Image Credit: Mathias Ripp via flickr.com/photos/56218409@N03/29080604766
One of the first talks I heard after moving to North Carolina in 2017 was Linda Sarsour speak at Davidson College. I knew she was a Women’s March organizer and activist, but to be honest, I didn’t know much else. So I Googled her to find a first page of search results being dominated by accusations of ties to Hamas and controversy related to whether Zionism and Feminism can coexist with Sharia law.
That’s not what she talked about or focused on. She told us her story and her take about the state of our country.
Her first suggestion for activism, listen.
~ Dissent is the highest form of patriotism. A country that treats everyone with dignity and respect. We must remind ourselves the times in our history when we have done horrible things. She ultimately calls us to stand up for the horrible things happening on our watch, but to also listen, be open to people’s stories, start with things that we share. Think about changing call out culture to call in.
Since the election I’ve been trying to find ways to understand the numbers, groups, people who voted for the 45th. I absolutely want to call on me, you, us, people, to be their best, and not hide behind the comfortable, the known. I also understand this as a privilege, to have the time, the opportunity, the safety to seek out this kind of conversation. From my privileged position, I asked a republican colleague out to non partisan lunch. I actually don’t consider myself to be a Democrat, but I definitely come across as a vocal liberal. I asked this particular person because I was confused at actions versus the politics that I saw in their presence on campus.
Here is some of what stood out to me in our conversation.
That idea of – “If I can do it, then anyone can. Why wallow in what you can’t control? Figure out what you can do in your situation and do it! Do anything to make your situation better.” Which, yes, if you have had anyone in your life who has struggled and overcome those struggles, you are proud and happy for them. Everyone can agree that it is possible and good to overcome adversity. But this isn’t the only way for a story to go. I guess I wasn’t aware of how strong this narrative plays out in conversations about social programs and maybe even more so in talking about inequalities and what to do about them. That the ideal to stand above and overcome is more powerful than actually getting rid of the obstacles that are getting in the way. Therefore those that aren’t able to overcome are then just weak?
The second thing that stood out was the local / personal factor that becomes so important. I think this is important, in fact when I think about being a responsible digital citizen, the only way to approach a diverse global complexity is to understand your own situation and share it with others. But it also can stand as an excuse to not move past what we don’t understand. Our context and experience isn’t enough. If we wait for something to become part of our own personal experience in some way, things would slow to a stop. Empathy is trying to understand someone without having that personal connection. If you consider yourself a person not burdened by what is happening in your personal local world, then you need to make the effort to go beyond it.
A third piece that stood out from our conversation was the one issue to rule all issues. That some folks approach politics as needing to fight for this one issue above all, which then allows for excusing a lot of other things (behaviors, policies, incongruities). I won’t name the issue, although I’m sure many of you already know right off the bat that it is one of two or three that have made politics unbearable. When I asked my colleague if he would leave his daughters alone in a room with the 45th, he said no. He wouldn’t trust the man alone in a room with his daughters. BUT, this one issue. This was the hardest part of his thinking for me to hear and try and make sense of. I think it is dangerous and really a perfect excuse to let a lot of things go.
Lastly, when the conversation was over, I realized that I had spent the hour listening to him. I know I had asked him to lunch, but he literally asked me no questions about my thinking. I view this in two ways. My first thought is wow, he is completely unaware and if felt like this was a very male thing. He professed, I listened. I have been in this position many a time. But it could have also been that he felt he was on the defensive. He was justifying his actions and beliefs. Now, almost three years later, this defensiveness is so present in our political dialogue. It makes things hard. But it is my challenge to focus on. How to talk through defensiveness.
This brings me to a story from a few weeks ago. I was sitting on our back porch, having some drinks with some friends from home (New Mexico). One of them used Jew as a derogatory term for being stingy with money. The rest of us were like, whoa, not ok. Things started to get uncomfortable. My partner then stepped in and said, look, I know. I’ve done it too. I’ve said something that I then realized was a straight up racial slur. This gave space for us to have a conversation about why certain terms that still get used without really thinking about them, come from very specific places of discrimination and hate. It allowed us to address the behavior in a way that didn’t put one or several of us on the defensive, but rather made it a conversation for us all to take part in and not feel like we were going to be called out. This is an example on a small scale, but as my friend pointed out the following day, this is what we need to start trying to do more.
I’m writing this here, because of the messiness of conversations that I’ve had and the sick feeling in my stomach after so many interactions both online and face to face. I need to talk through it and make sense of what might be going on, to then go back and continue to have thoughtful, informed conversations. Have you worked through defensive conversations? What are your stories?