Our core memories are those that build the foundation of the world we live in. One of my most powerful core memories is of a speech I found flipping through the channels late one night when I stumbled across, it may have been on PBS. I didn’t know for sure who she was, but she was standing at a podium and I had caught her right as she was saying (my paraphrase here) “You can’t just come into these communities and tell them to stop [female circumcision]. They do it to each other with pride. This is something that is a part of their lives, their culture, and they’re proud of it. You have to meet them, learn about them and their ways ….”
I was horrified. I couldn’t believe how angry I was and before she’d finished a paragraph I was hooked on this speech and wanted desperately to know why the fuck I couldn’t tell them to stop hurting girls, my sisters, the mothers of our next generation. Was ready to waltz into villages and smite those fuckers who dared to do this shit to innocent girls. But she had stood there so calmly, reasonably, explaining to us why we couldn’t just hulk-smash our way through these atrocities. And she told us in a way that made alarming and devastating sense. It’s not that people are bad, it’s that they don’t know, and so they don’t see it that way. She wasn’t telling us “don’t bother, they’ll never change anyway”, she was saying that we can help communities overcome self-harm; through compassion.
She made me see how I had a mistaken impression that people know when they are doing something bad and they are doing it despite knowing that it’s bad. I had never before that day realized that people often do horrible things without any remorse because they think, feel, and believe that what they’re doing is not just not-bad; they believe it’s good, and justified. They believe they are doing what’s best, they believe they are honoring their ancestors, and that they are righteous in their actions. These kind of people will not be shamed into changing because shame relies on the wrongdoer’s knowledge of the wrongness of their transgressions and the ensuing bad feelings stem from knowing that they have broken rules. In a place where the ritual is celebrated and encouraged, there is no inherent wrongness as far as the transgressor is concerned, so there is no reason for them to feel bad.
Similarly, when someone is told that they are experiencing equality, and they believe what they hear, it can be very difficult to open a conversation with them about how they are not being treated equally – even if it seems obvious from another point of view. The people who are sexist rarely call themselves sexist. In fact, many of them have protective and supportive feelings toward women, believing that women have a special place. The teachings are softened by grooming that describes woman’s role as necessary and honorable. Even though women in many cultures are taught to sacrifice for others, and limit their life choices to breeding or caregiving while men are encouraged to choose from an array of paths leading to self-sufficiency and productivity – telling women in this type of culture that they are being mistreated doesn’t always make sense to them. They deeply value their role as they’ve been taught, and often it’s the foundation for their entire identity.
It may seem a far cry to compare genital mutilation with even the most extreme activities in America, but I do so only as a parallel – two concepts that may be close, but never intersect. Lack of knowledge is not necessarily bad, but in the wrong hands, it only gets worse. Anti-intellectualism is a serious problem in America because it helps perpetuate deeply damaging behaviors like sexism and racism. The teeth of discrimination and oppression sunk into the flesh of America long ago. The sickness of anti-intellectualism has locked the jaws of inequality shut and kept us from escaping. No one can just walk into America and tell people to use critical thinking when they feel justified and rational in rejecting it.
A tempered approach is a good way to get through to someone who feels justified.