10 December 2014

'Tis the Season...For Anti-Multicultural Memes

December is upon us. Many people around the world will gather to remember one tradition or another this month. Most of us are familiar with the main stream ones: Christmas, Hannukah, New Year's Eve. In addition, Mexicans will observe the Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe; Kenyans Jamhuri Day; Shiite Muslims Arba'een or Chehlom, which this year falls on 13 December on the Gregorian Calendar; and many more besides these.

I think most Americans recognize on some level the positive role that multiculturalism has played in shaping the kind of country the United States has become, whether that means enjoying a dish that has transcended ethnic borders (gumbo or jambalaya, anyone!?!) or something deeper. But for some Americans, when confronted with the reality that not everyone wants to be told “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays,” all sense of understanding what a diverse and culturally rich country we live in falls to the ground like the pine needles on last year’s tree.

What’s all the fuss is the constant refrain by holiday well wishers. Can’t I say something nice to a stranger? Why are these people so unfriendly!?!

One popular meme making the rounds on Facebook this year goes, “I don’t understand what the big deal is…If you are Jewish, tell me: Happy Hanukkah. If you are Christian, tell me: Merry Christmas. If you are African American, tell me: Joyous Kwanza. If you don’t prefer those, tell me: Happy Holidays. I will not be offended. I will be thankful that you took the time to say something nice to me.”

Ostensibly, the writer of this meme and those who choose to post it to Facebook may mean well. Whether the sentiment is sincere or not, the meme at least attempts to include several cultural traditions. But the underlying message, whether intentional or not, is that people are too sensitive and that political correctness has hijacked the reasons for the seasons, as it were. The writer also implies that, since they aren't the type to get easily offended by some kind of holiday wish, you shouldn't be offended either when they wish you Merry Christmas or whatever. More on this last point later.

So here are some of the problems with telling someone you don’t know anything about, “Hey, I’m cool with however you choose to celebrate this time of year. Don’t be afraid to tell me! I welcome diverse holiday greetings!”

I’ll start with the most obvious issue: not everyone celebrates one of the three traditions the meme names. I’m not expecting an all-inclusive list of traditions here either. That’s not even the point. Rather, the meme makes several huge assumptions about the cultures it mentions and even a few about those it doesn't. Most African Americans don’t celebrate Kwanza, for instance. Not every black person you meet is necessarily African American, for that matter. Likewise, not everyone chooses to celebrate anything or follow each and every custom of a particular holiday.

This leads me to problem number two: not everyone on the planet may wish to give you any kind of holiday greeting. There may be any number of reasons for this that you haven’t thought of. I’ll choose atheists for my example, partly because I’m an atheist and partly because I can readily illustrate what I'm talking about.

What would you expect me to say if I happened to meet you on 25 December? Happy-I-Don’t-Believe-What-You-Believe-Day? I’m not going to lie and pretend that I share your views, so what could I say that wouldn't sound false or weird or rude? If someone wishes me Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays, I don’t take offense, but I also usually say “Thank You” and leave it at that. That answer is not at all unfriendly, and it shows that I understand your views are different than mine. But I've received lots of funny looks when I've said this, as if saying thanks is confusing. And of course not one of these confused people bothered to ask me what I believe.

My point is, if you really respect that everyone on the planet is as an individual with their own life story and history, you respect that no harm is meant just because that person chooses not to greet you or respond in the exact way that you would like.

So, to return to the very first words in this meme, when you tell someone that you don't understand what the fuss is about, you're telling them that you're not interested in their point of view. You're saying that, because you personally don't see a problem, then a problem must not exist, that the person is making it up, that they are overreacting or being overly sensitive.

There are two huge, interrelated problems with this kind of thinking: 1) you take away another person's right to tell their story (or even not tell it); 2) you rob yourself of an opportunity to learn something about someone different than you. Sometimes these differences are small, subtle, not easy to see. But that does not make them unimportant. You probably grasp the fact that electrons exist even though you cannot see them without the aid of precision instruments. But they turn out to be one of the fundamental building blocks of the universe. In much the same way, differences are a fundamental part of what makes each of us human.

If you truly embrace multiculturalism and respect what other people may believe or not believe, you don't go around shouting, "I'm open to different points of view! And Merry Christmas!" That attitude isn't about other people and how they might feel. It's about you. You get to know them. That starts with saying hello, but mostly you stop talking and listen to what they have to say. And you respect that they may not want to talk to you. That doesn't make anyone good or bad. It makes us real people.

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