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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

You've Got to Be Carefully Taught
October 2, 2011 - 4:09pm

Like so many others, I was saddened and discouraged to read of the death of Jamey Rodemeyer, yet another promising teenager who was apparently goaded into suicide by ignorant bullies.

Lady Gaga, who has been a strong and courageous advocate for LGBT teenagers, tweeted, in part, about this tragedy, “It is hard to feel love when cruelty takes someone's life."

It is indeed hard to feel love or compassion for hateful and destructive individuals. But I think it is imperative to try, especially when those individuals are children.

It is possible to cultivate compassion and attempt to understand the origins of hateful behavior while still holding the perpetrators accountable for their actions.

It’s important because bullies don’t just spring up in a vacuum. As Oscar Hammerstein wrote, you’ve got to be taught to hate and fear.

Reading Elizabeth’s interesting post on women who leave their children to care for others, I was reminded of one of my problems with The Help (I haven’t seen The Learning, though now I want to). The white clubwomen — the perpetrators of huge injustice against the black maids — were, it seemed to me, all portrayed as vicious sadists, at worst, or, at best, weak cowards.

I was raised by women like this, and I can tell you that the injustice was real, horrendous, and, as Elizabeth points out, continuing. My grandmother had a separate bathroom in her garage for the “colored help,” and God help the cleaning lady or yard man who wanted to pee inside.

But the perpetrators were not one-dimensional villains. Many of my mother’s and grandmother’s friends were kindhearted and brave in other aspects of their lives. They had no desire to harm anyone — they had simply been taught, from the cradle, that one group of people was less intelligent, clean, and trustworthy than others, and they believed this wholeheartedly.

Stepping back further, this country was founded by men, many of whom owned slaves and refused to consider granting the vote to women. Yet they were visionaries and, in some respects, heroes.

This is not to minimize the terrible harm that has been done or the urgent need to redress it. But dismissing individuals as “evil” or “bad seeds” when their behavior and attitudes flourish in a sick cultural context is too easy. And it’s dangerous, because it perpetuates the myth that people who do bad things are monsters, and therefore regular people — like us, like our kids — are incapable of brutality or of unthinking cruelty. And that is not an idea to rest easy with.


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