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How inclusion becomes exclusion [Oct. 13th, 2009|09:33 am]
[Current Mood |thoughtfulthoughtful]

Once again, I am inspired by my sweet baboo, who wrote today about when sharing is appropriate. In his case, it was about poly. But when I read it, my empathy came from my experience as a pagan.

I deal with a lot of people who are Christians. And these people often mention god casually in conversation. I have no problem with that, since I, too, believe in god. I know, though, that when they are saying such things their concept of deity is very different from mine. And that, while I'm aware of the difference, they are quite sanguine in their assumption that I share their beliefs. They are, in effect, assuming that I am part of their tribe.

This is a survival mechanism that is deeply ingrained in our monkey brains. A baby's stranger fear is based on seeking the protection of the people most invested in her survival. An important cognitive skill is learning how to group things in sets and how to find where those sets overlap in shared characteristics. It may seem obvious, that of course we choose as friends people with whom we share common interests and/or world views, but that's not the only - or even the most efficient - way of making a tribe. Why not the people who live in your neighborhood? It's the way things used to happen, and you probably have at least an economic commonality with them. But thanks to easy transportation and communication, your best friends can be miles away and you can still visit them regularly. Heck, with the internet we maintain friendships halfway around the world.

One of the results of this is that strangers do not trigger suspicion in us in the way that they used to. They just arrived, and they may not be here for long, so we don't have to find a place for them in the Venn diagrams in our minds. Instead of needing to study them and determine their place in the tribe, we take a shortcut approach: unless there is something that marks them as different, we assume they are One of Us. Generally, we take into consideration our own foibles and eccentricities and assume that the stranger is a blander, more middle-of-the-road version of One of Us. And unless they stay in our lives long enough for us to get to know them, or unless they do something abrupt and dramatic to move themselves out of it, they will remain in that amorphous and bland grouping.

While we are doing this? The stranger is doing the same thing, projecting their own beliefs and characteristics on us just as we are projecting ours onto them.

This generally works well if both parties are close to the median of socio-theo-economics for their community. The Lutheran and the Baptist may not be comfortable at each other's church services, but they have a commonality of beliefs that are not an affront if assumed of the other.

But when one is several Venn hoops away from that median? Then the system starts to break down. It takes remarkably little to feel excluded by the assumptions of commonality: state that you are a vegetarian and some people already can't find a place to put you.

If you don't fit into the median circle, it seems that every day there is at least one instance of feeling excluded by the assumption of inclusion, and that every such instance requires a decision: do I speak up, or do I just go with the flow? How much does this assumption matter? Is this a person with whom I will continue interacting enough that integrity requires me to identify myself as different before the relationship goes any further? Or am I just creating discomfort for no reason?

For me, "passing" is easy. I'm white, married, and grew up lower middleclass Catholic. I know the lingua franca of most people. I'm pretty thick-skinned and prosaic. And yet there are times when even I feel alienated.

But I try to remember that people are doing what is natural. That I do it, too. That most people don't have the awareness that I do. And that most people are genuinely trying.

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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2009-10-13 03:17 pm (UTC)
That's really hard. No one should be put in that position. I'm sorry.
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[User Picture]From: kid_lit_fan
2009-10-13 03:28 pm (UTC)
And that most people are genuinely trying.

I wonder if that's true. It's not that I believe that people are actively trying NOT to understand, just that a lot of people are comfortable enough in their belief systems that it doesn't make sense that anyone would believe differently, as you said so eloquently.

Sometimes it's innocuous but exhausting, like my grandparents finding out that my dad (who was in his 40's at the time) was an atheist and had known it since he was a child. It was just disbelief that their own son felt that way, it was my grandfather saying "Are there other people who feel this way?"
How could he reach his 60's, actually switch religions (from Episcopalian to Charismatic) and not know that if he were trying to understand. My Grampie was quite close-minded, not in a dangerous, cruel way, not prejudiced against people who were different, but just unaware of alternate methods of existence.

Sometimes it's not so innocuous, as in the locals who decided that the inclusion of sexual orientation in the anti-bullying curriculum is "teaching our children about sodomy." At first, I wondered how loveless and cold their own family lives were if they saw gay marriage as nothing but sodomy, but I realized that, in their safe (for them) little world, they are lving as the Lord intended and those expletives are flouting the word of God and forcing sins upon their children. Not only are they not trying, they want a world in which their children never have to try, never even have the possibility of trying.
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2009-10-13 04:26 pm (UTC)
Sometimes the changes are so huge that people don't take them well, that's true. As I said, I don't think people would take my pagan-ness well. It's too far outside their tribe and it's been demonized.

And not everyone is always doing their best. But on the whole I believe people are of good intent.

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[User Picture]From: nex0s
2009-10-13 03:31 pm (UTC)
I've been thinking a lot about this lately. I'm mixed race, and very obviously so. If I fall on a scale, I'm definitely black with other stuff mixed in.

My husband is very very very white (pure 100% German parents).

Our son... well... He's too young to tell just yet, but I've had at least one person ask me if he was mine, the assumption being that if he wasn't, I was the nanny (very common in my neighborhood). I think he looks like me.

But I know that one day he's going to run into that race thing, and someone who doens't know that he's mixed is going to say something racist and horrible. And that it will happen over and over again.

It's not an issue I had to deal with - inadvertent passing. But I wonder at how I can teach him about it. And the fact that he's going to have a bit of his own coming out process because of his particular mix.

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[User Picture]From: wrendragon
2009-10-13 11:33 pm (UTC)
I've only ever had a glancing blow of racism (in South Africa, where white skin is not necessarily white enough, and brown hair and eyes may get you called a foreign dog and cause the white-blonde-blue-eyed African children to try to drown you in the hotel pool), but I worry that I might be accidentally making people uncomfortable because I don't know. :(
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[User Picture]From: mamculuna
2009-10-13 03:50 pm (UTC)
I know exactly what you mean. I'm Buddhist, and in some parts of my life, that's not a division, but for people I don't know well, I'm never sure what it might mean to them. So lots of times I just pass, slightly changing the topic if the whole God thing comes up.

But other times (and I feel this much more strongly as the parent of a gay son), I feel the need to represent myself as I am (though don't try both differences at one time!). I think that the only way other religions and gender orientations will become acceptable to the people I encounter is by my helping them to realize that "gay" is not some wild crazy guy way off in some city, but the dear son of a person they actually know.

I started with this back in Civil Rights days, which really haven't ended, here in the South--people sometimes have to be deprived of the comfort of their prejudices, need to understand that the "other" is this person that they've come to know and trust.

But it's always a delicate decision: when to reveal and when to hide.
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2009-10-14 02:18 am (UTC)
The decision is definitely a difficult one, and continually being made. We stand on the shoulders of those who have come before, and we widen the path for those who will come after. It's a reason to speak up. But it takes energy.
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[User Picture]From: phillipalden
2009-10-13 04:01 pm (UTC)
When I talk to Christians, and I tell them I'm not a Christian, they always say; "Oh, you're an atheist." They assume there's only two choices.

When I reply; "No, I'm a Taoist." They just look confused and start looking for the nearest exit door.

Whereas, people in here in California ask me if I follow a spiritual path and they're interested in hearing a little about Taoism.

It's amusing.
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[User Picture]From: roniliquidity
2009-10-13 08:43 pm (UTC)
I encounter a bit of awkward feeling with regards to the divorce, and people trying to make small talk that touches on it. I can't talk about it for more than oh, 30 seconds without crying, less if it's a bad day. So I tend to be very blunt with "Shocking divorce, husband left me while on vacation in Vegas, to fly home and move out. Don't really know why." While it's a conversational landmine, it warns off people from pursuing that line of questioning. It's so over the top that I'm not even all that ashamed, and certainly less so than I am at inexplicably bursting into tears.
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2009-10-14 02:31 am (UTC)
When I had a second-term miscarriage I did the same sort of thing, basically saying all the horrible things that people are likely to say to stop them from saying it. It's an effective defense mechanism for pain avoidance.

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[User Picture]From: naamah_darling
2009-10-13 08:51 pm (UTC)
I often feel alienated because I never know when someone I rely upon for something very important is going to turn out to not be okay with what it is I am.

My vet's a Christian. I know this because my friends use that same vet, and he asked if he could say a prayer over their sweet doggle when they had to have him put to sleep last year. Which, you know, pretty inoffensive question. But I'm looking at two old cats here who will probably need his services in that regard sooner rather than later, and I'm forced to wonder what the hell I'm going to say at that point, if he asks me. I'm an atheist, for pity's sake. I can't even say that I believe in God, too, just in some different but friendly way. Prayers are a nice idea and always appreciated, and it's no skin off my nose most times, but that's going to be a really hard and personal moment for me. I kind of don't want to have to deal with that, because it would be a thing that I would let him do for his own sake, not because I'm going to get anything out of it. That's not the time for stuff like that. And people do that fairly often, putting me in an awkward position by just trying to be kind. I grok that they mean well, but it gets tiring to constantly have to run that through the internal translator and then try to formulate an appropriate response that won't hurt their feelings or alienate them.

I don't want children, ever, and have taken steps to make sure that I never have any. People take severe umbrage to this, they take it personally, and the assumption that I have/will have kids is a really unwelcome one that has derailed a number of perfectly pleasant interactions and, in one case, led to a complete stranger (who had seemed thoroughly sane up until that point) screaming at me
in public. I actually have never been screamed at for being polyamorous or bisexual, so that should tell you something major right there. People are crazy unreasonable about that issue.

I don't get into the sexuality/marital arrangement status with most folks, even my doctors. If I were actually fucking anyone but my husband right now, or had done so in the past several years, I would feel obligated to be honest with my physicians, but since I'm not, and I live in Oklahoma, and since I don't want to risk my excellent relationship with the only two decent non-fat-shaming don't-want-kids-that's-fine doctors I've found, I don't talk about it. I'm sure that makes me a Bad Person, because we're all supposed to be honest with our doctors no! matter! what! to which all I can say is come over here and walk a mile in my shoes and then tell me I'm wrong to step on the side of caution.

Your comment about when to speak up and when to just let it go hits home. You take a risk, telling the truth about this stuff, and I don't know that a lot of folks really appreciate that at all. Every time I speak up, I don't know what I will potentially have to deal with; every time I let it go, I get just a little more tired.
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[User Picture]From: kisekinotenshi
2009-10-13 11:51 pm (UTC)
I've always found Christians asking if they can pray for me, or my family, or my pets, a bit offensive. Mostly because they generally say it as a way to put the attention on themselves (I have only met two or three who genuinely seemed to want to do it out of kindness, it's pretty easy to recognize) and/or help themselves cope with whatever it is (even if it has nothing to do with them). And of course there's the "well I'll pray for you" as a "ugh, you're a godless heathen who must be saved" statement, but that's not what you were talking about in that specific example. But yeah, nine times out of ten I'd much rather they not tell me if they're going to pray, or even ask. If you want to, just do it, you don't need my permission. If you're right and there is some kind of celestial force listening, then it can't hurt, but it'll just upset me if you ask.

YMMV, of course.
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2009-10-14 02:39 am (UTC)
It does. And it makes them feel bad and that makes them angry. I'm of a "celebrate everything!" mindset.
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[User Picture]From: blessed_oak
2009-10-13 09:37 pm (UTC)
I've got the same issue, with a twist. I've lived where I do now since 1983, and up until a few years ago, I was Catholic and went to church every Sunday, where we knew a lot of people.

Long story short, after years of struggling with it I finally realised that it wasn't me who was bad, it was that Catholicism was harmful to me, and I left the church.

Now, it's been years since I've been there except for a couple midnight masses and other people's ceremonies. But every once in a while I'll run into a parishioner I know when I'm at work or doing errands, and a couple of them always seem to end the conversation with a hearty "see you in church!"

Huh? Haven't they noticed that they never see me there anymore with my husband and maybe one of the kids? Really??? Or are they trying to provoke me? I don't know if they're making the sort of assumption you've written about, but I really do wonder what they are thinking.

I actually wouldn't mind telling them that, no, they won't see me in church. It's not like it's a secret or anything. If one of them ever says that again when it's an appropriate time to have the conversation, maybe I will.
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2009-10-14 02:41 am (UTC)
Probably most of them haven't really noticed. Answer "you're more likely to see me in the funnies."
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[User Picture]From: call_me_harmony
2009-10-13 10:13 pm (UTC)
As a bi-sexul, polyamorous, kinky pagan I so get the not fitting into other people's assumption. However there is something about the way I look (could it be the purple hair and the cape) that twigs most people into realising that their norms may not include me. I have been lucky in that most of the people I know are comfortable with my differences "because that's just Harmony".

I am however lacking in tact and will often insist on setting the record straight when if I thought a little I would realise it did not need setting straight.

For example on the First Aid course I have just finished we were asked to say our name and why we were on the course. Without a thought I said "I am on Harmony and I am on the course so that I can competently oversee first aid at my daughters fetish club" the woman who was supposed to introduce herself next was so gobsmacked that they had to move on to the next person and come back to her later.
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2009-10-14 02:42 am (UTC)
You are awesome.
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[User Picture]From: dhimahi
2009-10-13 10:54 pm (UTC)
haven't read his entry yet, but I wanted to mention something I have noticed about me since I first went on the internet in 1994... I always tend to assume that anyone I am chatting with (unless their nick is such that it appears gender specific) is exactly like me.

Female, a mom, in the US. The first guy I met romatically online I never asked all the questions I might have asked like age or such because we had so much in common online that it didn't dawn on me that he could be anything other than what and who I was expecting. Imagine my surprise when he was just a bit different from what I expected. It gave me a chance to "get to know" someone's persona before I met the person. It kept me from prejudices I might have had about age and other unimportant things. And it made meeting f2f so much more interesting because we suddenly had a whole new dynamic between us as we got to know the real person.
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2009-10-14 02:43 am (UTC)
Yes, that's what we do. And it's great to expand our horizons.
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[User Picture]From: kisekinotenshi
2009-10-14 12:01 am (UTC)
I feel this way about being bisexual. Apparently I come off as completely straight (which surprises me, as a lot of larger women I've met get assumed to be lesbians) and thus pass all the time. And while I generally don't have any problems coming out currently, that's largely because I'm not in a long-term career situation. The people in my family who need to know know, the others likely won't ever know (I don't intend to get married ever, to a person of either sex, so it'll likely never be something they need to know either). And that's fine with me, but I feel guilty all the dang time about it.

I'm generally not that worried about letting people know other things about me that might give them pause, but then again, maybe that's part of why I don't have many friends. n.n;;;
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[User Picture]From: batshua
2009-10-14 01:30 am (UTC)
Oof, it can be so difficult.

I'm Jewish, pagan, asexual, biromantic, and poly.

Large numbers of people in the real world only know about parts of that description.

I'm always nervous to say "pagan", because everyone's gut reaction is "Jewish pagan = Jewish polytheist = bad, scary Jew".

While it IS the case that there are people who are culturally Jewish and religiously polytheist, sometimes even worshipping the gods that the Torah specifically forbids us to interact with, I am not that person, and even if I was, it's not like I'm out to convert other people to be pagany, too.

I came to my beliefs because it's what works for me. I don't pretend to know what works for other people, and I respect their ways.

The *good* thing about being able to say you're pagan is it scares missionaries hardcore. If they're scared, I don't have to debate with them. :>
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[User Picture]From: practicallyfame
2009-10-14 05:05 am (UTC)
I tend to weigh situations - casual conversation with people you don't know very well is often not a good place to present your differences, but there are awesome opportunities sometimes.

I occasionally have customers hand me "Jesus loves you" pamphlets and ask if I know about G-d. I tell them my belief on G-d is that G-d is in everything - in them and in me, in Jesus, in the trees and the Earth and the animals. We're all part of it. Now, this is a wicked fluffy dumbing down of my pantheistic polytheism, but it cuts down on the arguing, believe it or not, while still introducing another concept of G-d to them - while still validating theirs.

I've also claimed to be Jewish (I have a Jewish corner of my family tree) sometimes just to deter the Jesus questions.

As a polytheistic neo-pagan somewhat following two fairly specific traditions (Celtic & Norse Recon), I do try to take the opportunity when it presents itself to explain. Especially when people like you, and are getting to know you and have tons of other things in common, it can be a great opportunity to point out that we have so much in common and yet some differences. I'm an excellent babysitter/nanny for my Aunt, and her friends have used my nanny services before. I'm awesome with their children, I'm involved in their communities, I was a Girl Scout leader (not troop leader, just a Cadet with leadership skills), and I'm actively involved in charitable interests. I attended a Baptism where people were reminiscing about theirs/their children's, etc, and I mentioned that I'd never been baptized. I then explained that my parents follow traditions (Druid & Wiccan) which had a different ritual - a Saining.

A lot of times making sure that people are comfortable with you to begin with makes them swallow the stickier parts easier.

Or, there are other times when in my rebellious teenage goth days I managed to retain the reputation of some heathen rebel child while being very involved in college student activities, student gov't, food-drives and other things that made people reconsider me.

The trick to "coming out" in any situation is do you think the overall fight for understanding will be improved by your coming out in that moment? Sometimes all it will do is make people uncomfortable. Sometimes if you're not prepared to have a conversation at the angle they're going to argue with you, you'll only make yourself look bad. And, sometimes picking a fight (which some people definitely do), only makes Team Us look bad against Team Them, ya know?

I always say weigh the situations, and take the opportunities when they arise, to gently and firmly place an aspect of your beliefs into someone else's open hand. You'd be surprised how often a hand can be open, if you interact with love.

/end preach

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[User Picture]From: practicallyfame
2009-10-14 05:08 am (UTC)
that is, You'd be surprised how often a hand and with it a mind can be open, if you interact with love.
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