Who knew that 2020 would bring us a trifecta of Covid-19, civil unrest, and an election year? Sadly our national response to all of it has turned into a three ring circus. It surely… More
I have not said much about the death of John Lewis even though I have wanted to do so. I’ve been a bit too weepy thinking about his life story to be able to put my thoughts on paper in a coherent manner. Losing one of the last of the big Civil Rights leaders has brought back so many memories of a lifetime ago. I had thought or perhaps wanted to believe that the racial animus of my childhood was long gone. I actually believed at times that Congressman Lewis may have been exaggerating the extent of modern day problems with race. All of that changed in the last few years as I observed an underbelly of our nation that seemed to be festering and growing like a toxic virus. I have been stunned by racism that I have seen and heard that should have died long ago. I knew that we have yet to complete the journey to justice and equality for all that he fought for so courageously for all of his life.
John Lewis was a young man when he decided to join in the struggle for freedom alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Jim Lawson, and others. He was so passionate about the cause that not even multiple arrests and life threatening injuries were able to dampen his spirit. He marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday only to be viciously attacked. His skull was crushed but not his fervor. He often admonished all of us to engage in such “good trouble.”
When John Lewis was asked to speak at the famous march on Washington D.C. he prepared a speech that was so incendiary that his elders asked him to tone it down. He learned from them and always lived their creed of nonviolence and persuasion. He became known as a genuinely kind person. People described him as compassionate and sweet but he remained a fighter for the good of all people for the totality of his life.
I once visited Selma with a group of minority students. We stood in front of the church where John Lewis and others had gathered for their ill fated march to Montgomery, Alabama which was short circuited as they went over the rise of the Edmund Pettus bridge. They were greeted by law officers and snarling dogs who set on them with clubs, beating them to the ground. It was one of the ugliest moments in the history of our country and it changed the hearts and minds of people around the world.
As I walked across the bridge with my students so many years later I felt the spirit of those people who fought so valiantly for their right to vote. We were a motley group with our crew of black and brown students being led by mostly white teachers. We attracted a bit of attention and eventually we were even followed by a clearly marked sheriff’s car. When we got to the crest of the bridge I became breathless as I stared down its length and imagined how those brave souls, including John Lewis, must have felt on that fateful day.
Eventually our journey took us to Montgomery, Alabama where we once again reenacted history by walking toward the State Capitol building. I literally felt the living presence of the souls who had endured such “good trouble” to make the rest of us aware of the problems that they faced. I felt honored and humbled to walk in their shadows.
Now one of the greats among us is gone but I believe we can learn from him. I would tell the Black Lives Matter movement that their message is important but they need to be more tactical in the things they do and say. The protests of the era when John Lewis was young always had a specific message and purpose. They were respectful and nonviolent. They were not damaging to communities. They won the respect of the world with their passive resistance.
Today’s protests too often lose their focus. Looting never helps the cause no matter how many attempts there are to rationalize it. Destroying property only plays into the hands of the very people who have racist views. Being distracted by monuments and statues draws attention away from the real issues and results in only cosmetic changes. John Lewis understood all of these things and if the new era of protestors have any thought of honoring him they will study and follow his way of doing things. They will focus on voting rights and other systemic changes, not trivial symbolism.
It’s easy for a city to take down a statue of Robert E. Lee but if they do not also discuss changes that provide justice for Black Americans little will actually change. The Black Lives Matter movement is gaining support all over the world but it must be careful not to overdo. People become easily bored with a continual cadence that is not backed up with a seeable, doable plan. Now is an opportunity to honor a great man, John Lewis, by asking what he would do and then agreeing to make some “good trouble” with a clear goal that everyone can understand.
Watching John Lewis’ casket being taken across the William Pettus bridge brought back so many difficult memories from my youth. The struggle for unfettered voting rights for Black Americans was a hard fought cause and John Lewis was in the middle of it. When he crossed that same bridge as a young man he almost died from a crushed skull, the result of being beaten by law officers. He survived to become a conscience for the nation and an unswerving warrior for civil rights. Somehow he always managed to deliver his points without violence and often with a forgiving heart. When a man who had brutally beaten him asked for forgiveness John Lewis humbly and graciously accepted. Congressman Lewis was always willing to make good trouble but he did so with love and a clear purpose.
I have been struggling with the scenes in Portland and other parts of the country and I find myself remembering another time from my early twenties. I became involved in a seemingly unending struggle with someone who was quite dear to me. We were both had good intentions but our ways of doing things were at odds. As we quibbled back and forth bad feelings arose and seemed to escalate each time we communicated. I truly cared about this person and I was gravely saddened by the realization that we were headed for a break up simply because we disagreed on how to resolve a particular situation. I finally consulted a priest for advice and he told me that in such cases someone has to agree to be the adult in the room. Sometimes that means just stepping aside so that the other person has time to cool down. He suggested that I needed to decide if the relationship was important enough that I would be willing to be the one who backed down.
I stewed over the priest’s idea for days but I still was not certain that I felt comfortable with an idea that felt like giving up, losing my principles. I consulted my mother who was the ultimate diplomat and lover of all people. Like John Lewis she was an incredibly forgiving person so it did not really surprise me when she counseled me to follow the wisdom of the priest. Happily I did exactly as suggested and things became calm once again. My friend and I continued to love and care for one another for decades.
I believe that there would be no better way to make an astounding point and also honor the great life of John Lewis than for every single protester to just go home and not return to the streets. They have made their message clear and now it is time to work within the system of laws to bring about change. Think of how stunning it would be if those embattled streets became quiet once again. It would be a more powerful message than partaking in a daily back and forth that will ultimately only be resolved in violence, destruction and maybe even death.
John Lewis and my priest understood the value of being strategic. Sometimes we get more things done by knowing when it is time to just let things simmer down. If the two sides of a disagreement stay at it for too long we end up with a Kent State or a Waco or a bombing in Oklahoma. It’s time for the protestors to be the adults in the room. It’s time for them to get back to the heart of their message which has been lost in the chaos. When there is too much noise or too many words people get confused and lose interest.
As a teacher I knew that I would never get the attention of my students by being brutal or unfair to them. They might toe the line for me but inside they would be seething and my words to them would be little more than babble. I had to first win their hearts before I was able to influence their minds. It took time and patience to get where we all needed to be.
I am greatly troubled because I know that the current state of the protests will ultimately end badly for everyone. I see no desire from our president to take the time to win hearts and minds. He is a believer in a stern approach rather than one that would involve making an attempt to hear and learn. I also think that the ranks of the peaceful protesters are being invaded by both forces intent on destroying their efforts and forces intent on anarchy. In other words it no longer appears to be about Black lives.
When the garbage strike was roiling in Memphis Dr. Martin Luther King went to support the workers. They planned a peaceful march through downtown. At some point their protest was overtaken by people intent on causing mischief. As violence broke out Dr. King insisted that the peaceful marchers disperse because he did not want the cause to be associated with brutality. I believe that his insistence on maintaining peace more loudly proclaimed the injustice than fighting back would have done.
My advice to anyone in any city who supports justice and equity for Black Americans is to go home. Undercut the racists who are using the unrest as a reason to defile the cause. The message has been heard but it will be defiled and forgotten if the unrest continues for too long. Be the adults in the room.
My father gave me the gift of reading. When I think of him I only have the memories of an eight year old child and yet what I recall is profound. My clearest images of him all involve books and newspapers, libraries and bookstores. Even on vacations we would visit little shops filled with volumes of every sort and our souvenirs would be books. My father not only read every book that he owned but he discussed what was inside with a kind of encyclopedic knowledge. His depth of information ran the gamut from humor to sports to science to history to poetry. He was a renaissance man in his tastes and his modeling lead me to also enjoy the search for beauty and truth in the written word. After he died so unexpectedly I suppose that I clung to his legacy by avidly devouring any written material I encountered.
My grandfather gave me the gift of understanding history. Like my father he read all the time but his favorite topics were historical tracts and biographies of great men and women. When I graduated from junior high school he gave me a volume of short vignettes of individuals whose lives had changed the world for the good. He inscribed the book with the suggestion that I should seek to learn from people whose courage lead them to upend the status quo when such actions were needed. He encouraged me to ask questions and have a willingness to stand up for justice.
My debate teacher gave me the gift of open-mindedness. She showed me how to view both the pros and cons of an argument. She taught me to use data and facts to support a declaration. She helped me to be objective and unbiased. She also introduced me to the tools used in the art of persuasion. She helped me to realize that I must carefully unpack any assertion in a search for truth.
My seventh grade English teacher gave me the gift of awareness. She alerted me to the use of propaganda and the rhetorical devices that are designed to create emotional rather than rational responses to events and problems. She helped me to understand how we are often manipulated by the way issues are presented with the purpose of making us angry or afraid.
My college professors gave me the gift of knowledge about things that I had never before known. They taught me to be analytical and showed me the value of asking questions before buying into any theory. They widened my horizons and provided me with tools for rationally parsing and investigating ideas.
All of these people taught me the importance of thinking, testing, verifying. Because of them I am wary of any person who tempts me with emotional group think. I require proof before accepting something as factual and I want that proof from the proper sources, experts. I broker little patience with wild ideas that reek of rhetorical excess. I cringe when I hear ridiculous phrases being repeated like the chirping of parrots. I abhor hoaxes proclaimed as legitimate theories. I demand concrete substantiation.
When our current president was gaining fame and a following for demanding to see a birth certificate from President Obama I thought that we were being duped by theater of the absurd. Somehow Donald Trump made large numbers of people believe that Obama was not born in the United States and was therefore unqualified to be president. In truth the Constitution makes it very clear that if an individual has one parent who is a citizen of the United States then that person is by default also a citizen as well. Since there was no denying that President Obama’s mother was a born and raised in the USA it really did not matter where he was born, but with rhetorical relish Trump made it seem so. His technique was so successful that he has since created one ridiculous hoax after another to seal the support of his followers.
I spend a great deal of time unraveling fact from fiction. Most of the time if something sounds audaciously absurd it is. Some ideas are trickier and more difficult to analyze. When there is confusions even among the experts the ground is fertile for misrepresentation. In such cases I find it useful to tread with caution and follow the science of the information.
Such it is with Covid-19. I do not get my information and form my conclusions from lay people. Instead I look to the scientists and the doctors and then listen to their suggestions for being safe. If the information changes as the knowledge of the virus increases I don’t resent being conservative in my approach to staying well. I wear my mask. I stay home as much as possible. I social distance. I wash my hands. None of those things hurt me but it may be that they have helped someone else. I do not consider it an infringement of my freedoms to care about someone other than myself. I do not believe that the virus was purposely created nor do I think that it will miraculously go away the day after the elections in November. My background and those who have gifted me with a rational approach to the world serve me well but frighten me when I see how many actually believe in the disinformation being perpetrated by trolls and bad actors.
The world is quite complex and we have to be careful of being taken in by individuals whose only purpose is self aggrandizement. We need an educated citizenry if we are to have the leadership that we need. Bear in mind that if something appears audacious, it probably is. Take the time to find the truth. Don’t be tied to a single television network or talk radio show or political ideology. Be open minded. Seek the truth.
Each of us look at the world a bit differently. Our beliefs about the world and the people around us begin in our childhoods. How much we are willing to trust others is often rooted in our relationships with our parents. Children model the behaviors that they see in their parents’ actions. Children adapt and learn inside their homes. If there is nurturing and ethical guidance they generally become confident, capable and compassionate adults. If there is neglect and physical or mental abuse they are more prone to struggle with dysfunctional behaviors. Bullies are not born. They are made.
Of course there are malfunctions of the brain that cause a variety of mental disturbances that do not reflect on family influences other than perhaps through genetics. Even in the best of situations mental illness can cause problems for both individuals and those close to them. Because we still have so much to learn about the how and why of our brain our treatments for psychological disorders are often limited and sometimes even ineffective. Still, the worst possible response to them is to simply ignore them.
As a teacher I often encountered young people whose behavior indicated either a psychological problem or a toxic home environment or both. Often such children were boastful, aggressive and mean. They had a kind of swagger and inflated sense of self importance. They dominated their peers and sought to dominate the teachers as well. They were masters of deceit and bravado. Generally nobody really liked them but followed them out of fear often emulating their mean spiritedness.
I worked in schools populated by gangs. There were leaders and their followers. It was a way of surviving in neighborhoods stalked by poverty and a lack of interest from the rest of society. Many of my students were virtually raising themselves and sometimes had the responsibility of caring for their younger siblings as well. Their fathers were in prison or had simply left the families to fend for themselves. Their mothers were sometimes “ladies of the night” addicted to alcohol and drugs. They had little guidance and had to navigate independently in the world far sooner than most of us ever must do. It was a harsh environment in which they learned how to adapt as best they could. Sometimes they became tough skinned, angry and mean.
I also worked in schools with middle to upper class students some of whom were living in emotional deserts. Their parents were well known and highly regarded in the community but they saw very little of them. Instead their care was relegated to hired helpers and they were given money to spend as they wished rather than time and attention. Their sense of what is important was confined to the satisfaction of their own desires. Their thoughts focused on things rather than people. They were boastful and domineering for many of the same reasons as the gang leaders I had encountered in my other schools. They were feared by their followers rather than loved.
Generally the healthy and happy children grow into successful adults who rise to the challenges of responsibility. Society has tended to value character over brutishness in selecting people to lead. From time to time a scarred and pitiless bully has incited the fears of enough of a citizenry to overtake the reigns of power but here in the United States we have mostly been wary of such persons. They have tended to be outliers operating on the fringes of influence but of late their tactics are more and more often viewed as a sign of strength and wisdom and even goodness. Meanness has been elevated to an acceptable way of life and it has been accompanied by an unwillingness to call it out.
The effect has been to divide us into “gangs,” tribes, groups warring with one another over our differences. Once beloved friends and family members are turning on one another simply because they have opposing points of view. Rational discussions have been replaced with accusations, stereotyping and name calling. Each side believes that the other is destroying our country. Politics have become a zero sum game that brooks no compromise. Our vocabulary is filled with hyperbole that only further increases our differences. We are being led by dysfunctional souls who were never taught how to love and lead with compassion. They care nothing for us and yet we blindly follow them because winning means more to us than doing what is right.
We are essentially on our own in one of the most critical times in our nation’s history. We now wee entire races of people described by single words and phrases like thugs, criminals, rioters, rapists, purveyors of kung flu. The most broken among us have taken up the cadence of hate. They attack an Asian woman in a grocery store as though she has single handedly caused all of the misery of our pandemic.
We see classifications of entire age groups of people with dismissive descriptions like snowflakes, millennials, Boomers. We more and more hear women being called nasty or “Karens” or skanks who have slept their way to the top. We can’t even agree on whether or not Covid-19 is a hoax or on the necessity of wearing masks to save lives without enduring vitriol. It is as though we have given up even trying to get along or be kind.
It would be easy to lay the blame for our difficulties at the feet of a single individual but our problems are much deeper than that. Ours is a nation of freedom and democracy. Nobody is forcing us to think or behave in a particular way. We have made our own choices and at least for now we are allowing and even encouraging the ugly behaviors. We have made those who would stand up for what is right and just afraid and in our frustration we are faced with the recklessness of protesting as a last resort. In other words we have brought this on ourselves and it will be up to us to end it.
Our nation is our child and we have been neglectful. We have looked away too often when problems arise. We have allowed inappropriate verbal tantrums when we should have corrected them. We have become afraid to do want we know is right. It’s time we model the behaviors that we want to see. We must demonstrate a willingness to work together with respect and dignity. We must once again value every person and relearn the ways of honoring our differences. As grown ups it’s time we set things right. It is our moral obligation to do so.
It used to be that replying to a query was a fairly straightforward process. If someone asked how one would treat a cold the answer would simply be a matter of describing the usual procedures for dealing with a scratchy throat and a runny nose. The questioner would take note, thank the respondent and either use the provided information for future reference or not. In our current times reacting to an inquiry about even a seemingly benign topic can often become a war of words, a heated debate. Somehow every utterance has the potential of becoming an argument.
The world of communication has become a battlefield with rhetorical gladiators duking it out with no intention of considering another person’s point of view. It is a debate contest in which winners are declared and losers humiliated. Socratic discussions and critical thinking often lose to bombast and clever phrases. It makes all the world a show in which utterances deemed to be remarkable often signify nothing. The speakers and writers are not listening to one another but rather waiting impatiently to utter their repartee. Any hope of civil discourse is lost in an endless chattering that ultimately concludes with all of us being losers. Sadly such contests sometimes even destroy relationships.
It seems as though our society has become so politically charged that few topics are safe. The battles for ascendancy in conversations do not allow for depth of understanding. They become duels as deadly as the one that took Alexander Hamilton’s life and left Aaron Burr a man reviled for all of history. There are really no winners in such undertakings and yet there is a contagion of bad mannered response that is fueled by social media and thirty second sound bites. It is as though we have become incapable of paying attention long enough to get to the heart of one another’s beliefs. Instead when we hear someone thinking differently from ourselves we become agitated and begin the process of thinking of ways to quickly change that person’s mind, sometimes by sarcastically insulting them. We kill the messenger of ideas that do not fall in line with our own rather than quietly probing more deeply into reasoning.
I tend to continually set myself up with my honesty. I am intrigued by our differences and I have never believed that I have all the answers. I am often misunderstood by my willingness to adjust my viewpoints after researching ideas that confound me. I suppose that I was influenced by long discussions of profound import that took place between my father and my grandfather. They would sit for hours batting around information and thoughts like sport. Each would listen intently with great pauses between responses as though carefully considering what they had learned from each other. I used to so enjoy being the fly on the wall, the person in the room where their respectful conversations unfolded. From them I learned how to find solutions for the most difficult problems through a deep and remarkable process of back and forth, give and take.
I recently fell for a lethal form of clickbait on Facebook. The advertisement asked a very simple question seemingly wanting little more than a quick response. It wanted to know whom I thought would be a good running mate for Joe Biden. I simply typed a name and posted my answer thinking that no additional words were needed. I saw it as a survey rather than a debate. Hundreds of replies later I had been accused of stupidity, being high, being a hater of America, being uneducated, being naive, being the real problem in our country, being irresponsible and other pejoratives that I would not dignify by repeating them.
It both amused and infuriated me that people would be so insulting and sometimes even cruel to a person whom they had never met. I wondered at the unfounded conclusions regarding my character drawn from my mere utterance of a single name, nothing more. I chose not to respond as perfect strangers tore me apart as though I was a gladiator thrown into a lion’s den with no armor or weapons. I was no more than a nameless, faceless pawn used in a deadly game designed to entertain the masses. It was at this moment that I finally understood the horror of what has become of our society and how we have so badly distorted the ideals of religion and democracy.
We have become victims of the anarchy of words, quick and bruising phrases rather than profound ideas. The masters of snark have invaded the world of discourse. Debates have become vehicles of insult rather than purveyors of information. Psychological anarchy wins over polite thoughtfulness. The soundbite is the coin of the realm and the idea of allowing differing opinions in the same space has become passee. The champions of such stylistics rid themselves of people and even products that do not walk in lockstep with them, narrowing their worldview to the point of danger. There is no one to warn them of mistakes or faulty thinking because they only hear the sounds of their own voices and those in whatever group they have chosen to follow. The world becomes a game of choosing sides with no place to go for those of us who prefer to consider that it is destructive to become tribal rather than diverse.
Our cancel culture is as infectious and deadly as Covid-19. When we no longer allow conflicting possibilities our society and our souls begin to slowly die. We become deaf and blind to anything other than our way and in the process lose the magnificence of variety. We close ourselves into darkness and run away from truth. We begin to believe that we are so perfect that we do not need the counter balance of pros and cons.
Our landscape has been severely changed by those who say nothing but only tell us what they think we wish to hear. Beware of people who are unwilling to admit mistakes because as humans it is inevitable that they will not always get everything right. Beware of people who continually blame and insult others because they actually have nothing constructive to say. Beware of people who rely on pithy phrases and photos to prove their intellectual prowess because they have no depth of understanding. Beware of people who are self righteous because they are afraid of differences. Beware of people who will not pause long enough to listen to and respect all of the points of view because they will demand that everyone else go their way or hit the highway. Beware of people who think that bullying others into submission is a sign of strength because they are actually quite weak. Beware of falling into the trap of continually walking in lockstep with a single idea because it may lead you into a trap.
We have some dire situations right now that we must consider. We have a virus stalking us. We have minorities who are crying for our consideration. We have a criminal justice system in chaos. Our economy is teetering. Our educational system is under assault. Now is not the time for division. Now is the time to stop for a moment, take a deep breath, and open our minds.