Sunday, November 16, 2014

Discussing The Big Five Cultural Taboos: Race, Sexual Orientation, Sexual Abuse, Religion, Mental Illness

In picking a jury, and at other more common times in my life, I have felt it necessary to talk about taboos.  Taboos - those things that we do not like to discuss.  Why?  Because these subjects are hard to talk about and are divisive.  When you discuss taboos, you may have an opinion someone else disagrees with and then there will not be apparent harmony on the earth.  It is so much easier to talk about things that do not matter.  No one gets hurt, no one gets offended, and the conversations are easily forgotten.  We all have, feelings, opinions and beliefs borne from a lifetime of experiences and prejudices.  I suspect that since we are reticent to discuss taboo subjects with others whose opinions may differ, many issues that could be resolved are not.  Here is a list of what I see as common taboos that those of us with manners and good taste are wont to avoid, lest we expose ourselves for who we are and show what drives us:

1.   RACE - We (meaning people like me, Caucasians) like to pretend that race issues do not drive what happens in this world.  We like to pretend that racism does not exist.  For crying out loud, isn't our President half-Black?  How can anyone accuse us of being racist.  I do have to discuss race in cases of race discrimination or when I represent a non-Caucasian client and I know that self-identifying as a racist is no longer preferred, as it was by many during my childhood so many years ago.  In recent years, I have had to explore this issue with questions like, "What do you think about inter-racial relationships?"  One time that questions resonated with some brave souls who felt safe enough to honestly state their opinion, one with which I disagree.  I listened, accepted what the people said, because we all need to feel safe with our beliefs.  Those people were struck from the jury, because I represented an African-American woman who had been called by the "n" word at work.  But, at least we had some semblance of a discussion. Pretending that the issue does not exist merely perpetuates racism.

2.   SEXUAL ORIENTATION - This may be an even harder discussion than with race.  When I was a child, it was popular to stay nasty, horrible things about members of the LGBT community.  Of course, none of the people I knew thought they knew a gay person, and LGBT was not a phrase back then.  Back then, we subjected  perhaps 10% of the population to horrible ridicule,  causing many to be too afraid to dare publicly state who they were and who they loved.  That was so sad.  I suspect many people led and still lead tormented lives because of the cruelty of the masses.  I am so happy to see society change, but we have a long way to go.  Why is okay to torment a group of people who simply want to live and love in peace?

3.  SEXUAL ABUSE - When I started handling sexual harassment cases in the early 1990's, I noticed a troubling fact, most of my sexual harassment clients had been childhood victims of sexual abuse.  After I started talking to new clients, after I thought we had developed some mutual trust, I began asking each new client if she had been sexually abused and, almost without exception, the answer was 'yes.'  I began to wonder, can these harassers sniff out the women already victimized by others?  Something like 1/4 of the women in the United States, and many more in other countries, are sexually abused at some time in their lives.  In Nigeria, Boko Haram, the militant group which kidnaps schoolgirls to "marry" them off are simply selling young girls into slavery.  I have had many clients whose lives seemed to be undermined by their vulnerability, especially if they were beautiful by modern standards and had less-advantaged childhoods.  Beauty can be a curse to vulnerable women. Odd, huh?  The thing that Americans value most in women, beauty, can be bad.  If we could have open discussions about heinous things such as sexual abuse, would things be better?  I do not know.

4.  RELIGION.  Bill Maher recently went on a rant against the Mormon church, calling it a cult. What a sanctimonious thing to say.  All religions have beliefs that can only be accepted if one has the faith to accept the beliefs.  While I am not going to expose my views here about religion, since I, too, fear dissent, belief is all about faith.  What troubles me is the significant history of repression, violence and genocide in the name of religion.  Many might not agree with some people who commit crimes in the name of religion, but it is folly to condemn the religion because of the actions of a few people.  The purpose of all organized religions is to make people and society better.  Unfortunately, in fact, the commission of crimes purportedly in the name of religion causes great societal damage. Politics, in a perverse way, is a by-product of religion.  People sometimes adhere to political beliefs as zealots.  Religion and politics both involve socialization, community and power.

5.  MENTAL ILLNESS  - We are so sanctimonious when it comes to mental illness.  I say "we," meaning me, and many others I know.  You know those anti-depressants you take because you have been stressed.  Those are to relieve the symptoms of depression, a mental illness.  Some of the most creative and productive members of society, of humanity, suffered from mental illness.  In the book "Olive Kitteridge" by Elizabeth Strout, Olive declares that she is depressed because she is intelligent and complicated and that simple people are less likely to be depressed.  While I know of no statistics to support that statement, I know a lot of complicated, brilliant, creative, productive people with mental illnesses.  Abraham Lincoln, Edgar Alan Poe,  and Vincent Van Gogh were all purportedly mentally ill.  So get over it and accept that we all have challenges.  Embrace each other.

If we are ever to have a modicum of peace and civility on this planet, we must accept each other.  As the fictional Atticus Finch said to his fictional daughter Scout in "To Kill A Mockingbird" by Harper Lee,“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.”   Oh, that we could make this statement become fact.

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