Bad things -- from war, massacres, murder, rape, mobs, car crashes, terrorist acts, industrial accidents, unjust imprisonment... all the way down to food fights and schoolyard teasing -- are usually loud, attention-grabbing, sudden, alarming, often lit up in orange and red, fire and blood and flushed cheeks.
Good things are nearly imperceptible. They only reveal themselves gradually, in someone's half smile, a newly confident way of walking, a handshake, a healthy child.
But even when conditions get better in society, even when people become more equal in their opportunities and status, it often means more conflict, more noise, more obvious bad things. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed: "Democratic passions would seem to burn most fiercely just when they have the least fuel." As people get closer they tend to harp on small differences even more vociferously.
So what does this have to do with prejudice?
Prejudice is an obvious bad thing. It shows itself in extreme acts of cruelty and brutality -- genocide, pogroms, lynching, gay-bashing, and a thousand other nameless acts, undertaken by states and individuals alike. It is ubiquitous; it seems intractable.
But sometimes it goes away. And when it does, it goes away quietly. And it seems to me that this has profound implications when we think about how we raise children.
Let's take a specific example: prejudice against homosexuality.
See if this story is familiar to anybody.
When I was in public school in Berkeley, California, in the early 1980s, although Berkeley was (is it still?) known for its social awareness (we were taught "herstory" along with history at Martin Luther King Jr. Junior High), I had absolutely no compunction -- not even a tiny flicker of self-consciousness or shame -- about using the term "fag" or "faggot" with my friends.
We called one another that term as a kind of all-purpose putdown. The idea that someone in our social group -- some guy -- might take offense (amazingly, from today's perspective) never even occurred to me.
By the end of the 1980s, even in my teenage circles, something was changing. Thanks to the efforts of many activists, and the simple, graceful, increasingly out lives of many gay and lesbian people, and the added attention that the AIDS crisis was generating for the homosexual community, the idea of gayness, beyond the schoolyard taunt of "fag," had trickled into my adolescent consciousness. Arrriving at college in 1987, I found that I had a gay Resident Assistant in our freshman dorm. Cool, I thought. Whatever. But there still wasn't much of a dent in my thinking. Maybe I had grown out of childish putdown words like "fag," but it still wasn't personal to me.
Then I spent a summer in New York in 1988, and I stayed with a good friend. I admired him and thought he was handsome as well -- I always had (but never thought much of it). On my last night in the city, as we sat talking, the TV on with the sound off, a rainstorm streaking down the windows, there was a kind of erotic charge in the air. I didn't realize it at the time, but thinking back on the night the next day, from my position in the window seat in an airplane preparing to take off, it occured to me that... being gay might... could... oh my god... even apply to someone like me.
I knew I liked girls, a lot, but what was it that was in the air as we sat in his apartment talking, laughing, enjoying each other's company?
Staring out the airplane window, watching baggage carts move around in the rain, I forced myself to say aloud, just to see if I could do it: "I... am... gay." It was difficult to form the words, and when I said it I felt relief. (I have no idea what the man in the business suit in the seat next to me was thinking!) I knew then that I could face it -- if that was the case.
I had broken my threshold of prejudice. I also sensed at that time that my acknowledgement of the erotic charge with my friend on that particular, aesthetically-pleasing night did not actually make me "gay." Perhaps in some scenarios -- as a Samurai in 12th century Japan? as a teenager in 21st century America? -- I could engage in fulfilling same-sex relationships. But the fact is that my heterosexual urges always buried -- and bury -- whatever potential there is under a landslide of inchoate longings for the female form. (It's kind of like asking a gay man if he could imagine being with a woman: "Ah, sure," he might reply. "But why?")
Perhaps this personal revelation of mine -- confronting my own prejudice against homosexuality -- coincided with an awakening in much of young, heterosexual America, I don't know. What I do know is that beginning in the early 1990s people who were not gay started accepting gay identity on equal terms. Yes, I know, it was then that Clinton backed off his efforts to allow gay men and women to perform military service openly -- the political cost, he no doubt concluded, was too high. But something was changing nevertheless. When Kurt Cobain french kissed his bassist Krist Novoselic on Saturday Night Live in 1992, or when he sang (in "All Apologies" from 1993's In Utero), "Everyone is gay," these events were perfectly in synch with the culture. They shocked, but not too much -- we knew what he was doing in rejecting the clumsy categorizations of our religion-soaked, rigidly gendered, traditional, homophobic culture.
Still, some prejudice remained in me. In graduate school I briefly dated a bisexual woman and felt threatened by her previous relationships, wondering if she was missing something that I couldn't provide (well, maybe that was not so much prejudice as paranoia). I remember talking with friends during those 20-something years about what could possibly rattle us if we were parents someday. I distinctly remember us agreeing that, for all of our self-congratulatory open-mindedness, we would be rattled if our teenage kids came home with a same-sex date and said, "Mom, Dad, it's no big deal -- everybody does it." Special gayness was all right, but not matter-of-fact, everyday gayness.
And then, somewhere along the way (I would like to think it was sometime around 1994?), even that residue of prejudice just dropped away for me.
Now I think of gay or lesbian orientation as being akin to other personality traits -- a mix of genetic predisposition, choice, who cares. When people find love in each other, it makes me happy. Period.
I don't make any distinction anymore between gay couples or heterosexual couples. Gay marriage is plainly needed -- now. The issue of gay adoption confuses me -- Why would this be a problem? You mean you would object to a loving couple wanting to adopt a child in need of a home?
If my child came home and announced he or she was gay (or just mentioned it in passing, for that matter!), I would have the same questions that I would in regards to any relationship. I would be interested in how he or she was feeling. I would want to know more. I would be concerned that my child is careful about using condoms. And I would be just as excited for the romantic adventures, highs and heartaches, which loomed ahead, as I would be if this same child were heterosexual.
What I am saying is: the prejudice against gays or lesbians now strikes me as bizarre. And a recent poll conducted by the New York Times and MTV shows that, for a growing number of people in the U.S. under the age of 29, it is a relic of the past.
But this change in me was not marked by high-profile events. It happened quietly.
How does this story translate into an approach to parenting? Well, it occurs to me that we need to make an effort as parents to get around the noisy, alarming, bad things which take up the foreground of our concerns. Of course we need to worry about drunk driving and the like. But we also need to make the time with our children to explore with them the quiet ways in which we choose to appreciate other people and open our minds.
If, for example, we meet a transgendered person, instead of just registering surprise or curiosity, we should take the opportunity to talk to our child about the frustrations which the transgendered and transsexual communities face. Continue the conversation at home. Rent Transamerica (actually do that regardless -- I just saw it and recommend it).
I guess what I am saying is that if we see anything that is unfamiliar to us, don't just shrug and move on. Initiate a quiet talk with your kid.
Who knows, we may end up learning more from our children than they do from us. Because, when you think about it, it's the act of listening -- the state of attentiveness to others -- which creates good things most of all.