I generally try not to write about current events, but I’m on a plane and this is my damn blog so you get what you get. Also, I think this is important: stick with me all the way to the end.
This week, I attended the National Spelling Bee, which has to be the single most relentlessly kid-positive event I’ve ever seen. I’ll admit that I went in expecting pageant parents and high pressure, and the latter is certainly true: there is no doubt that after coming from a pool of 11 million participants, making it to the final 250 and being live telecast on ESPN is nerve wracking.
But what was so awesome, and so unexpected, was how aware the adults were and how well they kept the focus on the kids. They hired genuinely funny Hollywood writers to make great “Use it in a sentence” retorts, with the net effect of breaking the tension for kids at the most stressful moments. When kids misspell a word and thus are eliminated, their parents meet their kids at the side of the stage with a hug. Being there, you get the sense that everyone is more focused on making this a successful, supportive experience for the kids than they are on actually having a competition.
I’m sure there are pageant parents in there and that there is plenty of politics and drama and the like. But the Spelling Bee really does feels like geek summer camp. The kids get yearbooks with a page for each of them and run around getting autographs from each other. The older kids and the cool kids are acknowledged, but generally humble and very warm towards the younger and the geekier. I saw at least one crush (and one of the pair was a semifinalist, so even more suspense). There is a dance on Friday night. There is near-constant high fiving.
If anything, the worst thing about the Bee isn’t at the Bee – it is what happens in the outside world. The sports fans who complain about missing a night of punditry on ESPN. The folks who take to Twitter and moan about how none of the finalists are ever Americans (just for reference, every semifinalist but one was an American this year, and they were black, white, brown, asian, and of both genders; just because you’re not white doesn’t mean you aren’t American).
Lameness happens and I can accept that. But one that bothered me in particular was a woman who said it was no longer interesting once the girls got out. I asked her if she would say the same thing if all the white kids got out, trying to point out that statements we make about gender wouldn’t be as acceptable if we translated them to race. Which caused her to try to explain to me the plight of women, particularly gender wage equity (which I found particularly funny, because I actually link to GetRaised.com in my Twitter profile). She even suggested that I would be the kind to use the word misandry on a frequent basis.
And of course, it is a big week for those kind of discussions. Because #YesAllWomen and, to be honest, #YesAllMen. Because everyone has made someone feel uncomfortable at some point. And because we’re all stupid assholes some of the time – that, at least, doesn’t seem to be split along gender lines.
But what always troubles me a bit about tragedies is that they make it difficult to question the prevailing voices. I’m very for cheering on women; I just sponsored prizes for a woman-focused hackathon out of my own pocket. But I’m not for saying they are the only reason to watch something. Not because I’m afraid of creating a bunch of misandrists but because I think that statements like “I’m no longer watching because the girls are out” feed the misogynists.
To me, the way to react to Elliot Rodger’s actions isn’t to emphasize a mental illness or the social forces that affect women. Mental illness and those forces are important, and need to be recognized, and I don’t want to silence women who need to speak out in order to feel better. But for sheer productivity, I can’t help but remember the story of C. P. Ellis, who was 53 when Studs Terkel interviewed him.
Ellis was an exalted cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan, who grew up poor and felt shut out of American mainstream. He join the Klan to get a sense of belonging and before long, was rising in the leadership and showing up at town hall meetings with weapons tucked into his belt, hurling violent obscenities at the blacks who were pushing for integration.
That could have been in it; that could have been Ellis’ entire story and his entire life. His rage could have escalated to violence and he could have been Elliot Rodger: someone who felt pushed out and found someone else (importantly, someone also disempowered) to push back on.
But then something interesting happened: Ellis was invited to a working group of people from all walks of life asked to make recommendations on how to deal with racial problems. Instead of shunning him, part of the community reached out and said “even if we don’t agree with your opinions, we respect that you have them and we want to listen and work together to move forward”. Ellis was elected co-chair of the committee, alongside a black woman he hated. And by working with her and talking and moving forward an inch at a time, he left the Klan and became a staunch advocate not only of racial integration but on fighting for the rights of mostly-black union workers who lived in the poverty he knew so well.
Why can’t that be our reaction? Is this a moment where, instead of going to Twitter and saying “I’m not watching because the girls are gone”, we can find the places where misogynists cluster and actually listen to how they feel. Respect, if not their opinions, at least their feelings and their personhood and help them feel a little more included?
When you read Rodger’s writings, he couldn’t have put it more clearly: he felt he was on the outside, looking in. Without excusing his actions, without embracing his beliefs, the challenge is now ours. Can we put aside our own righteous anger in the interest of making progress? Can we take a moment and remember C. P. Ellis?
Also published on Medium.