Imagine this: you’re a man sitting on a bus, next to some stranger who is also a man, and a woman gets on the bus, walks toward your seats, turns to the stranger next to you and says, “I love you.” It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to conclude two things: a) that the woman loves the man, and b) that the woman does not love you. The first can be a bit heartwarming, the second either neutral or heartbreaking. If the woman is somebody you’ve never met before, the conclusion that the woman does not love you is likely meaningless, and not anything you’d think twice about. Of course she doesn’t love you, she doesn’t know you. But, what if the woman were your wife. Now, not only is her love for the stranger next to you a betrayal, but the lack of love for you is about has hurtful as you can imagine. The point to take from this, and hold on to for what’s coming next, is that the lack of a message directed to you, while being directed to another, can be neutral or hurtful, depending on the context. Let’s adopt some shorthand for the rest of this. The situation when somebody does something nice for another (e.g., says “I love you”) and you smile because it was sweet is going to be called a “positive interpretation.” When somebody does something nice for another and you feel like you deserved something nice too, and you focus on the fact that something wasn’t done for you, we’ll call that a “negative interpretation.” Remember that jargon and let’s think about some issues in society and let’s see where this changes how we feel when we hear others say things, and how we might want to think about things we say ourselves.
An obvious one is “Black Lives Matter.” There are two sides to that proverbial coin. You can hear that phrase, and add some words in your head to make it sound vastly different. Black Lives Matter Too has a very different connotation than Black Lives Matter More. Black Lives Matter Too is more likely to have a “positive interpretation” and Black Lives Matter More might be more prone to a “negative interpretation.” Of course, it seems clear to me that the intent of the movement is to say that black lives should, but don’t seem to, matter. That’s adding “Too” in order to make it Black Lives Matter Too. But many hear Black Lives Matter, and fill in the More at the end, which makes them feel like the movement wants black lives to matter more than white lives, maybe when making hiring decisions (a reaction to affirmative action policies). Some see the situation as a conflict between police officers and black people, so they hear Black Lives Matter More, and fill in even more so it says, Black Lives Matter More Than Police Lives. I get that, and I’m sympathetic to anybody who feels like one life mattering means that the other doesn’t, as if there’s a zero sum game with only enough mattering to go around. Maybe that goes away if we all work harder to be aware of the ways these things can be misheard; can be misinterpreted. When a supporter of Black Lives Matters is confronted with All Lives Matter or Blue Lives Matter, the gut reaction is that those counter-statements are hurtful and dismissive, and I have empathy for that (it’s how I feel when I hear them). If somebody is standing on the corner screaming, “my house is burning, help my house,” the response probably shouldn’t be, “my house is important too.” But, maybe if somebody says “my house is important too” I should hold my breath for a second, and before getting angry and reacting to it as if it were a hateful statement (even if it was supposed to be), what if I just repeat what I said, but in a slightly different way. Maybe respond with, “Yes, your house is very important and I love us all, but my house is on fire right now and could use some of the love that we all deserve.” I don’t know if that would work, but it might. And yes, it takes some effort that probably shouldn’t be needed in a fair and just world, but we obviously don’t live in one of those.
Of course, we are all human, and I purposefully put that example first because it’s an example of when one group is being highlighted, and the other groups take it as a negative (in a way that I don’t think if fair). But that example isn’t what inspired me to write this today. What inspired me was an example where I sit on the opposite side. An example where I see something and immediately have the “negative interpretation” as we defined above. No surprise, it was Trump that inspired this.
President-Elect Trump has been traveling around the country on what he’s calling his “Thank You Tour.” His latest stop in Wisconsin had two things that fit our current line of thinking. His comments about TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year and the “Merry Christmas” sign on the podium and Christmas trees behind him. Since being named TIME Magazine’s 2016 Person of the Year, he’s added a little back and forth, crowd vote to his Thank You Tour. At some point in the speech, he mocks TIME’s “political correctness” and asks for a vote of the audience. The transcript from a recent stop in Wisconsin, for example, went like this:
“And it’s because of you that we, all of us, we’re just honored with the “Time” magazine person of the year…So that’s great. See, in the old days it was called the man of the year, right? Okay. So let me do this. We have a lot of women here. We have got to do it. Do you mind? Would you prefer I will go ‘person of the year,’ ‘man of the year.’ Person of the year, man of the year. Okay. What should it be?”
When I hear this, I have an immediate “negative interpretation.” “Person of the Year” doesn’t exclude women or men, but “Man of the Year” or “Woman of the Year” certainly do. Should I hear “Man of the Year” and feel like it excludes women, like Black Lives Matters is perceived as excluding other lives? Maybe not, but I do, and I find it especially silly to call it Man of the Year when there’s a woman who gets named. Also, just to be clear, TIME was pretty open about this not necessarily being an honor. In their description of why they chose Trump, they wrote,
“For reminding America that demagoguery feeds on despair and that truth is only as powerful as the trust in those who speak it, for empowering a hidden electorate by mainstreaming its furies and live-streaming its fears, and for framing tomorrow’s political culture by demolishing yesterday’s, Donald Trump is TIME’s 2016 Person of the Year.”
Let that sit in for a minute. While Trump speaks about being “honored” with the designation, TIME Magazine says it’s for reminding us that demagoguery feeds on despair, for mainstreaming furies and fears. Hardly an honor, but that’s a tangent here.
But even that, the Man vs Person of the Year name isn’t what inspired me to think about this. It was really the Merry Christmas sign that hung from the podium, and the Christmas trees behind him. Trump has made it clear that part of his Make America Great Again includes being allowed to say Merry Christmas in public. First, I think this is some serious bullshit. And by bullshit, I mean that it’s a bullshit controversy. I don’t see any wave of imprisonments for people who wish others a Merry Christmas, and my neighborhood is full of Christmas decorations and very well-lit Christmas trees. The war against “Merry Christmas” feels about as silly and made up as all the others that I’ve written about before (like here and here). That said, having a government event that’s all about Christmas, without an effort to recognize other groups, is like saying “I love you” to one guy on the bus and not another. I am a Jew. I am not observant, although we have family dinners for some of the Jewish holidays. I do not believe in the existence of God, but that doesn’t make me think there aren’t any good ideas in the Bible (Old and New Testament). And, yes, I still self-identify as a Jew even though I do not believe in the religious aspects of Judaism. Moreover, I am married to somebody who isn’t Jewish, and our kids consider themselves “half Jewish.” We have a Christmas tree and decorations on and in our house, and we may be personally responsible for at least a quarter of the nation’s GDP from our holiday spending alone. But, even with all that, when my government has a big Merry Christmas celebration. When “Merry Christmas” is on the podium of an event that isn’t even about Christmas, I take notice. Intended or otherwise, gestures like that are felt by many of us non-Christians as a hint that we matter less.
I spent my sophomore and senior years of high school at a Catholic school. This was by choice (more my parent’s choice than mine, but still a choice), so I have no problem with those years being full of religion. It doesn’t bother me that we had days off for holidays and recognition of Saints that I had never heard of before (and don’t remember today). I found it totally acceptable that I was required to learn about religion in that school, and felt like they went out of their way to accommodate me by exempting me from the standard religion classes, and instead giving me individualized lessons with the religious studies teacher instead (honestly, that feels way over the top now; anybody who volunteers to attend a Catholic school should probably have to follow the rules of the other students). All that in mind, knowing that I do not have an objection to the way that I was clearly different from the other students because it was my family’s choice for me to be there, I find that totally unacceptable in a public school, or a government function. Yes, it was acceptable for me (and another Jew and a couple Muslim kids) to sit in the cafeteria during Masses that were mandatory for the other students, because we chose to go to a Catholic school. Yes, it was acceptable for me (and another Jew and a couple Muslim kids) to sit quietly at our desks in silence while our classmates recited the Lord’s Prayer each morning after (or before…I can’t remember) the Pledge of Allegiance, because we chose to go to a Catholic school. But, even though we made that choice, being in that situation was a clear signal that we were different and we were the “others” around there. The public square, in my view, should not have “others” and folks who are made to feel different. I’m sure Trump’s supporters call that “PC bullshit,” but I call it being welcoming and inclusive.
But, all that said, maybe I can learn from this. When I hear “Merry Christmas” from my government, it’s like somebody walked up to the guy next to me and said, “I love you,” totally ignoring me. Sure, there’s a good “positive interpretation” I can have, and I can be happy for all the Christians being acknowledged for their group belongingness, but there’s also the “negative interpretation” that says this country is for them, not for me. Maybe this is the same way that some non-black people feel when they hear “Black Lives Matter.” Saying “Merry Christmas” isn’t telling me to have a lousy Hanukkah or even saying that non-Christians don’t matter, just like saying “Black Lives Matter” isn’t a statement about other groups. Maybe it’s a majority-minority thing. Maybe “Merry Christmas” feels like the majority throwing its weight around, but “Black Lives Matter” feels like a plea for recognition by a minority group. Maybe that’s a fair way to see them differently.
Nevertheless, I hope anybody reading this who celebrates Christmas has a very merry one, and I hope anybody who celebrates any other holiday enjoys their holiday also.