Monday, April 28, 2014

Biting My Tongue at Easter

I love my family. I really do. Not just because I have to, or because I've known them longer than anyone else. Well, partly because of that, but I also love them individually for the people they are. They are kind and loving people, and have good intentions toward each other and the people in their worlds.

That said, I've always been a bit of an odd duck in my immediate family. I was the teenager who bleached my hair and dyed it with Manic Panic, and collected tattoos and body piercings. Then, I was the young adult who started getting all these crazy ideas about social and economic inequalities, and all the little elements from quotidian life that supported such inequalities. Everything from the racist subtext of Disney movies to the sexist assumptions behind cliche relationship dynamics was increasingly interesting to me, and I couldn't help but point out these things at family gatherings. My intent was always to inspire discussion, but it always ended up devolving into a family chuckle about how I was just being contrarian and nitpicky, like always.

That's fine, I guess. I know that I tend to read into everything more than others may feel comfortable or interested enough to do. I know that my doing so can be exhausting to others (hell, it exhausts me sometimes), and that there's value in just enjoying each other's company and shooting the breeze on some superficial level, without having to excavate the conversation for the ideologies beneath. I also know that this tendency of mine earns me the distinction of being the "weird" aunt/sister/daughter, which I would wear as a badge of honor, except that it can be quite alienating in practice.

Still, I can't help but be uncomfortable remaining silent when my brother in law's mother pokes fun of him in front of me and my own mom, as he is working in the kitchen with great effort and skill to prepare Easter dinner for his family. I can't laugh along as she jokes with me about men's lack of domestic skills, and I politely point out that gender alone has far less to do with domestic prowess than practice does.

I squirm in my seat when my 19 year old nephew, fresh out of Marine Corps training, tells a story about how he was stopped at a suburban shopping mall this week by a security officer who thought he  was under 16, and thus in violation of the mall curfew policy. The security officer wouldn't accept his military identification as sufficient proof. "I just hate it when people have no respect for the military," my nephew complains loudly to us, and I shoot my husbutch a look that betrays my irritation. I say, "What -- did you want him to salute you?" and my mom elbows me from beside me on the couch. "Don't start," she says under her breath, but it doesn't matter. My nephew is still barking his indignation, and he doesn't hear me.

After dinner, several people are eating pie, when my sister, who has been holding her newborn baby for most of the last few hours, says to the room: "My husband didn't offer to bring me any pie." When my other sister gets up and offers to bring her some, she says: "No. I want him to feel guilty." At that point, I just can't anymore. I get up and quickly move to another room before I start calling out the meanness behind her banter, and how her attempt to exercise power in this way undermines genuine and mutually respectful relationships between men and women.

None of the comments in these scenarios were intended to be explicitly political, but they are nonetheless. The things we say, the way we treat each other, all matter. It is a reflection of our general approach to social issues and other people. Even casual comments or jokes that support stereotypes and social divisions have impact. In a sense, this banter has even more impact than an overt discussion of politics, because it is so easily trivialized and brushed off as meaningless.

Now, I'm not saying that we should censor ourselves in conversation with our friends and family in an attempt to achieve some kind of artificial political correctness. This is disingenuous and misses the point. I simply think that as a whole, we should be more open to examining the beliefs behind our words, the ideas behind our beliefs. This kind of conversation, especially when held among people with whom we are comfortable, helps us to become more thoughtful and introspective. It doesn't have to be contentious, and there doesn't have to be a winner. If we can figure out how to challenge each other and even disagree in the end without fighting and hurting feelings, how much would we all learn in the process?

I'll be the first to admit that I wasn't very successful on this front at last week's Easter gathering. I mostly bit my tongue and rolled my eyes. If anything, I probably came off as self-righteous and judgy. Maybe somebody should have called me out on it.

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