Saturday, July 16, 2016

Calling on The Willing: Ending Hate by Starting with Me

After so many tragedies in such a short time (in no particular order: more innocent black men killed by police, airport bombing in Instanbul, Dallas police officer shootings, LGBTQ people of color murdered in the safe haven of a gay club, celebration turned nightmare in Nice, Dhaka bakery attacks), I have spent a lot of time wallowing in resignation, fighting numbness, and contemplating a foray into
politics. I've also spent a good deal of time on social media: reading, commenting, and fighting...a lot.

It occurred to me a few days ago to pump the brakes on my social media involvement surrounding these issues, because I noticed how it was only making me sadder, and madder, and more depressed, and - despite the universality promised by social media - was making me feel farther and farther apart from humanity: my own, and everyone else's.

As I watched YouTube video after video about these tragedies, and heard all of the yelling and screaming and on-air inability to maintain composure, I just hit a breaking point. I could only cry. It was watching a CNN panel on race relations that really got to me. Another white man telling black people how they ought to be feeling and responding to issues that have been affecting our community for years, but only recently has risen to the level of national scrutiny (to which I say "thank God" and "Oh dear Lord"). The first emotion I felt welling up inside of me was pure rage. But then, the rage subsided, and I could see the ocean that existed beyond the wave: an ocean of pain, sadness, hurt, and fear. I felt so hurt that this man could not just listen, could not even try to understand what it must feel like to be terrified of the police and to sit up late at night worrying that your children will never come home. I just wanted him to listen. Just listen, and try to understand.

Another panelist responded out of that first emotion I felt. She laid into him and didn't relent for the rest of the segment. Part of me felt so invigorated and vindicated. "Finally! Someone saying what I want them to say, defending my people, giving his ignorance what it deserves!"

But then I thought..."What exactly did that accomplish?" You know, really. What did that accomplish? There are only a few ways to respond to anger: it either raises your defenses to the point of you shutting down or getting angry yourself, you cower at the ferocity of your opponent's grand display, or you quietly acquiesce and move on. Surely this is not what we want to accomplish in our dialogue. Surely this is not productive, is it? Shutting down, amplifying anger, cowering, or resigned acquiescence?

There has to be a better way to approach these things.

When I was in college, as part of my RA training, I participated in a once-a-week series for 6 weeks called an Intergroup Dialogue. The particular dialogue I entered was on white and black relations. The idea was not to talk past each other, but to listen to each other. In a couple of the sessions, there was only one group talking while the other observed. I remember how weird it felt to talk to my fellow black students about white people while they were sitting there listening. I remember how difficult it felt to sit and listen to the white students talk about us without interjecting and correcting all of their ignorance. But it was a life-changing opportunity for me. Somehow along the way, I lost sight of many of the lessons I learned from that experience.

As I've reflected on the causes of recent tragedies, I keep coming back to hate. That's sort of a "no shit, Sherlock" conclusion. I fully know it. But as I've pondered what I could possibly do about all of this, the question becomes "What can I do about hate?" The above named tragedies had many common streams, like terrorism and violence. Underneath those lied so much bad history and oppression: racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, xenophobia, and on and on. And underneath still stood issues like poverty, inequality, unchecked power, etc. You begin to wonder if there's any particular center to this Tootsie Pop.

Honestly, I'm not sure there is. I'm not sure there's any ONE thing that is the root cause of it all, such that if we just fixed that thing, then all of the other pieces would fall into place. But I do know that there is something that I can do about hate.

Hate starts with me. That has been the painful self-discovery of this week.

I hate.

I hate a lot of things and a lot of people. Sure, I'm not the type to snap and go kill the people that I hate. But that's not the point. The cliched point I'm trying to make is that if I want the hate to stop, one practical thing that I can do is to stop giving it safe haven in my own soul.

Here's how it works: little innocent hate makes you angry, and so you go making angry, blustering posts on Facebook. Well, that gets the folks who agree with you a chance to stand in accord, and go hating too, while the people you hate and those who agree with them write snide responses. And then you fight. Eventually, this happens enough that the people you hate no longer read your posts. Why would they? It feels bad, and nobody wants to feel bad. Slowly but surely, your friend list starts to look like a little choir, and you wake up one day and realize that all the comments are now comments of agreement: the hated are no longer reading along. They've retreated into their own little Facebook ghettos of like-minded allies. And the twain only meet when they come out a couple of times a week to duke it out. And inevitably, even this occurs only because your good friend from high school, or your cousin who lives on the other side of the country - both of whom you no longer have anything in common with - won't defriend you out of principle and loyalty, but your ignorant post happens to pop up on their feed and they can't resist the urge to enlighten you with their effective, angry (sometimes sarcastic) words.

But do we really think this is productive? This drives a wedge between people, and then cranks that wedge open wider and wider and wider until you honestly can't understand a single thing that anyone else says or does anymore, and those not in agreement with you seem like aliens from a distant planet. Or, they seem downright insane. And when I see The Other as insane, I can't humanize them. If they're not human, they're not worth listening to. If they're not worth listening to and all we can manage to do is throw Anger Poop at each other, then nothing gets accomplished on a societal level. Enter: Congress. But let's stop pretending that the problem is Congress. The problem is all of us. Congress is really just a microcosm of what we see happening on our Facebook pages day after day. So the solution cannot be to try electing more of the same, nor do I believe we will accomplish much by electing those who are seemingly outside the box (think Trump). Because the problem is not politicians. Politicians are us. The problem is us.

So here's something I think we can all do to quell some of the vitriol and unproductive "conversation" happening right now.

1.) Could you please join me in not writing about The Other in disparaging terms that explicitly or subtly indicate how unintelligent, insane, morally bankrupt, etc. they are?

I do this all the time. I see it all the time among my friends. Often it's tongue-in-cheek and quite funny, but it's actually harmful in the long run.

2.) Could we please commit to trying to listen to The Other and understand what their fear is, what their moral standing is, what they are trying to accomplish? 

This may actually mean getting off of Facebook (where it's too easy to lose people's nuance and intentions, especially when we're dive-bombing in comments sections) and going out to have coffee (or better yet, a beer!) with someone who disagrees with us.

3.) Can we commit to finding common ground with The Other and not leaving a conversation until we do?

You wouldn't be able to tell it by the state of our national dialogue, but we actually all agree on more than we disagree on. This is true of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, but it's also true of Bernie and Newt Gingrich, or Hillary and Paul Ryan. We all agree on the problems. Where we tend to disagree is on the approach to solving the problem, but we're so unable to have real conversations, that we can't even agree that we see the same problems anymore! This is insanity.

4.) Can we try to be vulnerable and not just speak from a place of anger, but to see if there's something deeper we are feeling, and speaking from that place instead (or in addition to that place of anger)?

That means talking from my truest emotions: not my reactionary anger, but my primary hurt, pain, and sadness. That one simple change in our dialogue I think could make monumental shifts in our attitudes towards one another, and our ability to build a just and peaceful society.

I believe this, because as a therapist, I encourage my clients to experiment with this way of communicating all the time, and they see drastic results in their relationships and their well-being. If any couple came into my office bickering the way that I routinely bicker with people on Facebook or YouTube comments sections, I would have a very serious talk about dishonest communication based on secondary emotions rather than true primary emotions. And yet, I can't seem to apply this to myself.

Please, I want to know your thoughts. I want to talk with you. I want us to come to the table wanting to find some agreement, and working out a way to move forward...together. I am calling on a Coalition of The Willing. And by this, I do not mean all of my Facebook ghetto friends who agree with me on everything I post. Yes, I hope you're a part of The Willing. But I also mean that I'm consciously deciding to do the tough work of listening and trying to understand the people I don't agree with. And if those who I disagree with are also part of The Willing, then I think we might actually get somewhere...somewhere good.

So I'm trying something. I'm trying what I challenge my clients to do all the time. I'm changing the way I talk. I'm trying to listen more. I'm trying to find some common ground, ANY common ground, and building on it until I'm stalled, and then going back later and trying to build there some more. I'm speaking from a place of true emotion, not just anger. (Notice I said not JUST anger, because anger can be a primary emotion, and it does indeed have a place at the table of healthy communication.) I'm trying on some vulnerability.

My faith calls me to engage The Other, hear The Other, and see The Other as The Us. I'm asking you to join me, no matter what group you're allied with, what walk of life you're on. Try with me, and let's see where we end up. It couldn't be much worse than where we're currently heading, right?