Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Reflection: If you see something, say something?

Recently, I was at an event where heard more judgmental, disrespectful, and prejudiced comments than I have heard in a long time. Where was I? No, I wasn't on the street, wasn't at a school, I wasn't at a political or religious event, wasn't anywhere that you'd be prepared to come across blatantly judgmental attitudes.

I was at a professional meeting of highly educated individuals, some of who publicly made what I found to be grossly intolerant remarks - all justified in the name of "science" and "research."

I won't talk here about what the comments themselves were, because I think it's more productive to talk about this in a way that could apply to anyone. I imagine everyone reading this has, at some point, heard something that struck them as intolerant, even though they might have felt like they were in the minority for feeling that way.

As I have mentioned before, I love my work and have nothing but good things to say about my direct colleagues, who are mostly open-minded folks. However, I can't always expect everyone in my field outside my office to have the same open-mindedness. That's just part of life, and I accept that.

At the same time, when I hear experts in my field making what I find to be prejudiced assumptions, it makes my blood boil.  More importantly, what makes me angry is when I hear disrespectful comments being made to an audience and from people in trusted positions. 

The question is, when you see or hear something that you find to intolerant or prejudiced, do you say something? 

One option is to not say anything. If you're not in a position of authority, saying something might backfire on you. It might be considered just as disrespectful to disagree with someone who's considered an expert. If he or she is established in his or her career, they may not really listen to what you have to say or be unwilling to change his or her mind. (BUT why should we assume that?)

What recourse you have instead, perhaps, is not to confront anyone in front of an audience - since they will probably feel attacked, but to mention your feelings to friends and other trusted individuals, or to that person alone, and slowly foster tolerance instead of intolerance. 

At the same time, I can think of more than a few examples where people's unwillingness to speak up to a person of authority has actually caused serious damage. Think about all the stories in the news about how workers come out after a disaster saying, "I knew it was wrong, but my boss told me to comply and to do it anyway, or I'd be fired." 

That's the principle here. We KNOW that not speaking up can cause harm to a lot of people, and that our "that's NOT ok" senses are pricked off for a reason. And it just takes one person speaking up to let other people know that it's also OK to speak up. So, there is the option to speak up and say something, and hope that this person will never dare again to say such cruel remarks, and also let other people know that there are other points of view. 

The other question is, if you are bothered by the attitude of the "field," is it worthwhile to stay in that field? 

On one hand, yes, you could go somewhere else, to be among like-minded people, who mostly accept and agree with your beliefs and values. That would certainly be less stressful, and you might get more done working together. Conversely, though, you might end up preaching to the choir, deepening the differences between the two groups, and not getting your message across to anyone else in the meantime. 

On the other hand, you could stay where you are, and contend with the reality that you're going to face people who are intolerant of your views. You know that you will face times when you might be better off not saying anything, and times when you will be better off speaking up. You have to pick your battles, but you also have a better chance of influencing people with different points of view. 

Of course, I don't have the answers to this, and these are just a few ideas I have for these situations. In the spirit of opening a dialogue, what are some of your thoughts and ways that you face situations like this? 


jo said...

if you see something, say something?
if i understood it in the correct way, it's what i'm doing here.
i saw your comment in ikeahacker and i'm here to tell you a joke about you "silly"(quotation) americans.
so, there's this texas man down in australia, and he's beein driven by a taxist in some places.
he spots a pumpjack, and asks "what's that?" (please add some texas accent or the joke won't work that well ;-) ), taxist answers "well it's a pumpjack". "oh we in texas our pumpjacks are ten times bigger, and pumping like hell night and day and bla bla bla"
later, they spot a cow "and what's that?". "well it's a cow". "oh we in texas have cows four times bigger than that and their milk is bla bla bla". and then it's a sheep they see. "and that?"."a sheep". "we, in texas, bla bla bla and their wool bla bla bla".
comes a kangaroo.
"and what's that?".
taxi driver "oh, it's only a grasshopper".
sorry, it's the first time i write a joke, and i'm not so good in telling them neither, and english, as you for sure notice, is not my mother tongue....
hope you like it ;-)

Goldwater said...

What exactly were your colleagues discussing?