Xenophobics Anonymous (Diversity 101)

Diversity has some crucial foundation stones, and the idea of welcoming and including others into your life is one of them. David Sretenovic serves up some morsels from applied linguistics and parenting his toddlers, to give a message of hope for lovers of diversity.

Advertisements

Over the years I’ve gained some expertise in Applied Linguistics, and there’s one particular concept which stands out head and shoulders above the rest; for me, it’s possibly more powerful and worthy of attention than any other in the field. And I think it holds some of the keys for unlocking and harnessing the depth of human diversity. It is captured by the term “an additive environment”, in the sense of “more value, quality and information” being introduced. In its original usage, an additive language environment contrasts starkly to an environment where another language, or even culture, is undervalued to the point where it gradually atrophies and eventually disappears. Here in Australia, it may come to as a shock to my friends that nurturing an “additive language environment” may in fact be an historical weakness for us as a nation, considering the hundreds of languages that have become extinct since Europeans arrived… but many of us are keen to reverse this uncouth trend! And every time someone uses the word “diversity”, they are echoing this sentiment of historical reversal. When we call for diversity, we are calling for inclusiveness of others… but walking the talk wasn’t easy when Europeans first arrived, and it ain’t easy now. But read on if you love the ideas of diversity, community, inter-generational connection and reciprocal respect.

Inclusiveness. It’s inclusiveness that gives us access to the gold mine which resides within our neighbour (in the biblical sense). But the reality is that living inclusively is hard; moreover, it requires a paradigm shift away from the “fluffy” and “rainbows and candy” slogans which governments and the media use to depict diversity and multiculturalism. It’s so easy to share a meme which lampoons anti-immigration, or to vote for the political party which is welcoming refugees…even go to a candle-light vigil. But including these foreigners, and carrying their burdens… understanding their culture and appreciating which parts of it are sacred. Getting to know why they struggle. Visiting their ghettos and being confronted by the violence in their worlds. Man, that’s life-interrupting stuff. It takes time, effort, money and Saturdays. Public holidays. Sacrifice. Oosh.

I find myself struggling to include my kids sometimes. Well, actually, sometimes I struggle to include anyone but me. Don’t even mention my long-term, Aussie next-door neighbours… let alone the indigenous community on the outskirts of town. The refugees being resettled locally are way down the subconscious priority list – most people ought to admit that to themselves. It’s like step one at AA. I think Australia needs to go to an AA type meeting over this, actually. Xenophobics Anonymous? XA we can call it… hmmm, that’s a bit weird, maybe XO? Yeah that’s better: Hugs’n’kisses Anonymous. And we can advertise it with free beer! I’m being tongue in cheek, of course, and a little harsh too (Australia is awesome!)… but a bit of fair dinkum introspection can go a long way.

Now, although I’m as selfish as any other bloke, I do think I have applied the right idea with my kids from time to time. My daughter, Andje (3 years of age), and Jet (2 years of age), will be sitting and playing beautifully: giggles, interactive banter and intelligent imagination – such a delight to a parent’s ears! But then Jet might pull her hair a little too much. She’ll react, and he might not stop yanking. This spirals into raised voices, shrieks, banging … I’ll be holding back from intervening in the hope they can mediate for themselves. But inevitably sometimes they need me to provide some scaffolding. I’ve pondered what the best forms of intervention are and I think there’s a qualitative difference between these two interventions:

  1. “Jet, stop pulling your sister’s hair!”
  2. “Jet, listen to your sister… she’s upset.”

There are variations on these interventions, but the latter has captured my imagination because I feel like I’m shifting the focus away from me, and onto them. It’s no longer about stopping the screaming (so I can get back to what I was doing, or even to stop Andje’s discomfort). It’s now about engaging with the kids and making this a moment of personal growth and care for one another: I am actively mentoring Jet; Jet is being directed towards empathizing; and Andje is being listened to. Our day’s activity becomes less about an external goal and more about our relationship, shared experience and making space for each other’s very different worlds.

I’ve had to lay down what I’m doing more. I’ve had to let my Saturday plans go sometimes. I’ve had to give up some career ambitions. Oh man, but to see my children’s eyes widen with the discovery of each other and themselves… to see them enjoy the sense of family in all its diversity: it’s so worth it.

To me inclusiveness encapsulates the ethos of an additive environment: adding the priorities of others to your own life without sabotaging yourself. Sure it takes time and energy, and a meaningful sacrifice in order to include the young, the old…those with different languages, strange cultures. But there is a way you can do this without excoriating your own identity and values, or expecting them to either.

Jet’s Moment of Truth

David Sretenovic retells a story of a moment which revealed something beautiful about how his toddler-son was growing to handle conflict.

Some moments of truth just take your breath away — especially when it’s your toddler’s personality which is being revealed. There have been moments when my two-year-old son’s expression of frustration has made me wonder how he will handle conflicts; some kids cower, others lash out, some have the knack to stand their ground. With Jet, I’ve seen much more of the latter two. But today was a wow-moment: I saw something which impressed me and truly made my heart burst.

Taking some time to be with my Aunty Maria at a local cafe, we’d unleashed Jet and his elder sister on the indoor children’s playground. It’s a veritable wonderland for kids, and there were dozens of them racing around and playing, ranging from rug-rats to primary school aged. At one stage Jet was manning the toy cash-register at a mock restaurant when a much older and bigger kid — literally almost double his size — joined him and helped himself to Jet’s operation. Jet wasn’t too happy with this and redirected the boy’s hands. The boy persisted in reaching for the controls but Jet pushed his hands away again. This happened a couple more times with Jet verbalising, “No!” to no avail. He even tried moving the boy away with gentle nudges to the chest. At the point of near exasperation, Jet turned to face him. He stretched both his hands out, as wide as he could, and looked at the boy earnestly as he hugged him with tender vigor. Having pacified the situation and given up the cash register, Jet happily rounded to the other side of the boy while motioning towards the other play-equipment. He was moving that way but had to halt as he realized his new mate wasn’t in tow. He turned and called out, “Come me! Come!” whilst beckoning him with his little waving hand. Despite his pleas, the new friend wasn’t coming, so he ran off to play anyway. He’d already forgotten about the cash-register because the ball-pit was calling.

My Aunty Maria had also witnessed the little altercation and she remarked, “Wow, he’s so resourceful! He tried one way and it didn’t work, so he tried another way. Beautiful boy.”

My precious little boy — what a winner you are! God bless you, my son, and may your generous heart and caring spirit blossom as you grow, in Jesus’ name. These are the gifts of God’s Spirit in you!

20161107_075228.jpg

Stepping Stones for Andje

David Sretenovic shares a poem inspired by time with his daughter, and reflects on the stepping stones of her growth into his family faith.

Earlier in the week I captured a special moment with my daughter Andje [AHN-jee], who is now three and a half years of age, in a poem. The picture attached is similar to the view I had as she sat on my lap outside 🙂 .

Rain, Snuggles and Tears

You sit on my lap wrapped in your special blanket
We breathe the rain-soaked air and feel the fresh breeze
You snuggle up and smile because you just love to
I hear your voice uttering unfiltered delights
You describe the world around and the world inside your heart
Every idea is magic to me
And just as I see the lines of your pure little cheeks
I see that you will need me to teach you as you grow
But if I am gone before that time
I know God will
The tears they come and fill my heart like the rain
Tears of joy for you, my beautiful daughter

This week has in fact been special: I’ve seen my daughter grow in beautiful ways. Little milestones of independence such as dressing herself and cleaning up spontaneously, next-level manners, and for the first time actively clarifying alphabet letters for her name and others’. And today as we were reading some kids Bible stories, she consciously engaged as never before with the events of Christmas and Jesus’ life story: I saw pennies dropping like a poker machine payout. It was a precious moment, because images from Christmas, Easter, and other New Testament events are so dear to our psyche as a family and our extended Christian community. She was partaking of our faith in a new way. These are moments I’ve been anticipating with joy: sharing with her the hope which the gospel gives to us and the whole universe — and not just potential hope, as some factions of Christendom offer, to “the elect” or to “those who say the correct prayer”. It was a thrill for me to share with her our faith, and to inspire a hope-filled outlook as she faces both life today and also the sadness of death. I was amazed at the hope I heard in my own voice – it was real! By telling her what I believe, my heart and voice communicated hope. And in time, because I have shared my faith, she too will have an opportunity to believe what I do … but regardless of her future choices, I believe I have already instilled a sense of hope into her spirit, something beyond words and intellectual understanding. I do believe this.

What joy my daughter brings. Thank you, Heavenly Father!

Fifty shades of Violence

There is much more to violence than meets the eye, and in this blog David Sretenovic appeals to our personal experiences of violence and critiques the idea of “zero tolerance” … which may actually not be as wonderful as it sounds.

I have friends who have “zero tolerance” for violence. Folks I truly love and respect. But I’m afraid I have to call their zero-tolerance rhetoric a bit of a façade; or else they live in a bit of a cotton-wrapped non-reality. For me, zero tolerance isn’t realistic; from my perspective there is an optimal level of “violence”, but it’s a grey-area which the human animal struggles with.

It’s worth taking some time to break the concept down: what exactly constitutes violence? Is it only physical acts, or does it include words? What about in self-defense, or to prevent further violence? You’re welcome to have your own definition, but there’s a definitely a grey-area. As far as I’m concerned, it’s far better to go to the gym and hit a boxing bag than to hit your partner during an argument, but striking a bag is still violence. As for the gentle act of putting pen to paper: I completely advocate you expressing your emotions to your diary rather than screaming in hatred at your ex — but that vitriolic rant in your diary is still violent in nature. And at the risk of setting the bar too high, I will push the envelope even further.  You very well may have the self-control to say, “God bless you,” and walk away after someone spits in your face (and I truly salute you in that case). But that anger you overcame, that urge to strike back: those thoughts are red, hot and violent. Violence is all around us, insidiously.

Here’s my personal reality. I have toddlers who lash out in frustration sometimes — they scream, hit or push. At the age of 37, there have been times in my life where I’ve raised my voice in anger. In basketball and soccer, you bet I’ve charged at the goal aggressively knowing I could injure my opponent. Can you detect any violence?

And here’s society’s reality. We revel in sports such as football (rugby, soccer, American football…) and boxing. Leather and chicken dinners (nuff said). Violence in movies is a given. A grandparent will be asked repeatedly to tell his war stories. Literature, with all its violence, is the bedrock of childhood and adult imagination. The Bible, in its R-rated glory, is left in motels and hospitals. Many people applaud the discipline which young army reservists acquire but ignore the context. Folks proudly spruik the quality of their educational heritage, forgetting that those schools had a very non-metaphorical rod as their bottom line for misbehaviour. And if push comes to shove, even the most zero-tolerant person would find themselves striking back if attacked or if a family member were being assaulted. Zero tolerance makes a hypocrite of anyone who participates in any of the above because they all involve some form of violence.

So for me, a violence-free community (according to this broad definition) is a pie in the sky. Zero tolerance denies individuals the process of humanity, and ultimately it’s hypocritical. After sharing a zero-tolerance meme on social media, it’s all too common to proceed to stray into this violence grey-zone. Even the most peaceful of us typically have a less tranquil back-story: everyone has a journey which requires some tolerance, even if it’s just to allow your past self to have existed. We would do better to admit we’ve had violent thoughts, feelings, impulses and reactions, and aim for optimal ways of dealing with these.

To illustrate the short-fall of zero tolerance, let’s consider children. When a child lashes out verbally, snatches something or hits-out in retaliation (or even accidentally strikes another child clumsily), zero tolerance automatically condemns. A typical outflow is blaming a parent for their child’s behaviour; comments about parenting styles can be quite cutting and judgemental. But conversely, an “optimal level of violence” approach assumes that kids will get frustrated and in the process of growth acquire increasingly more appropriate ways of dealing with their emotions and conflicts: some violence — in both thought and action — is assumed and actually deemed appropriate for their stage of life. And this acceptance allows parents to find their own ways of minimising the violence in a context of non-condemnation. It’s simply being realistic, yet in no way does it advocate pain or hurtful actions. Moreover, aiming for an optimal level of violence nurtures genuine and transparent conversation about discipline styles rather than assuming that anything resembling violence — either words or actions — is automatically damnable. With kids, the one assumed common goal is minimisation of hurt — zero tolerance is only one possible approach, but not the best one in my opinion.

Another example is DV (domestic violence). Zero tolerance is flawed in that it cannot handle the grey-areas of violence which creep up in our lives, and the finger tends to only get pointed at the most extreme forms of physical violence. Sure, one individual did the man-handling, but the other was cursing and shouting. Both are violent in nature, but the one who man-handled is given the majority of the attention. It is only a surface-solution to condemn the physical violence but ignore the rest of the violence. Zero tolerance just short-circuits at the suggestion that smashing your fist on a desk is actually better than punching your husband or wife; you need to be flexible to admit that. Instead, zero tolerance imposes an arrogant attitude which says, “Well I’m perfect so you should be also.” Conversely, aiming for an optimal level of violence is empathetic in nature: it genuinely leaves the door open to the idea of finding a punching bag. All the while, there is never any suggestion that smashing anything is ideal or good. [Please note: this simplistic DV scenario aptly makes my point but certainly doesn’t adequately represent the full scope of DV where, for example, sometimes the violence is completely unprovoked and where the blame ought to be apportioned differently. However, the flaws of a zero-tolerance approach certainly still apply. The path forward is to present an empathetic solution to the violence, rather than merely heaping on condemnation.]

These examples illustrate well the impossibility of expecting a home to be 100% free of violence — at very least there will exist some angry emotions, or kids which erupt at some point. Such forms of violence must be tolerated, and assuming they are, then optimal ways of handling them can be negotiated. I am not condoning hurtful behaviour, rather I’m urging realism and honesty which leads to character growth. I am laying the groundwork for conversations such as these:

  • “I do sometimes get violent thoughts. How should I handle it?”
  • “There was a time I very nearly hit you and it scared the hell out of me. I never ever want us to reach that level of conflict again. We need some strategies for the future.”
  • “My kids are such terrors; they’re always fighting.”

“Yeah, kids will be kids!”

“But the other day they fought at the park and some stranger’s kid got knocked over. I’m afraid they’ll really hurt or influence the other kids around them.”

  • “Did you know that the Smiths actually smack their kids? I’ve shouted at my kids plenty of times but I’d never smack them.”

“Oh, when I was a kid it would terrify me when my parents raised their voice but my brother wouldn’t bat an eyelid. He would only listen if they used the wooden spoon.”

“But aren’t the Smiths supposed to be Christians?”

“Yeah, I know. Christianity is so contradictory: Jesus was non-violent but then the Bible says ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’.”

I think all parents, partners, athletes, law enforcers — everyone in society, when at their best — would like to live their life without hurting others, and especially innocent bystanders. But some people think aggressive sports are beautiful, and some folks release their steam-valve via a boxing bag. Some people use violent words in journals and in gossip. Still others use preventative violence in their vocation — for example, a policeman might restrain a drunk man — for the purpose of curtailing further violence. We are all complicit in some form of violence, even if it’s just to reduce it, so it should be clear that there is a common enemy for all of these coping strategies, and that enemy is zero tolerance. I applaud the intent of folks who preach zero tolerance — you and I are in fact on the same team — but there’s a better, more honest and compassionate path I think. And that path starts with the question, “What is the optimal way of handling the violence here?”

How good is radical, extremist religion!?

David Sretenovic looks at how the media are using the terms “extreme” and “radical” in relation to religion. There’s more to these terms than meets the eye, he explains. The flipside is the need for journalists to have the courage to nurture goodness in our upcoming generations.

What we really need in society is a lot more mediocrity. Luke-warm efforts. Kids and seniors alike just really need to attack their goals half-heartedly. Just imagine the difference.

Okay, so I’m being facetious. But let’s consider religion as depicted in the media. You can hardly deny that the media are cautious of religion beyond that safe, moderate zone. Certainly “radical” and “extreme” religion is anathema. News outlets have kidnapped these terms and made them the posters for all that is contemptible and leprous. In reality though journalists haven’t been very precise with these terms, and have done us a disservice.

The media have turned “radical, extreme religion” into a pariah. I think journalists have thrown the baby out with the bath water in doing this, because there is a form of radicalism which inspires because of its extremely refreshing goodness – these radicals bless us in a uniquely wild way. As a Christian, it is natural for me to argue this line: if Christianity is indeed true, good and life-giving, then radical and extreme Christianity is the ultimate, optimal and perfect form of it. Now, if only there was a historical figure who modelled such radical, extreme Christianity… oh, just a second, there was this pretty extreme guy at the beginning of it all.

So, what am I saying? Well, let me break it down, using our most precious entity: our children. Do we wish for them to be doing extremely caring and loving acts? Of course. And do we wish for our children to have the mettle to be radical if necessary – to be a voice for the marginalised, to champion lost causes, and advocate for compassion in a dog-eat-dog world? I think we do. As parents, we understand the need to sometimes swim upstream – that is the essence of being radical. Rosa Parks; Mahatma Ghandi; Mother Teresa – extremists and radicals in terms of doing what’s right. So long as you find a good cause which you believe in, radical and extreme efforts are exactly what we need. Naturally, this goes hand-in-hand with being true to ourselves.

In one sense, it is those with the greatest integrity who live the most extreme versions of our religions: they actually live out what they believe. It is rare, but it is honest, genuine and uninhibited. Urban wisdom tells us to “be yourself” and “don’t hide your true colours”. Young people especially need to be encouraged to follow their hearts: if you believe something is good and right, have the courage to live it out! This moral truism is undermined if there is a fear of being labelled an extremist radical for doing so. But there is a further social dimension to living with integrity to your religious beliefs: you can be challenged by the manifested reality of your beliefs.

Instead of labelling adherents of religion as “extremists”, if journalists and thought-leaders increasingly nurtured the ability for citizens to have the courage of their convictions, what will follow is a generation of young people who walk the talk, as opposed to a closeted generation who fearfully hide what they believe and feel. For those outside a religion, as well as those being raised within it, this is the only way for the value and fruits of a religion to be objectively observed and challenged publically: when it is lived out in full-blown truth and integrity.

Let me give an example. There are two particular religious movements (which I won’t name) on the rise in Australia which share a common law, that of “disfellowshipping” on the basis of transgression. There are strict and draconian laws and punishments in place, and extend to forbidding even greeting a disfellowshipped individual in the street. Threats of additional punishment, including violence and death remain in place to deter the faithful. The media tend to label such actions as extremist, but if the religion teaches it then those who follow through are simply being true to their faith – having integrity. Moreover, those who do have integrity do society the favour of showing the religion for what it really is; would-be converts ought to have this reality on the table. Integrity to follow one’s religion should not be discouraged, but unfortunately the media is lumping such behaviour together with the term “extreme radical”, and it leaves no room for someone to be admired for being true to themselves. I must add here though, I don’t believe that encouraging extreme integrity equates to encouraging violence. No, it is the courage to have integrity that gives people the ability to say no to bad ideas. Again, integrity goes hand-in-hand with the freedom to assess the value of a religion for oneself; there are some religious laws – such as these draconian laws, for my part – which are simply destructive and should be discouraged for the benefit of society.

So I don’t think journalists have actually intended to label “extreme religion” as the enemy; there is too much goodness in extreme religion. What journalists have meant to target is “bad religion”: those elements within a religion which strike at the good foundations of society. But that takes courage, and candour in making judgements, so it’s no wonder that not many journalists take this line. But deep down inside, I think every journalist wants to promote radical and extreme goodness; it’s just not comfortable to nurture it in religion at the moment.