Originally posted 1/18/2010
Seven years ago I was sitting in a gym during a high school assembly in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Rather than inspiring me, the theme of the assembly was offensive enough—to my values of the time—that it’s taken me seven years and counting to evaluate its full meaning.
The theme was “Tolerance.” The specifics of the assembly evade my memory, but the basic message directed at the student body was to “practice tolerance, even towards people who are ‘different.’”
Whether intended or not, I wondered about the implications of delivering this message to my peers. I imagined a white person walking up to a black person and saying, “I don’t like you, but I’ll tolerate you.”
Perhaps the notion of this concept was upsetting to me given my interpretation of the word “tolerance.” I thought the word “respect” resonated more positively with the teachings of Dr. King. My distress, however, stemmed less from the word choice of the school board and more from the realization that tolerance might be the best we can ask of some people. I know my great grandmother, for example, did not ‘respect” Japanese people. After her son died during the bombing of Pearl Harbor, she could not forget or forgive. Even eating in a Japanese restaurant was something she could not tolerate.
This past August I was sitting in another gym, witness to a different kind of assembly. Dressed in black from neck to ankles, I sat amidst my college peers, waiting patiently for the faculty speaker to finish his speech so I could receive my diploma and take off my high heels. The gist of his message was to carry what we’d learned from our classical Western liberal arts education with us into our future endeavors. Throughout his speech, he quoted many notable contributors to the Western advancement of literature, science, and art. As he was ending his speech, I realized he had never once quoted or mentioned a person of color, or a woman. Then and there I lost my respect for him, and was glad I didn’t have to tolerate his exclusive worldview any longer.
We think we’ve come so far. We read from our history textbooks about the era in which our forefathers endorsed slavery, and think we have overcome that practice. We wince at the thought of whipping a slave’s back until deep red laceration marks scar the skin. We can’t even fathom keeping human beings locked up in unsanitary and unsafe conditions on our own property, forcing them to work long hours with little or no pay.
Why then, do we continue to endorse the slavery and near-slavery that supports our way of living? Let’s face it. Most of the clothes, electronics, food, flowers, jewelry and other commodities we buy are tainted by a foreign worker’s pain, illness and poverty. Is it because these people aren’t working on our own private property that it’s okay to exploit them with our purchasing power? I understand that there are those in our own society who can’t afford to invest in humane products. But what is the excuse for those who can?
Slavery has not been eradicated. But the more upsetting truth is that we are still supporting it, even when some of us can choose not to.
In recent years, I’ve adopted a reductionist view of journalists. I see two types of journalists: those who separate themselves from the news, and those who embrace the idea that, in the reporting of news, they become a part of the news. Walter Cronkite is an example of the latter batch of reporters. When John F. Kennedy was shot, Cronkite could not maintain his composure and choked up on the air while delivering this news to the masses. I often wonder how our contemporary news broadcasters can detach themselves from the news like they do, bouncing back and forth between sad and happy stories like a ping pong tournament, all the while remaining as stoic as robots.
While listening and watching news coverage of the situation in Haiti, I found that the two aforementioned classes of journalists were both reporting from the wreckage. Some reporters, photographers and videographers stood separate from the commotion, relaying the situation in an objective, official manner. Others hopped back and forth between reporting and providing humanitarian relief to those suffering from injuries and grief. While the latter group gets my applause, the former group perplexes the hell out of me.
When did reporting and being human become mutually exclusive? If being a professional journalist means losing my humanity while reporting a crisis, then I’ll hand over my badge now. I didn’t sign up for that.
The other day, a friend who I both admire and respect went to the doctor to get a tube inserted into her mouth, steered down her esophagus and into her intestines. The end of the tube served as both a camera and a scraping tool to acquire a sample from her intestinal wall in order to diagnose the source of pain in her throat.
This same friend once told me that she lives every day with the goal of making valuable connections with people and living every day as if it was her last. While I understood her basic concept when she was telling me this, I did not fully understand how far she would go to ensure that she practiced this daily dogma each and every day, without exception.
While most people are sedated before undergoing the video tube procedure, my friend wouldn’t have it. She rejected the idea of enduring the lingering effects the sedatives would cause, fogging over the remainder of her day. She told the nurse and doctor that she would prefer to remain awake and fully conscious throughout the time the tube was winding its way through her body. The nurse told her she would be the first patient in that office to experience the routine drug-free.
Although she gagged, choked and dry-heaved her way through the procedure, to my friend, a day free from the sloth-inducing shackles of Western medicine was worth the mental torture of a tube probing her insides. Aside from her medical courage, I have met few people who live quite like she does– taking advantage of her freedom to live the way she wants to live each and every day.
For how much we, in Western society, tout the virtues of freedom, how many of us inadvertently find ways to restrict as many forms of personal freedoms as we can? Whether with our jobs, relationships, quality of living, health, personal biases, or attitudes, it’s amazing to reflect on how much we limit ourselves, even when we know better.
While the process of embracing freedom might be scary and uncomfortable, as my friend can attest to, it’s a hell of a lot better than stumbling through the fog, powerless.