Friday, 15 February 2019

On Being A Bigot Myself

[Mahatma Gandhi wrote a book called 'The Story of My Experiments with Truth'. This is a tiny chapter that I could call 'The Story of My Experiments with Hatred and Bigotry'.]

I have always prided myself on my social liberalism. I believe myself to have no prejudices regarding race, nationality, gender, age, or sexual orientation. Even on the subject of religion, while I may look down disdainfully at religious people, considering them to be gullible believers in fairytales, I do not hate them. Contempt and disdain are much milder than hatred.

But something happened last week that shook me out of my smugness. I realised that I could feel hatred.

Mind you, I don't claim to be devoid of hatred. When I come across a jerk, I often do hate them for their behaviour. But that is purely at an individual level. I believe I am evolved enough in my thinking not to hate a group of people by association.

Until last week.

I was returning from a trip abroad, and was taking the airport shuttle home.

There were two other passengers in the shuttle with me. One of them was an Indian doctor who had been living in Australia for the last 30 years. The other was an American woman who was visiting her daughter in Sydney.

It was still very early in the morning, and I hadn't slept well on the flight, so I closed my eyes and tried to get some more sleep. But I couldn't sleep because my two co-passengers kept talking throughout the trip. I didn't really mind as long as I didn't have to participate. I listened idly to their conversation.

It turned out that the American woman's daughter was studying, not at a regular University, but at the Hillsong College. I smiled sardonically to myself. A churchie! And not just any random churchie, but a cult follower. The Hillsong Church is a notorious cult just a notch below the Church of Scientology on the charlatan scale.

Mind you, that factoid didn't make me hate her. It just triggered a slight sardonic curl of my lip.

She spoke about the time her daughter attended a camp organised by the Hillsong Church. The good doctor naively asked if the church had paid for the camp. I grinned to myself. The Hillsong Church never pays for anything. You pay the Hillsong Church. That's how the model works.

Then the topic turned to health, weight-watching and dieting. I refrained from pitching in about the 5:2 diet that I follow. I just listened with interest.

And that's when it happened.
"What's your weight?" asked the American woman.
"84 kilograms," replied the doctor.
"Kilograms? What's that? I only know pounds," she responded.

In that moment, I felt a surge of anger that snapped my eyes open. I didn't say a word out loud, but my mind was shrieking hysterically.

What the #@^%@&! is wrong with you Americans??

I was surprised at my own sudden, involuntary anger. In that moment, I hated Americans. Hated them for not following the metric system, and not even knowing what it was.
Kilograms? What's that? I only know pounds.


Meanwhile, back on the shuttle, the conversation was proceeding entirely calmly and normally.

"Oh, one kilogram is 2.2 pounds. So 84 kilograms is a little under 200 pounds," explained the doctor patiently, and the woman went, "Oh, all right."

It was no biggie, really. If you don't understand what a kilogram is, someone can readily convert the number into pounds for you, and then you understand. That's all there is to it.

But that, as Obama would have it, was a teachable moment for me.

The American woman was different from me in a number of ways, but none of those differences caused me to hate her. She belonged to a different race and gender, and followed a (different) religion. But the fact that she followed a different system of measurement was what caused me to blow my top. Worse, she displayed complete and unforgivable ignorance about the One True System of Measurement that all True Human Beings should unquestioningly follow. That was blasphemy.

So you see, we are all bigots under a very thin veneer of beatific tolerance. It's just that we have different buttons that have to be pushed for that bigotry to break through the surface.

Epilogue: After a few minutes, I recovered from my flush of anger. The driver turned around at one point to mention in an incredulous tone that the temperature in Sydney had touched 41 degrees the previous week.

"Fahrenheit?" asked the poor American woman, struggling to comprehend why that would be considered terrible.

"No, Celsius," said the doctor, without even a hint of a smile.

I chuckled to myself and was satisfied that my liberal and tolerant self had returned.