Events in Paris over Charlie Hebdo raised many issues about respect, offence, abuse and freedom. Freedom to cause offence? Freedom to be offended? Not quite the same as freedom to abuse, is it? Do we defend the abused but not the offended? When is offence abuse? It isn’t just about physical versus psychological effects, since neither is a lesser experience. Is it about degree?
I have spoken recently with friends over people we know, who accept a level of what might be regarded as domestic emotional abuse. Why do they put up with it, rather than name it and act against it? How can they feel more secure this way? It seems we all have ways of surviving, turning a blind eye (or the other cheek), buffering offence or abuse even to protect another, taking the blows so that perhaps children don’t have to. Much of the time we want someone else to stop the offence or abuse for us; we aren’t strong enough.
There will always be people who offend, deliberately or otherwise and with various motivations. We persist with our struggle to balance respect (perhaps calling it political correctness) with freedom of expression, because too easily we can end up oppressing social difference simply because we haven’t learned to embrace it.
Are we looking for respect, or acceptance, or tolerance from each other? (How are they different?) Where are the boundaries, even when we think we can find a balance, such that we can begin to speak of some being ‘over-sensitive’, others ‘thick-skinned’, or most, ‘normal’?
I have listened to interviewees and read media comment from people with very different views, and there is no simple answer. The background story of Charlie Hebdo as a satirical outlet is very different from the simplistic descriptions of its edgy cartoons that poke fun at anyone’s expense, which are too offensive to tolerate, or deserving of the violence perpetrated. More generally, we often don’t know the backgrounds from which those who offend and abuse come, nor from which those who feel injured by the actions come. So the responsibility lies with each of us, to show loving-kindness in all we do. And this may be expressed differently from person to person and place to place. One person may enjoy a jibe, whereas another is simply in a bad place and cannot – today.
This is the much-argued blame or responsibility side of the argument, and I would not defend any form of abuse or deliberate offence to hurt anyone. But let’s now take a view from the side of the potentially offended, abused and misunderstood.
I had a lengthy conversation with a colleague, comparing the hurt felt by some Muslims, with that experienced by trans* people, especially whilst going through transition. Sometimes it is humour, which everyone finds funny except them, possibly because it misrepresents reality, or simply makes it harder to be understood by perpetrating a stereotype. How different does it feel to be a Muslim in a secular country, where stereotypes reinforce a view of religion as primitive and unthinking, or a trans* person, where stereotypes reinforce gender identity as of sexual fetishistic origin? When the media get it wrong, either story can end with violence, and people suffer and even die.
I would argue that fundamentally we must always challenge stereotypes, wherever we find them, because we live in a world of great diversity and constant change, where our ideas have to also develop with better understanding of ourselves and each other. What is my experience of feeling offended; did I learn anything from it?
I have lost count of the exchanges between trans* people that discuss misrepresentation and how to respond to it. Do we complain, perhaps formally or even legally? Or make our case for change and improvement, through proper channels? Or write blogs and columns that discuss the problems that are felt, in an educative way that slowly nudges awareness forward? Do we end up complaining and objecting too much, and encourage each other to grow a thicker skin? Let’s face it, those of us who shake off the insults by being super-confident of our identities do get away with an easier life than those who crumble easily and become an easy target. Those of us who simply don’t frequent places at times where others feel more free to abuse or attack, avoid some of the worst threats.
But why should I have to grow a thick skin and avoid places I would like to walk, just because someone else has the freedom of expression to hurl abuse at me? Or why should I have to walk on eggshells for fear of offending another? Rather than being a rhinoceros, sitting carefully on eggshells under a shady tree and not going out (I love that picture!), I end up asking about how my life can be the best learning experience, rather than the most protected.
We tend to regard vulnerability as a weakness, a situation within which we can be attacked and injured; it is the gap in the armour, or the moment when a skin or shell is shed before the new layer has hardened.
But you cannot grow in an old shell, or bend easily in armour.
Maybe my years in transition did strengthen me, but not through hiding. I decided very early on that to be very visible and honest and to learn fast, might just be the best strategy. Maybe that way I would be more self-aware and responsive, to avoid the worst. That way I would be seen for exactly who I am, unmistakeably different from the stereotypes – or as I said at the time, ‘acceptably different’. At least someone somewhere, from time to time, might actually notice when I really needed help, and be there for me.
What I found was that I didn’t avoid hurt, or grief. I didn’t become inconspicuous and I didn’t altogether avoid abuse or feeling offended. Instead I felt it all, and allowed myself to feel strong, because my authenticity meant much more than others’ views or impressions. I needed the feelings, I needed the sensitivity; I needed to hear myself above the noise, not drowned by it. Even now, I am quite sure there are people who see me as not normal, not one thing or another, and who have opinions about it. But I don’t have a thick skin, and I don’t stay under my tree. I am vulnerable because it’s the only way I can grow, and the only way I can know love.
I really do dance as if no-one is watching; I do love like I’ll never be hurt.* And I do this with a passion, because the alternative is not really dancing, it’s only a performance; and the alternative is not really loving, it’s only a romance or comfort.
Being diagnosed and treated for gender dysphoria has been the single biggest thing in my whole life, not just as upheaval, but in learning myself. I can be offended, be the butt of jokes, I can be misunderstood and abused. I can be hurt. This is what other people will always be able to do ’to me’. If I don’t see it as offensive or abusive, but instead as only revealing another’s weaknesses, or incapacity to respect or understand, then I don’t need a thick skin. I can see them and I can see myself, and I can know where the real authenticity lies, and I can learn and grow. I can break the stereotype.
In summary, yes, I can be hurt, physically and emotionally. In writing, in cartoons, and with real stones. But I have to be hurtable, because that’s what it takes to be truly me. I don’t ask to be defended, only that you understand your responsibility to live with loving-kindness.
And it is in this context, as I learn love afresh, that I keep myself vulnerable, honest and eyes-wide-open. I shall be hurt along my journey, I shall heal, I shall grow. All the way to the end. But above all, I shall love.
All of it is an honest poem about what it means to fall in love long after your teens, seeing the realities and embracing the rich opportunities that love has to offer if you are prepared to be vulnerable.
* William Purkey (I won’t comment on my singing.)