In Theory: Reading into a Living Library

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.

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.

The fact is that the LDS Church discontinued polygamy 120 years ago, and practicing it today is grounds for dismissal from the church. Even at its height in the 1880s, less than 25% of church members practiced polygamy. These poll results are mystifying to Mormons.

Yes, more dialogue, understanding and tolerance are needed.

Rick Callister

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

What a wonderful, "novel" concept (pardon the pun)!

I definitely believe it would work in our country, and I would participate. Our schedules and our self-imposed seclusion in like-minded enclaves keep us from simple, personal interaction with people who have chosen a different way than ours. Often, the others' public stances about our beliefs make us hesitant to reach out to them. We all know personally how that feels.

At their invitation, Jesus spent two entire days with the people of Samaria, a group that was completely stigmatized by the Jews of the day. We should also note, however, that Jesus never validated the woman at the well's immorality, and he left the Samaritans with a clear knowledge of who he was: "We have heard for ourselves and know that this One is indeed the Savior of the world" (John 4:42).

I noticed that one increasingly stigmatized and misunderstood group was missing from the Living Library's list: Christians. Are we to assume that modern people completely understand and accept Jesus' followers? In America, Christianity has been an integral part of our society since the beginning. Many people make bold — and often errant — assumptions about believers merely on the basis of cultural stereotypes, and not on the basis of personal allegiance to Christ or a basic understanding of proper biblical interpretation. Stereotypes and prejudice aren't the exclusive properties of the church, or of conservative evangelicals.

Pastor Jon Barta

Valley Baptist Church

If the concept of the Living Library helps us get along, great.

The idea of getting along with one's neighbor is found in practically all religions. One of my parishioners handed me a version of the "Golden Rule" that is a tenet of most major religions. So if a Living Library promotes peace and understanding, great. Would it work in America, and would I participate? Yes to both of those. I'm sure that there are "pockets" of resistance to anything new or progressive, but for the most part I think the idea would work here.

Some believers, whether Christian or other, might have the tendency to look down at anything that isn't "our brand." For instance, if Jesus isn't mentioned, some Christians might be suspicious. But the point of the enterprise, it seems to me, is to promote justice and harmony, regardless of who or what religion gets the credit. In one scripture passage, Jesus says that whoever isn't against us is for us. So if peace prevails upon the Earth, who cares which faith gets the credit?

Rev. Clifford L. "Skip" Lindeman

La Cañada Congregational Church

I find the idea of a human library intriguing, but I'm also leery about its intended purpose.

If the "books" checked out are "stereotypes," then how do they change people's prejudice? I mean, if I think witches, for example, are errant in their religious worldview, and that their religion does more harm than good, how does meeting one change my mind about the thing she is into?

I knew a beautiful witch once; she owned a sorcery shop in Hollywood. She believed all that she represented, and she was very nice, but she was as pagan as could be. Now, maybe the witch will be like her rather than a fairy-book crone with a pointy black hat, but how will sitting and chatting with her change a library-goer's prejudice if the prejudice is informed and justified?

Hatred of fellow man is evil, but prejudice is not always its ally, at least not in the sense of being simply a preconceived opinion regarding behaviors. If racial stereotypes cause prejudice that lumps all similar people into unsavory groups worthy of persecution, then we've got problems, and perhaps that's more the way it's popularly understood.

I find it interesting that the gang member book is an "ex" gang member, rather than a current one. Why is that? Is it because society's prejudice against murderous, violent thieves is appropriate? How then does checking out the non-book contribute anything?

Maybe checking out a Muslim would help someone in the homogenized Midwest see a person that is as human as they. But then who will represent the stereotypical Muslim? Will it be some liberal American, or an anti-U.S. imam from Afghanistan? Probably the former. The same goes for Christians. Will they rightly represent the faith or display personal interpretations?

God created human beings with endless variety and said it was good. We should agree with him. When people do evil, then we must love them enough to address their evil, and that is where the library falls a bit short; it doesn't distinguish between people and their practices.

Rev. Bryan Griem

Montrose Community Church

I absolutely love the idea of the Living Library and absolutely think we should do it — and it would be successful here in the United States.

I am all about understanding other cultures, socioeconomic statuses and religious views.

As a young pastor, I can honestly say I was narrow-minded. One of the things I appreciate most about my psychological training at Fuller Seminary is the diversity of the people I met and the classes that helped us embrace and respect other religions and ethnicities. I have a diverse practice and believe I learn from each individual in some way whose worldview is different than mine. I respect and value that.

I admire Abergel's quote: "With dialogue comes understanding, and with that comes tolerance, and that's the mission of the Living Library: to promote understanding and tolerance through dialogue."

I would definitely participate in a Living Library if one were created here in the United States. I would be delighted to talk to the "living books" and hear their narrative, increasing my own understanding of "culture," whatever that may be. And I believe God would want us to witness this diversity to greater honor mankind as a whole.

Rev. Kimberlie Zakarian

La Vie Counseling Center

I think the the Living Library is a wonderful concept, and I take my hat off to Abergel for this innovative, brilliant and powerful idea. I can certainly see this program working here in our country — and if asked, I would participate.

Tolerance studies are generally undertaken in an academic setting, using textbooks and classroom discussions. Many of us try to purge bigotry and prejudice from our midst by reading up about a particular culture and trying to better understand its lifestyle and challenges. However, there is only so much one can learn from a book. True appreciation and eradication of racism only comes from real, human interaction.

Often, bias comes as a result of dehumanizing a person or a group of people. When someone is made into an alien boogeyman from whom we must protect ourselves, we feel fear. And once we are afraid, it becomes much harder to think rationally — and much easier to hate.

Actually meeting someone from a group that we may harbor ill feelings toward provides a much better understanding of why racism of any kind is abhorrent. Seeing an actual breathing, walking, talking and smiling person can erase false assumptions and shatter the stereotypes that come from broad generalizations. A real-life encounter with another person enables us to find common ground, which in turn makes it so much easier to appreciate that person as an individual. This is a powerful tool for eliminating intolerance.

While American society may be more tolerant than many others, we still have a long way to go before we can claim to be enlightened.

The Living Library offers a creative approach to solving a very old and persistent problem. I hope it comes here to the United States to further cleanse our nation from the negative elements of bigotry.

Rabbi Simcha Backman

Chabad Jewish Center

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