Thursday, July 26, 2007

Keeping it under control

Since we've now discussed how we define things, we need to look at what we do with those definitions. How do we then use them to interact with the world around us?

I'm not sure if it's human nature or just the current societal values, but we like to feel as though we're in control. And we're taught that knowledge and understanding leads to power. To control. If we figure out where something fits in the "scheme of things" we somehow have a better sense of the world around us. We break things down into its component parts in order to analyze it. (Again, for the geeks out there - deconstruction!)

We pick apart a movie or TV show, identifying themes, images, dialogue, etc so that we can pull some meaning out of it. We listen for specific words or lines in music that help us understand what a song is about, what its message is supposed to be. We do the same thing with people as well. We spend a lot of time sorting people into nice, neat little boxes for the purposes of identification. We sort people based on their religion, gender, politics, sexuality, race, age, socio-economic status, etc.

Think about it this way: Have you ever been talking about an actor or musician before, and someone is quick to point out "You know they're gay, right?" This is especially revealing when you were saying "I love this song," or "He's a good actor." Does their sexuality have anything to do with the quality of the music or film? We reduce people to one aspect of their identity, and often times don't give ourselves mental permission to let them out of one or two boxes.

This often leads to a lot of assumptions, too. Just because someone is gay, doesn't mean they can't also be a Republican. Or that they are automatically for gay marriage. Or that they're sexually active. Obviously, we're talking about stereotypes here. By defining people in a certain way, and using those definitions to deconstruct and categorize, we're limiting them. But it gives us a sense of control. Knowledge. Something upon which to base decisions.

An example from SafeZone: My friend Jackie looks like everybody's grandma. White hair, sweet disposition, wears her glasses on a chain. You just know she wants to bake you cookies. She also wears a gold cross around her neck. It's easy to put her into a mental box as a sweet little old retiree granny type. Putting her in that particular box might mean you wouldn't swear around her, or wouldn't bring up topics like being gay. She's got white hair and wears a cross, so that conversation couldn't possibly go well, right? Until you find out her son is gay and that she can swear like a sailor.

We like to believe we understand the world around us. Largely because if we know where to place everyone and everything else, it helps us figure out where to place ourselves. Where WE "fit in." And that's really where the sense of knowledge and control come from: knowing where we stand in relation to "other." This category of people feels this way about this issue, so I won't be around those people or discuss that issue with them. Wouldn't it be amazing if we talked it through instead, and learned that today a majority of Americans support employment protection for GLBT people? And perhaps we could change the minds of people about some things.

I've heard about so many people who start viewing a group differently when they find out someone they care about is a part of it. When you know someone who's black, it's harder to be scared or nervous when walking past an African American on the street. It's harder to oppose gay marriage or civil unions when one of your kids comes out. It's not because there's something different about the person or group. It's because we've broken down the little boxes into which we place them. After all, how many of you fit neatly into one or two categories?

Next time - The Oppression Olympics: How these categories are used to keep us from working towards unity.

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