Mistakes and Community

At Thanksgiving dinner, a friend of my parents, A., was the lone non-family guest, as his wife was out of town. At one point, we were discussing dinner and how we had tried to rein in the feast a little (excess rather than excessive excess), and I said, “We tried to pull back from our obsessive compulsive cooking this year.”

Then I stopped. Then I offered my fullest apologies to A.

A’s son, B, has obsessive-compulsive disorder. In fact, just minutes before my verbal slip, we had been talking B’s current involvement in a residential treatment facility and the many intense challenges created by B’s OCD. The struggles are many and serious.

A accepted my apology and we moved into a conversation about language and how much it irritated him when detail-oriented people, joking, said, “Oh, that’s just my OCD showing,” when they organized something. It’s not a joke. It can be debilitating. We had a really good conversation about language, power, and privilege.

Lesson 1: When you screw up, and you will screw up, own it. Apologize. Try not to do it again.
Lesson 2: No one is entitled to have their apology accepted.
Lesson 3: On the other hand, one mistake (rather than a pattern of repeated bad behavior) can become an opportunity for dialogue and strengthening community, rather than sundering it.

I am not, of course, really talking about my mistake at Thanksgiving, though it was a mistake and I am sorry. And I will mind loose “OCD” talk in the future as ableist.

I’m really talking about Daniel Handler’s apology. About Barilla (now given a 100 rating for its LGBT policies by the HRC). About #shirtstorm and Matt Taylor’s apology. About all kinds of moments in which macro and micro aggressions cause pain, cause offense, reveal privilege, and so forth.

My general goal is that when someone really offends me, but I think they did it unintentionally, because they were unaware, to try and change it so that they become more intentional in their speech and actions in the future. It’s about trying to improve the community and welcome the offender back in, but changed, rather than saying – This person is OUT forever.

In medieval studies, we are having our first real discussion of which I’m aware about sexual harassment and how to address it. One focus is on building a call-out culture, particularly pushing people who are safe (i.e. men, also tenured people) call out sexism explicitly when they see it. This is good.

Then what? The unconciously sexist person is called out – then how do we bring him (usually) back into the community? Do we want to?

People make mistakes all the time, driven by their privilege, in terms of language or action. Some people are willfully predatory or discriminatory, but more are just unaware of the consequences of their speech or actions. When we make them aware, then what? I hope that I can be like A and use the moment of awareness as a positive. But there’s no obligation NOT to be angry.

This is a little nebulous, but on my mind.

What do you think?

2 Replies to “Mistakes and Community”

Leave a Reply