Montreal's senior monthly since 1986

Feb '10

Columns

Shortchanging the short

This past July, Bobby Ackles, the President and CEO of the BC Lions football team, died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 69.

By all accounts, Ackles was greatly liked and respected. He had started out his employment with the Lions as a water boy in 1953 and enjoyed successful careers as a football executive both in the Canadian Football League and the American National Football League. Unfortunately, many of the comments lauding him seemed to stress his having overcome his height of less than 5 foot 4:

"To be a man so small in stature and accomplish what he did in our league and in the National Football League is incredible" – Saskatchewan Roughriders general manager Eric Tillman

"While Ackles wasn't very tall, the shoes he left under the desk are awfully big." – Kent Gilchrist, The Province

"Small in stature, but a giant in life." – Winnipeg Free Press

"The president and CEO of the BC Lions was a great little football man who had been around the game all his life." – Mike Beamish, Vancouver Sun

Similarly, sportscaster Brian Williams and an executive with the Lions drew attention to the fact that Ackles reached great heights notwithstanding his diminutive nature. Without meaning to, these commentators are saying that being short is a shortcoming that must be transcended.

Have these people never heard of the likes of Woody Allen, Ludwig van Beethoven, Mel Brooks, Truman Capote, Charlie Chaplin, Eddie Fisher, Michael J. Fox, Francis of Assisi, Buckminster Fuller, Yuri Gagarin, Mahatma Gandhi, Harry Houdini, Immanuel Kant, John Keats, René Lévesque, Aristotle Onassis, Pablo Picasso, Alexander Pope, Martin Scorsese, Paul Simon, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Voltaire and Paul Williams – none who exceeded 5 foot 5?

Notice that I excluded Charles Manson, the Marquis de Sade, Baby Face Nelson, Mahmoud Ahmedinijad and Josef Stalin from the above list.

It is not the stature of a person that presents the problem, rather it is the prejudice directed to the "vertically-challenged" that must be addressed.

We might say that good things come in small packages, but as a society we're obsessed with height and perhaps even hard-wired to prefer people who are tall. Economists have long been aware that short men earn less than taller men. The average height of a Fortune 500 CEO is around 6 feet (roughly 3 inches taller than the male average). Taller people earn approximately $1000 per inch more a year than short ones. This is comparable to the earning discrepancies that exist on the basis of gender and race.

Discrimination expert Dr. Mahzarin Banaji, a psychology research leader at Harvard, uses his Implicit Association Test (ITA) to demonstrate that "the vast majority of us harbour deeply rooted negative feelings about shorter men." The IAT is a highly respected tool designed to quantify subconscious prejudices. In a comprehensive study, Dr. Banaji discovered that "height bias is in your face... It's as strong as other very important biases such as race bias or gender bias." His results were consistent regardless of gender, age, or ethnicity.

In a 1995 article in The Economist, author Jonathan Rauch stated that "height hierarchies are established early, and persist for a long time. Tall boys are deferred to and seen as mature, short ones ridiculed and seen as childlike. Tall men are seen as natural 'leaders' – short ones are called 'pushy'... The men who suffer are those who are noticeably short: say, 5'5" and below. In a man's world, they do not impress. Indeed, the connection between height and status is embedded in the very language. Respected men have 'stature' and are 'looked up to,' quite literally, as it turns out."

That Bob Ackles could start off as a lowly water boy and climb to the top executive position in a large organization is truly impressive, inspiring and worth mentioning – the fact that some people stress he did so as a short man, while perhaps not being the height of prejudice, is the prejudice of height.

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A different kind of seder

The vast majority of Jews in Montreal, like the vast majority of Jews all over the world, are preparing to celebrate Passover. For two consecutive nights they will gather at the seder table to recount the Exodus story. As they observe one of the most fundamental traditions in the Jewish calendar, they will exalt God for the role he played in the deliverance of Israel from slavery in ancient Egypt.

A small minority of Jews, however, will be gathering for a very different kind of seder. These are the Jews who declare: “If the exodus from Egypt occurred, then it means that God intervened in the world. If the story is true, he took it upon himself to hurl plagues upon the Egyptians and part the seas for the Hebrews. Well, if he could involve himself directly in the affairs of humanity in ancient times, then why not in modern times? Why not at Auschwitz?”

The answer for these Jews, of course, is that there were never any plagues hurled nor seas parted. The Exodus story is literature. God did not act at Auschwitz because “God” is and always has been a human-created idea. These Jews, typically known as secular humanists, adhere to Jewish culture and values while ignoring (and when necessary disproving) the superstition of a divine force in the universe.

Secular humanistic Jews hold that the ancient fable of liberation from Egyptian captivity ought not take precedence over the twentieth century’s stark reality of German genocide. Accordingly, for some of them, the proper role of a seder is to remember and honour the six million who perished in the Holocaust.

For one night they put aside the Hagaddah of Passover, and replace it with the Holocaust Hagaddah. The history of anti-Semitism, the advent of the Nazis, the strangulation and annihilation of European Jewry, the complicity of a bystanding world — all are retold in the Holocaust Haggadah.

Participants in this seder do not recline comfortably at a sumptuous feast. Rather they sit on a bare floor in ragged clothes and partake of icy bread. As they tell the terrible story, they reconstruct, in infinitesimal microcosm, the plight of the six million. They do it to remember in a symbolic way the immeasurable horror of the Holocaust.

After the murder of the six million, infers the new Haggadah, it is unacceptable to go on as before. The enormity of the crime commited against the Jews demands nothing less than a fundamental alteration of custom. It requires, in the service of fitting remembrance, reformation among the Jewish people.

Such reformation is not only appropriate, but increasingly necessary. Everywhere in the world Holocaust denial is a growth industry. How can the Jews send a message to history and create a beacon powerful enough to remind all of posterity that the Holocaust happened?

They can do it by radically updating a basic component of Jewish ritual. This is the message of the Holocaust Haggadah, and eternal intent of the Holocaust seder.

Michael Carin is author of The Future Jew and may be reached through the website www.thefuturejew.com.

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