Can you hear me for a second? Can you listen like a person, who’s listening to another person, and not like an ideological spare change sorter, with your ears set to latch onto this buzzword or that loaded phrase… so you can figure out if I fall into one of the many Imbecile Hate-Driven Ignoramus slots, the ones you have a ready-made dismissive argument for, or into the One Single Acceptable Right One?
I took a class in college on Nazi Germany. Now I know everybody overuses the Nazi Germany parallels but it’s one of those things like quoting Shakespeare – maybe it’s overdone but it’s also so often the best piece of wisdom out there for a particular situation.
We learned some dates and some names of towns and battles and party officers but my professor mostly wanted – desperately wanted – us to leave the class with an understanding actually of how “normal” German human beings, of normal varying levels of complexity or intellect or morality, could become the people some of them became, and do the things some of them did.
This is important, please hear me. Dr. Krammer taught us that the worst thing we can do is to dehumanize people. We went through, step by step, chronologically and using real propaganda and writings of the time, the way that the Jews were gradually and methodically dehumanized by the regime.
But an equally important part was the danger of dehumanizing the Nazis. He contended that the most dangerous thing we can do is to treat and view any Other People as villains, animals, or idiots. When we, even we Americans, made films with moronic goose-stepping slapstick punchlines or mustache-twisting demons in swastikas, we told ourselves that that, the hate and the horror, happened because of something inherent in THOSE people. It couldn’t happen here. Not to us.
The true thing, the hard thing and the complex thing, the thing that can lead to honesty and empathy and actual resolution of conflict, is to look for myself in Those People. Look for them in me.
For the love of God, I’m not comparing people to Nazis.
Or… maybe I’m comparing everyone to Nazis. Maybe I’m calling people people.
Maybe, in a sense, the best way to look at anything in the world, is to assume that I’m the worst sinner there is. As far as it’s any of my business, really, I am. Paul called himself chief among sinners. I swear there’s a Mother Teresa quote where she says she’s the worst, too, although now I can’t find it.
I’m not talking about self-flagellating. I’m talking about empathy, humility, reason, and the only approach that might ever get us anywhere productive. I’m absolutely not sitting here telling you to look for your grossest parts and then obsess over them and hate yourself.
What I’m saying is — who are the Other People for you? Liberals? Trump-ites? People of color? Immigrants? Millennials? Fox News anchors? Academic underperformers? Vegans? BLM protestors?
Whoever it is, and I want you to really have a group in your head right now — stop and ask yourself: What are they afraid of? What am I afraid of? Is my self-defense response… actually setting off their alarms? And vice versa? What do they love? What do I love? Whatever they are doing that pisses me off — what circumstances might drive me to act in that way? Am I expecting someone to “get over it,” without entirely taking the time to understand what the “it” is, and if it’s at all reasonable to ask that of them?
Whatever they’re about that makes me angry — how do I know about that motive? Have I heard it from their own mouths? Or from the mouths of other people who already hate or fear them? I think a lot of the time maybe we hate people for believing stuff that they might not actually believe at all.
What if we FIRST assume that people are souls, maybe even souls made in the image of God, who don’t just go around acting in willful ignorance or malicious hate?* To be honest, I think some do, they do exactly that. But maybe humility says that God knows the willful ignorance or the malicious hate — he knows how to tell those apart from a deeply hurt person hurting others, or from a victim of a lifetime of taught prejudice or violence, or from a soul who’s felt like a cornered alley cat their entire lives and has rarely come down from Fight or Flight… He knows. I don’t.
What if we take this modern beast known as the Internet, the personal echo chamber of confirmation bias we keep hearing about… what if we turn that on its head?
You know, all of this information at our fingertips could ALSO be used to look right into Those People’s heads. Read their stories, hear their arguments. Close your eyes and pray for grace for the anger you might find towards your group, because we have to start somewhere, and that somewhere can’t be on the super defensive. But hear it from them, from their own mouths and keyboards and art. Their fears, their motives, their hopes, their history.
What might happen then? And then, maybe once you can trust yourself to not be a weird tourist or to pull out your own soapbox, what if you engaged with one of Them, in real life? Ask some questions, make a friend, share a meal, face to face?
It’s a jungle out there, guys. It’s mayhem. Civilized discourse is bleeding in a ditch right now. But we can help! We can.
Just look for the human souls.
*Can I be so bold as to suggest, while I’m at it, that you examine your various news media outlets or bloggers or voices that fill your head? Who’s their Them? How do they talk about people? It might seem impossible to find news outlets that speak respectfully of everyone, these days, but it’s not. Super, duper, duper hard, but not impossible.