Thoughts

[54/365] Bigotry and Academia: Drawing A Line

Coming from a Muslim-majority country that claims to be supportive and tolerant of its diverse multicultural ethnic makeup, there’s nothing I am more intimately familiar with than the stunningly hypocritical intolerance of the conservative Muslim-majority when it comes to things that are distinctly unfamiliar to them i.e. people of other creeds. There is a very strong culture of us vs. them especially in conservative countries like Malaysia. Conservatives are all about maintaining the status quo, and that inevitably creates the battleground that is us vs. them – the usurpers who challenge the throne and the ones who protect it in turn. When you’re so attuned to the mindset that those who are different from you are the enemy, you end up being unable to fathom the concept that the enemy are people just like you, who live and breathe and prosper as your fellow countrymen, even if they don’t share your skin colour or language or religion. You become unable to understand that people are people, because all you know is us vs. them. All you know is you vs. the enemy.

And it’s this mindset that’s so dangerous, because it encourages a closed-off mind and unwillingness to consider things from a wider viewpoint. It restricts your thinking, forces you to dismiss the perspectives of others. When you refuse to walk a mile in the other man’s shoes, you fail to understand where they’re coming from. You fail to understand them, and in a multiracial country as ours that sort of inability to understand each other – not to mention the outright antagonism between the different ethnic and religious groups, even – can be the catalyst to spark discord and disharmony. A small fracture can bring about devastating calamity precisely because we’re multiethnic to begin with; the risk is so much greater because we have so much more to lose compared to predominantly single-ethnic nations like Japan or the Philippines. A lot of people scoff when I say this, but Malaysia is really the USA of Southeast Asia – sure the geo- and sociopolitical circumstances differ, but look at our similarities. The majority being one ethnic race that’s keen on maintaining the status quo? Check. Minority races either oppressed or not given the same opportunities and/or privileges? Check. Growing discord over the unfair status quo and enforcement of religious and/or non-democratic policies in government? Check.

Face it. We’re more like the United States that we think.

Point is, we – and by we I mean the Muslim Malay majority – are hugely intolerant. We’re intolerant of non-Muslims because they’re kafir, they’re infidels who are barred from Heaven for their blasphemous religions. We’re intolerant of LGBTQIA+ folk because the traditional interpretation of the Quran puts them as sinners doomed for the flames of Hell, the modern-day denizens of Sodom and Gomorrah. We refuse to consider even for a single damned second that non-Muslims and LGBTQIA+ folk are Malaysians too, because for us we are the majority. When you’ve spent so long surrounded by tyour own kind, you forget that other kinds exist. You forget that other people exist. You forget that you’re not the only people who make up this country. You forget that Christians are not exclusively Westerners, and you forget that there are gay and transgender people in this country just like there are gay and transgender people anywhere else.

But is there a line to be crossed when you’re speaking as an academic; as a lecturer, as a professor of philosophy, as a scholar of the social sciences? Call me pedantic, but how can you say you’re speaking objectively as someone who studies social science when you refer to Christians as those infidels from the West and talk about LGBTQIA+ as if they’re a disease? The whole point of academia is to study things without being affected by bias, and here you are blatantly displaying said biases. It’s not a good look, so to speak.

I’m writing about this today because earlier I went for an Introduction to Philosophy class taught by a lecturer I ‘d met for the first time. He’s a great guy, an associate professor who’s based in the political science department. He’s fun and cracks a lot of jokes and really knows his stuff, and he manages to make a three-hour class at 8am actually worth looking forward to. He talked about the main cores of philosophy and then went on to explain political philosophy in a little detail, but during one of his tangents he told us a story of how he once had a student who went from a typically masculine guy in his first year to wearing high-heels by graduation. It was told as a joke, mainly to elicit reactions of disgust and shock from the other students, and he went on to tell us about his experience with said student (apparently) flirting with him and how he found it all so unnatural. He said that while he wouldn’t reciprocate flirting from a female student, he can accept it because it’s the norm. When it’s a student he’d already identified as male, he was creeped out, to say the least.

And as always I sat at the back, taking notes during the more educational parts of the lecture, and an uncomfortable feeling crept up my spine when the class laughed and eww’d during the more flamboyant parts of his storytelling. In comparison, last semester I had an Introduction to Social Science class taught by a lecturer who’s based in the mass communication department. This particular old man was seen as annoying and cranky, but I personally thought he was really cool. He knew his stuff and didn’t go off on as many tangents as the associate professor does, and he made sure to spend all three hours actually teaching us things instead of making jokes every three minutes. I loved him, even though I got a C in his subject. This old man also used to make points about LGBTQIA+ folk, but he never described them in a derogatory manner. He never called them disgusting or tried to elicit a reaction from the students. He used to say that LGBTQIA+ isn’t weird or a disease or something unnatural – it’s just that we don’t understand them. We don’t know enough about them, and it’s human nature to fear that which we don’t understand. It’s not right to say that LGBTQIA+ is wrong when we don’t know anything about LGBTQIA+ in the first place, and I respected him for that.

Both of these lecturers are Muslims – the old man is a Malay Muslim while I’m not too sure about the associate professor; his accent sounded Sabahan, so he could be a bumiputera. I’m not too sure. Either way, when you’re speaking as an academic, in an academic capacity in a lecture hall in a lesson meant to impart knowledge to your students, you have a responsibility of sorts to draw a line. You have a responsibility to realise that your audience isn’t made up of 100% Muslims, that there are queer folk and non-Muslims within your audience as well, and it’s your responsibility to make sure your content is catered to them as well. It’s your responsibility to make sure they’re not alienated by your words, by your lecture, and it’s something not many people here understand. Is it unprofessionalism at work, that inability to separate the bigoted person from the unbiased academic, or is it just how we as a people are? Are we just incapable of recognising that we are not alone in this world, that this world was not made for us to walk alone?

I can’t say I have the answer for sure.

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