On Tolerance and Upbringing

How much of your personality is yours and yours alone, and how much is the environment you grew up in?

The wonderful Sylvia Plath wrote all about this many decades before it ever occurred to me, and the basic argument of nature versus nurture has been going on an aeon, with Rousseau throwing his hat in the ring with natural man and civilised man, and Shelley presenting us with nurturing gone awfully wrong, and from that famed literature (and likely from earlier) a thousand other imaginings have sprung up of life without upbringing, of the human without its natural environment, of people set apart from all the little things that shape us and observed, through the magnifying, mystifying lens of fiction.

Clearly, it’s a subject humanity loves to dwell on, and who can blame us? The desire to understand ourselves is perhaps stronger than any other need for comprehension we might encounter, because it seems so logical that if we could only unpick and pull apart the very fabric of our selves, we could so easily see where any errors lie, and cut them out with our sharp little scissors so as to sew ourselves back up all perfectly and know a life devoid of sadness and unnecessary guilt and anger.

I’ve always felt particularly interested in it, like every slightly oddball, introspective kid. Everyone’s upbringing differs slightly, of course, because some parents are stricter, or more traditional, or less well off, or raised differently themselves, but mine had noticeable contrasts, like moving overseas multiple times, that distracted me from the subtler differences for quite a while. It was by no means astounding and indeed sounds quite tame and unexciting typed neatly out for a stranger’s perusal, and yet it was so important an influence on all the actions I make today, and will make for the rest of my life.

I’d like to be able to claim all the fascinating aspects of me as part of my magnificent, unique snowflake self, but that’s naive and unjust. I’m smart, and interesting, and knowledgeable and open-minded because of all the wonderful opportunities I had, even if there was some small genetic predisposition for those traits.

My parents encouraged me to read at every spare moment and my brother and I were willing victims, getting in trouble for staying up late to read as much as any other childish misdemeanour. We were carted around Europe, books in hand, by our eager parents who forced as many cultural experiences as they could find on a shoestring onto our impressionable minds, sometimes all the more memorable for the extreme budget we did them on – how would I forget the cheap, shady-looking ‘hotel’ in Morocco where the beds were all inexplicably damp when we got to our room and the manager brought us new sheets, which, he assured us, had been stripped from his own bed literally moments before?

There’s the obvious things like that, or the way my mother speaks properly and people tease me for calling my parents my mother and father (instead of the more appropriately Aussie ‘Mum and Dad’), but there’s small things too. Like how I just assumed everyone would be conversationally fluent in at least one foreign language. Like how I didn’t know there was any way you could do something other than go to uni after high school. Like how I don’t know how grandfathers love to spoil their granddaughters, because mine both died before I was born.

And each of these is a tiny, tiny part of my life and often hastily overlooked. If we don’t pay attention to the impact of all these infinitesimal occurrences it’s easy to not realise how much the part contributes to the whole, to dismiss them as unimportant. And that in itself doesn’t seem so awful, except that these small differences do change our lives, and change the way we approach our lives. It’s the microagressions we mention when discussing race issues, the constant silent erosion of culture and self that happens one grain of sand at a time, so slow that no one notices, not even the ones it’s happening to.

I don’t mean to preach about sexism and racism and ableism and all the ingrained discrimination in our world that we accept as normal and right because we don’t know a world without it, it simply provides the most common, everyday example. I grew up not believing catcalls were insulting because I grew up in a world where no one would dream of catcalling or wolf-whistling unless it was ironic, or perhaps happening in a movie where the characters might equally end up flying areoplanes out of cathedral tombs and marrying millionaires. Even when I read other people’s accounts, I still thought, secretly, that it all seemed to be a lot of fuss about nothing. It wasn’t til I encountered it myself that I realised why some women hate it so much, live in fear of it as they walk cautiously down the streets I generally run down unafraid of harassment because it’s not part of my life.

My parents raised me in a way that was half-revolutionary and half-old-fashioned so that, thanks to the mix, I turned out reasonably ordinarily. My books included both Asterix and Obelix comics and Jane Eyre*, and I had a diet of old movies that ranged from Francis the Talking Mule to Freaks. My mother defends her decision in showing her eight-year-old daughter a film that ends in the main character having her legs amputated and her hands melted into wing-stubs by righteously outraged carnival freaks because, as she quite fairly points out, the morals are still good and true. The main character is evil and rotten, and the freaks are the good guys, mutilating her only because she treated them as less than human.

I like to think I’m especially tolerant and open-minded, and I like to imagine that I’m inherently smarter or somehow better than people I meet because I know so much more than a lot of them. But if I hadn’t been raised by my parents, who fed knowledge faster than I could digest it, and gave me such a strong moral backbone that they never bothered to shroud in the disguise of social convention, who would I be? Who am I to assume that other people don’t know things because they’re dumb, and not because they weren’t given a dozen books on faeries and history and sent reluctantly to run around crumbling castle walls? Who am I to truly consider someone lesser than me because they’re less tolerant, if they were brought up to truly believe that morality can follow only one path and any deviation from normality is akin to sin?

I don’t really think I have the right. And neither, I imagine, do you.

*Anyone who appreciates humour or Jane Eyre or Victorian literature or any combination of the three should definitely read this lovely, lovely summary of a book which I’ve read 3 times since I was 11 and liked more with each successive re-reading.

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