Friday, June 24, 2016

Fear And Sadness

I know a lot of folks who have sworn off talking about politics, but I'm not one of them. I understand that it's uncomfortable for some people, and I spent years walking on eggshells myself, but then I realized that if I don't talk about politics then I'm leaving the field for those who do, and I wasn't always happy with how that was going. Indeed, that's how our system of self-governance is designed to work: we the people discussing public matters amongst ourselves, every day, over back fences, in line at the grocery store, and at the dinner table. Sometimes we're trying to persuade one another, for sure, but ideally we're also listening, because these people are our friends, family, neighbors and colleagues. If we disagree it's probably because there is something fundamental about that person we don't understand and without understanding how can we ever hope to come to agreements, which is ultimately the lifeblood of any community that is of, by, and for the people.

I know I'm an idealist. I also realize that what makes so many people uncomfortable about discussing politics and policies today is there is simply so much attack-dog vitriol out there, especially on the internet where anonymity gives people cover to say things they wouldn't say to their friends, family, neighbors and colleagues. There's a burn-it-all-down tone to too much of the discourse, too much anger, too much focus on winning rather than understanding, and this is exactly why I'm so committed to staying in the fray. In the interest of "being the change" I hope that I can be an example of how to have these discussions without the name-calling, threats, and or a win-at-all-costs endgame, and I have a few friends from the other side of the political fence, people I've known a long time, who feel the same way.

Our primary discussion venue is Facebook and while I'm not going to say it doesn't sometimes get heated, and we rarely persuade one another, if we go on long enough, keeping our friendship at the center of the discussion, we often surprise ourselves by finding common ground. But more importantly, I think, even when all we do it disagree, is that I always walk away with a better understanding of why this or that friend sees the world the way he does.

For the past several days, a few of us have been engaged in a long and tangled debate over law enforcement's "profiling" of people of the Muslim faith. This particular friend is not a Donald Trump supporter and thinks his specific immigration policies are unworkable and dangerous, but he does agree that there is something intrinsic in the Islamic faith that makes its adherents more prone to violence than people of other faiths. I come from the opposite point of view, finding the practice of religious or racial profiling to be anti-democratic bigotry, often evoking Benjamin Franklin in my defense: "Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety." It's a topic in which one can't avoid the hottest buttons of religion and guns, but we somehow found ourselves ending yesterday on the following exchange:

Me: No you shouldn't fear atheists, or Christians, or Muslims. You should fear mentally ill people getting their hands on guns.

Him: I fear drunk drivers more than gun owners . . . sane or insane.

Me: And apparently mentally ill people with guns, but only if you think they're Muslim.

Him: My attitude about the gun issue probably mirrors your apathy and sense of much ado about nothing towards Islamic jihadists.

Me: When I see a regular citizen carrying a gun, it does frighten me . . . I have no way of knowing if he's a good guy or a bad guy; if he's a responsible gun owner or an irresponsible one; if he's a savior or a terrorist. Are you telling me that's the way you feel when you see someone who might be a Muslim?

Him: Tom, I honestly don't recall the last time I saw some average Joe walking around with a gun on his hip but I remember the last hajib I saw or the last Middle Eastern guy I looked twice at the last time I was flying. I get where you are coming from but I don't share your fear as I am sure you don't share by belief that the odds of you being killed by a radical Islamist are improving . . .

Me: Thanks for that explanation. It's been confusing me.

Yes, I still consider his point-of-view to be one that is steeped in bigotry, but in it's way, my own fear of every armed man is a form of bigotry as well. And bigotry, I've found, is only grown in the soil of fear or sadness. When I read these sorts of debates amongst strangers, I tend to want to pick sides, as I'm sure many of you are after reading this exchange, but when it's between friends, family, neighbors, and colleagues, it's much easier to see that we're actually still on the same side, but just happen to disagree. Ultimately, what we were discussing in this exchange were our fears. We can never forget that this is what fuels our political disagreements: fear and sadness. The anger we're all trying to duck by avoiding political discussions is just the secondary emotion that we evoke to protect us from feeling afraid or sad. If we are going to get anywhere, however, these are the real things that need to be talked about.

Now let me share with you the greatest truth of all about fear and sadness. This is the reason that we have so much trouble finding common ground and it's why we must never lose sight of every individual's humanity as we engage in this project of self-governance:

The difference between my fear and sadness and yours is that mine make sense.

It's true for me and it's true for you. That's why it's so hard and it's also why it's so important: the only way to overcome our fear and sadness is through the other people. And for me, that's what must ultimately lie at the heart of our experiment in democracy. This is what we spend our time doing with the children at Woodland Park. And maybe it's what we should all spend our time doing if we really seek a better world.

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Anonymous said...

I guess this depends on where you live, "Tom, I honestly don't recall the last time I saw some average Joe walking around with a gun on his hip but I remember the last hajib I saw or the last Middle Eastern guy I looked twice at the last time I was flying."

I live in Phoenix, AZ and I see guns on hips of average Joe's everyday. :(

Unknown said...

Anon, It also depends on what you're looking for. If it's normal enough, it becomes white noise and you stop seeing it unless you're aiming to see it. I can't think of the last person I saw who wears glasses who wasn't my mom or my niece, because both of them often lose their glasses so I'm always checking to make sure they still have them. People wear glasses all the time, but I don't care so it doesn't register. If you care about guns, you see them. If you care about Muslims, you see them (often wrongly, because people don't understand the difference between like a Sheik and a Muslim, and if you're not a brown Muslim it's easier to skate by, but..).
That's just the human brain. You find what you're looking for.