My unfiltered comment to one of my classes last week, gives evidence that I still have a lot to learn about cultural sensitivity. While gifting them with a homework exemption I cheerfully explained, “After all, it’s Christmas!” One of my students balked, “I’m Jewish.” My heart sank as I recognized my careless mistake. Most of my Jewish friends are messianic, and I wasn’t thinking about all the others in my life who do not share my source of joy. There are many for whom the word “Christmas” is painful and alienating.
Christians are supposed to rejoice with those who rejoice, and it is easy to forget it is equally important to weep with those who weep. Christmas is often difficult for those who have lost loved ones, and there are many others for whom Christmas is an annual reminder of their second class standing in a privileged society. Many endure Christmas with a feeling of saturation from alien main stream sentiments. With a little effort, we could all learn to be a little less annoying (or offensive) in social contexts as we filter our remarks for our audiences.
Giving the Benefit of the Doubt
My argument for cultural harmony extends from there. While we should all work on our colloquial sensibilities, one can only wonder how much less stressful life would be if we all would give each other the benefit of the doubt. Although I am aware of how painful Christmas can be for many, that does not mean it would be helpful for me to criticize others who say, “Merry Christmas.” Some of the same people who say, “Merry Christmas” are pushing through grief of their own. I see an obtuse double standard when nothing is said about morbid displays at Halloween, but saying “Merry Christmas” is equated with social harassment. Observing a lack of resilience among college students, Peter Gray (2015) opines that shielding children from what used to be ordinary unpleasantries could inadvertently breed neediness. On the other hand, giving people the benefit of the doubt requires that we give. It makes sense that nurturing humble and generous hearts could move us toward a more peaceful existence.
Neither Religion nor Non-Religion Should Be Used to Dominate
Every form of religion and non-religion has been used by those in positions of power to make life miserable for others in positions of lesser power. From the Crusades to Karl Marx, religious and non-religious leaders have attempted to quash opposing beliefs. Many in educational environments now consider academic bullying toward people of faith as fair and ethical because at one time practicing Christians were counted as a majority. Most recently the label, “anti-intellectualism” has been ascribed to certain religious beliefs. For example, David Niose in Psychology Today recently blamed “anti-intellectualism” for breeding murderous monsters such as Dylann Roof who wiped out believers in their South Carolina church last summer. It could be argued Niose inadvertently blamed the victims (who likely held “anti-intellectual” views) for own their demise. History majors remind us that slave owners used the Bible to defend their practices, but historians often fail to mention biblical literates, such as William Wilberforce called out the textual misrepresentations. It is well known that the German Lutheran Church supported Hitler, but seldom do we hear of heroes such as theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer who fought to his death to help Jews escape. Neither religious subjugation nor non-religious subjugation should be tolerated in a civilized society.
Rudeness and Entitlement are Poor Substitutes for Power
Since my husband knows I am interested in social justice issues, he recently left a Miss Manners (2015) column on my desk that described taunts white students endured in a mostly black school. The school administration felt that the offending black students were simply exercising their rights to free speech against a ruling class. I agree privileged children would not likely internalize taunts as seriously as disadvantaged children, but I do not see the value of enabling rudeness as a substitute for power. I am concerned that we may be training contemporary generations to look for peace through a sense of entitlement. We may be developing hearts that script expectations for others and ferment anger when the expectations are not met.
Humility Does Not Mean Subjugation to Abuse
Since both religion and non-religion are used to oppress individuals and people groups, it is important to distinguish between encouraging peaceful attitudes and enabling dominance. Far beyond offensive comments, the privileged maintain power when victims submit, either willingly or by force. Many leaders in social justice have reasoned that not only should those of us in positions of power confront oppression, but victims of social injustice should also assert themselves and insist on their rights at all levels of interaction. Progress has been spotty at best, and social violence seems to be escalating.
I believe a sense of entitlement is growing in our culture. Few are pursuing as Kennedy advised, “Ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country.” The entertainment industry, social media, and even educational sources frequently convey the message that we are entitled to be happy, that we can’t change how we feel, that we can be whatever we want to be, that others should treat us certain ways, and the list rolls on. While we do not want to advocate the kind of submission that helped keep slave owners empowered, there is no peace in the heart of those who are frustrated because they do not have what others insist is rightfully theirs. If we as a society maintain long lists of entitlements and short lists of sacrifices we are willing to make, are we nurturing a culture of rage?
When my students respond to setbacks with an attitude of disappointment and humility, they often commit to work harder. They tend to make up for lost time. However, when they take on an attitude of entitlement, I have noticed they frequently get angry and give up. When my students carry the belief that they are owed grades they do not earn, I find myself having to negotiate effort from them on a regular basis. Instead of growing in power within the culture, they lose it through negativity.
Freedom through the Eyes of Faith
There is something freeing about believing in a just entity more powerful than oneself. It was once popular to say, “What goes around, comes around.” But when we begin to doubt that injustice will meet its just desserts, deferment of gratification seems foolish. If we die tomorrow, then it will be too late to get what we want or feel entitled to today. There is little reason for patience if the only justice is the justice we effect. If there is nothing bigger than ourselves, then it would be logical to serve ourselves. One may argue that we should live to make the earth a better place. But misery is not likely to go away. What reason should compel us to perpetuate a meaningless and frustrating existence? Rock Cottone (2011) furthers this argument from a post-modern view of psychology.
In my thinking, when one chooses to confront injustice with eyes of faith, frustrations are easier to manage. There are heroes in everyday people who learn the art of strategic verbal confrontation and emotional restraint. One of the essential elements of peaceful discourse is understanding we do not always get what we want: at least not right now. Relationships are more important that winning. A sense of entitlement might demand otherwise.
Alternatives to Entitlement
When one believes that they are at the mercy of what other people plan and carry out, feelings desperation can evoke destructive responses. A sense of entitlement along with a sense of powerlessness is a prescription for violence. Everyone loses.
Here lies my argument for humility and faith in a source of justice outside ourselves. We can have peace while we push. We can confront oppressors knowing that if there is push-back, we have done the right thing. We can believe that ultimately we will come out ahead. While we work and wait, we can focus on what we have as opposed to what we do not have. We can look for ways we can give rather than obsessing about what we might be able to get for ourselves. We can grow strong in sensitivity towards the needs of others and nurture a commitment to be a part of peaceful solutions to both current and future justice issues.
In this new year, I resolve to develop and model this for my students.
Cottone, Rock R. (2011). Toward a Positive Psychology of Religion: Belief in Science in the Post-Modern Era. Alresford, Hants, UK: John Hunt Publishing, Ltd.
Gray, Peter (2015) Psychology Today. Declining Student Resilience. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/freedom-learn/201509/declining-student-resilience-serious-problem-colleges
Kennedy, John F. (1961). Inaugral Address, Friday, January 20, 1961.
Miss Manners (2015). Kansas City Star, November 27, 2015. Retrived from http://www.kansascity.com/living/advice-columns/article46736020.html
Niose, David (2015). Anti-Intellectualism is Killing America. Psychology Today, June 24, 2015. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/our-humanity-naturally/201506/anti-intellectualism-is-killing-america