I became well-versed in slurs during my childhood. I learned them in my neighborhood, in my church, in my extended family. I heard many different types of people demeaned with many different words.
I grew up in an ethnic area of Cleveland. Each immigrant group had its own neighborhood, its own tavern, its own bakery, its own church, and its own groups that it disliked because of past history.
Italians? They’re all in the mob. The Irish are drunks. The Poles are dumb. Blacks are uncivilized. Women are dim and emotional. Protestants are hell-bound. Jews are money grubbers.
On and on it went. There were demeaning terms for pretty much every group, including my group. And the mention of other groups could bring out the worst in some people.
That’s why Archie Bunker was one of my favorite television characters. I knew him. Also, I knew many people like his daughter and his son-in-law who regularly called him out for his prejudices. For instance, my dad would challenge my grandfather for using the n-word yet again.
The show came on TV at a time when another idea was taking root in America: People should be considered by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin or any other superficial difference.
For a time, the slurs and the ugly jokes receded, although many people still felt comfortable telling them when they were around people like them. They’d complain that the country had become so “politically correct” that their slurs and jokes no longer drew nods and laughs, but criticism.
And they wished things would go back to the way they were. Back to the days when we openly judged people on the basis of the color of their skin or the country of their origin or the sex chromosome they inherited. And people would nod and laugh and agree.
Like Archie, they thought: Those were the days.
Well, those days are making a comeback in some ways, aren’t they?
A presidential candidate gets applause for saying a Mexican can’t be an impartial judge, or Muslims are dangerous, or immigrants are criminals, or women should be judged on their physical appearance. Or when he says that only rich people like him can be great.
And it’s not confined to politics. Religion is providing its own blast from the past: I’m going to heaven, but you’re not because you’re a sinner and I don’t want to have anything to do with you because I’m afraid it might jeopardize me. So go away.
My childhood, revisited.
Fearing those who are different from us seems to be our default setting as humans. It’s true for me. I’m more comfortable in groups of people who are more like me in some ways. People who think like me and have similar life experiences.
Yeah, there’s that little bit of Archie in me, too. It’s just a human trait, I suppose, woven throughout our history and religious texts. And so is this: The moral and spiritual imperative to push past our innate fears and learn to love each other and appreciate our differences.
Jesus loudly advocated for it, which got him into a hell of a lot of trouble. He reached out to the rejected groups of his times and welcomed them. He was constantly criticized for inviting the wrong people – the ones who were the objects of the slurs and the nasty jokes – to eat and socialize with him.
In fact, he made those people the heroes of his stories. It’s the dreaded, good-for-nothing Samaritan who is the model of behavior, not the religiously observant people.
Is it any wonder that people wanted to push him off a cliff?
So, what about us? Perhaps we start with never allowing anyone to be slurred or bullied or made the butt of jokes, even if there’s a price to be paid in standing up for them.
But it requires something more.
Perhaps the next time we encounter one of them people – as Archie would say – we could invite them for coffee or lunch. Instead of talking about our differences, we could share stories about what keeps us up at night, what breaks our hearts, what makes us feel alive, what we’d most like to change about ourselves.
And maybe along the way we’ll have a few laughs and change how we feel about each another a little bit. In doing so, we might actually get somewhere.
Somewhere beyond the days that were great only for those slinging the slurs.