Out of My Comfort Zone

Not Funny.
Not Funny.

I am a conflict-avoider. Hateful speech scares me for reasons I can’t fully explain, even if I’m not the target of the speech. I have decided I have to get over that pronto, because of a conversation last week.

I was in a room where someone began talking about the terrible synagogue murders in Israel, and they used the words “Muslim” and “animals” in the same sentence. Another person in the group spoke up, someone married into a family with Muslim members. I had been making my usual polite distressed noises, which made no impression at all on the speaker. I was ashamed of myself: why did I not say something? Because I was nervous? Since that encounter, I have decided “never again.” I am going to be direct when I’m in a conversation and someone uses hateful language, no exceptions, unless I am quite sure it’s dangerous to say something.

Since my resolution to be more direct and vocal about hateful talk, the stuff seems to be everywhere. Yesterday, someone on Twitter made a very big deal of my objection to an offensive word in her bio: “Georgia native and former liberal with eyes wide open. Blocked by several notable libtards including…”  [Emphasis mine.] I sent a message privately that I was getting set to “follow” her when I read the bio. “That word is offensive,” I wrote, “And while it’s there, I am not going to follow you.” She didn’t reply directly to me, but from the public messages she broadcast after, it was clear that I’d just given her something new to brag about.

I’m not accomplishing much, especially in the toxic soup of political social media, but at least it’s practice. I need practice, because I need to get better at this. (And yes, I needed to be more specific that what I was objecting to was the “-tard” part of “libtard.” I’m still too quivery-Southern-lady polite to be useful. Working on that.)

It’s important that we speak up, especially for groups to whom we don’t belong. “Do not stand by the blood of your neighbor,” we are told in Leviticus 19:16. In the Talmud, the text says that it would be better for a person to allow himself to be tossed into a furnace than to willingly embarrass another person [Bava Metzia 58b.] We are also commanded to engage with someone who does something wrong, a mitzvah I wrote about at more length in the post, “The Mitzvah of Rebuke.”

I share my difficulties in living up to my resolution because I know I’m not the only conflict-averse person around. Many of us are conditioned not to upset others, and we have to override that conditioning to confront someone about hateful words. We may be tempted by rationalizations: “What difference will it really make?” or “It’s just going to be something else for him to brag about.” However, I know what it is like to have to say, “Look, I’m Jewish, and I didn’t care for that joke.” It is horrible to feel like both the target of the speech and the only one who will say something.

The problem applies to people on both sides of the political divide. I know good people who are conservatives who’d never use a word like “retard” or use it in a portmanteau like “libtard.” I also have heard liberals say some ghastly things, often involving some use of “nazi,” which is always offensive unless you are talking about actual members of a Nazi organization. I’m determined never to let such things pass again, no matter who says them. Words that dehumanize and words that demonize have no place in our public discourse. The fact that they have become common is only evidence that it is time for people of conscience to speak up.

So yes, it is awkward. And yes, it is worth doing. Nothing will get better with silence.

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at http://coffeeshoprabbi.com/ and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

15 thoughts on “Out of My Comfort Zone”

  1. Very good point, very relevant and interesting; I too am guilty of not speaking up( long time back, before I started to be an observant Jew, but nevertheless I both identified as a Jew, and told others I am Jewish) in a cafe with several friends, one – a very good friend – made a dreadful joke about numbers tattooed…I don’t remember the joke, but I do remember being taken aback and horrified. I *think* that I sat silent, and did not laugh, which for me is a tiny version of speaking up….not laughing at someone’s joke: I know I really, really wanted to say how offensive I found it, and being angry at, and ashamed of, myself, for not saying anything. On another point, a slight offshoot of your post, I hate hearing the word ‘animals’ used in this context; animals do not behave in the ways that various humans(regardless of religion or race) do…but that’s a personal thing for me. Thanks for saying all this; I hope it will give me the courage to speak up.

  2. Conflict is not an easy place for me either. Southern, mid-western, polite, intrinsic to your personality…whatever…it takes courage and clarity to respond to hatefulness. It does feel lonely and that makes it even more scary, but the morass of feelings that come from not speaking are worse. This is what gives me the occasional courage to engage. Where I encounter this most often in with the vitriol of our legislators! What I see around me are people who are thriving on gossip rather than facts or real relationships. And, this is nexus of ignorance and misunderstanding is a toxic soup.

  3. I absolutely agree with you. The casual misuse of “nazi” is a particular bugaboo of mine. Some people are gracious about not using it further, at least in front of me, but many are not. The objections usually fall under the “you’re being too sensitive, get over it” category, often phrased as something like “oh, come on, nobody’s going to confuse this with real Nazis and think more kindly of them as a result,” but frankly I think anything that removes the visceral reaction of horror from that word inures us against it, and I think that’s a bad thing.

    I blame Jerry Seinfeld and the “Soup Nazi” episode. To which many of the offenders point, and say “well, he’s Jewish too, and he doesn’t have a problem with it, so I’m choosing to see that as evidence that you are, in fact, too sensitive, so I can ignore you and not feel bad about it.”

    I suppose the point is to raise the objection, even if it’s met with resistance. Somebody might be moved to change if it happens to them often enough, even if it’s not at the first moment they encounter it from me.

      1. (I know Im slow at catching up, but I’m excelling myself here……) as a Scot(not ‘Brit’…..really dislike that word) I just Seinfeld. I’ve tried, several times, but ……is it a cultural thing, maybe..

  4. There’s no reason to use “Nazi” unless you’re talking historically or about neo-Nazis. “Fascist” is a perfectly good word.

    And, honestly, I’d be proud of someone blocking me for objecting to any use of the “-tard” suffix. It saves so much time when you know they’re an awful human being with no consideration for their fellow wo/man. I can begin ignoring them that much sooner. Give your objection and go.

    I think it helps if we call out bad behavior towards groups we don’t personally belong to. It shows we don’t have skin in the game, as it were, but we still know offense when we see it. So I give ’em the Spock eyebrow and a “Really?” at speech against PoC, LGBT, etc. Just because I’m white, straight, and from flyover land doesn’t mean I’m going to laugh at your (insert minority stereotype here) jokes.

    I’ll now feel even better about it, now that I know it’s a mitzvah! Thanks, Rabbi!

    1. Fascist IS a perfectly good word. Now youve given me a great way to call out the inappropriate use of “nazi:” “Don’t you mean fascist?”

      1. “Because unless they’re actually wearing swastikas and advocating the death of all Jews, maybe they’re not Nazis.”

        (My dad caught shrapnel from ACTUAL Nazis, thanks. We had a Luftwaffe officer’s sword hanging up in the house, with a swastika on the hilt and all. That was a war trophy from when his platoon secured a small town and collected all the weapons — the widow of the officer would only surrender it to another officer.)

      2. (Hey, I said something great about my dad, and my husband gave the cat some dry food. Those are both mitzvot, right? We’ve helped the overall goodness of ourselves and the universe? Cool!)

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