Monday, 11 April 2011

Insulting people's intelligence

It constantly amazes me that books I have studied in recent years, articles by noted authors, sermons by the learned, and so forth often are so aimed at not offending anyone, or at proving how 'inclusive' we all are, have an air of condescension which the least tutored mind could sense, even if those at universities do not. Perhaps the best example for this week is from a text intended for university students pursuing Christian ethics. It cautioned against 'elitism,' in exploring moral theology in a fashion which assumes humans are superior to non-human animals. (I can assure you this is not a satire.)

I still mourn my beloved cat, Mirielle, who was the most affectionate example of her species I have known in a life-time as a cat-lover. Nonetheless, I would hardly have considered her to be capable of practising the virtue of charity, nor did I see her breaking my teapot as an injustice to be remedied by a lecture on respecting the property of others. (This whilst conceding that she was fully aware that she owned me, and was by no means 'property.') The Franciscan in me sees that Mirielle was glorifying her Creator by fully being what she was - a cat! To consider her to be capable of sin or virtue would be absurd - her hearing my theology and philosophy lectures was purely the result of my having no human about who was interested. Should one deny the dignity of one's human nature lest one possibly offend a feline (or other 'non human animal')? Mirielle possibly had dreams of smoked salmon just as often as would I - and indeed would help herself without offering me some first were my back turned, which seems an incredible breach of good manners, yet she would not have been offended at not being thought a human. (Being a highly intelligent cat who observed the foibles of humanity daily, I doubt Mirielle would have considered this a promotion. She'd seen the frustrated theologian preach too many times to want to copy the potential for envy.) Or should those learned in the field treat of points of moral theology treating us as if we were no different from cats?

Another gem came from a book about Julian of Norwich. Julian presents a warm, tender image of God as a mother, who comforts the clumsy little child (that's all of us - and for always) when he stumbles ( we do, daily.) The author saw Julian as presenting a model for mothers which women might be troubled by being unable to attain. (This matches a complaint in a book about the Virgin Mary's being seen, in many art works, as kneeling before her baby Son, therefore illustrating the inferiority of women.) Allow me to indulge my regret that I never attained my goal of being a university professor, and a brief almost-sin of envy that these authors generally have done so. Both the mother to which Julian refers, and the Son before whom 'subservient' Mary kneels, happen to be God! Julian was not writing a handbook for parenting, nor could the specific circumstances of Mary's motherhood be considered typical. (Next we'll be hearing, from the overly literal, that the image of the stumbling infant violates children's rights or is insulting to the disabled.)

My regulars (assuming I have any) are aware of how I loathe the excessive 'political correctness,' which I do not see as a commitment to social justice or eliminating genuine oppression (both extremely important matters in my book), but as often verging on the ridiculous, and insulting the people one supposedly is assisting. I still cannot see where referring to someone as a 'great actress' is insulting because it implies she is a woman (which she happens to be), or why the libraries' departments of Oriental studies suddenly are seen as using an offensive word. The same author who thought Julian was writing a parenting manual saw her description of seeing demonic figures (the sort of dark, grotesque forms standard in medieval art) as racist - though such creatures not only are figurative, as I'm sure a child of 8 would understand, but are not human beings in any case.

I sometimes make the joke that my family were titled - many worked in the grocery business, and one moved up to the butcher department, where his title was Meat Head. (That title is not my creation - it's real, though there is a little dramatic licence here, because my family actually were not butchers.) Working class kids never saw anything other than honour in their father's professions (unless, as was not the case for most of us, there would be a reason.) I very much dislike the current trend towards changing the name of jobs to meet some nonsensical standard of political correctness. It implies that there was something shameful in a person's honourable work - so much so that the name of that occupation can never be mentioned.

What does this serve? As one glaring example, secretaries now often have ridiculous titles, as if their profession was a disgrace in itself (I suppose because it was held mostly by women), so much so that the word cannot be spoken. For those who think this aids a feminist cause (and as one who has high regard for those in that profession anyway), it actually created more sexism! Speaking as one who spent ages as a manager, those who, on meeting me, immediately wanted to meet the real 'decision maker,' just assumed that, being female, I must be a secretary with a ridiculous title.

I loved a comment I heard when two young men with Down Syndrome were teasing each other: "You're not stupid - you're just retarded!" There is a wisdom in that which many of us with double their IQ scores (...not mentioning anyone in particular, of course...) have yet to attain. All of us have limitations - and recognising these is painful but the only way that we can be who we are, and use such talents as we do possess. I wonder if some of the careful crafting of euphemisms for disabilities stem from not wanting to admit to our own. Thousands of people have to live with not being able to walk - how can they move on (I understand one was President of the United States) without resigning themselves and valuing what they are? I've seen, for example, learned writings which see admitting that someone is blind or deaf is insulting (how a person's worth is eliminated by being unable to see or hear is beyond me), or that this denies their sexuality. (Not being too knowledgeable on that topic, I utterly fail to see the connection. Two blind men I know, one a lawyer/politician, the other a CFO, coincidentally both fathered five children - I'll ask one of them next time they see me.) Then again, I'm weary of the need for offence that caused outrage amongst the deaf when an operation that could allow for some ability in hearing was developed - since this breakthrough meant deaf people need to be fixed...

I suppose the very dedicated, educated, well-intentioned Religious and clergy whom I knew in my younger days were trying so hard to show that they were cool that they didn't realise how nonsensical their reasoning (if indeed it deserves that distinction) became. Middle-class women, whose mothers had never so much as washed a dish, would insult intelligent people, of a lower class or different race, but modifying worship texts into street slang. (I believe everyone, whatever his language, speaks dialect. The insult is in assuming one understands nothing else, or that the poor are stupid.) One RE teacher whom I knew would never use the term 'soul,' and indeed told her pupils "you have no soul! you are a spiritual being!," having been aware of a catechism illustration where souls (and how they are affected by sin) were compared to milk bottles. Granted - there are some theological errors in the presentation - but, having known many people who taught primary, I would recommend recalling that the particular catechism was for children aged 6 or 7. Ask any teacher how visual representations can be helpful to kids that age. The implication that one never matures beyond that point is utterly insulting. (Those whose images of God and such never grow either are of a child-like innocence I'd never spoil or doing it on purpose because self-knowledge would be part of the alternative!)

I'm really weary of the creative editing of the liturgy which I have seen - and I am not referring to the brilliant work of liturgical scholars, even when it led to results they'd not anticipated. The Trinity cannot be mentioned - too sexist. Penitential rites must be excised, lest someone feel guilty or think he is a sinner. (How one can remove the distractions to love of God and neighbour without such awareness is beyond me. "Guilt" can be quite valuable, and those who have none are sociopaths. I may as well think pain is entirely negative, and regret that, when I slipped with the carving knife, I ended up with a small cut rather than being spared any pain and chopping my finger off.) The glorious, "Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open..from whom no secrets are hid," is taboo, lest anyone feel creeped out at the idea that God knows their secrets. (I'm not getting into those who think worship is 'selfish' or keeps one from 'doing,' or who sees 'sacramentalising' as opposed to evangelising. The absurdity of the former would have been recognised many centuries before Christ walked the earth, and the worship of the Christian community has held us together for 2,000 years, despite all the nonsense we've pulled all along.)

I am not denying that there can be individuals who have reasons why certain images trouble them. However, if someone abused by her father associates God as Father with such torture (and, tragic though this is, I doubt it is a default position), wouldn't the scriptures, emphasis on the Creator and Redeemer, words of the liturgy without tossing the Trinity out the door, play a role in leading one to see that God is transcendent - beyond our senses?

Don't think I'm going to spare the extremes of 'inclusive language.' My ghostly brethren, thou knowest that language doth evolve. Yet, from extensive experience, I have noticed that the very women who shriek that "good will towards men" means salvation, unity with God, is limited to males are usually too learned and intelligent to truly think that is the case. Spare me the passages from great theologians, where "his" or "mankind" is followed by (sic.) There indeed may be valid reasons to modify a text - if so, there must be great care that the meaning remains clear rather than becoming all the more obscure. But everyone who attended three years of school (I don't mean university) has read works that weren't produced in the last ten years - and every child of 12 (who is English-speaking) has had at least a passing acquaintance with the beautiful English of the Renaissance. To imply that hearing 'Lord' in reference to Christ, or the term 'man' when it is used in the sense of humanity, would lead to an idea that salvation is the exclusive property of the male is an insult to the intelligence of every woman in the congregation.

I'll close with reference to a 'scholarly' work which insisted that the RC Church had centuries of thinking women had no chance of getting to heaven. Considering the enormous number of devotions to female saints (one in particular who had the unique privilege of being a tabernacle), I'd say 'get me another gin' had I not already wondered if the author already had one too many.

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