Miss Jiwaku and I have an acquaintance, a Korean fellow we know, though I won’t say how we know him. (Anonymity will allow me to speak more honestly.) He is a fine sort of fellow, in general, quite professional and creative, easy enough to work with and even at times funny; she and I have learned many things from him, and I hope likewise he has learned a thing or two from us as well.
However, there’s one thing that makes it hard for me to get along with him, something it’s hard to put my finger on exactly because, well… it’s the same thing that makes it hard for me to get along with a lot of young Korean men around his age. It’s things he comes out with on occasion, in part, but I think it’s more the problem of communicating with someone who lives in a world where the kinds of things he says can simply be said, without a moment’s consideration.
Things like, “I’m not racist! I like hip-hop!” or “I just don’t like gay people, okay?”
Now, before you rush to remind me that people in Canada say stupid shit like this all the time, pause for a moment. I’m talking about someone who works in a field where dealing with non-Korean/non-white people and with openly homosexual people would be pretty hard to avoid. He’s university educated, and thoughtful and generous in a lot of ways… as long as you’re not black (or Middle-Eastern, or maybe Southeast Asia), or gay, or otherwise somehow too far along the difference scale for him to effectively grok you.
Both Miss Jiwaku and I have talked about this with him, she more gently and I more bluntly. In discussing his desire to go abroad and study more, I said something along the lines of, “You know, if you go there, there will be people who look at you and judge you just by your face. I know you’ve never experienced that, but do you think that feels good? Because that’s what you’re doing when you say you don’t like gay people — it’s the same.” Miss Jiwaku was gentler, pointing out that if he continues to say the kinds of things he’s said about gay or black people to us once he goes abroad, it will hurt his career — most people in his field will think of him as stupid and probably as an asshole.
What we haven’t said, and what I struggle with, is the fact that I don’t quite think of him that way– I mean, as an asshole… but I also struggle not to do so. I mean, he’s young, and he’s inexperienced. I suspect he’s never had a gay friend, or sat down and talked to an actual black person. He doesn’t really know what he’s talking about, and the things he says are well within the range of acceptable things to say for a lot of Koreans, sad as that may be. At the same time, he is generous and he has integrity — or at least, he has been generous to us, and shown us integrity. Neither of us is gay or black or any of the other things of which he presumably disapproves.
I am writing this post after having stumbled upon an old post I wrote, one that was, essentially, a rant about the general social acceptability of certain bigotries in South Korea today. It was a bloody-minded lashing out against all of that, daring homophobes to put their money where their mouth was and stop using digital computers if they hate gay people so much — after all, we wouldn’t have them if it wasn’t for Alan Turing.
Of course, that is engaging in one of those things I hate — using a celebrated individual to exonerate a group when that group rightly needs no exoneration — but there’s another problem with it… which is, saying things like that just shuts people’s minds; it gets their resistance up, and good luck to you if you think you can get them to change their minds by criticizing them. Even getting people to rethink their attitudes by criticising their ideas is hard enough.
I’ve been thinking about why I have been writing such things — firing more and more angry, trenchant salvos off into the void — and I think that, besides the usefulness of a pressure valve to me personally, it helps me let off steam from work. After all, it’s one thing for you to encounter a bigot out there in the world, out in life. But classrooms are not life, and it’s far from unusual for me to run into a student who seems to think it’s all well and good to criticize Jews, blacks, women who behave in any way other than the wholesome expectation set upon them, white foreigners, “the Japanese” (each of these in one huge, easy-to-generalize-about monolith) or any number of categories of people. Richard Morgan attributes his penchant for violence in his writing at least in part to all the pent-up rage he repressed during his years of teaching ESL, and hearing people say the most nasty, bigoted things in a context where it was his job to be friendly, supportive, and to encourage them to speak more, as long as they use English.
Well, I don’t teach TEFL much anymore, but I am in a position where similar rules apply: I can call students on these things, but I have to do it in a way that makes it clear I’m attacking their statements or ideas, not them themselves. (And I have to constantly remind them of this, of course.) Perhaps the same dynamic has entered my blogging that Morgan describes in his fiction wrtiting, I’m not sure, but I do know it makes for a pretty boring blog. (Well, except for those few people who like to read the rants of expat teachers — I know one or two of those, but no more.)
But it’s also, I think, a kind of laziness. It’s so much easier to write what I wrote:
If you hate gay people so much that you’re willing to throw one out of school for daring to talk about himself honestly–breaking the rules of the religion you claim to bloody represent, and yeah, I did my fucking catchecism so don’t try to play that bullshit with me: there’s no “ostracize and cast out the kid” in “love the sinner, hate the sin”–then at least have the decency to repudiate all the gay influences on Western civilization.
Give the modern world back to those of us who appreciate it, and go live in the arid, joyless desert of your wildest fantasies.
Such as: get rid of your digital computers. Back to the abacus! Oh, didn’t you know? Alan Turing, widely considered the father of digital computing, was gay. Yep, queer, gay, homo, whatever nasty word you have in Korean for that. And nobody’s even apologized yet, apparently, for the way he was hounded to death by the British government. Who now look like scum for what they did to him.
And give us back the Sistine Chapel. Yeah, yeah, Michelangelo successfully defended himself against the charge of homosexuality at some point or other, if I remember right. So do lots of gay people, and the rumors that surrounded him were pretty powerful, and pretty persistent. Who knows, but… just to be safe, and considering his art has so many naked men in it… you’d better hand it over.
Oh, and literature. You have no idea how many major authors were and are homosexual, or bisexual, or whatever, do you? Well, I do, and I’m telling you: there will be big holes in the history of literature. Hell, statistically speaking, I’m pretty sure some of those who were inspired to write the Bible were something other than what we moderns delineate as heterosexual. Ooh, didn’t think of that, did you? Nah, you probably even think (erroneously, I might add) that the Bible referred to homosexuality often, or always did so negatively, right? Uh… no.
I could go on. But hey, if you feel like making a clean breast of it, that’s a start. I’ll bother with the rest of the list once you show enough conscience to follow through with that.
But I know you won’t, and that’s why you need to wake up your slammed-shut little minds and cut it with the persecution. If you want the fruits of all humankind to be allowed into your life, you need to stop punishing a few for being different… not just because those few contribute too, but because you are enjoying the fruits of all humankind, and it behooves you to be a bit more fucking civilized.
… than to say, something like this:
Look, I know that what you said is something that doesn’t seem wrong to you, doesn’t seem objectionable. I know that most of your friends wouldn’t bat an eyelid, but I do. I do, and most of the people of a comparable level of intelligence and education where I come from would more than bat an eyelid: they’d write you off as hopeless, or at least as stupidly blunt. They’d wonder whether you were a religious zealot, or whether maybe this kind of bigotry is just common in Korea; they would probably get a bad impression of you and your society. And they would very likely not bother to talk to you again.
And by the way, even those who share your views would, at a comparable level of intelligence and education, phrase what you said differently. They would say something less straightforwardly unselfconscious; they might say, “Well, I think people have the right to do as they please, but I’m a Christian, and… well, we’re not comfortable with homosexuality,” or something like that. Yes, yes, we have loudmouth bigots too, of course we do, but very few of are actually well-educated or intelligent… and those who are, tend to be using that kind of talk to appeal to the poorly-educated, ignorant, and/or stupid for their own political or economic gain.
The thing is, that latter kind of talk is the kind that does get people to think. Not the hopeless ones, but a lot of people aren’t necessarily hopeless. The latter approach means it’s possible to talk to this person, it’s possible to respect them while telling them, “Look, I’m asking you to rethink your attitude about this…”
The screaming, ranting indictments, unfortunately, most of the time just make nothing happen — they do me no good, they do my readers (most of whom I assume are in the choir to which I preach) no good, and it’s not like I talk this way in real life.
So, I think I’ve stumbled onto a resolution, not just for 2012, but for the future in general — instead of ranting, get the shovel and do the work. Dig, and if I have rage still, let it go into the fiction I write.