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It Really Does Start With You
I was going through my music library, doing a bit of clean-up, when I came across a song I’d not thought about in years. It was a popular song when it first came out — a top ten hit on a top 40 list. A song by a group that was in its heydey at the time, from an album that did ridiculously well. This song was about having fun and partying, letting loose and just enjoying yourself.
But not everyone liked it. The song had a lot of criticisms waged against it from one particular community of people and their allies because it used a word that is de-humanising.
The criticism waged against this song was powerful enough that the group changed the lyrics, which meant changing the very title of the song. Nowadays, if you go to find it, you can probably only find it with this new title: Let’s Get It Started
It may seem odd for me to be writing about a song that came out in 2003 but bear with me. This is not the story of how the Black Eyed Peas, a group of pretty diverse individuals who are in no way unfamiliar with oppression and discrimination, came to write and perform a song that liberally used demeaning words to get us to dance. This isn’t about how the Wikipedia entry for the song doesn’t once mention how the controversy of using words like ‘crazy’ and ‘stupid’ synonymously with having fun led to the Peas re-writing and re-releasing the song with a new title as a new single. This also isn’t about how the song went on to great success under the new title, but no member of the Black Eyed Peas ever issued a statement of apology for such insensitive lyrics — although these are all things worth reflection and consideration.
This piece is about personal responsibility. It’s about owning our implicit biases, being aware of our emotions, and what it’s like to look back on oneself and reflect. This is about cutting through self-deception and understanding what it means to change as a person.
And it starts with a confession:
I didn’t just love that song (and play obsessively) when it came out. I chose to defend it and the Black Eyed Peas for choosing to use the R-word in their lyrics.
I argued that it was about context. Obviously, I would say, the Black Eyed Peas weren’t using the word hurtfully. They didn’t mean people who were disabled. Getting upset about it was silly!
I used these and other specious reasoning to justify my enjoyment of the song and eventually, I forgot about it, until just the other day when I saw the song in my music library. I hadn’t realised I still had the song, but as soon as I saw it, I deleted it. Which got me to thinking about what had changed. Why was I no longer, even in the privacy of my own thoughts, not looking to justify my enjoyment of a song I had gone to such great lengths to defend before?
I’ve been meditating for over nine years now, coming up to a decade. Meditation is a practice that habituates us to watch our thoughts, to notice our emotions, and to be present with the fullness of our experience. The more we do this, the more we see our habits and patterns. We stop trying to cling to feeling good, and we become less resistant to feeling how we feel when it’s uncomfortable. We notice things we didn’t before — like why we grasp on to some things and push other things away.
Guilt and shame are deeply uncomfortable. They bring up a whole mix of messy, embarrassing thoughts. Because I was so habituated to not wanting to feel guilt or shame, I reacted to these feeling unthinkingly when they came up. In the case of this song, when it came to my attention that the lyrics were hurtful and demeaning to fellow human beings, I felt shame for not having seen that myself and guilt for enjoying the music. This is fine, and totally normal. There is nothing wrong with feeling guilt or shame — or any emotion. The problems arise in how we choose to respond to uncomfortable emotions.
Rather than pausing and letting these feelings inform my choices so I could start developing awareness of how other people might experience the world, I focused on my own discomfort and how to get rid of it. I chose instead to justify things externally in an attempt to change what was going on for me internally.
Even though it’s been over a decade, I can still remember how I felt as I sought to reason my way out of guilt and shame: It got worse. I knew, on some level, that it couldn’t be justified. But admitting that meant admitting I was a horrible person.
This probably sounds familiar to you. In fact, I’m going to say it definitely sounds familiar to you. Unless we are from a remote, homogenous society with little to no outside contact, we are relating to difference every day. Which is to say, we are called to relate to the diversity of humanity and that our experience of the world is never and can never be fully encompassing of what it is to be human.
The problem is, in the face of not wanting to be bad, I wasn’t owning up to the fact that I wasn’t perfect. I wasn’t a bad person for liking that song. But with this new information of how the song was harmful to others — and therefore harmful to society as a whole — I wasn’t giving myself the chance to become a better person. Or at least, that’s the way I used to operate in the face of guilt and shame.
These days my approach is very different. I won’t say I don’t think of myself as ‘bad’ when someone points out how my implicit bias is coming through in the language I choose. But I no longer see that value judgement as helpful. It has always led me to justify my thoughts and behaviour, instead of inviting me to change them. When that kind of value judgement comes up, I label it for what it is: ego-protection. It’s a knee-jerk response that comes from the dualistic belief that we are either ‘good’ or ‘bad’, instead of seeing that we are human and flawed, but always capable of change.
I don’t do this with aggression but lovingly, because I know it’s a habit I took years to build and that just noticing it and naming it is part of the process of dismantling it.
And then I look at the guilt and the shame and follow them to the ignorance at which they are pointing. I set an intention to be mindful of my words or ideas in the future, to remember that my experience of the world is only one, very narrow experience, and that others are equally deserving of respect, love and compassion.
Finding this song recently wasn’t the first time I could see how the work I’ve been doing has been changing my habitual response to guilt and shame. When I was living in the UK, the story of Jimmy Savile’s sexual abuse and exploitation broke, creating a domino effect that rippled throughout the world of celebrity. Savile was just the tip of the iceberg. The sexual exploitation and abuse at the hands of many prominent celebrities of the sixties and seventies came to light. As a Canadian, and someone who primarily grew up without television, most of them were unfamiliar to me. But then, Rolf Harris was accused of sexually assaulting a young woman.
Rolf Harris was beloved to me. I didn’t want the accusations to be true. It would be like finding out that Mr. Rogers or Mr. Dress-up was a paedophile.
As his trial progressed and more evidence came to light, I began to think of the woman who was a girl, who he had taken advantage of. I thought of her experience and how that coloured her childhood. I appreciated that whatever fondness I felt was irrevocably damaged and that it would be wrong to hold onto it in the face of his conviction. I wasn’t going to deny what he did to preserve the feel-good parts my childhood memories.
This was not easy, but I didn’t hesitate to do the work. I noticed when a thought would come up attempting to make out like he was framed so I could maintain my happy childhood memories of singing ‘Six White Boogers’ because I’d mis-heard the lyrics. I interjected these thoughts by coming back to a young woman who was taken advantage of. I thought instead of what her childhood memories were like, in light of his choices. I reminded myself that it’s not all about me.
That’s the crux of a practice like this. The mantra, if you will: It’s not all about you.
When we respond to guilt or shame by justifying our choices, or we are holding on so tightly to a memory because it’s entwined with feeling good, we are thinking only of ourselves. But this practice of listening to what these feelings are communicating to us is a practice of seeing how interconnected we are. We must not be dismissive of suffering to preserve our own false sense of happiness. By taking the longer view, I see that the fleeting happiness of a childhood memory is much less significant than the long-term happiness of a society that values all of its members equally, protecting them from harm.
I will never be able to ensure my words and actions are never harmful, but that doesn’t make this an unworthy aspiration. It may seem impossible to reach, but as long as I keep acknowledging that I don’t want to cause harm, I keep setting new intentions that support this. The more positive intentions I set, the better I relate to others, and the more I cultivate compassion for everyone, my ego-clinging self included.
Because we do not exist in a vacuum — because our choices and actions have an impact on the world around us — how we think and how we respond to those thoughts can and does change the world. By choosing to change my mind, I am doing what I can to change harmful systems like rape culture and an ableist society. I am not dismissing myself as a bad person, but accepting I can always be a better person. And it is a reminder that we are equally deserving of happiness — which is to say we are equal in our worth as human beings regardless of the colour of our skin, our gender, or our cognition. We can create a society that reflects this, one mind at a time, starting with our own.
Originally published on Medium.