Wednesday 19 March 2014

Being wrong and trying to learn.

Social media has had a number of effects on my life, but the biggest one has been how its challenged me. Not always vocally and not always personally, but one thing that I've found important to do is to look out for voices that provide different viewpoints to my own.

This is because I've been wrong a lot of times in the past. And I'll probably be wrong a lot in the future.

I've been generally lucky to have supportive, liberal, left-wing parents, who are fairly open-minded, and even luckier to have watched them become, if anything, more liberal, left-wing and open-minded as time has gone on.

At the same time, I grew up in areas that were nice, but not necessarily very diverse. A suburb of Manchester for most of my childhood and a village in rural Ireland during my teens. My secondary school was an all-boys Irish Catholic one, run by the Christian Brothers.

Being, as I was, into drama rather than sport, and, to be fair, probably being an insufferable fellow student, my school days weren't huge amounts of fun, and I looked forward to moving away from University. But I was also nervous - after all, moving to England and going to a Drama course meant that I was really quite likely to meet (whisper it...) some gay people.

It's important to realise that I didn't know any out gay people when I was growing up. Or if I did, I had absolutely no idea - hell, it took me a surprisingly long time to figure out that Right Said Fred were gay. I thought they were meant to be skinheads. But where I grew up, my knowledge of gay people were primarily rumour or insults on which I was often on the receiving end. I didn't feel that I was being told that gay people were bad, or that I should be scared of them, but I was nervous. The main thing I knew about them was that they were perceived to be different.

By the age of 17, probably the two most rounded gay characters I was aware of were Simon Callow in Four Weddings and a Funeral and Uncle Monty in Withnail and I. I was also somewhat sexually confused as well - after all, I'd been called it enough that it was possible that other people saw something in me that I didnt. I didn't think I was into guys, but what if I actually was? And what would happen if I was hanging around with gay men? Along with all my other fears, I was also worried that I would be judgemental.

Flash forward a short while to me at seventeen, and my first day in university, and I was going around, meeting people. One of the first doors I knocked on was opened by someone I wasn't expecting to see. He was over six foot tall and slim, with bright pink hair. He was also dressed from neck to ankle in PVC, along with a pair of bright pink fluffy slippers.

I had never met anyone like this before. I put my hand out, probably with my jaw dropped, and he didn't shake it - he took it carefully, and introduced himself: "Hello, I'm Thom. That's Thom with a 'h'. The 'h' stands for homosexual".

While it probably didn't actually take more than a second, I remember my thought process clearly, as I was faced with someone who was far, far more out than anyone I had ever met before.

"Right, okay, this is new. What do I do? I've got, as far as I can see it, two choices. I can either freak out and walk away, and decide that's who I'm going to be, or I can decide that it doesn't matter and just be fine with it."

And what I said was "Hi, I'm Chris. Pleased to meet you." And from there, it was fine. Thom was absolutely lovely, and while we didn't become lifelong friends or anything, I think it's fair to say that we got on and were generally pleased to see each other around.

That was almost seventeen years ago, and I remember it vividly. I remember the flash of fear and the flash of feeling that I had no idea how to handle this situation, and then how quickly and how easily I realised that even slight fear of someone because they were gay was bullshit. Once I came to that first step, it stopped being something to worry about.

But I also realised how easy it would have been to have gone the other way. How easy it would have been to have seen what I saw as confirmation that here was somebody that was different to me, and that difference was negative. Personally, I think that would have been the point where I would have slipped from ignorance to hatred, and that's something I'm very glad that I didn't do.

Later, someone I shared a house with had an abortion, and while I think I successfully kept my judgement from her, I did judge her for it. I judged her for not having been sensible enough to avoid getting pregnant in the first place, and I absolutely judged her for not telling the father. I felt that she overrode his rights and put herself first, and took him out of the decision making process. I felt she treated the abortion casually and I found that idea difficult. I wasn't completely against the idea of abortion itself, but I did feel that it should be agonised over and debated and thought about, and was a big, serious step.

I look back on that and I realise how completely in the wrong my point of view was. But that realisation took me time, and took me far longer than I wish it had done.

I was raised Catholic, and anti-abortion imagery was around my upbringing. More so in the culture I was brought up in than absolutely directly in my family, but still very much there. I'd grown up with the idea that it was simply a wrong thing to do, although I ended up taking the personal viewpoint more that it was a practical choice in places, but should always be treated as a last resort.

The mistake that I made there (as if it isn't obvious) was putting my own discomfort with the idea ahead of a woman's right to make choices with regards to her own body. I was doing the same thing with the discomfort over whether or not the man involved with the pregnancy had been told.

Sometimes, a realisation is about putting things in a way that you just cannot argue with, and the line that I eventually came up with was this: My right to feel uncomfortable with a situation comes a distant second to a woman's right to make her own choices.

And lo and behold, when I came to that understanding, suddenly I was a lot less uncomfortable with the situation. Go figure.

I don't feel, looking back, that I was a horrible person, but I do feel that I was ignorant and naive. I had fairly firmly established ideas about what constituted right and wrong, and while I think that I got a reasonable amount of stuff right, it also led me to hold some beliefs that now make me very uncomfortable to have ever held at all. If you asked me if I believed in equality, I'd have said yes, and I would have meant it

So why do I now share them? Why do I share things that make me absolutely cringe to talk about? And of course, there's more, because I was young and stupid, and now I'm older and hopefully a little les stupid - at the very least, I'm more willing to listen and try to get to that understanding.

Am I saying 'Oh, you don't understand, poor me, I'm actually the victim here, with my upbringing and naivety - just leave me alone and remember how difficult it can be to be wrong'? Hell, no. If anything, I'm saying 'Get on me harder, because I know I get stuff wrong, and I want to get better at getting it right.'

Obviously, that comes with caveats - one of them being that it isn't your job or responsibility to help me out if you don't want to, and another being that it's important to remember that you may not always be right about the situation as well (and if there are two things that social media seem to increase, it's the apparent certainty of being right and the increased ability to be misunderstood - I've seen far too many arguments where I think both people were misunderstanding each other more than disagreeing).

My intention with this rather rambling blog post has been to use my own experiences to come to a more general point.  Because the important point is the ignorance. I think that ignorance and hatred are different things, although I also think that ignorance can easily lead to hatred. And hatred doesn't have many solutions. But ignorance? That can have some solutions. The light of normality can help out with a lot of them. And when you don't understand something, when you don't know how you're going to react to it, fear can come from a number of directions.

Nowadays, I tend to hold my tongue a lot more. Not because I'm scared of what I'm going to say (and anybody that knows me away from a computer screen knows that it doesn't take much for me to give my opinions about things), but because I'm more aware that there are situations where, whichever side I'm on, my voice doesn't need to be part of the conversation. Just my ears, at least for now, until I've listened more to the voices that speak with experience.

Social media is amazing for this. You can seek out people who know more about things than you do, and listen to them. Hear viewpoints different to your own and be prepared to examine your own beliefs. It's important for all of us, and I honestly think it's the best thing about the internet.

Because I'd rather have been wrong through ignorance and have the ability to change, then think I'm always right and lose that ability. Being wrong isn't the end of the world. But refusing to believe that you can be wrong? That's unlikely to be good.

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