Monday, November 30, 2009

Nearsighted

Recently I attended a social gathering at a local coffeehouse. It was a simple, low-key event with about two dozen people and a musician in the background, but it reminded me once again why I normally don't go to parties like that. I understand why extroverts thrive in those environments, surrounded by people and activity and free to move from conversation to conversation, but for an introvert (even one who can function better than me in a crowd) it can be very draining. It isn't long before the noise, the constant distractions and the frequent interruptions wear me down to the point that I can barely grunt at people as they flit by me.

Even in a medium-sized group I can find it hard to break into the discussion if one or more people are dominating it; the rhythms of conversation that others take for granted completely escape me. That's not to say that I don't try, but most of the time my efforts go largely unnoticed, and it isn't long before an extrovert is complaining (to me or to somebody else) about the fact that I don't talk enough. What's wrong with that guy, that he doesn't do what the rest of us take for granted? He must be deliberately holding back, since it's so simple and obvious how these things are supposed to be done. The problem is that I'm not, and it's not, and the ones doing the complaining are rarely interested in understanding my perspective; they think I should be more like them, and nothing else is acceptable.

As much as I hate being judged and written off like that, I have to take care that I don't do it myself. In my mind, there are few things better than a good board game. Who wouldn't enjoy the challenge of a little strategic competition? Even if gaming isn't a person's forte, there are plenty of good yet relatively simple games like Settlers of Catan that can be enjoyed by a wide range of people.

Yet even Settlers of Catan is overwhelmingly complex for some people. No matter how carefully you explain the rules and the strategies, they just can't wrap their minds around what they're supposed to do with the cards with the funny pictures and the dice rolling that somehow ends up with people getting more cards, or why a wood and a brick can be used to make a road. As far as they're concerned, everyone might as well be speaking in ancient Swahili; even after playing an entire game, they have no idea what just happened.

It's very frustrating ending up at a gaming table with an individual like that. How can they not at least begin to grasp what's just been clearly (and repeatedly) explained to them? Are they even paying attention? Yet it's just as wrong of me to judge them for not being better at what comes naturally to me as it is for the aforementioned extroverts to judge me for not being more adept at group conversations. Some people simply aren't wired to think strategically, and it doesn't mean that they're dumb or lazy or anything of that sort; their talents simply lie elsewhere.

We all have things that come so naturally to us that it's hard to imagine anyone not finding them equally obvious and simple. And that bias often gets reinforced as we gravitate toward those who are like us. Thus reinforced, it becomes easy to dismiss those who see the world differently and to assume that deep down they really know the same things we do. In reality, we have just reduced those people to two-dimensional caricatures. We no longer care about who they really are; we just want to transform them into variations of ourselves so that we can pay lip service to "diversity" without having to wrap our minds around what that really means.

The same problem exists when it comes to the prejudice that sexual minorities face on a daily basis. For all their talk about "biblical sexuality," very few evangelicals have actually taken the time to study the complexities of human sexuality for themselves, much less made any effort to understand the lives and perspectives of gay or lesbian (or, God forbid, transgendered) individuals.

And why should they, when society and even nature itself reinforces their feelings on a daily basis? It's all so obvious (or "self-evident," as one prominent theologian likes to say) that surely anyone who sees things differently must be suppressing their "natural" feelings in an ongoing act of willful defiance. If those rebellious gays would just surrender to God and stop acting out on their sin, they would surely find the same happiness and fulfillment in a "real" marriage that everyone else does.

Over the course of centuries, bias that goes largely unchallenged solidifies into dogma, and its adherents can claim the mantle of tradition to further squelch any potential opposition. Add in a few verses from the Bible that appear to validate the instincts of the majority, and the result is a monolith that violently rejects even the slightest possibility that any of its edicts might be anything less than infallible.

The result is an endless series of efforts by members of the majority (many of them well-intentioned) to end the "wrong" behaviors of the minority by whatever means necessary - therapy, coercion, emotional blackmail and even the force of law. Unfortunately, even if some members of the minority manage to adopt the outward behaviors of the majority, they do so at the cost of suppressing their true selves without truly becoming like the majority.

History has seen many similar drives, where members of a "wrong" group were dehumanized through efforts to make them "right," whether it be extroverts demanding more sociability from introverts, reparative therapists attempting to reprogram gays, right-handed individuals forcing lefties to use the "correct" hand, Christian missionaries commanding their indigenous converts to adopt Western cultural norms, or schools punishing students whose learning styles aren't suited to the traditional classroom setting.

Regardless of the situation, our insatiable urge to make others into carbon copies of us says more about our idolatrous fixation on ourselves than our judgments do about those we see as "wrong." And we seldom pause long enough in our crusade to consider who we are really attacking when we demand such change from a human being made in the image of God.

Our inability to see very far beyond ourselves is simple human nature and not a fault in and of itself. How we respond to those who challenge our definition of normal, and whether we trust God enough to let him take care of anything that really does need changing, is entirely up to us.

1 comment:

Wesley said...

Excellent post! I have just come across your blog via More Musings On. Thanks for sharing your insight.