Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Accidentally Offensive

A while ago I read this post, "8 Things You Shouldn't Say to a Secular Homeschooler" by NotSuperMom. It caused a bit of a discussion with some fellow homeschoolers about whether it was inclusive or exclusive, offensive or not. I am a secular homeschooler, and I am a non-believer. I did not find the post offensive, but it did get me thinking.

Why did this post rub people up the wrong way? And was this similar to the feelings of NotSuperMom? What was it that jarred so badly? Was it, in fact, accidentally offensive?

After a long think, I believe that this accidental offence might come down to the natural human tendency to 'Groupthink'. (Or at least, to think they know what other people are thinking, even when they're way off base, but that's perhaps a discussion point for another day.)

Groupthink is where a group of people with similar or the same views start to believe that their way of thinking is correct, and all other ways of thinking are not. Tribalism can often follow - where those who don't think like your group must be evil/wrong/misguided/not acting in good faith. The people outside the group become 'other'.   

Getting into someone else's head and trying to see the world the way they do can be hard. Sometimes it's easier to simply label them as wrong, rather than trying to see where the problem lies.

As they say in 'Cool Hand Luke',

"What we've got here is failure to communicate." 

(Though perhaps this quote is a little problematic, given the source, but let's run with it for the moment.)

I'm going to try and work through exactly where I feel this miscommunication may be happening.


First I'm going to tackle language that unwittingly isolates.

For example, why would phrases like 'I'll pray for you', or 'God be with you', be problematic?

These words and the meaning behind them are central to many people, and part of what makes them feel good as human beings. It is central to their lives, and is an intimate part of themselves - an expression of God in their lives. These phrases are a natural part of the language for religious people, because it is part of their identity. Yet these phrases can be incredibly isolating. Why?

  • They set up a short-hand way to identify fellow believers, who will probably naturally respond in a similar fashion.
  • They leave the non-believer, or a person of a different religion, in the awkward position of trying to come up with something to say in response. If they are a member of a different religion, they maybe able to use an equivalent saying. But even if they do, they have immediately set up a point of difference with the speaker. They are 'not-my-tribe'. For the non-believer, even if they understand that the message is meant to be positive, they may still struggle with exactly what to say in response. This struggle and hesitation can often be interpreted as rejection, and even if it's not, it's also going to hit the 'not-my-tribe' vibe. A simple 'Thankyou' or 'You are also in my thoughts' can bridge this gap - but the gap is there.

If the religious person notices the hesitation or rejection of religious language, it can cause them to start to question, 'why?' A rejection of religion or religious language can cause them to feel that the other person is rejecting something that is intrinsic to their being - a rejection of self. 'Why do they reject me?'

But the same applies to the non-believer when religious language is used - 'Why do they reject me?'

It has nothing to do with whether either are good people - and a lot to do with tribalism, and a very natural human tendency to see different as somehow dangerous or wrong. The language barrier and different ways of interacting can set up an unwitting barrier to real communication between two people who otherwise might have a lot in common.

Being aware of this language barrier can help enormously. I have friends who are many religions - Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Wiccan, Atheist, and Satanist. I am aware that each of them have a different way of talking and thinking about their religion or lack thereof. Each has a rich and deep way of thinking about and interacting in the world. All of them are striving to be good people in the best way that they can. Each of them has made a personal journey that has lead them to decide what they believe in and their place in this crazy mixed up world of ours.

I feel that respect doesn't mean you have to agree with what another person believes. Nor that you have to bite your tongue if they do something you find to be wrong or objectionable. But it is about acknowledging that they are independent beings, capable of making their own decisions and you do not need to take on the burden of agreeing or disagreeing with them. But it is also about starting dialogue to help them understand when they might be stepping on another's toes - causing offense whether intentional or unintentional.

Keeping these thoughts in mind, and being mindful of the way people with different beliefs think, can go a long way to breaching the language barrier that might be causing accidental and unintended offense.


The second point I wanted to talk about is why secular people (which does not necessarily mean without religion**) dislike curriculum, particularly science curriculum that removes content or changes content to fit in with a particular religious belief.

I do not think it has anything to do with what content is there, or not . . . science is always changing. Every day there are hundreds of journal articles published that push the bounds of what we know - and reevaluate it. Nothing is ever fixed. You will be hard pushed to find a working scientist who will endorse a completely positive statement, like 'Confirmed' with no caveats (particularly in their science work, but I've found it does spill out into the rest of their lives). That is why 'Theory' is as high as it goes.

The process of doing science is also a fraught, uncomfortable experience where a scientist often has to confront the fact that they were wrong, their ideas were worthless, and the results challenge closely cherished ideas. How they handle that is a personal one, but the one thing that enables them to keep on going is a trust in the scientific method - following where the evidence leads even if it goes somewhere that is uncomfortable, challenging or even almost incomprehensible.

The main problem, as a secular homeschooler that I have with curriculum that removes content for religious (or other) reasons, and I'm probably not alone, is that this action is a fundamental rejection of the scientific method. To remove science content - particularly core ideas that shape fundamental subjects - for reasons other than because the science has failed the tests of peer review, is anathema***. The scientific method is the core of what makes science science. Suggesting a religious-based science curriculum to someone you know to be secular can be seen as deeply offensive. As can suggesting that '"it’s not *that* religious! You can skip over those parts."'.

In many ways, it's like suggesting that a person could read the New Testament, but just skip over the last supper and the resurrection. Yes, there's an awful lot of other valuable ideas, but it's a rejection of the core principle behind the whole.

This, in many ways, is why secular homeschoolers might be offended by such suggestions, even if they're well-meant.

** Two of the most amazing people I have met were a Anglican pastor, and his wife who worked in the Mathematics/Physics department of a local university. They lived their faith every day, but they were also deeply secular in their thinking.
*** And yes, this can apply to text-books that remove content based on authorial preferences too. That really personally irks me.

It's very easy to fall victim to 'Groupthink'. I do. Even though I am aware of the problem and work hard to overcome it all the time, I still often fail, and fail again. Even when this happens, I'll usually take a deep breath, and keep on trying. Because I believe that realising that not everyone has the same set of assumptions, the same set of beliefs or ways of thinking can be the first step to helping each other escape from 'Groupthink' and try to find a better and more inclusive language.

One of the ways that I have found that helps is to go and talk to people with different beliefs to my own. Then I'll try to start a dialogue on what we both think about various ideas. And when and where I can, I will try to start a conversations on what words trigger negative responses and why. For example, 'When I hear you say X, I know you probably mean something nice like Y but what I hear is Z because ...' and I see where it leads.

It usually helps. What do you think?


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