“Saying you’re sorry is the first step, then how can I help.”
I loved Mr. Rogers as a child and still do now so it’s no wonder that I love his heir apparent Daniel Tiger. I was watching an episode with one of my granddaughters recently and loved the message: “Saying you’re sorry is the first step, then, how do I help?” I won’t spoil the episode for you, but, in short, Daniel learns the importance of empathy and doing more than apologizing. He learns that we all need to do our part to reconcile and bring about restoration.
Like much of the nation, I’ve been pondering more deeply the lasting legacy of systemic racism. The idea that we need to just move on from the past ignores the lasting consequences the past has had on the present. To adopt this narrative is to embrace a lie.
The lie goes like this: racism is individual, it is deliberate and it intends to do harm. This lie allows us to not only avoid talking about race, it also insulates us from acknowledging that as white people we have been and are now the beneficiaries of a system that has been based on racial injustice.
Let’s start with the bedrocks of western civilization: the Renaissance, colonization, the Enlightenment and even classical liberalism. All of these operated on the assumption that white people were superior to people of color. The Magna Carta, the U.S. Constitution, and European colonization were all based on this assumption, too. The power brokers and thought leaders held this common belief and institutionalized it. Of course, there were those who decried racism but they did not wield enough power or influence to bring about lasting change.
This is particularly true in the United States. The Constitution overtly institutionalized slavery and only counted black people as 3/5 of a person. That was only a compromise so southern states would have greater representation. Nearly every institution in the United States was based on the assumption that people of color were inferior. Agriculture, education, industry, politics–etc. Fast forward to 1865, the Civil War and the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments ended slavery but certainly did not end the centuries’ old belief of white superiority. This is evident by the one hundred years after the Civil War that were filled with of racial oppression, segregation, Jim Crow and so many other forms of systemic, widespread, institutional racism.
Does anyone really think after centuries of white superiority that now, less than two generations from open, transparently racist Jim Crow, we have arrived at a post racial utopia? Of course not!
We know that we still suffer from racial inequality in employment economics, housing, education, criminal justice and almost every aspect of American life. Hundreds of years of racial inequality can not be overcome only by restoring voting rights and ending legal segregation. Those efforts were needed but insufficient, kind of like saying sorry without next offering to help.
If we view racism as individual, not institutional, and deliberate, not subconscious, we can easily dismiss it. Worse yet, we can protect ourselves from addressing it. Subsequently, we help maintain the systemtic racist status quo.
So how can we as white person do more than say sorry, how can we offer help?
For one, stop acting like if we acknowledge our own advantages from being white we somehow concede that we are categorically racist. Just because you never personally participated in what you might define as overt racism doesn’t mean that you have not been the beneficiary of centuries of institutionalized white superiority and privilege.
Likewise, just because the ugliest facets of racism, like slavery and legal segregation, are illegal doesn’t mean that their legacy is without deep, devastating, lingering effects on people of color today. We should really listen to people of color and be open to discovering our own biases.
We can’t fix what we don’t address. We can start admitting to ourselves that, at some level, we are the beneficiaries of a corrupt and racist system. We can do our part to correct the generations of inequality by opening our eyes, ears and hearts to understanding and change. We can do more than simply say sorry, we can do our part to offer help healing and reconciliation.
We have all been disappointed when we lose the job, the scholarship, the game or some other opportunity to someone else. It’s painful! Because of these losses, we can become resentful when anything happens for good for someone else. It’s as if we believe joy has a limited supply.
My faith tradition has a beautiful scripture that explains some of promises we, as members of my faith, make to each other at baptism.
Mosiah 18:8-9 (From the Book Of Mormon Another Testament of Jesus Christ)
And it came to pass that he said unto them: Behold, here are the waters of Mormon (for thus were they called) and now, as ye are desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people, and are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light; Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death, that ye may be redeemed of God, and be numbered with those of the first resurrection, that ye may have eternal life—
I love the idea and practice of comforting and caring for each other. I am not perfect at this yet but I have seen improvement over the years.
As I have been pondering this scripture and my own efforts lately, I’ve come to recognize another important thing I need much more improvement on. It is something Paul mentions in Romans 12:15: Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep. I need to be much better at rejoicing with those who rejoice.
It is too easy for me to get caught up in the idea that life is a zero-sum game. Because often times it is. If I wait in line all morning for a bagel and you get the last oat and wheat with rosemary and honey schmear, I’m stuck with the sticky raisin bagel and plain boring cream cheese. You win, I lose.
Life is filled with situations like this that are much more impactful than breakfast (in fairness if you’ve ever had a bagel from Bagelsaurus you’d know it’s no small matter). We have all been disappointed when we lose the job, the scholarship, the game or some other opportunity to someone else. It’s painful! Because of these losses, we can become resentful when anything happens for good for someone else. It’s as if we believe joy has a limited supply. The more someone else gets means less for us. This dangerous and damning mindset has not only made me bitter and resentful of others, it cripples my own ability to see what blessings I now enjoy. Instead focusing on my own blessings, I’m fixated on what I’m missing out on. When I shift the mindset and rejoice with you, I find my own blessings come to mind more often and my joy is magnified not diminished.
It also helps me see people in a more positive light and in turn reminds me of the love God has for each of us. Also, when I really turn my heart to rejoicing with those who rejoice, I find my ability to mourn with those who mourn enhanced. It becomes easier to see them as a whole person, much more than the sum total of their wins and losses. I can also see their pain for what it is instead of hoping somehow I can be spared from the same pain.
I still have a long way to go with this. Luckily, I get a chance to practice it every day. Even while waiting in line at the bagel shop.
This week everything around us turns green. We are all proud to be Irish. It is hard to imagine that just over 150 years ago the Irish were refugees disdained for their poverty and their religion. If slavery is the United States’ original sin, the treatment of the Irish is the British’s. Truly past is prologue. Swift’s ‘modest proposal’ could be written today with equal parts sarcasm and horror. We would merely need to insert Muslim refugees or Refugees from our southern border as the main object of the piece. How ironic that now we celebrate the Irish who came here as desperate refugees and we turn our back on our modern plight, which is every bit as real as the ‘great hunger’ as it was called in the 19th century. The same old tired fear-mongering, religious bigotry and xenophobia used to justify punishing the Irish is used today to deny and demonize those in most need.
Approximately 1.5 million Irish immigrated to the United States between 1845 and 1855 forever changing the landscape of this country. Who now looks back on history and thinks we should have denied them from coming? But that’s exactly what we’re doing now to those who need us most. History will look back on this moment as a failure. A failure of morality, courage and human decency. Of the nearly 80 million refugees in the world, half are children. So, for those of us who will wear green and celebrate the Irish, let’s stop a moment and think about what we owe to those impoverished refugees from more than 150 years ago, and what we stand to lose if we don’t live up to our moral obligation to help those that are in such desperation today.
A steady diet of junk food is terrible for your body. So is a steady diet of trash media for your brain. I should know, I’ve consumed plenty of both.
I’ve spent much of life making bad meal choices. I have listened to the siren song of the drive-thru instead of what my body really needed. I’ve also spent a lot of time listening to Talk Radio. My intention was good. I wanted to better understand why so many people I love find talk shows like Rush Limbaugh’s and Sean Hannity’s appealing. I only listened to 3-5 hours a week for a period of 3-4 years, but it was enough of a steady diet of the stuff to see it for what it is: profiteering provocateurs bent on money and nearly void of authentic patriotism. The constant stream of anger was hard to take seriously, not to mention the twisted logic used to describe those on the left. Liberals on these shows are routinely portrayed as both diabolical in their disdain of American and buffoons incapable of rational thought. No wonder my friends and family acted so surprised by my politics. Anyone who consumed Talk Radio and even remotely believed it would no doubt be worried, if not apoplectic, about anyone who identified as a liberal. The shows do no original reporting; they just take news from the headlines and then proceed to rip apart anyone who doesn’t see the world from their lens. After a few years of this, week after week, I couldn’t stomach much more of it. I still tune in now and again to some Fox News contributors like Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingram just to keep myself familiar with what so many of my fellow Americans watch. Every time I do, it leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth. The sad reality is that many I know and love are malnourished by this media, and even poisoned by it.
Reflecting on my consumption of conservative media has also caused me to take a deeper look at what was once my own preferred diet of political munchies. The salty, satirical stew of late night nonsense like Trevor Noah, Seth Meyers and Stephen Colbert. I never watched much of this, mostly just YouTube clips, but it was enough to cause me to not want a second helping. For sure, the satire of these lefty late nighters is very different from the anger on Talk Radio and Fox News, but in fairness it is no better for my intellectual or moral health. The constant barrage of insults, put downs and blatant ad hominem attacks directed towards those on the right leads to a cynicism and smug superiority. It also fosters an arrogance every bit as harmful as the animus from the right. It creates and enforces the narrative that it is us versus them. Liberals are the smart ones conservatives are the dumb ones. It often reduces the deeply held personal convictions of others to no more than a punch line, creating the idea that all the world fits into one of two categories: the woke or the wing-nut. This menu of sanctimonious, satirical sludge not only fails to satisfy, it leaves me feeling sick.
So, I’m no longer regularly consuming the toxic media from the right or the left. Instead, I’m trying to have a more balanced diet with less opinion pieces and more thoughtful, informative perspectives, with programs like the PBS Newshour and other quality media outlets. It’s up to all of us to decide what we will consume and how to make the best media choices possible.
If we spend our time in person and online building barricades instead of bridges, nothing will improve and it will get worse. We cannot afford as citizens, families, friends, co-workers and fellow travelers to let the cancer of division fester
If your social media feed looks like mine, you are seeing lots of outrage and very little listening. People are quick to call out hypocrisy, real or perceived, and slow to self reflection. I am guilty of this, too. There’s something cathartic about screaming into the wind, finally saying what “needed to be said.” I do question how much utility there is in it, though. What value do we get, other than affirming what we already believed? I, for one, I’m tired of calling people out. I’d rather invite people in. What do I mean?
Calling out: Starts from the assumption that I am right and you are wrong. That I have something to teach you, and you need to learn it! It assumes value in chastening. I have certainly been guilty of this kind of smug superiority. When I engage in it, I feel a rush of satisfaction by venting or “getting it off my chest.” It’s even more affirming when those who see the world the way I do validate my call out. The trouble with calling out is it rarely leads me to challenge my assumptions, engage in understanding or broaden my scope of influence. Instead of persuading those who don’t see the world the way I do, I end up with a smaller network of like-minded believers. If left unchecked, we create echo chambers of self affirmation, and begin to convince ourselves of our rightness and exclude ourselves from others and their ideas. We divide the world into us vs. them. It breeds hostility, kills empathy and makes us less likely to learn new things. We stop challenging our assumptions and instead just call out yours.
Invite in: Says it is my responsibility to invite you into my trust circle. My primary objective is to invite you to tell me why you feel and think the way you do. My primary objective is not to persuade you, but to understand you. When that happens, we learn to trust each other. Then, we can invite others to understand where we are coming from. If they don’t want to see our perspective, we still have the benefit of understanding theirs. We also will learn new things and challenge our own beliefs. I have never met someone who was unwilling to help me truly understand them. The objective of inviting in can’t be to listen with loaded ears only waiting to pounce once we’ve graced them with our patience. Instead, the most benefit I’ve seen personally is when the objective truly is to learn and understand, not correct and refute.
How do we invite in?
First, adopt this phrase: I would say you would say. Whenever I say “I just don’t understand how they could think that,” I stop and realize that’s on me. I have the burden of understanding others. Here’s where “I would say you would say” comes in. When someone tells us we’ve got it right, and we do understand their thinking, then we can invite them to do the same exercise with us. Only when we understand each other can we have a substantive discussion about how we might see things differently. After practicing this for a while, people come to trust you because they know your first motive is to hear them not attack them.
Second, embrace the idea that it’s ok to agree to disagree. You are not personally responsible for bringing your cranky conservative uncle, your fanatical left wing sister-in-law or your apostate child around to your position.
Finally, always value the relationship over the topic. This does not mean you have to yield on your position, but you should be able to communicate your position and keep the relationship intact. A good friend taught me this lesson years ago, if you don’t have a relationship, you don’t have influence.
Okay, I know what some of you are thinking: “You don’t get it, this issue is different. We can’t just agree to disagree and pretend it’s okay. If the idea they endorse prevails, the damage may be irreversible. Their policies, character and morals will ensure irrevocable harm. To not denounce them and their followers is, in essence, complicit to the harm.”
Let’s assume this is true, what advantage will be gained by calling them out instead of inviting them in? What good will come by alienating, ostracizing, avoiding, belittling or shaming them? Do you think that will show them the perceived error of their ways? That your chastening will cause them to conform to your view? Is that how you respond when others call you out? If we spend our time in person and online building barricades instead of bridges, nothing will improve and it will get worse. We cannot afford as citizens, families, friends, co-workers and fellow travelers to let the cancer of division fester. We must be bold enough, and meek enough to have the hard conversations, to abandon calling outand embrace inviting in. If not you, who? If not now, when?
It has been too long since we have seen each other.
I’m trying to see you. I see that you are frustrated, that you want a president who is loud enough and bold enough to make people listen. I’m trying to listen but I don’t understand.
I don’t understand your dispute with objective truth. Remember in school, when we had to agree on “the facts” we always used a math example: 2 + 2 = 4. No matter what we had math. Now we don’t even have math. We can’t agree that the person who gets the most votes (by millions) wins an election.
I don’t understand how to talk to you when we don’t share the same reality. I live in the city, you live in the country. I read the New York Times, you watch Fox News. I think your news is biased. You think my news is “fake,” or worse, calculated to undermine democracy. What do we do? The first question you asked me after George Floyd’s death was, “How bad were your riots?” We didn’t have any. I told you the Black Lives Matter rally I went to was peaceful. Do you believe me, or Fox News?
I don’t understand why you believe the media’s characterization of liberals. We woke up at 6am in the summer to pick raspberries together when we were 12 years old. We all worked our butts off during potato harvest to earn money to buy new clothes. Why do you think I don’t value hard work? We both worked hard in school and thought education was our ticket to success. When did education become “elitist?”
I don’t understand why you won’t talk to me anymore. I reached out to you during this election cycle. I didn’t unfriend you but you unfriended me. How can we see each other if you won’t talk to me?
No matter who wins the election millions of our fellow citizens, our family, our loved ones will be sad, distraught and perhaps angry. How we react to that will make all the difference. No matter what we feel we would do well to recognize and show empathy for what others are feeling too. We should look beyond our own emotions and use the moment to see others.
I often hear people say “I just can’t understand why anyone would vote for that person.” That, to me, may be the greatest trouble we face. That declaration shows we don’t understand those we share the country with. The divide we feel is real. It’s damaging to human relationships. It tears apart families, communities and it’s weakening our republic.
No matter the outcome of the election we should all resolve to do our part to understand where those who disagree with us are coming from. We simply cannot afford to avoid everyone who disagrees with us, even if we find their beliefs damaging, immoral or unconscionable. Surely they don’t view it that way. I’ve rarely met a person who thought they were doing the wrong thing and reveled in it. Every person’s point of view makes sense to them. We do ourselves a disservice if we don’t learn how to learn from each other. We must do all we can to see each other, hear each other, and understand each other. This will require grace, humility and a commitment to community.
Okay, I know what some of you were thinking: “You don’t get it, this election is different. We can’t just agree to disagree and pretend it’s okay. If the candidate I oppose wins the damage to the republic may be irreversible. Their policies, character and morals will ensure irrevocable harm. To not denounce them and their followers is in essence complicit to the harm.”
Let’s assume that the candidate you oppose lives up to that dire assessment. What advantage will be gained by not talking to those who support them? What good will come by alienating ostracizing, avoiding, belittling or shaming them? Do you think an election defeat will show them the error of their ways? That the morning after the election, somehow, they will be chastened and conform to your view of morality and good government? Is that how you will respond if the election goes differently than you had hoped?
We cannot afford as citizens, families, friends, co-workers and fellow travelers to let the cancer of division fester. If we are not brave enough, bold enough, and meek enough to have the hard conversations who is?
Here are three suggestions that have helped me have these kinds of delicate conversations. In the coming days and weeks after the election they may be a value to you too.
First: Reaffirm to those you disagree with that your relationship and their opinion matter to you. Affirm and reestablish your connection with them. I like this definition of connection from Brenè Brown, “Connection is energy that is created between people when they feel seen, heard and valued-when they can give and receive without judgment.”
Second: Ensure your goal is to understand their perspective not to persuade them. Simply try to understand why they view things the way they do. I often have found myself saying “I just don’t understand why someone would think that.” Now whenever I say that I realize it is an indictment of me. Instead when I can say “I would say you would say…” and they agree with me then I know I understand. Then, when it’s appropriate, I can articulate where we may disagree. Again, not with the intent to persuade but with the clear intent that they understand why I view things the way I do. Often we come to realize we agree on much more than we thought we did.
Third: You are not personally responsible for saving the republic, ensuring democracy and salvaging every relationship. Some people will not be able to have a conversation with you without being aggressive, frustrated, angry or manipulative. That’s on them not you. There are times we all need to walk away from certain exchanges. We can only do what we can do. But I do think it’s incumbent on each of us to try to do all that we can do.
Will this change the nation overnight? No. Of course not. Neither will one election. Will it change you? Yes!
The simple soundbites from both parties fail to do justice to the complexities of the issue. It leads me personally to conclude that voting on this one issue alone is not sound reasoning or sound politics.
The first time I was called a baby killer was in 1998. I ran as a Democrat for the Idaho State House of Representatives. Against the advice of more seasoned politicians from my party, I agreed to participate on a local talk radio program. The hosts began by saying how curious they found me to be. “On the one hand, you are a Mormon, but on the other hand, you’re also a Democrat. So are you pro-life or pro-choice?” I refused both terms. I said that I found the terms too loaded and too ambiguous to detail my views on an issue as complex as abortion. Before I could explain my position, or how I had arrived at it, the host asked if I supported the current version of a parental consent bill being considered by the legislature. I told her I did not, and began to explain why. The same bill had been passed by neighboring states and had cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to defend in court only to be struck down. Again, I was interrupted before I could articulate what I thought would be a wiser approach. The host said, “So you’re a baby killer then?” I was flummoxed! I couldn’t believe she had gone there without giving me any opportunity to respond. She had passed her judgment, found me unworthy, and moved on. That rush to judgment and pronouncement left me frustrated and resolved not to treat people that way. Few, if any, topics are more controversial or more complex than abortion. Hopefully I can communicate my thoughts on the issue in a way that is thoughtful and not sanctimonious.
My beliefs on the morality of the issue are that “human life is a sacred gift from God. Elective abortion for personal or social convenience is contrary to the will and the commandments of God.” This quote comes from a brief statement on abortion from my Church and reflects my own feelings. I believe life is sacred. I am the father of five children, and the grandfather of two. I hoped for, prayed for, and rejoiced with each child’s birth. I cannot imagine my life without them. I think it is wrong to end a pregnancy for personal or social convenience. I believe the power to create life is a sacred trust from God. I would never want to abuse those powers. I believe those who do abuse those powers will stand accountable to God someday.
Here are the problems I have with both political parties on the issue. First, the Democrats as “pro-choice.” This is a party that believes the government can help people make better, more informed choices. The party who thinks it is important to regulate food, drugs, the environment, etc. For this party to say it has no place to tell a woman what to do with her body seems contrary to their core beliefs. Save the whales, forget about the unborn, is hard to make sense of. The party’s position has evolved in recent years. In the 90s, the party’s line was abortion should be safe, legal and rare. Even as late as 2012, the Obama administration was still trying to get traction for a policy that reduced the need for abortions. The new party line seems now more focused on the right to have access to abortion, treating it as a medical procedure only, with no moral or ethical consideration. To be sympathetic to the idea that Black lives matter and yet not the lives of the unborn is intellectually incongruent, to say the least. You should read David Brooks’ piece on this. I agree with him that Democrats have moved too far on this issue. If your fundamental goal as a Democrat is the health and well-being of individuals, ignoring the moral complexities of this issue is irresponsible and (I believe) inconsistent with your ideology.
If Democrats are inconsistent and hypocritical with their position, Republicans are sycophantic and scattered. “Pro-life” means sooo many different things to different people. Here are some of my questions: What would it look like to legally restrict abortion as a means of birth control? Would you arrest providers, or women themselves? Would it be a state ban or a federal one? Would women who left the country to have an abortion be subjected to prosecution upon their return to the US? Would the law view all termination of a pregnancy the same as premeditated murder? I have also known some conservatives to go so far as to think that birth control methods like IUDs were akin to murder. In twenty plus years of talking with my conservative friends and lawmakers about this issue I have never heard or seen a policy from them that answers those questions. “Pro-life” to them seems to mean only an idea of being anti-abortion, which I am sympathetic to, but it doesn’t seem to translate into a clear, working policy. If the goal is to decrease the number of abortions, the data is clear that legally restricting the procedure does not reduce the number of abortions. Additionally, there is fair criticism that the Republican Party is pro-birth not pro-life. By not supporting aid for poor people, their access to healthcare, or the quality of their education, Republicans’ seemingly don’t put equal value or emphasis on life after birth.
I am sympathetic to why people vote exclusively on this issue. The problem for me, however, is neither party has a position that completely coincides with my moral view. In addition, not every candidate from the major parties views the issue in the same way that their party does. Not to mention that I think the parties sometimes feel less interested in honestly doing the right thing for people and more interested in fundraising and maintaining their party line narrative as a way to encourage people to vote for them. I am frustrated by the unwarranted certitude from many on the right and the smug superiority from those on the left. As this PEW data suggests, the vast majority of Americans understand the complexity of this issue. They realize that universal application is unrealistic when considering individual circumstances. The simple soundbites from both parties fail to do justice to the complexities of the issue. It leads me personally to conclude that voting on this one issue alone is not sound reasoning or sound politics.
You can be anti-abortion and think it should be legal. You can oppose abortion and not be a misogynist. I often hear people who say “How can someone be a Democrat? They are for abortion!” Or, “How can someone be a Republican? They hate women!” These logical fallacies do not account for other possibilities. You can be opposed to the criminalization of abortion and also oppose it as a means of birth control. You can both respect the right of a woman to make her own medical choices and still think there are moral consequences for terminating a healthy pregnancy. Likewise, you can acknowledge the moral complexities of terminating a healthy pregnancy and not hate women.
Good news abortion rates are falling. This excellent article explains why abortion rates are lower than they have been in forty years. Turns out, decades of global research indicate that legally restricting abortion is not correlated with a decrease in global abortion rates. Legality has proven largely irrelevant. In fact, “in countries where laws permit abortion only to save the life of the mother, the abortion rate is higher at 37 per 1,000 women than the rate of 34 abortions per 1,000 in countries without such restrictions.” Moreover, countries throughout Latin America—where the most restrictive abortion laws exist—actually have ‘both the highest rate of unintended pregnancies, 96 per 1,000 women, and the highest rate of abortions, 44 per 1,000 women.’ The data is clear. Nations that help women avoid unwanted pregnancies have the lowest abortion rates. If your goal is reducing the number of abortions, focusing on unwanted pregnices is the best way to go about it. Criminalizing abortion is not.
Even if Roe went away abortions wouldn’t. If the United States Supreme Court did away with Roe vs Wade, abortion does not go away, it just moves the decision to the states. Learn more about this here. Doing all we can in a bipartisan way to reduce unintended pregnancies seems the wiser course.
Please stop calling people baby killers and women haters. When you make the claim that Democrats are baby killers and Republicans hate women you lose the credibility that an issue like this deserves. It’s provocative language that is untrue, hurtful and invites division not civility. Also, when we use graphic videos that depict abortions, or use loaded language of moral absolutism, we often do harm to those who have struggled with pregnancy and infertility and a host of other complicated circumstances surrounding this most personal issue. Jeannie Gaffigin, a lifelong Catholic and a conservative, does an excellent job of addressing this in this must read piece.
To single issue voters I have learned from my own experience that politics, public policy and governing are complex. There are hundreds of issues that governments face. Political parties offer an ideological approach more than detailed policy initiatives. That’s beneficial to everyone. It allows for compromise. When we base our entire vote on a single issue, we often do so because we don’t want to engage in the messy complexities and ambiguities that a healthy republic requires.
So now what? I believe both parties could work together to reduce the demand for abortions. However, it will take people breaking out of their polarized partisan views. As with most issues, the first step is being able to talk about the issue in a way that allows those who disagree with us to be heard.
No one has ever given anyone freedom. Freedom has to be wrestled from those who see your gain as their loss. Freedom comes from fighting for power and it’s a messy business.
Reflecting on the life, mission and legacy of John Lewis has brought me both comfort and discomfort. I am grateful and comforted by his example of faith, optimism, patriotism and dedication. I was moved when former President Barack Obama referred to him as “one of the founding fathers of our more perfect union.” What an apt description! My discomfort has come as I reflected on my own life and found my response to the inequities and injustices of life wanting. I can and should do more.
John Lewis was known for coining the phrase “good trouble”. He said, “Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.” (Tweet June 27, 2018)
I’ve been thinking about “good trouble” and its context in United States history. There have always been those who challenged the status quo and who were vocal about it. To me good trouble means speaking out, and being willing to challenge those forces that seek to prevent us from being what we can be. I, of course, do not approve of violence as a means to an end. However, it is often the byproduct of major movements, it always has been. The Boston tea party and the subsequent revolution were surely not regarded as “good trouble” by the British or loyalists. Many of their fellow colonists were anxious about what a rebellion against Britain would mean. The issue of slavery was settled by powder and ball.The labor movement came as a result of protests over decades, many ending in mass violence and the destruction of property. The women’s suffrage movement was anything but a calm and gentle protest. As Katie Clarke Lemay writes in an excellent NYT article “I think the way we talk about suffrage needs attention. It is so often described in a way that makes it seem kind of dowdy and dour — whereas in fact it is exciting and radical. Women staged one of the longest social reform movements in the history of the United States. This is not a boring history of nagging spinsters; it is a badass history of revolution staged by political geniuses. I think that because they were women, people have hesitated to credit them as such.” Judy Heumann occupied a federal building in San Francisco among other protestors to draw attention to the needs of those with disabilities. Thousands took to the streets to protest during the Stonewall riots which helped bring about change to discriminatory laws that affected the LGBTQ comunity. As Ibram X. Kendi points out in this excellent opinion piece from July 4, 2019 “When Americans struggle for the power to be free, they are afflicting and revolutionizing and refining the United States. They are the Patriots. Patriotism…is resistance.”
No one has ever given anyone freedom. Freedom has to be wrestled from those who see your gain as their loss. Freedom comes from fighting for power and it’s a messy business. We have seen millions of Americans take to the streets over the last few years. Americans who are challenging the status quo. As this report shows, over 90% of the Black Lives Matter protests have been peaceful. I wish it had been 100%. But as concerned as I am about those who resort to violence, I am more concerned with those who seem fixated on the violence and not on the reason for the protests. History has taught us that if our goal is to expand freedom, it will not come easy. It will require us to learn more, say more, and do more. It will require good trouble!
If you are feeling repulsed by politics, you’re not alone. Most of us understand the need to participate in our democracy. However, our current climate is more tribalistic than ever. What we want is a place where we can bring our ideological background, lived experience and skills to address a common problem, yet still collaborate with those of opposing views; working together with the end in mind of reaching the best solution to an agreed-upon problem.
Instead, politics often feels like a blood sport—a grudge match to the death. One where compromising for the greater good has been replaced by winning at all cost. This kind of partisan hunger games is rife with hypocrisy, animosity and breeds an antipathy for politics to the average citizen. It’s easy to blame politicians, the media, wealthy stakeholders and special interests and, in fairness, there is a case to be made against all of them. Attributing blame may help us identify the ill, it does little for the cure. I’m afraid no one is coming to save us. No single candidate, no single election, no single act of Congress will turn the tide of hostile, tribalistic, politics. It’s going to require us to do more–much more than snarky memes, snappy late-night satire, or faux outraged cable news clips. We are going to have to fix this ourselves. Here are three things I am working on:
Being better informed.
Engaging in the process.
Connecting with those I disagree with.
Being informed is going to require more than consuming media outlets that confirm our bias. The issues we face are complex and often confusing. We can’t give 30 seconds to a 30-year problem and think we know anything about it. We have to pay the daily price to understand complex issues. One thing that helps me is try not to get my news from social media. Social media is based on algorithms. It gives us what it thinks we want. Social media pushes us to opinion pieces because they get more likes and shares. Opinion pieces are fine but they lack a depth of reporting. Instead, I have been trying to read the paper more. I subscribe to both the New York Times and Washington Post digitally. I wish I could afford the paper copies (but I still hope to afford retirement someday). Social media also pushes us to the types of stories we like–for me that’s politics and not stories from science, art, culture etc.; going over the paper every day has helped me have a broader perspective. Sadly, social media is also filled with misinformation that spreads like wildfire. This is a quick guide on how to spot fake news.
I also like long form newscasts like NPR’s All Things Considered,Morning Edition and thePBS NewsHour. I know it is hard to find the time in large chunks, but it really makes all the difference. These outlets are free and can be listened to or watched anytime online. Avoiding getting my news primarily from social media has helped me be more informed.
Engaging in the process. It’s been 15+ years since my name has been on a ballot. It’s been nearly ten years since I actively worked on a campaign. I engage candidates directly, infrequently, or not at all. There was a time I used to love to hang out with my local precinct people, knock doors, stuff envelopes and help organize events. Now I don’t even know who my local party chairperson is–not to mention my complete lack of substantive involvement in any local nonpartisan city elections.
Connecting with those I disagree with. I am making some progress here. This has happened both on social media and face-to-face. I have heard over and over again since the last presidential election about how divided we are and that we don’t understand each other. Yet, I have also heard over and over again how people don’t want to talk to others about politics because it is so divisive. We can’t have it both ways. We have to find ways to talk about politics with people we disagree with and not be disagreeable. I sincerely think social media can be a venue for meaningful dialogue, people! I also think we can do this face-to-face. Imagine having a dinner party with the express purpose of talking about a particular issue–looking forward to learning from someone else’s perspective (instead of dreading that you have to have dinner with your crazy right-wing or left-wing relative). Let’s get together and talk about the whole chicken!
I don’t think the answer to our current political dilemma is to avoid politics. I think we have to reshape it. If you are a conservative and feel like your party is unrecognizable in the era of Trump reclaim it! If you are a liberal and think your party has left behind its roots to the working class, or is failing to think big enough don’t walk away, engage. No one is coming to save us. We are the ones we have been waiting for. It’s time for us to reclaim our politics. We will not agree on everything, nor should we. We can, however, agree to put country over party, and good faith 0over bad politics.