The world is a now a multicultural place. Cultural practices that developed thousands and thousands of miles apart are now performed by families that live side by side. Workplaces are usually a mix of a variety of religions and an even wider range of devotion, or lack thereof, to said religions. This is, in many ways, a good thing. People are exposed at younger ages than ever to the rich diversity of the world and are able to see the beauty that is present in so many cultural and faith traditions. It can, however, lead to uncomfortable moments at dinner parties when someone confuses halal and haram or gets their languages backwards and proudly greets their Hindu neighbors with “Shalom!”When you are the one who has performed the graceful maneuver of “open mouth, insert foot,” it is normally relatively easy to fall over yourself apologizing. You may want the earth to open up and swallow you whole, but you at least know how to try and make it up to your offended or uncomfortable conversation partner. What about when the shoe is on the other foot? When someone insults your faith and does not hurriedly try to apologize or explain themselves, what do you do?
Take a deep breath.Faith is one of the most personal and important things in many people’s lives. As such, it makes sense that you are hurt or angry when someone says something insulting about your most deeply held beliefs. As much as you may want to lash out, however, that is rarely the best solution. Most people have no desire to offend anyone. So, take a deep breath, and make yourself think before you respond. As good as it may feel at the time, biting the other person’s head off or insulting them in return is unlikely to do anything but make you look like just as much of a jerk as the person who insulted you and make everyone else in the room extremely uncomfortable.
Have they done this before?Everyone sticks their foot in their mouth as some point. Many of those events remain emblazoned on people’s minds for years to come. If the person you are talking to has always been respectful of your faith in the past but has now said something offensive, the odds are that they were not deliberately trying to be insulting. That does not make what they said or did acceptable, but the accidental nature of the offense does take some of the sting out of it and can eliminate the feeling of utter betrayal that may occur if the one who insulted your faith is a friend or family member.
On the flip side, there are those people who are always making “jokes” about sensitive topics and claiming that people need to chill out when they are offended. If the person who insulted you has done this to you or other people before, you may be unfortunate enough to be dealing with a grade-A jerk.
How bad was it really?While attempts to avoid offending others are laudable, they have led some people to develop a paper-thin skin and a hyperawareness of even the slightest offenses. It has also led some people to develop the false idea that they have a right not to be offended. As such, there is an unfortunately large contingent of people who pounce on even the most minor of insults like hungry leopards. What may have been a slightly off-color joke is responded to with everything short of a demand for a duel rather than the rolled eyes and shake of the head it deserved.
Faith is a touchy and deeply personal subject, so insults towards it are naturally taken more seriously than when someone who thinks they are funny making a blonde joke about a coworker. Was the insult really something that deserves your best attempt at an Old Testament style smiting or was it just a moron making a stupid remark that should get no more attention than your rolled eyes? Do you really need to rain hellfire down on your idiot in-law or should you avoid feeding the troll?
Do they know what they said?Sometimes mistakes are just that, mistakes. Today’s world is multicultural and interfaith, but that does not meant that people are automatically experts on the nuances of every faith and culture in the world. Plenty of insults are said by people who have no idea that what they said was offensive. They may have spoken out of innocent ignorance. They may also have used words or phrases that they heard from someone else but had no idea were insulting. There are thousands of people out there who are under the mistaken impression that various slurs are simply terms used to describe a group of people. When informed of how insulting their words are, they are horrified at what they have actually been saying. Before you either go on the attack or turn your back on a person forever, make sure you know if they have any idea that they were being insulting.
Did they mean it?There is a difference between the idiot who thinks that putting others down is somehow cool and the honest bigot who actually believes the things they say about another faith. One is full of hot air and may eventually grow up if reality hits them with a clue-by-four. The other might well be locked into their ways. It is understandable to want little to nothing to do with either group, but there is a difference between someone who thought they were being funny and someone who truly aimed to cause offense. You can probably get the former to lay off the faith jokes if you play your cards right, but a different approach is needed for dealing with the latter.
Educate them.Sometimes people say or do insulting things. Sadly, that is simply a fact of life. No matter how culturally, ethnically or religiously diverse an area is, someone will say or do something stupid. Welcome to reality. Not everyone, however, will really mean the insult. Accidents happen, especially around people who were raised in a bigoted or extremely homogenous community and are truly trying to be more open minded. Unpleasant though such people can be to be around, be patient with those who really are trying to change. If no one ever exposes them to other ways of thinking, how in the world are they supposed to learn?
Many people complain about forever being an ambassador of their religious or ethnic group, but the unfortunate fact is that if no one is willing to do the work of educating others, nothing will ever change. Sometimes you need to walk away from someone for the sake of your own mental health, but your first response to an insult should not be to burn any bridge you might have formed with someone to ashes. For all you know, the person you are writing off as a jerk and a bigot might be fumbling through encounters and at a complete loss as to why everyone seems to hate them. Rather than turning your back on them or insulting them in return, educate them. Explain to them why what they said or did was offensive. You might find that they are more than happy to correct their behavior if someone will simply tell them why it matters.
Did they apologize?Most people are not looking to offend others. As such, when you tell them that they just insulted your faith, the average person will just about fall over themselves trying to apologize. If this is what the person who offended you does, they likely simply put their foot in their mouth. They may not grovel at your feet, but a person who was looking to avoid offense will usually apologize or at the very least try to understand why what they said or did was offensive. If the person who gave the offense, however, has no interest in either apologizing or seeking to understand how they offended you, you are likely dealing with a first class jerk.
Leave.Unfortunately, there is no set cure for being a jerk. Education and exposure can work miracles, but they are not foolproof. As such, there will be people that, try as you might to correct their behavior, will still insist on being insulting idiots. If you simply cannot get through to them or do not have the mental and emotional energy to deal with trying to break through that wall of idiocy, walk away. As good as it might feel to fire back with insults or pick a fight with the person who offended you, they will do you more harm than good in most cases. Take the high road and walk away.
Multicultural or interfaith insults are not usually a matter of deliberate malice. They usually run something more along the lines of: open mouth, insert foot, try repeatedly to swallow, fail, choke horrifically in front of everyone. The person doing the insulting usually does not mean to hurt anyone. They are ignorant, confused as to the meaning of what they just said or trying so hard to get it right that they carefully review what they are not supposed to say before the party and then panic and spit that out instead. Staying calm and thinking through the situation will help you separate those unfortunate souls who want the earth to swallow them from those who are just jerks. Practice good faith and forgive those who fall in the first category. When it comes to the second? Rise above it and leave the jerk to prove to everyone else exactly how little of a person he really is. The rest will take care of itself.