I've been thinking an awful lot lately about perspective. Specifically, I've been thinking about how my own perspective has changed over the years, and how it differs from other people's so much.
In my youth, I was quite fond of ethnic jokes. I knew somewhere deep down that they were disrespectful, but I always rationalized it by claiming that the jokes weren't singling out any one ethnic person - they were operating on cultural stereotypes, and as such not offensive directly to anyone particularly. The logic I employed is accurate, I think: ethnic jokes do operate on cultural stereotypes. But those stereotypes were created as reactions to individuals.
Part of the reason I enjoyed such derogatory humor was my own ignornace. I never bothered to understand what it would feel like to be persecuted. I'm a white middle-class male, so a lot of the pain and suffering I read about is extremely removed from my own life. I never had a close friend who was the recipient of a racial slur from a stranger. I never had a loved one hurt (that I knew of, anyway) in any way like that. So it was easy for me to rationalize my ethnic jokes by arguing that they were abstract, and not focused on individuals.
I recently told a joke to some friends (not ethnic, but far far worse). Half a year ago, I'd've found this joke mildly funny. Two years ago, I'd've laughed myself silly at this joke. But as I was telling it, I realized that I was absolutely appalled with myself for making the joke I did. The subject matter is not something to ever make light of. Again, my ignorance and distance from the realities I was making light of made the joke funny. Now, as I'm closer to the subject matter, I realize how remarkably distasteful and down right disturbing it is to make that joke. And no - I'm not going to repeat it online here.
I have a few friends who love to make jokes of disabled people. Again, there was a time when I found these same jokes extremely funny. When I consider the lives of disabled people, though, and the lives of their parents and loved ones, all sense of humor quickly dries up, and is replaced with a strong sense of respect and admiration. How can I make light of someone else's misfortune? Just because I was lucky enough to be born with functioning limbs and organs doesn't give me the license to poke fun at those who weren't. I've known parents who's children were physically and mentally challenged, and they're great people (both the parents and the kids!). I find myself smirking every now and again when a friend retells one of these jokes. I'd like to say that my reaction is because I recognize the joke is working on an abstract impersonal level ... but then I think of a friend who has a Down's Syndrome child, and all humor quickly drains away.
In a similar vein, I've been increasingly uneasy playing Tribes 2 online because a great majority of the gaming population consistently use the term "rape" to describe what they are going to do to the enemy players / base / etc. I get physically uncomfortable when I hear that word, because it has so much pain and suffering associated with it. I was at a party once where an inebriated girl was sexually assaulted. I thank the heavens that my friend went to check on her when he did, because he walked in just before the perpetrator had a chance to do too much. And I've learned about too many friends who've suffered similar (or worse!) situations. I don't understand how anyone can use the word "rape" casually.
Maybe I'm overly sensitive to these sorts of things. More than likely, those who bandy the term "rape" around online justify it in much the same way that I justified my ethnic jokes.
I try very hard to be respectful of other people. I try very hard not to express something patently offensive to strangers, or to people I don't know very well. I do this because I think I now have a sense of perspective on where other people are coming from. I'd like to attribute this to maturity, but maybe it's just age. A younger friend of a friend recently bad-mouthed the band Everclear as a bunch of jerks because they were condescending to him at a party. This friend of a friend was drinking under age at this party, and hanging out with a nationally touring band. Whether they were trying to be funny, or just road-weary, or just plain jerks - I'll never know. I don't much care for the band's music. But this friend of a friend has been heard making sweepingly general statements about the individuals in the band all because he was treated less than he would have liked to have been treated.
My immediate reaction was to grill this kid, trying to find out how he justified making such negative statements about the band members, when he himself is less than a stellar individual (he openly admits to cheating multiple times on his girlfriend). He was quick to try to claim that his behaviour was something completely different than that of the band, so he was somehow justified in both his own infidelity and his insulting comments about Everclear. It was inexcusable for the band to treat him poorly, but he's perfectly justified to treat them poorly in response.
My goal in all of that rambling was to try to illustrate that I don't think this friend of a friend has much perspective on things. In order to have perspective, I think you need to be able to critically evaluate your own life - where you are, where you've been, and how you got from one to the other. Many people I interact with don't seem to do this too much. I wonder why.
Popular American culture is at fault, to a degree. We're forcefed all kinds of positive love your neighbor and don't hate someone just because they're different messages as children. But then somewhere after adolesence these messages dry up. Popular media shifts to situation comedies involving neighbors trying to sleep with one another's spouses, or people trying to get away with obviously inappropriate behaviour. Maybe we're supposed to infer that these are examples of things we should avoid. But such an inference is hard to make when the resolution to the situation is glossed over quickly and painlessly, only to be repeated the following week with new props.
Some television programs try to tackle the issues seriously, though. Life Goes On had a Down's Syndrome main character. And yet almost everyone I know mocked (or mocks) Corky relentlessly. L.A. Law had Benny, the retarded law clerk. Again, most folks I know provid the character with very little respect. And then of course there's South Park, with their patently offensive Timmy. Sure, I know that South Park mocks everyone, but I think this perfectly highlights how acceptable it is for people to ridicule and villify those that are different than ourselves. It's easy to make fun of the disadvantaged, but that doesn't mean we should do it.
I'm not so full of myself to claim that I have perfect perspective on things. There is still a lot about me that I'd like to change. I'd like to change how I view certain things, and how I react in certain situations. But I don't think any of that can begin until I have a solid sense of perspective on myself: why do I want to change those behaviours? What good will it do? How will it improve me as a person? I think part of having a good perspective is having an open mind.