Can we talk? Please?
We really need to talk. Like, really talk. I mean, rolling-our-sleeves-up, looking-each-other-in-the-eye kind of talking. With active listening and everything. We, as fellow Americans, need to have a dialogue. I know, even as I say that, that you’re rolling your eyes and maybe even snorting. Either you don’t believe me or you think it’s impossible. “You’re saying I’ve got to have a heart-to-heart with my loud neighbor? Like, try to understand him? Or agree with my intolerant brother when he starts trashing the Black Lives Matter movement? Forget it. Never going to happen. Even if it did, there would be no point. They’re not going to change. I’m not going to either. We’re never going to agree.”
You’re right. You’re probably not.
What if I said that the point isn’t to agree?
Because we all depend on one another.
Now you’re laughing. “I don’t depend on my neighbor!” you insist, maybe even kind of yell. “He’s in a completely different line of work. We never talk to each other. I’m not even sure we both speak the same language.”
Yes, you do depend on him, indirectly, and he you. In fact, if there’s anything that the global covid-19 lockdown has shown, it is how dependent we all are on each other. Without all of us contributing in some small way to various economies, they start to collapse. Economies collapsing means stores—like Walmart—closing, which means no more midnight runs for ice cream. In the wake of this epidemic of uncertainty about how to still be cautious about covid-19 but resume some type of normalcy, we’ve averted such catastrophes so far, although perhaps not the shuttering of other, smaller businesses.
“Okay, so maybe we indirectly depend on each other,” you say, “but that still doesn’t mean I have to talk to him.”
If there’s anything else that Covid-19 has made very apparent, especially since the Black Lives Matter and defund-police protests began in the U.S., it’s that people are reacting in very different, even unexpected ways these days to the stressors of the pandemic and long-standing social issues. I mean, when the lockdown first started, what’s the first thing everyone panic-bought? Toilet paper, of all things! And now, what are we arguing most about? Masks? Really? In the face of all the other problems going on, that’s what we’ve chosen to polarize ourselves on?
That polarization, if you think about it, is what could ultimately make everything much worse than it already it is. The more we argue/shout in each others’ faces, the more we do or say whatever we want regardless of how it affects other people, the more we protest without constructively engaging with “the other side” for some kind of positive outcome, the less we’re apt to care about keeping those economies going. The less we’re apt to care about other people. The more selfish we become.
We are better than that. We have to be better than that. We have to have a higher goal than just self-preservation, as tempting as that is. Because at the end of that road is anarchy, civil unrest, chaos, or maybe even civil war. And along the way is Rest Stop Disconnectedness and Exit Prejudice. Maybe, just maybe, our goal, while we can still hope to achieve it, should be a better future, one in which we can hope, maybe even expect, to be treated as fairly and respectfully as we are treated by others. One in which our government—which we collectively see as an imperfect structure set up by other imperfect humans—changes to really become the voice of all of us, to take all of our voices into consideration when making laws, and to have police officers that enforce those laws in utterly fair and transparent ways. Call it “trickle-up politics.”
“Say I accept all of that,” you say, still very, very pessimistic. “I still don’t see how it can happen, especially online. Social media and even real-life have become nothing but people shouting what they believe to whoever will listen and arguing or condemning anyone who disagrees as ‘close-minded,’ ‘uneducated,’ ‘bigoted,’ or worse.”
“You’re right,” I say. “It has.” In fact, Arthur C. Brooks, a social scientist and think-tank leader who wrote Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America From the Culture of Contempt, agrees with you. He says:
We need national healing every bit as much as economic growth. But what are we getting instead from many of our leaders in media, politics, entertainment, and academia? Across the political spectrum, people in positions of power and influence are setting us against one another. They tell us that our neighbors who disagree with us politically [or ideologically] are ruining our country. That ideological differences aren’t a matter of different opinions but reflect moral turpitude. That our side must utterly vanquish the other, even if it leaves our neighbors without a voice.
In the very moment in which America most needs to come together as a nation…we are being torn apart, thoughtlessly and needlessly, [and we are doing some of the tearing]. We are living in a culture of contempt. We need to fight back. But how?
To answer that really hard question, he cites the experience of Hawk Newsome, the president of Black Lives Matter New York. Hawk and a group of BLM protesters clashed with a group of Trump supporters in September 2017. Verbal insults gave way to physical violence until the organizer of the pro-Trump rally gave the stage to Hawk for two minutes to state his side. Hawk was tempted to deliver a verbal salvo until he heard a voice in his heart telling him, Let them know who you are. “My name is Hawk Newsome,” he said. “I am an American and the beauty of America is that when you see something broken in your country, you can mobilize to fix it.”
The crowd, surprisingly, agreed with a round of applause.
Then he stated what he wanted to fix: the fact that we can all watch a black man be choked to death on TV and not rise up together to change that. He stated it in a way that focused on a common goal—“anti-bad cop”—and stated again that he was an American, adding that he was a Christian. And he just wanted the same justice when a black life was lost at the hands of a police officer as when a white life was lost.
And the crowd listened.
In fact, Kenny Johnson, a member of Bikers for Trump, approached him, and they started talking and connecting over the points that Hawk had made in his speech. Months later, Hawk changed his approach to problems like racial injustice, even in the face of derision from his once-fellow protesters. He said:
And Tommy Hodges, the organizer of the Trump half of that 2017 clash? He said:
You see? Dialogue. For the sake of listening. Not for the point of convincing or agreeing. It’s necessary.
Every single one of us is going to have an opportunity on social media or in person to answer somebody’s contempt—probably in the next 24 hours. So, are you going to do the right thing and make the world a little bit better; show your strength; and try to make your enemies your friends? Or are you going to make the problem worse?
You may have heard calls here and there for more civility, in our political conversations, online, and in general. But Brooks, the Dalai Lama, me, and many others call for a higher standard, even say we’re capable of a higher standard: love. Not just a let’s-ignore-our-differences-and-sing-kumbaya-around-a-campfire sense of civility or tolerance, but a love that is clear, empathetic, and cognizant of the recipient(s) as fully human as we are. “People can become not just warriors for their point of view but healers in their communities,” Brooks says.
“That’s great,” you interject, “but, again, how?”
How to Have That Dialogue
There is actually a lot of expert advice on that topic. Brooks suggests starting out by curating social media followings, friendships, and interactions with people of different points of view, the opposite of what he calls “ideological siloing.” Willingness to do this implies that we lean into a little bit of vulnerability. Brené Brown, author of Dare to Lead: Brave work. Tough conversations. Whole hearts, says that’s a good thing: “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, and joy.” It’s hard, especially in such a contemptuous culture, and very few of us realize how many ways we try to avoid feeling that vulnerability, but Brown isn’t the only one who says it’s a starting point. John Gottman, maybe the nation’s most well-known marriage expert, suggests that the first rule of bringing us back together as a country is the same rule he gives to struggling couples: “Focus on other people’s distress and focus on it empathetically.” If what someone says about your skin color or religion makes you feel vulnerable or scared, focus on whatever vulnerability they might be experiencing that prompts them to say those things.
Is that easy? Certainly not. It may take some imagination or thought, as opposed to the knee-jerk defenses we’re all prone to offer instead. It may take a lot of patience, especially if the offender is a friend. It may mean keeping that thread going to clarify your motives, rather than avoiding social media altogether or blocking a “friend.” And not everyone will respond in kind. But you can end that small cycle of contempt with empathy.
According to Brown, the importance of empathy in breaking that cycle cannot be overstated:
If we believe that empathy is finite, like pizza, and practicing empathy with someone leaves fewer slices for others, then perhaps comparing levels of suffering would be necessary. Luckily, however, empathy is infinite and renewable. The more you give, the more we all have. That means all pain can be met with empathy; there’s no reason to rank and ration.
Empathy is connecting to the feeling under the experience, not the experience itself. If you’ve ever felt grief, disappointment, shame, fear, loneliness, or anger, you’re qualified. In those bad moments, it’s not our job to make things better. It’s just not. Our job is to connect.
Aren’t we all experiencing stress and disappointment in some way or another, not just because of the pandemic but also because of Life on top of that? Depending on your circumstances, you might also be feeling angry, lonely, or, like me, so very, very tired. I can’t make the pandemic end for you, but I can definitely commiserate and even help. I just want to help make things better, for you and for everyone. But I can’t do it alone; neither can you. We need to connect, one conversation at a time. We need to find something in common, even if it’s only our shared frustration with the constraints that Covid-19 has put on our lives. And we need to have dialogue.
“Okay, so I need to talk and have more empathy,” you say, “but is that it?”
“It’s a great first step,” I say. “Good job!” I shared some specific, digestible, practical methods here, and some books to help you get more informed about some of the big problems going on right now here. When you get time, read what you can. The most important piece of advice that I could offer, one that I’ve really been trying to expand on in my own life, is to look for or start those hard conversations. When you find or make them, try to plug into the feeling behind them. If it’s hard to tell what it is, try asking.
A friend of mine recently ranted on Facebook about how a friend of hers had gone into Costco without a mask because she had a doctor’s note exempting her from that requirement. People gave her dirty looks and even got after her for not wearing a mask. This friend, the one who recounted the other woman’s experience, expressed a lot of frustration that people could be so “rude.” Instead of taking a side in that conversation, I engaged. I asked my friend Lisa what kind of medical condition would exempt someone from wearing a mask. I said: “Even though I think that the more people wear masks, the sooner we can all get back to an actual normal, I can totally sympathize with the fear I imagine the woman felt at having her breathing being limited by a mask.” I got an opportunity to sympathize, and I hope Lisa felt at least a spark of understanding of the “mask-wearing side.” I respect her ability to disagree, in part because my goal wasn’t to get her to agree.
It’s hard, I know. Incredibly hard, along with a lot of incredibly hard other things right now. But improvement is not going to happen if we sit around and don’t say anything. We don’t have to shout; in fact, it’s better if we don’t. We just need to start and listen.
“What do you think?” I ask.
You’re silent. Thinking.
And that is the beginning.