“If we do not know how to meaningfully talk about racism, our actions will move in misleading directions.” – Angela Y. Davis, Activist and Scholar.
There is an image that has stuck in my head the last few weeks. I saw it in a video taken during the Charlottesville riots. There were two young people, both white, both shouting at each other. The white man was shouting: “White lives matter.” The white woman was shouting: “Black lives matter.” They were facing each other and were in fairly close proximity.
Their shouts were almost like a chant. Rhythmic, forceful, unrelenting.
Black lives matter! White lives matter! Black lives matter! White lives matter!
The whole picture struck me as incongruous. Firstly, why are we fighting about which lives matter? When we are talking about actual lives, human beings and who deserves to live – don’t all lives truly matter? Those who are able and those who are not able. Those who are invited to the table and those who are not. Colonized land and colonizers.
Dialogue, reconciliation and healing allows for hurts to be brought forward and to engage in discussions about misogyny, racism, globalization.
What I saw instead was a polarizing and divisive scene. There was no desire to understand issues – only a desire to convince and force perspectives. In fact, their communication, if one can call it that, appeared to be about two different topics.
The young woman was shouting for fairness, equality, social justice. As a female in the male-dominate world, I can understand her fear of losing sovereignty and status in a world that privileges older white men with money, power and corporate connections and neglects those who don’t fit that mold.
The young man was shouting for fairness, equality and a type of justice as well. As a mediator, often in a position of seeking to understand multiple points of view, I can understand his fear of losing his identity and status in a sea of change and anger towards “white males of privilege.”
It is important to act with compassion, kindness and inclusivity. These ways of acting, however, are not synonymous with passivity or “appeasement.”
Whether we are attempting to assert boundaries, as is happening today with North Korea, or standing up for compassion, it is virtually impossible to understand the assertion if we are yelling across a chasm.
It is impossible to stay in dialogue when we feel threatened because of our animal brains. It is that simple. All of us – those who cherish compassion and those who prefer to “draw a hard line.” We are all prone to “othering” each other and seeing others as separate, wrong, an enemy.
None of us are immune to enemy-making and it is impossible to empathize with those we hate.
My greatest sadness is that there is an increasing polarization in politics. Heated words brings out these reptilian tendencies towards other each other, hatred towards each other, hurt towards each other.
What is the antidote?
Here are three suggestions for your consideration. If you agree, please spread the word!
Firstly, when issues are posed as either/or – let’s practice replacing that word with the word “and.” This is a practice I learned from my long association with the Centre for Conflict Resolution We talk about replacing the word “but” with “and.” This is not a small practice – it allows for inclusivity and broader thinking.
Secondly, let’s measure all our actions by, and navigate with, these values:
These are not passive values. These are deep values to be advocated for. To stand up for. To speak truth to power about. This is not an easy practice. It is to be done every day and to be asked for in all contexts. I will have to practice this all the days of my life, because I too have an animal brain – and when someone is shouting at me, I go reptile.
Thirdly, let’s step back in the face of aggression and ask ourselves a key question: “What are you really saying under all that shouting?”
This is very hard to do. When we are being threatened, it is natural to shut down, push back, flee. It is my struggle. But stepping back and asking what is the person really saying allows me to discover what is being asked for is not much different than what I would want for myself. Asking this question humanizes us all.
What do you think?