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In Theory: Reading into a Living Library

August 04, 2010

Ronni Abergel, a Danish antiviolence campaigner, has begun what is being called the Living Library. Already in 12 countries, patrons "borrow" people who represent stereotypes that often are the target of prejudice or hatred. Examples of these would be a Muslim, an immigrant, a transgender individual, a witch or an atheist, as was the case in an east London library. What do you think about the Living Library? Do you think it would work in the United States and, to some extent, our local communities? And would you participate?

I support the underlying concept of the Living Library, which I understand is "promoting understanding and tolerance through dialogue." Its practicality, however, is another matter.

It will be interesting to see whether this idea will work in the United States. Such one-on-one dialogues require many volunteers, plus individuals interested in investing the time to learn. I'm also a bit skeptical about the selection process for the "stereotypes." Such selections may well be politicized.

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Unfortunately, in this day and age, it seems stereotyping and intolerance is increasing, not decreasing — perhaps I am getting cynical in my old age. For example, I was at a dinner party and someone asked me what I thought of the Arizona immigration statute. I said that I had mixed emotions. We definitely have a border issue, but the Arizona law has some negative provisions. That was not the answer that the person I was talking with was looking for. Rather, his response was that the individuals backing the law were all Nazis, plain and simple. Recently, Shirley Sherrod was fired based on false claims of racism, and attempts are being made to stereotype Tea Partiers as racists. I could go on, but I think the point is made.

Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints find that old stereotypes of "Mormons" still persist. In 2008, a survey was taken on how Americans view Mormonism. One question asked was: "Do Mormons practice polygamy?" Only 15% of those surveyed were sure that Mormons did not practice polygamy, with almost 40% of those surveyed clearly believing that Mormons do. In a 2007 poll asking for free association with the word "Mormon" (and without offering any choices), 18% spontaneously said polygamy, which was the highest single choice category.

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