I love working from home doing a job which actually requires me to interact with people socially both through social media online and in so-called ‘real life’. The fact I also get to chat with friends, skype calling those further away and going to see those who are nearer means that the work-play boundaries blur a great deal.
For most of the time this is fun – no doubt about it – but sometimes this blurring can be more uncomfortable. I really don’t see much difference between friends I’ve met online (once you’ve got to know them and made sure they’re not fake) and ‘real life’ ones (ditto) and I’ve proven this to myself repeatedly from the number of times I’ve met up with online friends and turned them into ‘real life’ ones. They’ve always been exactly what I expected – and found me the same, I’m glad to say.
But there is one difference about people online generally which is well-known and about which this post is mainly concerned: online people are rarely gentle, they speak their mind and they betray their real thoughts and feelings with utter ruthlessness. The worst of them we call ‘trolls’.
Comments from such people can lead to frank, interesting and challenging discussions which illuminate and enhance life. However, it often leads me to despairing for the human race. The world, from what I can see, is full of bigots. I know, I know, the argument goes that the kind of people who like to get involved in debates online tend to be more opinionated and extreme. True, but I’ve also seen people I’ve known in real life maybe as much as twenty years also reveal themselves as bigots in the context of online discussions. Over the last two years I’ve removed several of them (or they’ve removed me) from both my social media circles and my real life ones.
But…I’m also opinionated. I hold to views which, in my cultural circle at least, are not popular. In that sense it’s possible you could say I’m an extremist (and some do). So perhaps I’m a bigot too? I’ve been accused of being one just recently actually.
It’s always possible of course, but I don’t think I am; not because of the usual ‘bigot’s answer to why they’re not a bigot’ – that I’m not bigoted but just correct in what I believe – but for the very opposite reason. I’ve been wary of my own views for a long time and constantly check, research and reassess my views. The reason I engage in many debates online is not to push my own view (though I happily do so without a moment of guilt) but to be challenged by the views of others. I’m not scared of the counter-argument, I welcome it and even if I continue to remain unconvinced, I am always altered or better informed by the presentation of an intelligent argument.
Recently I got back in contact with an old school friend on Facebook. He hasn’t changed – he’s just like me and will argue about anything. I value his input because I know he always tries to find the flaw in my argument. He does so with charm, grace and often great wit but never with abuse or ridicule. And if he gets something wrong, he admits it. Such a person I can respect hugely, and I do. He is welcome to disagree with me any time he likes and fight his corner to the end.
I’ll defend my own strong presentation of an argument here because it will be relevant in a moment. I don’t like to force my views on others but where I see a weakness in an argument I will challenge it because I assume it will sharpen the thinking of the other person. To this end, it amuses me just how often I end up arguing completely different sides to an argument depending on who I’m talking to at the time. As I say, you’ll see why this is important to me shortly.
But first let me tell you a short tale of when I came to realise the danger of bigotry in myself and why ever since I’ve tried to avoid it at all costs.
When I was a young man, in hist first job and finding his way in the world I dated a girl who was studying at Cheltenham University. I travelled to see her often, as you do, and got to know her friends very well. I remember us all hanging around in the bedroom of one of her girlfriends and we were all discussing intellectual issues. We got on to the topic of abortion. In those days I held to strict black-and-white views based on ideological standpoints and I fiercely attacked any stance other than abortion being completely and utterly wrong. It was the murder of an innocent child and life began at conception as far was concerned. Any view suggesting abortion was okay was evil in my book and I said so forcefully. I cringe to remember it now.
Later on, my girlfriend took me to one side and berated me. I had failed to notice the uncomfortable atmosphere growing in the room. I knew little about women back then and had no idea that everyone in that room already knew what I was about to be told. My girlfriend told me that one of the girls – a young woman who I already adored for myself as a remarkable person – had been raped by a member of her church only a few years previously and had to go through the agonising wait for her period to happen to find out if she was pregnant by him or not. Although it transpired she was not pregnant, she spent weeks considering if she would have an abortion or not if she was pregnant. Would she abort an innocent child or carry and love the child of a rapist? In such a situation, Biblical theology becomes hard to deal with.
My life changed that day. I felt sick to my very core. It wasn’t that I now believed my views to be wrong – I still believe that, on the whole, abortion is not a good option and that it is a much abused practice becoming the contraception of choice for some – but that I realised my intellectual, ideological view had just stamped over the feelings of someone who had lived through the reality of what it meant in a way I could never ever experience. I vowed then that whatever my views might be on a matter, people would come first. I would always respect those who know firsthand the issues rather than loftily decide from my own thinking that I know the absolute truth.
To this day, not only do I check and recheck the evidence for any opinion I hold but I listen to the opinions of others and give the greatest weight to those who know what it is really all about. If those who know, or whose opinions I value, differ vastly from mine, then I will reassess what I think and at least temper it. Most of all, I do my best (though I don’t always manage it) to not trample on the feelings of others – at least where their feelings are relevant. Bigots I have no time or patience for and when I start getting firmer with someone you can usually be sure I have lost respect for their argument. But I try, as much as possible, to respect those who are actively involved.
Specifically the reason this has come to mind to me today is over the debates raging online about the so-called ‘burkini’ incident in France. When one fellow writer posted on his Facebook timeline criticising the Western obsession with women’s head coverings being wrong, he received a number of criticisms from followers who were determined that burqas, niqabs, hijabs and so on were about the oppression of Muslim women and were wrong.
I tried to point out that I know a lot of Muslim women who wear head coverings and not one of them is oppressed in any way (God help the man who tries in fact). Some of my very best friends in all the world are hijabis and I respect and admire them greatly. I would not stand for it if I thought they were being oppressed. And nor would they.
But no. Apparently, I’m wrong. I was repeatedly told by non-Muslim men and women that head coverings are tools of oppression and should be banned. The fact I actually know and listen to Muslims simply made me ‘biased’. Sorry, but I’ve done my best to listen to these people for the simple reason that I am not, and never could be, a Muslim woman. The one people who know if hijabis et al are being oppressed are…you guessed it…Muslim veil-wearing women. So forgive me if I’ll listen to them first and not you.
The annoying thing with these views is that they are so bigoted they become neo-colonial. “We have a better idea what is good for you than you do” is the message they send out. This would be fine if there were no problems of oppression in the world, but there are. I said earlier that sometimes I like to argue both sides of an argument depending on with whom I’m talking, and that’s because things are rarely black and white. Few people – not even Donald Trump – have opinions which are completely baseless and have no good, sane reason for believing.
In taking stances like this, such people build walls not bridges. They isolate their targets (in this case Muslims) and reinforce bigotry in the other direction, which doesn’t help anyone. I’ve also suffered occasional verbal abuse from Muslims who have decided because I’m white and non-Muslim I must be against them and part of a ‘Western-oriented scheme to dominate Islam’. Both sides scare me because both sides aren’t listening.
Every intelligent Muslim I know is well aware there are many abuses in certain ‘Islamic’ societies and that these need to be dealt with. They are much better aware of it than most of us Westerners are aware of the abuses in our own societies. Generally speaking we blindly believe ‘West is best’. We couldn’t be more wrong. It is vital we let Muslims sort out their own problems instead of telling them what those problems are. We really ought to turn our eyes to our own prejudices and injustices.
Yesterday I spoke to someone dear to me – she’s a Hijabi living in Bangladesh – about all this, feeling upset at how many bigots there are who think they can speak on behalf of a whole group of people they clearly know nothing about. She said this to me which touched me deeply:
“Some men or some societies oppress women because they lack a true concept of Islam…they end up doing things which are totally against it. I am so happy that you know what even some Muslims don’t.”
It was simple and she said much more than that but what was important was that she validated my stance and encouraged me so warmly. Yes there are problems, but no they are not about the oppression of women through wearing head scarfs and so on. Oppression in Muslim society is as much an abuse of Islam as it is an abuse of human rights. If my friend, who knows what hijabi life is like on a day-to-day basis, says I’m getting it right, then that’s good enough for me.
And that’s how you avoid bigotry. You go out there, to those who know, and you listen. You don’t have to blindly follow, you can still hold your own opinions which might differ in some way, but you alter your stance to either incorporate theirs or to have a ready argument against it. It doesn’t matter which. What matters is you listen, not dictate.