burn them to hell

This title refers to the tone of the words uttered by someone I don’t know in response to a former student of mine, Muslim, Egyptian, in training to be a doctor, who posted these words:

Hi.

Homosexuality is not a mental illness.

Homosexuality is not an ideology.

Bye

It stirred up trouble in his Facebook world, and I noted that a number of my former students who were in his high school responded with a thumbs up or a heart, and a total of 32 people responded in this manner. I have long wondered who among my students were gay or lesbian or bisexual; we teachers speculated. Even the kids did, some of them. But no one ever accused anyone, nor did anyone confirm suspicions and come out openly as gay. The price in this part of the world is to lose your family, and others have documented this in articles where gay men have told their fathers, been ex-communicated from the family until they rescinded their ways and saved face by begging forgiveness. Upon receiving forgiveness, they were then welcomed back into the fold and resumed their lives with elaborate lies which, in the case of one Arab man I know through a friend, involve false marriages, etc.

Two of my former student’s Facebook friends hit the laughter meme. Then a not-so-funny discussion ensued, where one of my beloved former students – a doctor who apparently is a specialist in neurology and psychiatry but is not a qualified or practicing psychiatrist – went head to head with a trained, Egyptian psychiatrist (because most of my former students from another part of Saudi came from doctors and have become doctors). He responded calmly to her patronizing and completely false, trite comments that ‘of course’ it is not right that someone should remove a whole diagnosis from a medical diagnostic manual. He confirmed: it’s true…homosexuality is not a mental illness.

My former student debated him as well, but the discourse left me feeling itchy to highlight some of this young woman’s flawed ways of thinking. She erred because she has a PhD in presenting herself as the expert, because she most certainly is wrong. However, I made the decision to stay out of the conversation altogether. I note, and I’m sure I’m right about this: many more of my former students avoided the conversation, too, because a flame war would only have erupted. I wish to maintain my neutrality anyway. It’s professionally important, even after all these years. In this regard, being a teacher is sometimes difficult. To know when to challenge and when to stay absolutely silent is a great conundrum, but it is essential to allowing others to come to their own conclusions (senses?).

We cannot change the minds of those who don’t want to change their viewpoints, first of all. But secondly, it is not my role as a teacher to tell anyone what to think – only to consider the facts, circumstances, moral implications, social biases, etc. that inform people’s opinions and social policies.

Just because something is a social policy or law doesn’t make it right, either. We’ve learned that time and again from many, many leaders who have used ‘law’ as a justification to banish people (ahem…Tutsi, Rohingya, Uyghur, Afghan women, and many others). No ‘expert’ or leader is incapable of making mistakes, if that is what you could construe willful ignorance as. Humans err in judgement and practice all the time.

I find it particularly hard to ignore the discourse (keep my mouth shut) in the face of bigotry any time and anywhere. But increasingly I find the propensity to ‘argue’ a dull pursuit. And I am interested in my own spiritual development. I would rather not engage in petty discussions where nothing good can come from them.

A good debate, on the other hand, is refreshing. A lot of people have lost the art of debate, or perhaps they never knew or gained it because they are surrounded by others who cloister together under their banners to justify a flawed communal ethos. Just because a large group of people argues one way of being doesn’t make it right. If so, laws in favour of human rights would never have come into being. Also, under such pressure, we might all live like Puritans, dressed the same, acting supposedly the same, and living our lives with so-called remarkable righteousness because we abstain from this and that – there are people who think you should live without electricity, internet, education and access to the opposite gender, and this is true in many fringe cultures that preach the religiosity of abstinence. I have tolerance for this to a point. What is happening to Afghan girls and women is the extreme of this, and it leaves me frustrated with the ways of men and, worse, women who find any form of oppression against women ‘normal’ or ‘right’. I struggle with this question of why people don’t cherish the fact that humans are an incredible melting pot. Diversity could be viewed as beautiful by the majority, and many think this to be true. Still, the vocal minorities who hate diversity in the name of religion or ideology truly can stir up trouble on this planet. It forces good, honest people to live in the shadows and the underground. It denigrates and degrades the human spirit. It fosters and foments attitudes of us and them, ‘otherness’ and superiority by force.

My mind wants this to be a just world, a kind world, one that respects all who live here. But we see the same story enacted all of the time: the privileged oppress the disadvantaged. I seldom think about it because this problem exists everywhere and there is only so much one can do to ‘change the world’, but this is not a new issue.

Social polarization has existed throughout the decades and centuries. Witch-hunts against various women’s groups and minorities have led to emotional and physical genocide of people. The fact that the scarlet letter banning and hunting down of those some feel superior to continues in the light of day, covered by major news organizations, detailed in horrific imagery on Twitter if you really want to know more. It’s galling and this is why we have advocacy groups all over this world, too: to shed light on oppression and the violence that can emerge from it.

The willful denial of the Holocaust and generations of blindness and denial of the abuse of aboriginal people in multiple nations and continents tell us how far we have come as humans in awakening to what we are doing to our brethren and the entire concept of ‘common humanity’. Not even the UN can stop some of these blights on our human record of history in the making, though thankfully we have the world in agreement that we still need the UN because…we need leaders of nations to try to uphold the principles of peace in real ways.

Despite that, there will always be some nations and leaders determined and brazen enough to enact terror, modelling for the masses how to abuse power, then, in the shadows of our very own organizations, communities and families. The facts across the world are there to see. I am reminded of my Week Without Walls school educational visit to Cambodia, where we all stood in the Killing Fields and looked at the memorial of real skulls and bones of people who still wash up today in the river. Only 42 years ago, the Khmer Rouge murdered the intellectuals of Cambodia by sending all the government leaders, teachers, professors and city-dwellers into the villages under the guide of providing safety…only to then slaughter every one after working them to death in work-camps. Forty years later, there are certainly war criminals on the loose, and still we have Holocaust deniers. Make no mistake of the aliveness of complex hypocrisy: too, we have the apartheid of the Palestinians and Afghan women and unbelievably public cleansing of the Uyghur Muslims and their culture, homes and language, practices and families in China.

There are people like my former student who justify their decision not to wake up to the consequences of hatred, though they know the truth of what they do. I am convinced of this.

So while I, as a teacher, cannot always air my views, per say, I can provoke thought by challenging and raising questions about what we are doing and why as a human race. This brings to mind one of my favourite professors of all time – Dr. David Wangler – an education philosophy professor formerly at the University of Alberta, and a true treasure of a man. He responded to me this week after I messaged him via another social media platform, and it all came back with a vengeance…

A teacher can facilitate a debate on THE VIEWS that prevail in public. This is the work of philosophy. Dr. Wangler taught many thousands of teachers in the making: you read to learn, you talk and think so that you may think more deeply and live more conscientiously (and teach with true depth and moral clarity as to the complexity of life – there is NO ONE RIGHT WAY, though perhaps there are directions one could go on), you argue in the spirit of debate and inquiry, not to be ‘right’. Wisdom comes from the examination of a lot of viewpoints. It helps to read good literature, contemporary, modern and classical. This work can change the mental DNA of a person who may be entrapped in a culture of denial. There is a known phenomenon in psychotherapy: awareness is enough to elicit change. So…

We teachers can change lives by provoking awareness and deeper thought through the contextualization of storylines and justifications. In theatre arts, we examine ‘context’ all the time, as playwrights and actors are and were always reflectors of society and challengers of oppressive attitudes. It was not always safe for playmakers to raise their voices so directly to the peasants and tell them they were getting screwed. Rather it was better to write placards in Brechtian style and hold them up with a dry, wry detachment: hey, do you see that this is all a bit of a facade? It was better to direct and act out stories that invigorated the imagination, and that spurred on protest and change. A change of attitudes leads to new actions. This is the sneaky truth about theatre. It is a tool for social change.

We humans must surely crave freedom. That’s undeniable, isn’t it? It’s spelled out in the ways we protest against flawed government legislation and police brutality – the power of the powerful gone wrong. But it’s surprising to me when some of us – and that includes those who squeeze the essence and value out of religion – crave control more than freedom. This raises the question of our human capacity for balance, something that is taught across cultures and religions. Getting the balance right matters. Too much freedom = chaos. Too much control = oppression and misery. Which way should humans and civil society err? We are living that dilemma out today in the world, with vaccine passports and questions about how to bring a pandemic to an end. But why isn’t responsibility to one another’s health and wellbeing at the fore of our wondering: how will we survive?

Back to bigotry and the abject, if polite sometimes, hatred of others. People in open western nations know they cannot speak freely about their loathing of others they do not like. There are anti-hate laws that protect us all from the lies and slander that some would spew, and the violence that can foment from the propagation of extremism, though not all nations have a strong commitment to this. People of different races, gender and sexual orientation come to mind as those who are afforded considerable waxing and waning protection, though somehow the planet gets away with agism quite nicely. It’s okay to mock old people. Not so much women. More insipidly, it is okay to discriminate in the workplace and the question of how to manage employers is a topic broader than this article aims to cover.

Regardless of whether I speak up about these topics as a teacher or not, or as an individual outside of my capacity as a teacher – as a writer, podcaster or person in conversation with anyone, I can stand for this much and do:

The promotion of hatred and intolerance can only darken and dampen our world. It can only smother the spirits of humans who harm no one and yearn to live free in pursuit of their own dreams and happiness. What but a sick mind would want to stand in the way of others from living their private lives and being happy? What an ill pursuit it is to cage birds who should be free to sing their songs. Harm no one. Live your life.

I’ll say it again: harm NO ONE. Live your life.

My job as an educator is to foster thought and critical thinking. I’m not sure everyone realizes or appreciates that.

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