My kids are still young. They don’t yet understand the difference between a Democrat and a Republican. They are oblivious to the terms “ISIS”, “Black Lives Matter”, and “crony capitalism”. They don’t know what it means to protest, to be murdered, or to grieve. Their short lives have been blissfully unaffected by the external violence that keeps the American flags they are surrounded by at a seemingly perpetual state of half-mast. They have yet to question it.
But they will.
And while part of me would love nothing more than to shield them from the incessant violence and sorrow this world has to offer, I realize it is my responsibility to cultivate awareness and understanding. Of all the blights upon humanity, ignorance remains the kindling that keeps the fires of hate burning.
So when they ask, I will answer. And I will listen; because if I’ve learned anything from parenting, it’s that very young children are masters of observation. They have yet to apply the biases that forever cloud one’s judgement and lack the sort of filter that keep even the most well intentioned of people from speaking up for what is right. It’s a magical combination that, at times, produces an almost unnerving wisdom.
We don’t give our kids nearly enough credit. Because if we did, if we really listened, we could change the world.
Our current state of affairs is a sad one, seemingly irrevocably broken. Every issue, every newsworthy event, comes complete with cantankerous derision from warring factions. We have become accustomed to aligning ourselves according to our values, our life experiences, our hard-fought beliefs. We pick a team and fight for it with passion.
None of this is surprising, of course. Social psychologists have long understood the evolutionary advantages afforded by tribalism and recognized the inherent need of humans to belong. It’s why we take pride in attending good schools, of being chosen for varsity athletic teams, or being designated as first chair in an orchestra. The desire to belong, and to do so in an exclusive manner, is simply a function of our humanity. It’s written into our DNA.
But if this somehow absolves us of blame, it certainly does not relieve us of accountability.
We live in a world rife with culture wars and yet we are somehow shocked to discover that racial tensions still exist within this country. It’s led us to confront an uncomfortable truth:
Prejudice is a reality and not confined to the backlogs of American history. It’s here. It’s now. It lives in you.
Pretending it doesn’t exist or scoffing at the notion that the most heroic among us harbors them is counterproductive.
In this supposed post-civil rights era where schools often focus heavily on multiculturalism and tolerance, many of us simply didn’t realize this was a battle that still needed to be won. We honestly didn’t know. That’s ok – but ignoring it now, when entire communities are raising their voices and demanding to be heard, is not.
Is it possible that a police officer could feel, however unjustly, more threatened by a large black man than a petite white female given the exact same set of circumstances? Of course. Does that threat perception affect an officer’s judgement for better or for worse? Of course. Is that an excuse for brutality? Not one bit.
Is it possible for entire groups or communities to experience life differently than others, to feel threatened by situations in which others feel safe? Of course. Can those threat perceptions engender resentment and even outrage? Of course. Is that an excuse for vigilante justice? Not one bit.
Admitting such things is not a step backward. It doesn’t undermine 60 years of civil rights progress. It simply acknowledges the biases that inform all our decisions, from the most trivial to the most consequential. In matters of life and death, we simply cannot afford to play the virtuoso.
This same reflection must then extend outward so that recognizing the humanity in others, regardless of how different they are from ourselves, becomes habitual. We are all multi-faceted beings. Every life decision, every experience, has colored our perception of reality. My reality is different from yours. Insisting that they are the same is both short-sighted and dangerous. Let’s choose to listen to one another, to be open to changing our world view in the face of evidence – anecdotal or otherwise; because here’s the bottom line:
Validating the suffering of one group of people does not require turning our backs on another.
It’s as simple as that. You can stand with the black community and genuinely believe reports of systemic abuse while also fully supporting law enforcement and the sacrifices they make on a daily basis.
These are not diametrically opposed ideas despite what we have been led to believe. They are, in fact, concepts the youngest among us understand without any of the confusion with which we infuse them.
It would be taking a giant step in the right direction to actively question our knee-jerk reactions in these situations. But we don’t want to question. We don’t want to feel uncomfortable or to face what was previously unknown. We don’t want to – but we must.
Working to heal this particular wound would serve to unite us on other fronts, as well. A cursory glance of any comment section on a political news story published to social media is enough to make one lose all hope for the future. They are virtual garbage dumps of the most crass uninformed verbal vomit that one can imagine. It’s easy to write off such gross negativity as the crazy rantings of ambiguous internet moles but, the truth is, they are part of our collective voice. The only way to drown out their noise is to speak up; but to do so for the greater good.
It’s easy to get carried away by our own interpretation of right and wrong, to huddle amongst those who continually reaffirm our own life decisions and who reflect our own self-interests. There’s nothing like the belligerent combativeness of an election season to make that clear.
But we have a choice. We always have a choice.
While those social psychologists who study tribalism have established our inherent need to build up groups of like-minded individuals, they have also observed our ability to transcend them. In other words, evolution is on our side here. We can override that primal system promoting exclusionary and ethnocentric behaviors but it requires a level of self-reflection that most have yet to achieve.
The truth is, we’re all angry about the same thing: extremism — people on either side of the aisle abusing power, partaking in vigilante justice, excusing deceit and obstruction in the name of some greater good. We don’t have to pick and choose which disgusting act makes us the most upset. We can express outrage at it all; and we should! The vast majority of us don’t want this. And if, in fact, you were to accuse the average person on the street of partaking in such activity, they would be scandalized and insist upon their innocence.
But take a step back and really think.
Are you without fault? Really? Chances are, you have been complicit in a multitude of these acts — the very things you rail about and fight against. The only thing keeping you from recognizing it is your own perceived righteousness.
Of course you aren’t at fault, you think. You vote for platforms that encourage hard work, capitalistic integrity, and militaristic might. Or maybe you vote for platforms that prescribe economic equality, a strong social safety net, and civil rights. Either way, you are absolutely convinced of your moral superiority, whether it’s a conscious realization or not, and therein lies the problem: we see the end goal but we see it while wearing blinders.
Like Olympic sprinters dashing for that coveted gold medal, we push ferociously toward the win. We may be aware that another runner is nipping at our heels but we certainly don’t look around to notice the cheering fans around us. In fact, we likely don’t hear them at all in our heavily focused state.
This is fine for athletes, imperative actually. But it rings the death knell for any worthwhile social cause because nothing can be accomplished in this complex multi-layered society of ours without cooperation and open mindedness.
It’s simple enough for the preschooler learning how to navigate a classroom for the first time. Why is it so difficult for us?
Whatever happened to our childlike altruism, our innate sense of camaraderie? Why do we insist upon sweeping generalizations when almost everything in our world requires a thoughtful, educated approach? Somewhere along the way we have become too self-assured, too set in our ways to achieve anything but gridlock; and for that we have paid a hefty price. Plunking down those gold coins was our own doing. It is something for which we must all take responsibility.
But here’s what the ringleaders of division don’t want you to know: convoluted and intricate as world affairs may be, the antidote is often astoundingly simplistic and frequently boils down to seeing the humanity in the “enemy”, of putting oneself in another’s shoes. Notice I do not posit that the answers themselves are easy. Even the most elementary understanding of American politics or the middle east make such a claim laughably inaccurate. But the pain itself, a pain that seems to linger hauntingly over this country, can be dulled by applying what was once as well understood as our ABC’s: The Golden Rule.
The uncomfortable truth is that we are all responsible for the rise of fanaticism in this country. And if you aren’t actively advancing it then your silence, at the very least, enables it. There will come a time to parse out exactly what led us to this place; and it will be important to do so since failing to learn from our mistakes will only ensure that future generations continue to fight our battles. But what’s most important in this moment is figuring out where we go from here. Step one, I believe, is taking responsibility; because without the moral fortitude to recognize our own shortcomings, we only undermine our own efforts for change.
Perhaps we all need to take a time out – the same kind of punishment we often levy upon our children – and really think about the ways in which we are individually responsible for the current state of divisiveness within this country. Do we repeatedly acknowledge just one side of any given situation? Do we share inflammatory memes that do nothing to elevate productive conversation? Do we listen for confirmation of our own beliefs while blatantly ignoring additional, if contradictory, information? Are we cherry-pickers in a world desperate for critical thinkers?
It’s interesting that we so easily recognize extremism when it is cloaked in a foreign face or an unfamiliar religion, yet we so often fail to see it in ourselves. It’s easy to stick with our own tribe, after all. But, in these trying times, it is absolutely essential that we begin paying attention to the ways in which we enable fanatical ideologues to shape our conversations and divide us into our respective corners.
When reflecting on divisiveness in this country, it’s easy to blame a figurehead like the President or a major party candidate. Surely, we aren’t personally to blame, right? Right…? So we fix our targets on anyone whose worldview does not align perfectly with our own and unleash our fury. But those verbal assaults miss by a mile – because, frankly, we aren’t even speaking the same language – and end up wounding both ourselves and this great nation. The time for accountability is at hand and every one of us must take note…
…Because our kids will ask where we stand and our answers will shape the future.