12 April, 2013

Gender sensitivity training!

I read last week of the little “scrape” that president Obama had got himself into with the California Attorney General  Kamala Harris. The President praised Ms Harris’s brilliance, her dedication and her toughness as Attorney General to a group of wealthy donors  but then committed the unforgivable sin in this politically correct world of suggesting that she was also “the best looking Attorney General in the country”. The knives were soon out and the President soon had to call the lady concerned to apologise for his gaffe and women’s groups and would be politicians throughout the US were putting in their two pennyworth on how Obama should mend his ways. “My stomach turned over” wrote one pundit and another said that this was “something the President needed to work on”. A third advised the President that he needed “Gender sensitivity training!”
Obama and the beautiful (sorry!) Kamala Harris

My own feeling was “Get a life”. These are people who are navel gazing and incapable of finding anything more worthwhile to comment upon. “Gender sensitivity training? – whoever thought that term up needs to get training in being a member of the human race – and, indeed, if there is such a thing as “gender sensitivity training” then there is something profoundly wrong with the society that encourages it! My, what George Orwell would do with such a title and conception! For me, in the great issues of the world and the things with which the most powerful man on earth must be dealing with on  a daily basis I find it refreshing that Obama can still quip and pay a compliment -  even if some do judge it sexist. For me the criticism and complaining says far more about those wanting Obama’s scalp than it does about Obama.

By a strange coincidence I was taken to task a couple of years ago because I wasn’t sexist enough! Pat and I were in Lanzarote  and I walked down to the local sea front bar for a beer in the early evening. Pat was getting ready for dinner.  I sat at the front of the almost empty bar enjoying my cool beer. Sitting a couple of tables away were a young family – mum, dad and little boy aged about 5. They were having a meal and as I sat I could not help but hear their conversation. They were from America – from Florida, I think, judging by the places they mentioned. I sat for about half an hour enjoying my beer and then decided to go back to the hotel for dinner. As I stood up, I turned to the family and smiled – I said that I hoped they were enjoying their holiday and could I congratulate them on having such a well behaved little boy with impeccable table manners. Mum and dad smiled and then dad said “Thank you why but  didn’t you  congratulate me too on my beautiful wife!”

Taken as I sat at the bar that night
To say that I was nonplussed is an understatement. I was, in fact quite hurt. Maybe I was feeling a bit sensitive but I had complimented them in all good faith and to be “corrected” seemed to me to be a little churlish. I walked away confused -  a few steps down the road I stopped and considered walking back and saying “I do hope that your son grows up with more graciousness than his parents.” Needless to say I didn’t – in the end I put it down to experience – and grumbled to Pat all night about it!

In the brash world in which we all  now live, where “transparency” (whatever that over used sound bite means) is all, and where the “in your face” and “tell it how it is” culture so often appertains and passes for acceptable behaviour it seems to me we have lost something. What we have lost, I think might be lumped under a number of titles – tact, subtlety, delicacy, discretion, graciousness, the ability to unreservedly accept a well meant compliment or to comprehend a gentle bit of chiding. Everything today has to be spelled out and “in yer face”. And, no matter how you try it seems increasingly impossible to please people – especially when “people” see only what they want to see and refuse to see the bigger picture. And the two cases that I cite seem to prove to me what I have long believed – those in favour of plain speaking, transparency or telling it how it is are all in favour until someone tells them “how it is”. Obama’s open and generous comment on the lady’s attractions was given in all good faith and maybe, just maybe, reflected the huge amount of time and money that the lady in question spends on turning herself out each day looking impeccable – so why cannot it be accepted as just that? But no, honest comment is now frequently to be checked and “approved” to ensure that it does not offend. That’s fine – except that the guy in the bar didn’t apply the same rules when he chastised me for not recognising his wife’s many charms – he cared not one jot that he might just have offended me. He was quite happy for me to be sexist about his wife when it suited him. I've often wondered what he might have said if I had commented on his wife's charms rather than his son's manners! Certainly, I think if I was Barack Obama I think I might just have gone home that night and quietly banged my head against the bedroom wall when Michelle Obama asked if he had had a good day at the (Oval) Office!

The old children's rhyme "Sticks and stones may break my bones but names (words) will never hurt me" is manifestly wrong. The power of words to hurt and to cause a longer lasting hurt is all too obvious. In a small way I was hurt that night as  left that seaside bar, I'm sure that even the tough politician Obama must just occasionally  wonder is it all worth it when he is lambasted by one side or the other and I am utterly convinced that in this strident world in which we live great hurt is caused on a regular basis because of what comes from the mouths of people - usually because they have not previously weighed up the consequences of their outburst. In writing this I am reminded of one of my oft told assembly stories from school – it encapsulates exactly what I mean and is a lesson I never ceased to tire of reminding children about. It is a tale from the Arabian Nights but appears in many forms in middle east literature. It is a story of tact and graciousness and seeing the bigger picture and in these loud crass times something that serves as a good reminder to the strident voices of the societies in which we live.

A tribe of poor desert people are thirsty – the water holes and oases have dried out. Despite travelling many hundreds of miles water cannot be found. The chief instructs several of the men to go out on their horses and camels to seek water on behalf of the tribe. One of these men travels for several days – without success and at last takes rest in a cave. It is dark and he falls fast asleep. When he awakes he realises that his hand is wet – it is lying in water. He quickly scoops some of the water into his hand and greedily drinks. Refreshed, he fills his various water bottles up and hurriedly sets off back to his tribe.

One of the many pictures and prints of the
story of Harun-al-Rashid's wisdom when he met the
As he gallops across the desert he comes upon the king – the great and wise Caliph Harun al-Rashid - out hunting with his courtiers. He approaches the Caliph who asks where he is going in such a great hurry. The man gasps out his story and tells the Caliph he has found the most wonderfully refreshing water, “the water of paradise” he calls it. “Would your majesty like to drink some?” he asks. To the horror of the courtiers the Caliph readily agrees and takes the man’s grubby water bottle to his lips. The water is foul smelling and brackish – scooped up from the earth of the cave. The Caliph drinks, and then smiles kindly “You have indeed found the water of paradise, my friend” he says “ it is the most wonderful taste I have ever tasted. Thank you for sharing it with me, your King. I am honoured indeed.” The Caliph then takes out of his saddle bag a pouch filled with a thousand gold dinars and passes it to the man. “Take this”, he says “and return to your people. Use the money to build a well near where you have found the water of paradise and your tribe and their children and their grandchildren must then guard the water for all eternity so that if I wish to drink of it again I can come to you”. The man is overcome. He falls to the ground and worships the Caliph and promises he will do as instructed. The money is such a vast amount that it will indeed keep his tribe in food and water for years to come. He climbs back on his horse, bows again to the Caliph and disappears into the desert. And, the story tells, his family and their descendents are still, today, guarding the cave and that “water of paradise”.

When he had gone the Caliph’s couriers gathered around and expressed their horror – how could he drink such foul water? Why did he not take the man back to Baghdad where the man could have seen the clean water of the great city and the mighty waters of the Tigris and the Euphrates? Why did he not simply tell the man the truth and send him packing? The Caliph listened and then quietly said “But, he thought he was bringing me the water of heaven. He gave to me the most precious thing that he possessed – the water that will keep him and his family alive. Who am, I a mere King, to tell him otherwise. It would have been disrespectful to a good man. If I had taken him to Baghdad he would have been made to look foolish and his gift of water small. He would have been shamed at giving his King so worthless a gift. His was a noble act in sharing his greatest  possession with me -  if I, too, wish to be noble then I must treat him with the nobility that his kindness demands.”

Maybe there wasn’t a lot of nobility going on in California last week when Obabma visited  – or in Lanzarote a couple of years ago when I sat in the sea front bar. But hey – tact, subtlety, delicacy, graciousness and noble word and action are probably long dead – long live crassness, transparency and “telling it how it is.”

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