My fiance and I were sitting at a stop light this evening. Traffic was backed up several cars deep.
“What? Are you a fucking idiot?”
I looked out the window at the man in the SUV next to me, confused. I first assumed he was on his cellphone, but he was looking at me through my barely-open window. Being the passenger, I was able to just stare at him as he explained his outrage: “Fuckin’ Obama sticker?”
The light changed, and the SUV stayed right beside us as traffic moved on to the next light.
Not exactly stunned (I had wondered earlier this very week how my finance and I had escaped this kind of attack since we put the sticker on the station wagon last summer), I replied, “He did win, you know.”
I will not relay the rest of the conversation, but the same racial slur was hurled at both the President and, against my understanding of the term, myself. My sexuality was misidentified. Reflexively, I replied to this last quip with the same logic I always do: “Are you looking for a date?”
It was not the smartest thing I could have said, but it did shut down the verbal abuse. He pulled up, and turned at the intersection.
The exchange left my partner very upset. She felt assaulted and violated by his words. Rightly so, of course.
(The incident upset her so badly that I had to post this without input from my editor)
In trying to ease her nerves, I vocalized what felt like an important truth: This man was a terrorist. he wasn’t trying to engage in debate. he wasn’t looking for conversation. He wasn’t trying to to educate me or correct some flaw in my logic. He was offended by the America that he now lives in, and he was trying to frighten and intimidate us, as representative citizens of that seemingly new culture. He felt as though his ethics were under siege, and he wanted to make sure that the crazy “liberals” knew that he wasn’t going to just sit there and let the culture he identifies with be shifted into something more progressive and accepting than he was comfortable with. He wanted us to be afraid to keep working for change. He was eager to use fear to make his point.
Now, I am not saying that what he did was evil, or that it compares in scope to the attacks on the world trade center, but it is rooted in the same emotional turmoil, feeling that your way of life is being attacked and not being able to change with the rest of the world. Lashing out may seem like the only thing you have left. People have literally killed for those reasons, so I guess it could have been much worse. What I am saying, though, is that this was no less an attack designed to spread fear, by someone who was himself, a fundamentalist of sorts.
This is what we fight against, every day, all over the world, when we seek to change laws and culture so that everyone is treated with dignity, is encouraged to be their best, and is valued for their efforts. it is what we face in trying to tell cultures that gender, and even biological sex, are more complicated than they are comfortable with, and that none of that matters to a person’s ability to be a productive, even vital, member of society. It is what we face when we try to shape laws so that everyone has the support they need to fulfill their potential and be their best, because we need everyone at their best in this world. We face people who worry that they will loose the privilege that they often don’t even recognize in their lives. They just see change on the horizon, and that it means they are going to have to compete fairly with people who are currently being oppressed.
I wish there were a way to make this man examine his anger. I wish he would recognize the fear that is at its root, as fear is almost always at the root of anger. We fear change when it might take something from us, and like so many other animals, when forced to confront an agent of change, we put on an instinctive display, trying to frighten it into fleeing. This is exactly why we cannot back down. We cannot resolve the fear in others, but we can attempt to prove to them that change can be good. Maybe we can even convince them that what they loose in privilege is minor compared to what they gain in humanity.