A few weeks ago we had a speaker at our church, Ed Wilson from International Justice Mission, which is an organization devoted to rescuing and restoring victims of sex trafficking. Besides talking to us about IJM's work, he also spoke on the topic of "Who is my neighbour?" using the parable of the Good Samaritan. He pointed out that the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, where the man in the parable was walking when he was robbed and beaten, was a dangerous road -- and he challenged us by asking us what dangerous road we could help make safer.
His talk got me thinking about an incident I experienced about ten years ago. I was reading a major Canadian women's magazine that I subscribed to. In it was an article by a well-known and often controversial journalist. She was lambasting our former prime minister -- something that lots of other people were doing (and still do), and which was totally within her rights.
But one sentence jumped off the page at me: she described him as having "an Asperger-like inability to understand human beings."
I was so angry. I didn't care what she said about the prime minister; he was a big boy and could defend himself. But I cared what she said about people with Asperger's because I know, from close personal experience, that people with Asperger's are not "unable to understand human beings." Her comment was not only unkind, it was unfair and inaccurate. It was as if she was looking around for some weapon to attack someone she hated and thought, "Here's an easy stereotype; I'll use it to insult the prime minister, and who cares if it insults someone else."
I wrote a letter to the magazine's editor, criticizing the journalist's use of this cruel comment. I said I had a daughter with Asperger's who was an empathetic and caring girl (she was that way at age 8 and still is). Then I said I would never read this magazine again (which I haven't), and I ended by saying that if the writer wanted to call me to apologize, here was my phone number.
Much to my surprise ... she called me.
I picked up the phone one afternoon and a quiet, intense voice said, "This is X. I read your letter, and I'm sorry."
She said that things like Asperger's would be treated as shameful secrets in her family, and she commended me for being open about this subject.
We talked for a couple of minutes, but I honestly can't remember much of what she said because I was so shocked that she had actually contacted me. Before ending the call she gave me her personal email address. I kept it for a little while but then discarded it, since I realized I had no reason or desire to stay in touch with her.
The magazine printed my letter, too, and a number of people -- some of them only acquaintances -- mentioned it to me.
This episode didn't turn me into a vocal autism or Asperger's advocate, but it taught me something. It brought home to me the power of words -- for both good and bad. One sentence can spread an unfair, ignorant stereotype ... and one sentence challenging that perspective can touch a heart and change a mind.
Of course, the outcome isn't always that positive or quick. Another writer, another magazine, might have just ignored me. Worse still, often when someone speaks out in defence of another person who's being treated unfairly, they end up being attacked themselves. I see that on social media way too often: a person of integrity is publicly vilified just because they stepped out and objected to what they were seeing or hearing.
I think our church speaker's question -- What road are we being called to make safer? -- is a good one. It reminds us that some battles may not be ours to fight; after all, sometimes those we rush to defend are perfectly capable of standing up for themselves and don't want or need a spokesperson.
But if we feel that call to enter the fray, it probably means we should. Taking a stand on behalf of those who are being disparaged by someone with a platform may not make us popular. But it may make the road -- and the world -- feel a little bit safer to someone who's misunderstood, vulnerable, or marginalized.
Words are powerful. Let's use them well.