A Contextual Shift

The white pick-up truck in front of me was battered and rusty. It had certainly seen better days, and it’s up to speculation whether the rain was doing it any favors. In the center of the bed canopy window, written in white on black text, styled to look like it was stamped it into being on a massive label maker, were the words “Resist Despair.”

This seemed like a message of hope. No matter how bad things got, you are tough and you can overcome it. Even when it looks like your truck is about to rust where it stands, resist the temptation to just lose it.

There was something nagging me about the other spartan decorations on the back of the truck, so I looked up the phrase from another bumper sticker: “One world, One brotherhood” the next moment I was stopped. The Google results weren’t really that encouraging–Along with some possibly racist memes, I think the fourth hit was a Google Book upload on Indian Nationalism.

Which is when the context shifted, and I couldn’t see the previously hopeful message anymore. Now, “Resist Despair” was a comment made by someone who had never experienced depression to someone in the midst of it. It was a toxic “Man up.” It was insensitive, it lacked understanding. It was a command, it was not a suggestion.

I’ll take a moment here to remark that I’m not really that bent out of shape about some random person’s bumper sticker, but I am a little intrigued by the way that context made such a difference in that one moment. Context is a powerful force, clearly. It was enough to take me from inspired to resentful in the space of a Google search.

Even sadder is the fact that I have no idea if that’s even what the “One world, one brotherhood” thing is supposed to mean. Additional searching is coming up with nothing really significant, even if the sentiment feels like it could be positive. Hell, it’s even entirely possible I misread the sticker.

But the reason I’m banging on about it (aside from boredom) is that it strikes me how hard it is to separate oneself from one’s context–even if you’re actively trying not to be part of that context. Which is where this starts to get hard to swallow: How I appear to other people is beyond my control. This is going to be somewhat informed by my context.

The context I largely inhabit is that of the straight, white male. This is how I present when I walk down the street. I can’t change that. I also can’t change the actions of my contemporaries, many of whom I don’t know. I can’t really apologize for them either, I’m not responsible for their actions. But I know that people are affected by them, and that may affect how I am perceived.

This may be part of the reason it vexes me when I see things like an all-male panel dictating the future of women’s health. Or Hollywood films casting white people into roles for non-white people. Or the entire Men’s Rights Activist movement. It’s because other people are tainting my context with ideas that I disagree with; I don’t want to be lumped in with those people.

Given that I look like them, for all a stranger knows, I may well be. In the same way that the dude with the truck could be a reasonable, pleasant human being and his otherwise potentially innocent bumper sticker might just be tainted by the vagueness of its context. No amount of yelling and flapping my hands about how different I am will change how I seem–it’ll probably make it worse. I’m willing to allow that this is how I could look to other people–and seeing as I’m just as guilty of snap decisions, how can I be mad at someone for doing the same?

So what can I do? There is nothing to be gained by getting mad at people who lump me in with the sexists and racists (especially as no one has yet). All I can do is try to be better than my contemporaries, call people out when it’s appropriate, and associate with more like-minded folks.

… which probably explains my Facebook feed.

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