Opening Words from Sun. December 2 by Walter Vesper

About 3 miles from here on the Bristol Elementary School playground, I learned a lot about social groups and values—mostly about how to think about Catholics and African Americans. In shop class in Junior High I learned about how men and women should relate. Almost all that I learned there was wrong.

During the Brett Kavanaugh hearings I wrote an Opening Words presentation reflecting on the specifics of what I learned in the 1950s and how difficult it has been to come to grips with the changes needed to live ethically in the 21 st Century.

I shared that talk with someone I trust, and was told that the specific content I learned back then might trigger unpleasant feelings in listeners today.

A few weeks later James Croft gave a platform on different types of civility and I learned again that there’s a lot of pressure not to talk about anything that might offend anyone else. Some people even thought he shouldn’t have said what he did.

I began asking myself where the kids on the playground and in shop class learned the garbage which they taught me, since that content wasn’t supposed to be talked about in polite society.

I eventually focused on two concepts from family therapy theory.

  1. The first is that non-verbal communication is almost always more powerful than verbal communication.
  2. The other is that it’s important to make overt what is covert in order to heal a dysfunctional family. You have to acknowledge your part in dysfunction to move on.

I’m sure you see where this is going. The other kids shared their parent’s beliefs learned non-verbally. They just hadn’t learned yet that you’re not supposed to talk about this stuff out loud, so they shared it with me.

And since there’s a taboo on talking about our role in the passing on of those prejudices, that content isn’t available to help heal our larger families.

So we’re faced with a conundrum—in order to heal this society’s racism or sexism we need to be able to share our part in both, while gently recognizing the other’s weaknesses as well.

And, we can’t do either of those while maintaining the code of silence.

Maybe there’s a humanist way of cutting through these two problems.

I guess it might involve talking about these issues—unless we succumb to the taboos which say we shouldn’t!

NOTE: The ideas and opinions in this post do not necessarily express the thoughts or opinions of the Ethical Society of St. Louis or its leadership.