Sunday, January 22, 2017

More Response to Pure: Stereotyping Mennonites by the Most Obvious Visual Distinctions

Dan Dyck directs communications for Mennonite Church Canada, one of two of the largest Mennonite denominations in Canada. I asked him a few questions about his response to Pure, out of his experience as a communicator and from his position with that church body.

What is your experience with what the public and the media know about Mennonites?

Both tend to conflate the culture and the faith. Both tend to stereotype Mennonites by the most obvious visual distinctions of a small minority of Mennonites in Canada (e,g. black dress and bonnets, horses and buggies, etc.). What most people don’t know is that there are more Mennonites in Ethiopia than in Canada, and that Mennonite culture in Africa (or other countries) is something entirely different than in North America.

The show gets many things about Mennonites wrong. But Mennonites are not an easy group to understand, what with there being so many different kinds in Canada. Could Mennonites do a better job of explaining themselves to the media and public at large? 

Yes, undoubtedly, but it’s a challenging task to break through the noise of media and culture until an attention grabbing opportunity arrives, like Pure. Mennonites tend to let their lives and actions toward others speak for themselves, rather than expending energy on explaining ourselves to an audience that probably doesn’t care a whole lot until a controversy or drama like “Pure” comes along.

Additionally, there is no shortage of information about Mennonites online. Anyone with access to the Internet can at any time learn more than they probably want to know about Mennonite faith and culture in Canada and beyond.

What kind of problems do you find with Pure?

Like many other Mennonites, I am surprised at what appears to be a poorly researched setting for this story.

The show depicts Low German speaking Mennonites from Mexican (Old Colony) with the visual life style distinctions of Old Order Mennonites who have been in Southern Ontario since the early 1800s. This is problematic for many, and perhaps especially for the media-shy Old Order folks themselves as they are now associated with criminal activity that to my knowledge does not exist in their community.

The Low German speaking Mennonites from Mexico depicted in the drama would not really be considered “Old Order” in the context of Southern Ontario, where the show is set; for example, Old Order Mennonites in southern Ontario do not speak Low German, and would not have surnames like “Funk” or “Epp”.

Do you think this show will be harmful for Mennonites in Canada?

I believe the accumulated positive weight of Mennonite faith and reputation of our churches and organizations helping out locally and internationally with aid, relief, disaster assistance, poverty alleviation, feeding the hungry, etc. will in the long run overcome any negative impressions the viewing audience of Pure will generate.

Can you see anything positive coming out of Pure for Mennonites?

A hopefully positive outcome for Mennonites is that this show has the potential to make us more empathetic and sensitive to other groups that have been stereotyped by the media and popular culture, such as First Nations or Muslims. Mennonites are by no means immune to stereotyping other groups. I hope Pure will help us reflect on what are feeling, and I hope it makes us more aware of our own assumptions of others.

The other faith group to have recently experienced this kind of exposure are the Mormons (the play The Book of Mormon). Mormon's decided not to fight it. Instead, they used it as a way to talk about their faith. Do you think Mennonites could do the same? 

The Mormon response of using the play as an open door, not being defensive, was the right response for them, and even courageous in their context. I would say Pure also gives Mennonites in Canada a responsibility to engage their faith, and walk through the open door this presents with integrity, sensitivity and grace. Angry, defensive responses to inquirers, whether in private or in public, will not serve anyone well. But your question raises another question: Who has the right to tell whose story?

Click here to read my Free Press column on this topic.

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