Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Nobody's Right If Everybody's Wrong.

The blog title this week is from a song I grew up hearing, and that one line especially came to mind when I considered a lot of what I saw online recently. (see bottom of post for video of the song and link to a discussion about it). 

Last week, the bellydance community (as well as some overlapping sub-cultural communities) was in an uproar about an opinion piece that was posted on Salon.com.  Many things have been said in response, ranging from really beautiful, articulate responses to visceral, raw rants and raves. Followed in hot pursuit by another wide range of successive responses to those responses.

I am pretty sure I have now seen where every single opinion, thought, and nuance has been both lauded and attacked in turn.  Essentially culminating in: it doesn't matter who you are/where you come from/what you say/how you say it: you are wrong, so shut up. Which doesn't empower or help anyone.  Solutions don't come from shutting people down, they come from understanding, respect, and acceptance of differences. In particular, the acceptance and understanding that your neighbor's opinion and experience can be different from your own, and respecting that opinion doesn't negate yours or validate theirs.

Many people have asked me for my opinion on the original piece.  Here it is: I can appreciate the author's point of view and issues raised and even agree with them on several levels.  I am not a fan of the delivery, as there was a lot of misinformation mixed with a clear intent to inflame.  I can indeed respect work where the major intent is to incite, as it can certainly bring about change (though not my own preferred method, as I don't go "ok, how do I piss the most amount of people off" before I make any of my work - art, dance, writing, etc), but I expect the presenter to have their ducks in a row, and be prepared to open a dialogue, versus shutting it down.

I wasn't offended by the article, nor did I think it brought up anything new.  It is also somewhat hard for me not talk about my own experiences growing up in a home of mixed religion and as many would also think, mixed race - in an area that's seen more than its fair share of conflict between "marginal" communities over the last century. Yet I feel that if I do talk about my history, it opens up a counter-response that says I should shut up - invalidating my own experiences, and feeding into an ouroboros of ineffectual discourse.  But it is my experience, and my voice - so regardless of what you think about me because of my apparent racial background, gender, or religion, it has just as much right to exist as anyone else's. ANYONE.  We are all human, plain and simple. Which brings me to one of my frustrations that I have had with some of the  "social justice movement" over the last 5-6 years: there is a whole lot of "you're doing it wrong"  mixed with "you are X, so you aren't allowed to have a say" - neither of which fosters change or brings about positive solutions.  And by saying I think that mentality sucks, I am NOT negating the fact that there are real issues or invalidating their right to be heard. Nor am I attacking that person, their community, etc.  We need to get down the the bare roots of "I'm a human, you're a human. There's a problem here - how do we talk about solving it?"

It is especially because of my background that I have been hypersensitive about cultural exchange for most of my life.  I remember in 4th grade, our teacher separated us into "ethnic" groups to make a point about stereotypes and racism.  Over here were the Irish kids, there the Italian kids, Indian ones over here, Polish ones over there, etc - and she dictated what each group could or couldn't do, such as go to the movies, or an amusement park, or certain restaurant. Oddly, what I remember most about that exercise was out of two dozen kids, there were only about 2 or 3 of us (including myself) that couldn't be placed in one of those "all-X" groups, and that was frustrating for the teacher.  So ironically, during an exercise about overcoming racism, we felt even more singled out than everybody else.  But I think more importantly, this was the beginning of my journey to understand where I came from, what did that mean, and who does that make me now.  What does it mean to be a creature of many backgrounds, living in America today? Not only for myself, but how I interact with others?

It also meant to me that whatever art I was interested in, that I would learn everything and anything about it that I could before I explored it. It is natural for me to be an adamant researcher into whatever I explore, so it is a bit startling to realize that not everyone approaches life that way.  See something cool/different? Find out about it before you wear it/do it/sing it/play it.  That's what you do.  Emphasized again and again throughout all of my art school training - know what you're using before you use it. If you screw up - admit it, then go remedy it.

See or encounter somebody who doesn't know what they're doing? Then reach out to them and help them discover what they're missing, versus berating them.  Educational honey vs. vinegar.  Which is the same point I have been arguing about fusion and traditional bellydance for the last dozen years.  Know where it all comes from - and be willing to teach those who may have missed out, versus bashing them. Yes, I am sure that perhaps being scolded works better for some individuals than reaching out to them, but I prefer to give people the benefit of the doubt - that they do also want to learn, but they just didn't know or realize it.

In the last century, humanity has made a fair amount of progress in moving forward - about understanding our differences AND similarities in race, gender, sexuality, religion.  It was slow at first, but now, with the help of the internet, we're moving along at a hyper speed, much faster than anything else we've ever experienced.  Borders are being blurred and erased - more and more cultures are intermarrying, new paradigms of family units being created. We are becoming even more culturally blended, a truly global community, yet are still extra sensitive and cautious.  We are somewhat stepping all over each other trying to point out what's wrong.

We can't solve all of the problems out there in a day. But we can take each day as an opportunity to understand ourselves, where we come from, and reach out to our neighbors and friends to do the same.  We can learn from history - our ancestors and their actions, without saddling ourselves or others with the transgressions of those long-deceased, or the currently ignorant. We can listen to each other and share our experiences respectfully and be willing to open up dialogue for change, rather than discourse for chaos.

It is within our human nature to be wary, even fearful of "the other", but it also within our nature to share and to create.  One of the most powerful aspects of the arts is their ability to cross borders and revel in what it truly means to be human.  In learning about the arts - be it a dance of your own culture, or the theater of another, we expand upon the human spirit and emphasize our connectivity. And that is something we can all be right about. 

(more on the story behind this song here...)


  1. This is by far the best response I've seen to it all. Amen.