absolutely no way I’d want her having to do this for me 24/7. I love her too much to want her to feel that she had to do that.

Yes…you really just read that. I said with her boyfriend. It may scandalize some of you more traditional people, but frankly, my dear...

Ah…but some of you are complaining that our wedding vows said “for better or for worse.” Doesn’t that include dealing with me in just the shape I don’t want her to have to deal with me in? Well, actually, a quick check to the “Wedding Program Archive” in my closet shows that our vows said “in good times and in bad, and while some of you may say that that means the same thing, I’ll tell you what I don’t think it means. I don’t think it means for better or off the charts. There are just some things that no one could possibly realistically imagine happening, and you shouldn’t be held to an impossible ideal should you find yourself in one of those situations.

And if you know how much I value my mind (and hers too…as well as the package it comes in), then it should come as no surprise to you that I figure that when my mind’s gone, I’m gone. The body may still be functioning, but the person she made those vows to has long since checked out. And if you know how much I love Cheryl, then you know that I’d still want her to have companionship, no matter what anyone else thinks.

This brings to mind the sad story that I read in Redbook a while back. A 43-year-old woman wrote in about her husband of 22 years, who had suffered a severe head injury that left him with the mental capacity of a five-year-old. She said that at first she was immersed in how best to take care of him, but then she started to see her own future…and it looked pretty grim.

Yow! Talk about off the charts. With any “luck,” this woman has another 30 to 40 years ahead of her. There’s no way she could possibly have imagined that. There’s no way I could imagine her spending the next 30 or so years with no male companionship.

She went on to say that she had no intention of divorcing him or turning his care over to someone else, but it was scary and lonely thinking of what was in store for her.

Of course, after I read that, I immediately went to Cheryl and repeated what I had told her many times before. I told her that if “off the charts” ever happens, she is to make sure that I’m taken care of, but to also make sure that her needs are taken care of too.

I wish that the woman in Redbook had had that conversation with her husband before the accident, and hope that all of you take the time to have it now.

Because sometimes “for worse” is far worse than anyone could reasonably been expected to imagine…or hold to.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Least Likely, Most Horrific Thing

I’m a stats guy, a data guy. You show me the data…from a reputable source…and I’ll believe you. Even if it’s not what I believed in the first place, if you can show me the data…once again, from a reputable source…you’ll sway me. Grudgingly, but you’ll convince me….or at least make me carefully re-examine my position.

But as much as I like to try to emulate Spock from Star Trek, and be logical all the time; unlike Spock, I’m fully human. And that means that sometimes my emotions get the better of me…despite what the statistics say.

Take for example flying. I joke that my favorite airline is Amtrak, and tell people that I’ve successfully avoided flying since 1987. I know what the statistics say; I know that flying is the safest way to travel. I know that, depending on who you ask, the odds of being in a plane crash are about 1 in 1.2 million, with the odds of dying in one being “only” 1 in 11 million. But I also know that my odds of walking away from an accident on the ground are pretty good. As a result, Amtrak gets my business because emotionally I’m swayed by the possibility of something horrific…but incredibly unlikely…happening.

And we’re all like this. Statisticians say that humans are terrible at assessing risk. We focus, as do I with flying, on the horrific, yet incredibly unlikely.

Which brings me to a group of people who are feared and have their own set of fears…police. A quick “back of the envelope” calculation says that with roughly one million police officers in the country, only about 333,000 of which are on duty at any particular point in time, and 24 hours in the day, there are a possible 8 million possible police interactions daily. Look at that over the course of the year and you get almost 3 billion possible interactions. And out of those 3 billion possible interactions about 500 go horribly wrong, resulting in the death of an unarmed civilian.

500 out of 3 billion. That works out to a 1 in 6 million chance of being shot by the police…whether your life is black, white, or purple. And let me be clear here, more unarmed whites are shot by police than unarmed blacks, but that’s a statistic for another day.

1 in 6 million. This tells us that the chances of being shot by a nervous police officer are five times less than being in a plane crash…and most of you have no problem with getting on a plane. This tells us that most police interactions with people go off without a hitch. But that ones that go wrong go so horrifically wrong that they grab our emotions and our attention, and take it away from the 2,999,999,500 times where everything went smoothly.

It’s the least likely, most horrific thing.

To be sure, even one death in a plane crash, and even one death of an unarmed person by a police officer is too many. But let’s not overstate the danger. Let’s not overstate the magnitude of the problem.

Let’s be logical, and not emotional, about this.

Even though you still won’t willingly get me on a plane.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

We Are the Church

In the church camp song We Are the Church, there’s a line that goes “The church is not a building…” And every time I hear that line I want to scream, “It is too! It is too a building!”

Now…I know what they’re trying to say. They’re trying to say that the church is more than just a building. But I feel that they’re being a little disingenuous…or at least overly narrow…in their thinking. You show anyone with even the barest amount of architectural knowledge different buildings, and I’m betting that they’ll identify the churches upwards of 90% of the time. Heck, “Click on the churches” could be used as a photographic captcha.

And even when a church isn’t being used as a church anymore, it’s still a church. It’s still referred to as a former church. I know of at least two restaurants that are in former churches. I know of a community center that’s in a former church. And Alice, of Alice’s Restaurant famously lived in an old church.

So a church, whether or not it’s currently being used for worship, is a building.


And therein lies my issue for this week…an overly narrow definition of what the church is…or should be.

Religion journalist and Episcopal priest Tom Ehrich often writes about the future of the institutional church, and like many others, he says that it’s doomed unless it changes its ways. That it has to stop being a group of people tied to a building, and start being a group of people tied to a task…a mission. A group of people tied to making a presence in the community.

I disagree.

I don’t disagree that the things he says are good ideas for some. I disagree that his definition of the church is the only one.

Just as I disagree with the line in the song that says that the church is not a building.

The church is many things. And one of the many things it is is “the worshipping community at…” More precisely, “the worshipping community of a certain theology and style at…”

It may be a large worshipping community or it may be a small worshipping community. But as long as it’s “the worshipping community at…”, then it’s the church. In fact, aside from the architectural definition of a church building, I believe that this is the minimum definition, no matter what else they do, of a church.

The worshipping community at…

And many worshipping communities at different places don’t care what writers like Ehrich say, because they’re not concerned with growth at all. They’re concerned with being “the worshipping community at…”, or “the worshipping community for this language”, or “the worshipping community for this culture.” And while they may not make their presence known in the greater community as that worshipping community, as individual members, they do.

The little church we visit when we’re in Pittsburgh has probably seen better days, with more people in the pews, but they’re still the Episcopalian worshipping community at Squirrel Hill. The little onion-domed church near us probably isn’t bursting at the seams, but it’s Russian Orthodox worshipping community at DeWitt. And the tiny little church we visited up in the Adirondacks almost 20 years ago could probably hold its services in my living room, but they’re the worshiping community at Long Lake for people of that particular theology.

And that's OK. They don’t have to be big. They don’t have to make a big obvious splash in the surrounding community. They don’t have to have people know that this good deed is brought to your courtesy of the good people at Church of the Redeemer. If the small worshipping communities at Squirrel Hill, DeWitt, and Long Lake are leavening the rest of the world with the individual good deeds of their members, if they’re motivating their members to, as our Jewish friends would say, “repair the world”, then that’s enough. Some people might not find those models economically viable, and that’s a different question for a different day.

But the worshipping community at whatever place, no matter how small…well…they are the church.


Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The Protocol

The protocol, as I learned from Jack Webb on Dragnet, was that an officer never fires unless fired upon first. You can see the suspect with a gun in his hand, you can see the suspect waving the gun at you. But unless he fires first, you do not fire.

The protocol also stated that whenever an officer discharged his gun, a Board of Inquiry was immediately set up to investigate whether or not it was justified, and if it was found that the officer fired without due cause, his career was over.

I remember this from the episode The Shooting Board, in which Sgt Friday claimed to have shot and killed a suspect in self-defense, but the BOI couldn’t find the assailant’s spent bullet anywhere at the scene of the crime.

But somehow, in the past 50 years, the protocol has changed from “Don’t shoot unless fired upon first” to “Shoot if you even think they might be reaching for a weapon.”

That ain’t right, and it's causing a lot of needless deaths.

Yes. I get that being a police officer is a very dangerous job. Yes, I get that there are people out there with weapons who might want to kill you. But I also know that most of us out there don’t have weapons and don’t want to kill you.

I also know how real this fear among police officers is, after having read one officer’s description on an incident he was involved in where someone was reaching into his pocket for something, and he thought, “This is it. I didn’t get my gun fast enough. I’m gonna die.”

But he didn’t. Because there was no gun.

Where did this new fear that every interaction, that any sudden move by a nervous suspect means that a gun is on its way out come from? Is it from officers who’ve been on military duty in places where “they” really are out to get you?

Does it come from too many young men playing too many “first person shooter” games, where everyone is packing, and after you; and where you have to shoot first in order to stay in the game? Can overexposure to these games be having a bad effect on the people who are our police officers, making them overly jumpy and trigger happy?

The simple fact of the matter is that according to some figures that I briefly glanced at, last year roughly 50 police officers were shot and killed in the line of duty. At the same time over 500 unarmed civilians were shot and killed by police officers.

500 unarmed civilians killed by police officers vs 50 officers shot and killed in the line of duty. That’s a 10 to 1 ratio.

500 unarmed civilians killed by officers who thought that they had to shoot first in order to save their own lives.

This tells me something important. It says that while being a police officer is a dangerous job, the person you pull over, or who you see acting suspiciously is more than likely not reaching for a weapon.

It also tells me that we need to go back to the protocol I learned from Dragnet. I admit that it might result in a few more police deaths each year.

But it would also result in a lot fewer deaths among innocent civilians.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Putting Ourselves Out of Business

“The Church is dying! The Church is dying!”

Or so Chicken Little cries.

And Chicken Little gives plenty of evidence to “prove” that point. Decreased attendance, a large number of church closings, and a lack of interest in religion, combined with the increase of the “Nones.” These are all signs that the church is dying.

But is it really? And even if it is, is that such a bad thing?

Yes…I just said that. And I’ll explain why shortly. But first, let’s take a look at a few things.

I heard, a few years ago, that the post WWII church was built on an unsustainable model. Record numbers of people were going to church in the aftermath of the horrors of that war, and so record numbers of churches were built for them. And rather than sit down and do the math for the demographics for years to come, “we” foolishly assumed (or “had faith in the fact”) that church growth would continue at the same rate forever.

It didn’t. It leveled out, and then went back to its previous levels. And when it did, rather than seeing it as a natural demographic occurrence…or a correction back to church attendance patterns of the past, we cried out that the church was dying.

Another thing to consider is the massive conformity of the 50s and 60s. Many people went to church not necessarily because they seriously believed, but because it was something you were supposed to do. Social pressure said that everyone went to church, and so you did. With that social pressure gone, people who didn’t want to go to church in the first place were now free to stay home on Sunday mornings.

But there’s another very important reason that the church seems to be dying…and it’s actually a good reason. Maybe the church seems to be dying because we won.

Yes…we won. The ideals that had previously only been those of the church, had been spread out into the greater culture, and we won. The result was that you no longer needed to be a Christian or a churchgoer to heal the sick, feed the poor, and visit those who were in prison. You could be a mensch, you can give money to or do work with Doctors without Borders, your local food bank, or Amnesty International without having to be a Christian.

And if you could be a mensch without having to be a Christian, then why go to church in the first place? Why belong to an organization that you think is silly at best, and dangerous at worst?

There are those who would argue that without religion…and Christianity in particular…people can’t have a moral compass. They simplistically assume that those who have no religion and no belief in any sort of god, have no morals. Not only could nothing be farther from the truth, but we all know that some of the most heinous acts have been committed by people who claimed to be very religious.

So is the church dying? Maybe, maybe not. The institution is definitely changing, but it’s been changing ever since the first scared Christians first met in their homes after the first Good Friday. The forms will change, but the church will remain.

And we’ll continue to win…by making ourselves unnecessary.

So rather than bemoaning the fact that there are fewer people in our churches, perhaps we should celebrate that there are more people out there doing the good work that we’ve been called to do.

And by the way…I’m not the only one to think this. As I was writing this, I was surprised to hear much the same thing said in Part 2 of the CBC series The Myth of the Secular, which you can download as a podcast.

I’ll be back in a few weeks to talk more about the church as an institution.