Reflecting on tolerance and the Riley Cooper situation

Happy Friday, friends.  I wanted to try to engage today on a difficult topic that we’ve tended not to shy away from at IAOFM, and that’s race and racism.  I’m specifically going to apply it to the Riley Cooper situation, obviously, because that’s what’s going on right now. 

I say this topic is difficult because I think, in advance, that my take on the Cooper situation, and on the nature of using hateful words isn’t going to be fully satisfying to much of anybody.  This take is honest, though, and I think (and hope), logical, so here goes.

When I was in the Navy, my job title was Boatswain’s Mate.  BMs tend to be gruff, physical, speak with a lot of profanity, and are generally just outwardly hardened and tough guys.  We (the deck seamen anyway, who the BMs supervised) would paint the ship all day in the sun, get dirty, and do lots of manual labor.  We weren’t really known for having perfectly shined shoes, or exquisitely pressed uniforms; that’s not a BM’s bag.

There were other guys on the ship who were more of that sort, with the soft hands and the pretty uniforms.  They had job titles like Electronics Technician and Fire Controlman.  They were some prissy dudes who sat in air conditioning all day, and I had a name for them, that came to be widely used among my friends: electronics fags.

I think what I was consciously doing was trumpeting the manliness of my own difficult job by making light of what those guys did. 

I’m a real man, and those guys are little bitches.

Really, when I look back on it, I was jealous that they got to sit in air conditioning, be clean all the time, and do some work using their brains, and they didn’t have to spend five hours per night standing watch after working all day. 

When I called those guys electronics fags, I knew they weren’t gay, but I was saying they were soft, which is a stereotype that’s often associated with gay men.  I didn’t think it through, because consciously, I had nothing against gay people, but I was ultimately saying that because I perceived them to have gay traits (softness and pretty clothes), and that they were lesser than me.  That's really not too far off, intellectually, from saying that gay people are lesser than me, even though I didn't consciously mean that.  The whole thing was wrong, and I wish I had been a more enlightened person at that time of my life.

An interesting thing that Cooper said on Wednesday was that he wasn’t raised to use the N word, and that he had a great mom and dad who were very disappointed in him.  It’s noble for Cooper to defend his parents, but I don’t think it’s that simple.

We’re not just raised by our parents; our values, behaviors, and standards for acceptable behavior are informed by many other people who we come in contact with throughout our lives.  The thought that soft guys with pretty clothes were gay-like wasn’t an original thought that I had; I learned it from growing up with white teen culture in the early 90s, and then it was reinforced by military culture.

I had knucklehead friends who said hateful and ignorant words, and when you don’t think things through with a mature mind, it’s easy to emulate the people who are around you. You behave within the norms that you see around you, and it's easy to go the wrong way.

There’s a guy who joined my fraternity toward the end of my time as an undergrad, and he was using the N word openly once.  I asked him to stop, because he was reflecting poorly upon us, and upon himself, whether he knew it or not.  He says, “I’m sorry, that’s what they’re called where I’m from.”  How sad is that?  To a very real extent, that's what they're called in Florida too, where Cooper comes from.

It takes a village to raise a child, as they say, and that village can correspondingly mess that child up, and help them to acquire bad ideas and values.  As we grow as people through the years, we all need to work hard to improve as people, and to evolve in positive ways.

You know how I always say that I don’t really believe in having anything so inflexible as to constitute a “belief?”  Well, one thing is close for me.  Let’s call it a tenet of my personal philosophy.

We’re not what we’ve done in the past, we’re what we choose to do in the future.

I’ve evolved well past the wrong that I did 15 years ago, in denigrating those electronics guys with a hateful slur.  I’ve grown, and thought about what I was saying, and now I’d never say anything like that about anybody, for any reason.

Back then, I’d never had a gay friend, as far as I knew.  (I still don’t know of any gay relatives in my extended family.)  Nowadays, it seems like I learn more and more of people who were keeping their true selves secret because society threatens their free will if they dare be honest.

As people, we have to evolve, and that evolution should lead toward tolerance for other people.  I’m certain that it’s the morally right approach to take.

Part of being tolerant, though, is recognizing that for the most part, we each had to evolve to reach our own point of enlightenment that we’re all so proud of.  We owe it to our wayward friends and neighbors to try to help them with their own evolutions as people.  You can’t just throw away a person who screws up and still be a tolerant person.

What’s more useful and positive to society – forgiving Riley Cooper, and trying to help him to grow as a person, or acting like he should forever wear a scarlet R on his chest?

Cooper said a racist word, which offended a lot of people, and has apologized for it in a way that seems sincere.  If we’re truly tolerant people, we should accept his apology, and hope that this situation will help him grow and evolve in a positive way.  If we find out next year that he’s going to Klan meetings, and still using the N word, then maybe the guy is irredeemable.

We’re not what we’ve done in the past, we’re what we choose to do in the future.

This is a difficult topic, and it’s almost never black-and-white (so to speak).  No matter where you stand, if you’re approaching racism or any form of discrimination from an absolutist standpoint, I think you’re probably wrong. 

If you’re secretly applauding Cooper for reflecting how you feel, I feel sorry for you, and I hope that you eventually evolve away from hate and bigotry.  You stand for a fundamentally wrong idea.  Conversely, if you want to condemn a 25-year-old kid to a ruined life over a drunken indiscretion, then I think you’re failing as a person who considers themself to be tolerant.  You’re taking this as an opportunity to feel superior rather than helping society to improve itself in a teachable moment.

We shouldn’t like or condone what Cooper did, but we should understand that everybody has bad moments, and that everybody is somewhere on a personal growth curve in their lives.  Chances are that Cooper has issues with black people, at least to some extent, and he’s going to have to work on that.  I’m hoping that he truly wants to do so, and that he wants to improve as a person, and that society allows him to do so.

As far as football goes, Cooper is better than people think.  He finally got some opportunity last season, and played well at times, despite a difficult situation for the team.  I said in 2010 that I would have taken him in the second round, and I think that with the right opportunity, he can be a good starting WR in the NFL.

The news is out this morning that the Eagles have excused Cooper from team activities, and that he’s actively undergoing counseling.  I think that’s appropriate under the circumstances, and that some time away will be good for everybody.  When a guy’s not sleeping or eating, and he’s checking in underweight in the morning, having him at camp is counterproductive anyway.

I hope that white kids who get drunk and go to country concerts will see this situation, and that it will help them in their own personal evolutions.  I hope that Cooper improves as a person, and does the right things, and that his teammates and other NFL players learn from this as well, and grow along with him.

We can and must change our attitudes if we’re going to thrive as a society.  It doesn’t matter what we did, it matters what we choose to do in the future.

I leave you with a video that would have been absolutely unthinkable in hip hop even five years ago, and nowadays, it can be done by a chart-topping rapper to aid in the campaign for legalization of same-sex marriage in Washington State, so that his uncles can get married.

Evolve, learn, and grow, friends.  We can all do it, and we need to be open to helping others do it as well.

1.  I’m not in the arguing business, I’m in the saying what I think business.
2.  I get my information from my eyes.

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