Too Tender to Tease: The Case for Holding Religious Insults Back

In my last post I talked about why we should let religious insult go, rather than fight back. This week I want to flip the pancake over, and I’m going to invite my trio of grandbabies to help me:

Gratuitous grandchild placement

(Gratuitous grandchild placement)

Two more are on the way. Five little cousins, all within two and a half years. That’s a lot of peek-a-boo. (There are two older boys, too, who willingly play, but I don’t have any pictures of it.)

You know how to play, right? You get the baby’s attention, then hide, then pop back out with a goofy face.

Babies of the world LOVE this. I’ve played peek-a-boo in checkout lines and waiting rooms in Saudi Arabia, and yup, it still works. Even with babies who are accustomed to seeing women who don’t immediately reappear from behind a face covering. The game works because you’re messing with kids who are just figuring out something called “object permanence,” which is the idea that things still exist when you can’t see them. She’s gone, but GAH! There she is again! HILARIOUS!

This is a concept adults still struggle with. I have seen people jump—literally leave the ground with both feet—when I’ve come up behind them on a bike when they’re walking on a bike path. Shouldn’t be hard to anticipate, but folks can still be totally surprised by the existence of something they didn’t directly see coming.

There’s more than that, though. Researchers have discovered that babies are not surprised so much by the reappearance itself as by whether the thing is doing something they expect when it does. A rubber duckie that disappears behind a screen going one direction, then comes out the other side—same trajectory, same speed—doesn’t get much of a reaction. Expected isn’t delightful. Cah-RAZY is.

Again, still a struggle. Things exist that we can’t see. And when we do see them, they might be different than we expect. Every time,

Surprised babyWHAT?!?

And it gets harder the more abstract you go. Legitimate ideas exist that aren’t ours. Weird, right? There are languages we don’t speak, with subtleties and puns and double meanings that we can’t even imagine. Cultures and social mores and worldviews and yes, relationships with God.

We can only take so much of this. After a while, delighted surprise wears out, and some of the surprises are just too much. We want things we expect: the people we know, doing what we think they should, not popping out from behind the curtain with a cah-RAZY face yelling “God is a donut!”

Sooo…shoving diverse people together can be a challenge. We like to clump together in like-minded tribes, where things don’t surprise us. Where we can congratulate each other on our awesomeness, and not have to defend our ideas, habits, peculiarities, priorities, expressions, inside jokes, funky food.

America likes to think that it’s The Best at overcoming these barriers. The great melting pot, right? Mmm…it might be more accurate to say America is less bad than most. Far from good. Americans persist in resisting new immigration, but at least there’s a framework for it—certain ground rules and expectations already in place. We’ve been settling into the reality of migrating and mixing for a couple hundred years while the French were busy perfecting the art of being French, Germans were being German, and the Dutch were getting taller and taller.

But nobody (other than North Korea) can live in isolation anymore. Technology and trade have broken through borders in a way no army ever could, and now we’re all crammed up against each other, trying to figure out how to get along, perpetually surprised and annoyed. Coming up with regional McDonald’s menus. collapsing toward a global language based on computer use, trying to sort out whose norms are the ones everyone in a community should live by.

And one of the primary ways in which we clash is in how we communicate. As in everything else, we have a hard time imagining how something we don’t expect—someone else’s way of thinking and speaking—can be real. Or (perish the thought) correct.

I was particularly delighted, then, to come across this article in the New York Times about communicating with the purpose of becoming one. The article described one researcher’s assertion that falling in love isn’t a thing that happens, but a thing you do. A choice. An effort. One that anyone can make, and between two willing people, is almost always going to succeed. (Read it—it’s fascinating.) It basically involves seeking intense connection—asking one another casual and then increasingly deep questions, truly listening, making eye contact, and finally just staring deeply into each others’ eyes.

Well, if groups of people function the same way that individuals do—fight over the same things, want the same things, evolve and grow the same way—could this process also work for societies? If, as a group, we’re as inclined to struggle with object permanence or novelty as an individual baby is, could we, perhaps, mature a bit, and make an effort to love each other the same way individual adults do?

What would it take? According to the article, we start by asking casual questions to establish a basic level of awareness. Then we ask increasingly deep questions, receiving the answers thoughtfully, responding, sharing. And finally, we make eye contact, which involves looking deeply and kindly into each others’ worlds and allowing ourselves to be seen.

A lot simpler on paper than in the real world, to be sure, but even an abstract vision can make it easier to sort out what we should and shouldn’t be doing. Interfaith conversation? Yes. Consultative policy-making? Yes. Insulting? Heavens, no. Can you imagine a couple, standing on a moonlit bridge, asking deep questions about each others’ views, and then one doubles over laughing and barks, “You like Justin Bieber? What, are you an idiot?”

Oh, baby. Those two are going nowhere.

Let’s raise the ante. Let’s say the couple are already wary. Let’s say one is new in town, poor and finding the transition difficult, and the other is rich and well established and has a lot of friends. And let’s further say they’re engaging in this exercise under extreme duress. This is a shotgun wedding, so to speak. Now let’s look again at the rich one, doubled over on the moonlit bridge, laughing, pointing, demeaning.

Should he be forbidden from speaking his thoughts? Of course not. But if the two are going to be stuck living together no matter what, is it helpful? Does it bring the two closer together, enhance the understanding and the peace?


I know what it’s like to be unwanted in the country where you live. Not by most, but the few are clear enough. And I’m just a visitor here, not trying to assimilate. I don’t speak the language, participate in the national conversation, send my children to school here. I’m not trying to raise my children to be loyal to a country where I already feel on edge and then have to confront being called backward and ignorant, to having what I love, what I am, belittled. Shrug it off? That’s what I should do. That’s what I would do. But the hurt would still prevent me from ever integrating with my whole heart and wanting to contribute to the society around me.

So the question is, as long as we’re both standing on the bridge together, with no way off, what do we want to have happen? We don’t get to shove off someone we don’t understand and invite someone else who will do and say everything we expect. What use is there in insult, in divisiveness?

We need the freedom to discuss anything for the conversation to be productive and honest. But we also need to freedom to ask forgiveness when we stumble. The grace to be sensitive and generous. The maturity to be open to things that are different and unexpected. And to keep playing the game even when we’re tired.


7 thoughts on “Too Tender to Tease: The Case for Holding Religious Insults Back

  1. John Read says:

    Well said once more Margot.
    Easier if we a) don’t say such things and especially b) don’t publish them.
    I continue to gobsmacked at the lack of links made between freedom and responsibility for that freedom, from everyone except…the Pope Bless Him.
    I thought we argued all this in high school…and resolved that respect for others was a vital social skill more so than some concept of freedom divorced from responsibility..
    Popularity of support for publications that insult the heart and faith of others is beyond my comprehension. But then my name isn’t George Clooney, Tom Hanks or Judy Dench for that matter.


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