Should I Be Offended? (How Do We Teach Our Kids to Deal With Ignorance)

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Photo by Mareen Fischinger via Flickr.comPhoto by Mareen Fischinger via Flickr.com

Photo by Mareen Fischinger via Flickr.com

I’m Chinese, and I grew up in a town where there were enough Asians that we weren’t all related, but not enough to keep people from asking if we were. In elementary school, it was pretty typical to walk into the cafeteria to face a bunch of kids making slanty-eyes and saying, “Ching chong chang” to me. Sometimes I lashed back, sometimes I just ignored it, but eventually I simply got used to it. And as my classmates and I both got older, that sort of thing happened less and less.

Now I live in a small midwestern town that’s predominantly white, and most people don’t know the difference between Taiwan and Thailand. I did get asked once if I was related to a Ms. Liu who appeared in a regional newspaper, but I don’t expect people here to know that “Liu” is a pretty common Chinese surname, akin to “Smith” or “Brown.” I don’t know whether my kids (who are half-Chinese, half-Caucasian) will experience any sort of teasing because of their race, but I know my older daughter already fields the “Say something in Chinese!” request at school. I wouldn’t consider that in itself offensive; it’s just a signal that other kids have noticed something different about her.

I really have to stop and think about how I want my daughter to grow up: do I tell her to stand up for herself and be quick to point out racism when she sees it? Or do I teach her that some people don’t know better and it’s not worth trying to “educate” them? How do you strike a balance between being a porcupine and a pushover?

What got me thinking about all this recently was a couple of Comic-Con-related controversies (see Corrina Lawson’s post about EAFail). A lot of people got upset about EA’s “Sin to Win” promotion. And then there was the backlash from people who were mad at EA’s critics. We, as a nation, get outraged about a lot of things. And thanks to the magic of the internet, we’re now able to quickly organize and launch major assaults on anyone who offends us, limited only by the amount of time we have to devote to our righteous anger. We insist on apologies, retribution, acknowledgment of our grievances, and we won’t rest until our needs are addressed, right?

And it can be about, well, pretty much anything. There’s just so much to choose from, we could pretty much spend all our time being offended if we wanted to. Like that bumper sticker proclaims: “If You’re Not Outraged, You’re Not Paying Attention.” The Onion put their own spin on it a few years ago: “Nation’s Liberals Suffering From Outrage Fatigue.” Al Giordano, on a more serious note, wrote a piece a few months ago entitled “The Banality of Outrage.”

Now, I’m not saying that we should just ignore things like EA’s recent stunt. What Corrina wrote about gender stereotypes is very true, and I think it’s great that we can point girl geeks to some positive examples. But why stop there? What about, say, the practice of having “booth babes” to begin with. Is that something I should protest as well?

As I was typing up this post, my wife, a family physician, was in the middle of composing her own letter of outrage. This one was addressed to a hospital CEO, for a systemic problem that resulted in a much-delayed diagnosis for her patient: a situation much closer to life-and-death than, for example, Miley Cyrus making slanty-eyes in a photo. When we talk about something being deserving of outrage, what’s the scale? What do we measure it against?

So that’s my big question, and it’s not really anything new: how do we pick our fights? To some degree, holding a grudge, insisting that an offender offer some type of apology, only makes us more bitter. A moral victory tastes sweet, but is it always worth the effort? Is our outrage simply a way to vent (and if so, does speaking out make us more or less outraged)? Is it meant to change bad behavior (and is it likely to work)? Or is it simply, a la FailBlog, a form of schadenfreude, a way to say “Hey, you screwed up and I noticed”? Are we teaching our kids to better the world? Or just to be angry at it?

What I hope for myself is that I teach my kids how to evaluate things that make them upset, how to know when to stick to their guns and when to just let things slide. Sometimes kids are being mean-spirited about race, or gender, or whatever. And sometimes they’re just being curious.

Come to think of it, I’m always trying to get my daughter to say something in Chinese.

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