Burned out on call-out culture? Try fraternal correction

One of the most wretched and discouraging phenomena of the past year or so is call-out culture and its dreadful child, cancel culture. So many decent, or even indecent but not totally irredeemable people — which includes most of us — were deemed too problematic to exist by a rapacious online mob. Both far right and far left extremists indulged themselves, and heads rolled.

I wondered how long this kind of thing could go on before people realized that it has only one end: Self extinction. You tighten your crowd into a smaller and smaller knot of what’s acceptable, and sooner or later, even the inner circle gets strangled.

But one woman whose voice seems fairly influential in the states is trying to push back against this trend. I found her words especially compelling since I doubt her views align with mine very often, so I know I’m not just sympathetic because she sounds like me.

What I liked was how she talked about people you disagree with. I liked the idea that she thought you could talk to them.

Her name is Loretta Ross, and she’s a professor at the Smith College, a progressive private women’s liberal arts college in Massachusetts, and she was recently interviewed for a public radio station, ahead of the release of her new book in 2020.

Ross, who is black, said that she used to allow herself to hate white supremacists. “I kind of felt like, if they wanted to hate me, I was okay hating them,” she said. 

But that changed when she met a former white supremacist, who himself backed out of the movement when he realized his own child, who was born with a cleft palate, did not deserve to be exterminated.

Her organization worked with him to help him un-learn his radical beliefs. And in the process, she discovered that even some radicals are reachable. Even more interesting, she is reaching people on her own side, who already agree with her but who respond to true injustices in a way that she sees as counterproductive.

Her students, for instance, were lashing out harshly against the administration of their college for not responding as strongly as they might have to anti-semitic graffiti on campus. She allowed the students to protest, and then redirected them:

“Smith at worst is a problematic ally. We’re supposed to be talking about fascists. So unless you think the leadership of Smith is fascist, can we stay focused on the fascists?” she said.

She urges her students to do more “threat assessment” and “target assessment.” It’s all too easy to lose perspective and to expend all the energy of your righteous anger on someone who is essentially on your side, but isn’t squeaky clean according to your current standards — and meanwhile, the truly dangerous aggressors go unchallenged, having taken cover in a sea of microaggressions.

I’ll have to think more about this, and I want to hear this idea fleshed out further. I do think it’s important to call people to account for inadequate responses to evil. If Smith college did have a tepid response to swastika graffiti, then that’s worth denouncing, even if Smith isn’t as bad as actual Nazis.

But the call-out culture she seems to be rejecting isn’t simply the kind that calls people to account for doing wrong or failing to do right.

It’s the kind that offers the heady thrill of publicly denouncing anyone who falls afoul of what you consider the correct point of view, simply for the sake of denouncing them.

It feels virtuous and bracing, as if you’re scouring out the corners of some filthy room to usher in health and healing. But in practice, what often happens is that people who are mostly innocent are seriously injured — or they’re so offended that they dig in, rather than examining their errors and making changes. Rather than bringing about a correction of an error, call-out culture often ends up entrenching people in their mistakes.

In other words, everything gets worse for everybody.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Image via Pxhere (Public Domain)

10 Ridiculous family games that need no equipment

  1. JEBRAHAMADIAH AND BALTHAZAR (also called “Master and Servant”)

Another role-playing/narrative game, but you can sit down for this one. I am not sure why my kids call this one “Jebrahamadiah and Balthazar,” except that (a) it has something to do with the Jeb! flyers we kept getting in the mail when Jeb Bush was running for president, and (b) they are weirdos.

One person gives orders, the other person explains why he can’t carry them out. The answer has to be part of a consistent narrative — you can’t just make up a new excuse for each command.

Here is an abbreviated example. The longer you can draw it out, the funnier it gets:

Jebrahamadiah! Go get me a glass of water.
I would, but I just broke the last glass.
Then go get me a cup of water.
I would, but when I broke the glass, I cut my finger, and I can’t use my hand.
Well, use your other hand.
I would, but when I was searching for a Band-aid for my one hand, I slammed the medicine chest door on my finger, and now both hands are useless.
Then call an ambulance.
I can’t, because, if you’ll recall, my hands don’t work.
Then use the speaker phone.
I would, but when I slammed the medicine chest door, some nail polish remover fell on my phone and now the speaker doesn’t work.
Then just shout out the window for help.
I would, but the neighbors saw me wrecking my phone, and he’s a big jerk, and laughed so hard that he drove off the road and now he’s in a coma.
Well, shout out the other window on the other side of the house.
I would, but when the other neighbor drove off the road, he knocked a utility pole down, and a live wire landed on the house on the other side and now it’s on fire, so I don’t want to bother them.
Well . . . okay, fine, I’ll get my own water.

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Image: From Wikihow Play Charades (Creative Commons)

Teaching 7- and 8-year-olds about their faith

In 2019, I started volunteering as a faith formation teacher for Grade 2, which is preparation for first confession. I always had it in my head that I’d like to do it someday, and that I ought to. Then suddenly it occurred to me that now would work, so I signed up before I could change my mind.

I only have a little bit of experience teaching a group, but I do love kids this age (seven and eight). They are extremely sincere and funny, eager to please, and ravenous for information about how the world works, and most of them haven’t developed a fear of asking questions that might sound foolish. They are also very silly, very immature, and some of them are in constant need of redirection. My hat is off to full-time teachers who manage kids for many hours every day! I don’t think I could do it.

I think it’s going well so far. Here is what I have discovered about teaching kids this age:

They love body movement. When I want them to remember something, I try to come up with a bodily motion or gesture to help it stick in their heads, and they love getting up and doing something.

One especially popular one is when I shout, “Who made you?” and they shout, “God!” I shout, “Why did God make you?” And they shout, “To know him [stamp left foot], to love him [stamp right foot] and to serve him [stamp left foot] in this world [point to the ground dramatically like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever], and to be happy with him forever IN THE NEXT [point to the sky dramatically like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever].

We also learned the American Sign Language sign for Trinity when we did our first lesson on the Trinity: Three fingers of your dominant hand are showing behind your non-dominant hand, then the dominant hand goes under and comes up in front with one finger. Three persons, one God. We shall see if they remember next week. I bet some of them will.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Photo By: Cpl. Katherine M. Solano (detail) (Public Domain)

How Catholic parishes can help an under-served community: The jerks

Our pastor recently distributed pencils and slips of paper, and humbly asked us to write down what the parish could do to help bring us closer to God. He promised to read them all and pray over them, and do what he could.

I can only imagine that he got a wide range of answers, depending on who was responding. Parents of small children probably wanted crayons, changing tables, and an ally in the pulpit. College students almost certainly asked for a late Mass so they could sleep off whatever wretched thing they did on Saturday night. Singles probably wanted to feel like they weren’t forgotten; people with special needs surely asked for more accessibility. And these are all reasonable requests, and things the Church ought to be able to supply.

But you know which community is grievously under-served? You know which group of laymen is consistently overlooked, neglected, silenced, and marginalized?

The Jerk Community. Yeah, that’s right. We jerks are children of God, just like the rest of youse, and we have our needs. My jerk children stole all my slips of paper and I think they may have eaten the pencil, but if I had another chance, here is what I would tell my pastor that jerks like me really need . . .

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Image from The expression of the emotions in man and animals by Charles Darwin via Flickr (no known copyright restrictions)

Juggling, jargon, and the golden ball

Last week, I read Tomie dePaola’s wonderful story, The Clown of God, to my faith formation class. (If you don’t own the book, you can hear and see it read aloud in this video.)

Before I read the book, I prepped the class a bit. It happened to be my daughter’s birthday, as well as the last class before Christmas, so we talked about birthdays and presents. To my relief, they all knew that Christmas is Jesus’ birthday.

And what present does Jesus want for his birthday? We established that he probably doesn’t want a Hot Wheels Ultimate Gator Car Wash play set, and he probably doesn’t want a Barbie Sparkle Lights Mermaid.  So what does he want?

Most of them were baffled. Then a few hands shot up.

“Love!”  said one kid. I smiled and nodded, and wrote that down on the white board.

“Community,” said another. “Respect, service, compassion.”

He laid the words out flatly, like a card dealer mechanically snapping cards out on a table. He had clearly heard them a thousand times before, and knew how to say the thing the teacher wants you to say: Jesus wants us to love one another. Jesus likes community. Jesus likes service. Some of these kids are barely in contact with anything religious, but others have been in Catholic school since they were tiny, and at the tender age of eight, they are full to the brim with jargon.

So I read them the book. The story goes like this . . .

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Image: Detail from illustration from Tomie dePaola’s The Clown of God

Meaningful Christmas traditions and how to wrangle them

I’ve tried various esoteric practices involving veiled candles, bits of straw, paper chains, acts of service, gift lotteries, medieval anagrams, and every other kind of overachieving cultural what-have-you that caught my eye while I was desperate to make everything Meaningful For The Children.

I remember one year worrying so hard about materialism that I told the kids that one of their presents would be the opportunity to choose a gift for a poor child, and donate it. It wasn’t a bad idea . . . for the older kids. The younger kids, predictably, misunderstood horribly, and it was bloody awful. I only hope they’re so young, they don’t remember the year Mama apparently told them they could pick a toy for themselves and then forced them to dump it into a box and walk away for no reason at all. AT CHRISTMAS.

So. We don’t do that anymore. Through the decades, here is what I have learned about Christmas family traditions . . . 

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Let’s treat retail and service workers like human beings

This year, I have three kids working in retail. One is at a giant arts and crafts store chain, one is at a deli counter in a supermarket, and one is at a popular coffee shop.

One has had potato salad thrown at her. One has had her teeth insulted. And one just started his new job yesterday, so nothing bad happened yet, but his last job was at an old-fashioned candy shop, and you’d be amazed to see how spectacularly nasty people can be when they’re surrounded by jars of brightly colored sugar.

When my kids get home from work, they often dejected and bitter about the interactions they had with customers. These are decent, competent kids who really make an effort to do what is expected of them; but just because they’re behind a cash register or have an apron on, so many customers allow themselves to vent their spleen and call them names, insult their intelligence, blame them for things they can’t possibly control, or just treat them with disgust, rolling their eyes, sighing noisily, flapping their hands with disdain. I know it’s only going to get worse as it gets closer to Christmas. If Christmas shopping is a beast, they all work right in the heart of that beast. 

Customers are stressed out and overwhelmed by all the shopping and planning that needs to get done (or at least, that they’ve convinced themselves needs to get done). I’ve been there! When lots of people are depending on you to fulfill their expectations, it’s hard to keep perspective.

But really. Everyone. When is it ever more important to keep your perspective? If you’re not going to treat strangers well when you’re preparing for the birth of Christ, then when are you going to treat strangers well? The day after Christmas? The day after that? Maybe on your death bed?

Let’s all make a resolve to get this right, this year. Lots of people working retail and service jobs just got hired, and are just learning the ropes right when it’s busiest and everyone is at their most demanding.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

 
Image by Pedro Serapio from Pixabay

Keep It Light, Stand Your Ground, Salt the Earth, or Waldorf

So here is a Thanksgiving essay I wrote for an Australian audience, knowing it would be published after American Thanksgiving. Australians do not, of course, celebrate Thanksgiving, and even if they did, this piece is so intrinsically stupid, it would be stupid anywhere on the globe, at any time of the year. I thought I’d share it today, on Giving Tuesday, as a gift to you. You can read it and think happily to yourself, “At least I never wrote anything this stupid.”

You’re welcome

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Image via Flickr from page 221 of “Pompeii, its history, buildings, and antiquities : an account of the destruction of the city with a full description of the remains, and of the recent excavations, and also an itinerary for visitors” (1867)

 

8 ways to be generous without spending a dime

Being a Catholic means hearing constant appeals for donations; but sometimes, we truly don’t have a lot to give. If we’re barely getting by ourselves, then as much as we’d like to write a cheque and solve everyone’s problems, we just can’t. The best we can do is to give the little we can, and make a promise to do more if our situation improve later.

The same is true for non-financial giving: Sometimes we’re tapped out, emotionally and psychologically. We’re barely keeping our heads above water, and it takes all our effort to get through the day without murdering anyone or falling apart completely. Sometimes there truly is no room for extra effort, nothing non-essential to give.

I lived that way for a long time, off and on. Raising 10 kids, being very poor, homeschooling, and managing health problems can take just about all the mental and emotional energy you have to give. But now my kids are older, my finances are more stable, my health is under control, and I find that I don’t have to live in survival mode anymore. I’m trying to shake myself out of survival habits, and remember that now that I have some extra to give, I really should try!

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Photo: Thekiwimaster [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

No more jerks for Jesus

St. Paul got knocked off his horse, and then he stopped persecuting Christians. Pretty dramatic. From that day forward, he stopped being the guy that helped kill Christians, and started being the guy who saved them.

Some people do experience a conversion so dramatic and easy to pinpoint, you could paint a picture of the exact moment it happened — and many people have, with St. Paul. And by all accounts, his behavior was dramatically different after he got up from the ground, and it remained different until he died.

But it’s far more common for Christians to undergo a conversion that drags on, un-picturesquely, for decades and decades, in fits and starts, with long spells of no progress, with several incidences of backsliding, and with such incremental progress that you can’t discern it at all unless your eyesight has been sharpened by the Beatific Vision.

The fits and starts and barely discernible progress? That’s me — specifically, regarding the one sin that I’m having the hardest time overcoming, which is uncharitable words and thoughts against other people. I’ve been trying to change. I’ve been trying to change for about 20 years now.

So far, no one has made any fine art depicting my conversion. Instead, countless people have gently or firmly objected to the uncharitable things I’ve said in public and in private; and countless people have showed me a more Christlike approach that looks so attractive, I feel the faint stirrings of wanting to imitate it. It’s hard, because it’s just so much easier to be mean.

I get rewarded for being mean far more than I get criticized for it. And I enjoy being mean. I’m really good at it.

But I still can’t completely ignore the words and witness of the people around me who have done a better job of conquering this sin.

Because of them, I have made . . . a little progress. I still lose my temper routinely. And even worse, I still lose my temper, recover it, and then deliberately and coolly choose to be uncharitable anyway, because it feels good, or because I came up with a really funny zinger, or because I tell myself it’s just a little thing and doesn’t matter much. Even though I have read and heard the words, over and over and over again, that it does matter. That if I have not love, I have nothing.

Charity toward others is not a little thing. It’s the biggest thing. But still I struggle, one step forward, ten steps back. It is discouraging. I would rather be knocked off my horse, but who knows? Maybe I would pick myself up, brush myself off, and go right back to being an unfettered jerk. It could happen.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Image: Book of Hours, Walters Manuscript via Flickr (Public Domain