No, This Is Us

 

notthatdifferent

There’s been a lot of talk recently in response to the Executive Order banning entry to the US for anyone coming from seven countries in the Middle East. Indeed there’s been a lot of protest and outrage and anger. Particularly noticeable to me in that protest has been the often-made statement that “This isn’t the USA. This isn’t us.”  

I hate to tell you this, but it is us. It’s exactly who we are, and who we always have been. There can be no denial of the historical fact that the people of the United States and their successive governments of all parties have been bigoted, misogynistic, racist, genocidal, and just bloody dicks.

Every single right protected by the Bill of Rights has been stepped on, ignored, and abused since the first ten amendments to the Constitution were adopted. And long before. I mean, think about it? Why was the Bill of Rights written? Because the framers knew that people would act like selfish dicks in any case, but at least here was some protection against it.

And just in case you were thinking it already, yes, this has been true of every country anywhere, at any time in history. We are not unique. That’s the problem. We think we are; but we’re not. And because we think we are different, we naively believe that bad things won’t happen here, when they already have.

Because, let’s face it, people can be dicks and they will be, if they think they can get away with it. And the more selfish people are and the more power they can grab, the more like dickish they are likely to act.  Because the number one cause of dickish behavior is people thinking they are special. Thinking they are better than anyone else. Or at least better than (Insert minority group here). Or that because they are nice, whatever they do is from the best motives, and so it can’t be wrong, right?

Wrong.

The second you think you are better than anyone else, or deserve special treatment from the world, or that whatever you do is automatically alright, you are stepping into Dick Territory. And if you think that somebody else, for whatever reason doesn’t deserve to be treated the same as you, you are waist-deep in dickhood.

And that’s true for me, and it’s true for you, and it’s true for all of us.

Mercifully, we are not all dicks all of the time. This is one situation when the “Not all ____” plea has some truth. We are not always dicks, and some of us are trying to stop ourselves and the others of us from being dickish in a big way. Standing up and saying “I won’t be a dick, and I won’t let you be one either!” is pretty good.

Because I think it’s important to realize that we can’t simply say, “This isn’t us.” We have to admit it is us and then say, “But we don’t like it.” Or “But we’re changing now.” And then we have to recognize that We are just a whole bunch of Me, and say, “This is me, and I don’t like it. This is me, but I’m going to try and change.”

As the song says in Avenue Q, “Everyone’s a little bit racist.”  Well, we’re all a bit self-satisfied and bigoted, too.  If crazy people talking to themselves on the bus makes you nervous, well, that’s prejudice, my friend. Understandable, but still prejudice. If you treat people with mental illnesses differently than everyone else, ask yourself why? If you are nervous around young black men, ask yourself why? I mean I was beaten up by an Italian, but I can’t say I judge every Italian based on that. And I have never so much as been talked to nasty by any young black dudes. See what I mean?

I’m just saying that we are like that. We aren’t so different from the people we fear, or we disagree with or whom we despise.

This is us.

This is you.

This is me.

Own it, and then change it.

Because it’s simple* enough to change. Just do what is right. Don’t be a dick.

 

*I said simple. I never said easy.

Do Unto Others (Part 1)

img_4197-e1376373307464

 

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Do as you would be done by. You know how it goes.

I’m sure you have seen the Facebook meme where there is a list of religions and their variations on the theme of the “Golden Rule.” It seems like all the great teachers of religion and or philosophy have said the same thing in slightly different ways. It’s pretty easy to understand. It all boils down to the same thing, really: Don’t be a dick.

Essentially, I think that is what is at the heart of dickishness: doing or saying or somehow acting toward someone in a way that would piss you off if they did it to you. And I know; you get it. Everybody gets it.

But somehow we do it anyway. Just look at Facebook any day of the week. There are people on there saying awful things to each other. Sometimes they just do it for fun, because they can get away with it. You know, trolls. A troll is basically a dick who is a coward. He’s not a dick to your face, he does it behind your back. Behind the security of the internet. But because it’s so common, I want to talk about why people don’t just follow the Golden Rule. I think there are four reasons people act like dicks:

  • Forgetfulness
  • Anger
  • Selfishness
  • Actually wanting to be a dick.

I want to look at each of these in turn, starting with what I think is the most common. Or maybe I should say, I hope this is the most common reason people are dicks.

Forgetfulness. Something happens and we just forget. We don’t say to ourselves, “Hey, you know, if Sam acted like this I’d think he was a total asshole.” Sometimes, after we’ve done something like that, we realize what we’ve done and apologize. Sorry I was a jerk. My bad.

Sometimes we don’t bother to apologize, because, well, it was an accident, right? But forgetful behavior causes accidents that you can’t just shrug off. Fender benders. People get hurt. Things get damaged. Friends get upset. Just because we forget.

It has been said that there are no accidents, only inattention. At some point, before the fender bender, someone forgot to pay attention. You looked down to tune the radio and the car in front stopped. You knew the light was yellow, but you didn’t see it turn, and thought you could get through before it turned red.  You saw the light turn green but didn’t notice the dick driving through the red light. You fell asleep at the wheel, because you didn’t pay attention to how late it was and how tired you were. You ran into somebody because you were drunk, because you weren’t paying attention to how much you drank. All along the line, before the accident there was a moment of not paying attention.

Paying attention. What the Buddha called Mindfulness.

I think the Buddha was onto something about one way to avoid being a dick. Pay attention! Wake up! Don’t make assumptions.

This isn’t just limited to traffic accidents, but all kind of accidental dickishness.

Here’s an example of mild dick behavior. (I plead guilty to this one.) You are sitting having breakfast and looking at your iPad or newspaper or whatever. From time to time you say something to the human opposite, and they answer. Then you get engrossed in some tripe on Twitter, and there is a voice mumbling across the table at you. Only this time it’s important. But you don’t pay attention.

What’s the least that can happen here? The human opposite will be pissed off. They might feel hurt, because the something they mumbled was important to them. It might make a big difference later in the day, because something that needed to be done wasn’t. They might have asked your advice. They might have been saying how much they love you. And you missed it, you chump!

At the very least, communication didn’t happen, and that’s bad.

Now, ask yourself how do you like being ignored? Kind of cheeses you off, right? And what if they were telling you something you wanted, even needed, to hear. All kinds of bad things could result. Not the least of which is you being a dick to the Wrong Person. I mean, you just said something to them and they listened, right? So, fair’s fair, listen back. Golden Rule time.

But inattention doesn’t just make for minor irritation.

Say you’ve arranged to go into work with a buddy because your car is in the shop. The shop is just down the road from work, so you can pick the car up after. But your good friend thinks you said Thursday and you said Tuesday and you end up waiting for him to pick you up. He didn’t mean to mess up your day. He just didn’t really pay attention. And then he didn’t bother to phone up and find out. And now you’re screwed.

Or you ask that same buddy to borrow one of his power tools. He’s OK with that, and you have the thing a week. Of course, you used it the first day and were going to give it back, but one thing and another got in the way, and he hasn’t mentioned it at work or anything, so it’s alright, right? Until Saturday morning comes around and he’s standing at your front door asking for his bloody saw back. And out in the pickup are his friends from church or whatever who are on their way to start work on building tiny homes for homeless people, and they have been looking in his garage for half an hour before he remembered he loaned the thing to you, and now he’s pissed off and embarrassed, and you are embarrassed and pissed off, and one of his friends who is a dick about these things has been giving him a hard time for not being better organized… You get it.

The magic word here is empathy. Thinking about how the other person would feel. In fact, thinking about the other human at all. Or, in the most basic form, not thinking just about yourself.

What if we treat other people as if they were important to us, and they treated us the same? How would that be? How about if we didn’t just ignore each other? You think it might help?

Next time I’m going to be talking about being a dick because you’re angry. You know, the shitty phone call you make to your friend because he forgot to pick you up for work. In the meantime…

 

But is it Art?

 

artemisia-judith

As an art minister, naturally enough I support all kinds of creativity. I may not agree with another artist’s ideas, nor care for their subject matter, or even like a certain style. Liking, after all, when it comes to art, is mostly a matter of taste, and I am not about to start defining someone else’s taste for them.

There is always art that doesn’t work, of course – bad composition, poor perspective in representational drawing, wrong anatomy, inappropriate palette – all kinds of things. One cannot not hide crap art behind the excuse that you meant to do it that way; that it’s your “style.”

And then there is always the matter of whom art is for. Especially when it is “public art,” which I define as art you have to see whether you want to or not. Art on buildings, in the street, in public spaces.

And this is where things start to get a bit tricky, because in most cases, public art is presented to the public by the owners of the place where the art is presented. And this usually means the Establishment. The Government. The Churches. The Banks. The Rich.

This is all perfectly fine. After all, if you own a building, you can decorate it anyway you like. And it is good that the civic authorities brighten the streets and the parks and other public spaces with beauty. So, if a certain amount of the art presented by the establishment of the day tends to support the views of that established authority, we shouldn’t be surprised. And sure, you and I aren’t going to get invited into Buckingham Palace, but it’s a damn fine building to look at. And that equestrian statue of William III in the middle of the square? Sure it was put up as a political statement, but that was 200 years ago, so who cares?

However, there is the other kind of public art, the kind made by the public. And fair enough, if the State of Washington gets to make a political statement by building a neoclassical temple as the Capitol  Building in Olympia, other less established artists should have the right of reply on otherwise empty walls in the town. As in graffiti. Unless you are an artist accepted by the establishment, you don’t get to respond, unless you step outside the bonds of traditional venues for art. And there are some graffiti artists who have made public non-establishment art that is so good that the establishment itself sees the quality and accepts the art in the way art is supposed to be accepted: Is it good – not, do I agree with the message, but is it good art?”

The result can be amazing. Banksy, the graffiti master from Bristol, has managed to make his views known with style and artistry and over time, has more or less convinced the city government of Bristol that his work presented a positive image that was good for Bristol. Now the city is home for a number of graffiti artists – or perhaps they should really be called mural painters, who make many of the public spaces of the town very artistic indeed. Seattle, also, has a number of walls decorated with images, installations, and colorful messages that make the town a better place to live.

So for me, an art minister, I can say, good! Official art; unofficial art, it’s all good.

Up to a point.

And I guess it’s what happens beyond that point that I’m thinking about today.

Out driving the other day I saw a new fence had been put up around a neighbor’s yard. It was really rather attractive: reddish brown wood, very likely cedar, strong 4 x 4 uprights, clean capping pieces; it was pretty. It made me happy to see it, and I have no doubt that it cost quite a bit, and that my neighbor was very proud of it. From my point of view, it made the whole neighborhood look nicer. And then, two days later, someone had gone along with a spray paint can defacing the wood with a long black line.

This, I believe, was an act of pure dickery.

Now I understand, though I don’t agree with the idea that ‘tagging’ or spraying an illegible nickname or alias on walls is seen as a kind of graffiti. And I get the idea (though, again, I don’t agree) that tagging someplace easy to see but hard to reach is a kind of point scoring, a proof of masculinity or something. But that’s the point, see? Making art isn’t about scoring points. It isn’t about proving anything. And most importantly it isn’t about doing somebody else down.

The dick who sprayed my neighbor’s fence, if he had any thought in his head at all, probably thought he was showing how cool he was – how he’d made his mark, literally, on the street. As if, somehow, ruining someone’s fence was some kind of distinction. As if he’s scored. As if he’d put one over on the guy with the fence. As if he’d won the local pissing contest.

Tagging sees art as a pissing contest. Worse, it seems to see life as a pissing contest. I can tag higher. I can pee further. Woo-hoo. I can deface this place and get away with it. I can be a total dick and more importantly, a bigger dick than you. Please do not for a moment say that this is art. Or creative. Or political action. Or manly. It isn’t. It’s being a dick.

When I take my two Maltese out for a walk, Gwennie, the female will stop and pee. And then Spike, the male, will cock his leg and pee on top of it. That’s tagging. Dogs don’t have any other way of saying they have been there. Spike, I’m afraid, is a bit of a dick. But he’s a dog! And Maltese can’t pee higher than four inches off the ground anyway.

I find this idea that you can somehow make yourself seem better, cooler, or smarter than somebody else by destroying things or putting other people down the most egregious kind of dickery. It is the starting point of the high level dickery we are seeing more and more of in the world today.

Tagging someone’s fence is the start. It’s the mindset that says, “I’m better than you!” And that mindset leads to rounding people up and putting them in camps.

 

The image is Judith and Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi (1593 – 1653) The story is a typical piece of Old Testament mayhem. Judith seduces Holofernes, gets him drunk and murders him, which wins her a place in the Bible for her virtue. Gentileschi turns this horror story into a dramatic Baroque vision carrying the message: don’t be a dick.

Don’t Be a Dick

img_3029

 The Pacific North West, or Cascadia, is said to have the largest percentages of Nones in the US. Nones are those individuals who, when asked to state a religious preference on a form, enter None.

Nones are often atheists, sometimes agnostics of one kind or another, frequently people who were brought up in a Christian denomination and have left it, and very often people who say they aren’t religious but are spiritual. Some are very clear about what they mean by spiritual, others less so. But in any case, pretty much all of them, at one time or another have questions about morality, mortality, society, inter-personal relationships and lots of questions that start with ‘Why?’

As a minister, these are the people I seek to serve. I really don’t care if you believe in God, or the Goddess, or a Supreme Being, or Higher Power, or Odin, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or Nothing at All. To me it doesn’t matter what you believe in, but how your belief effects your daily life. Does it give you strength? Does it guide your actions? Does it give you inner peace? Does it make you a better person? Does it allow you to get away with being a self-satisfied, egotistical, bigoted, misogynistic, homophobic, judgmental dick? Does it provide you with justification for doing exactly what you want and ignoring the wellbeing of others?

If it’s one of the last two, then we need to talk.

But you can be an atheist and be a dick as well. In fact, anyone can be a dick at times.

And that is what this blog is about. Not being a dick. How to avoid being a dick by accident, and even more so, how to stop being a dick on purpose

I don’t intend to talk about what I believe, because, for a start, I’m not going to try and sell you anything. And furthermore, what I believe in has nothing to do with whether or not you chose to act like a dick.

For example:

Today I was driving along a typical Seattle street; one lane east, one lane west and one turning lane in the middle. Up ahead was a traffic light, red. There were ten or twelve cars waiting for the light; a good number even for five o’clock. The car in front of me moved over into the turning lane, which changed into a left turn lane just before the traffic light, with a dedicated arrow signal. He did not signal, he just crossed the yellow line into the turning lane, and drove alongside the cars in front. Now he was the first car in the left turn lane.

When the left turn arrow turned green, he crept forward and started nosing in front of the first car in the right lane. As soon as the light turned green, he shot off down the street.

Leaving aside that driving in the middle lane for more than a car length or two is illegal, what a dick! I wondered, as I pulled forward and got to be the first car in line as the light turned red, how many of the drivers in front of me felt like chasing him down and ramming him, before beating him to death with a tire iron. (This is not a recommended response, by the way.)

However, the question that came to me was what led that driver to think he was entitled to do that? To randomly break the law and ignore the desire of the other drivers to get on with their lives without some idiot cutting them off?

Now this is a small, thing, perhaps. But put yourself in the place of the driver in the right lane, patiently waiting for the light to change, and suddenly, from your left, here comes another car just…taking over. I would not be surprised it this kind of thing annoyed you. And how many irritations does it take to ruin your day? To make you bad tempered and just a little bit more likely to do something dickish yourself?

In short, why did the driver do that, and what was the result?

Exploring what constitutes being a dick and what to do about it is what I will be considering in the weeks ahead. Until next time, be on the lookout for dickish behavior and ask yourself, “Do I do that kind of shit?”

 

 

 

So Much Anger

384247_287242351317824_1903076265_n

For a lot of reasons I’m not going to look at Facebook today. I’m not going to listen to NPR, and I’m certainly going to avoid televisions. I might check up on some of the non=political people I follow on Twitter. Because I don’t want to get sucked down by the level of anger I see around me.

Not face to face, thank goodness. People still are mostly governed by social standards when they are dealing with real people, but Facebook has turned into a cesspool of bad language, insults and anger. Mostly anger. The other stuff seems to rise out of the anger.

As far as I can tell, people go online pre-set to lose their tempers. They have an insult ready, just in case. They know that as soon as they read something from someone they disagree with, they are going to want to scream at them in all caps. In short, they are primed to be a dick.

And even if they start calm, it doesn’t take long for the insults to fly.

Why is this?

What happened to disagreement over principals? To rational argument? To honest difference of opinion? Why, when you read something you disagree with, do you get angry?

Well, today there are a lot of people who are predisposed to getting upset, because they feel cheated. Other’s feel frightened, because they feel threatened. Still others feel like they somehow are being slighted or insulted, because other people don’t agree with them.

There was an election a few months back. Well, there are elections all the time in this country; we are kind of known for having them. And of course, if your candidate lost, it is quite understandable that you might feel disappointed. Maybe even sad. But many people are angry. Furious.

And on the other side the winners are angry that the losers are so upset.

Elections are won and lost all the time, and most of the time, people don’t even care. A lot of people don’t vote! But this time….?

Well, doubtless there are a lot of reasons. A lot of it stems from the fact that the campaign was so uncivil. The candidates were much more dickish than usual. This seemed to set the tone for everything that followed. Now everyone is expected to be aggressive.

Why? What are they so upset about?

In a word, disappointment.

People feel cheated.

Cheated out of what?

Out of getting what they wanted. Even the people who won feel like they are not being allowed to win fair and square, and get the spoils that so rightfully belong to the victors.

Now this is not the place to discuss the fairness or otherwise of our electoral system; everyone wins and loses using the same set of rules, stupid and unfair or not. It’s like a goal-kick shoot off at the end of a soccer match: nobody actually likes it, but you have to have a winner sometimes. It’s nice to win, but seriously, it’s terrible soccer. Same with the electoral college.

But going into a contest knowing that it’s rigged really leaves no room to complain afterward.

Now I understand that we all get upset when we don’t get what we want, or what we expect. Fair enough. But angry? How does getting angry help? How does anger get you what you want? How does the desire for revenge take you one step closer to where you want to be? How does calling people names solve any problems? And what makes you think you have a special right to feel disappointed? To be angry?

Some people say that it helps to let off steam. Alright. But if you are steam-powered, you just threw away some of your otherwise useful energy.

I have said in the past that anger is like holding a flaming coal in your hand, because you want to throw it at someone and hurt them. And who is it hurting, while you hold it? You. Just you. And even if you hit the person you want to hurt with your anger, how will this make anything better?

It won’t. The only thing that will help you get over disappointment is to make the things the way you want yourself. Does the world feel a little less safe than before? Work to make it safe again. Does it feel a little less caring? Show others that you care. Are you unhappy with the way things are going? Then work to push them in the right direction.

And honestly, the people you meet every day, face to face? Are they so different? And even if they are, and they behave like dicks, be the change you want to see in the world. Being angry will not help. It’s the first step to being a dick.