This inauguration, let’s remember that unity is possible. It just takes us putting the effort into doing it. I’m inspired to re-share the music video I had the honor of making with Amy Obenski a couple of years ago for her song, In Each Other’s Arms. It’s especially salient today.
“People aren’t being seen”
For a long time now I have been pointing out to anyone who will listen that community is broken in this country. At least where I live, in California. I think we are seeing the consequences of that brokenness all around us; in our crazy political environment, our high homeless population, the ridiculous numbers of people in prisons and jails, even in the wide wealth disparity. Our rising suicide rate, our daily mass shootings, the mind-boggling amounts of money we spend on health care – the list of symptoms of our broken community just seem to go on and on. Oh, our lowering life expectancy too.
Since I work with people who are homeless, I do a lot of reading specific to the field. Street Roots published an article about the cognitive reasons why housed people struggle to feel empathy for people who are homeless. Not only is the article relevant to homelessness, I think it’s relevant to every aspect of our civic culture today. The italicized portions below are from that article.
“People aren’t being seen,” (Harris) said. “If I’m a busy person, going through a city where there are tons of homeless people, and I have to stop and consider the minds of all of these people, that might make me feel very uncomfortable. Moreover, if I don’t feel like I have the resources to help, there’s nothing I can do to alleviate that suffering. That feeling stays with you. Our brain says, instead, if I take a second to stop and think about your suffering, it’s going to make me feel bad. So, dehumanization becomes a kind of emotion regulation strategy.”
Online, with social media, we have all faced a time where we were forced to consider the mind of someone who clearly has wildly different views than we do. How much easier is it to tune those people out than is it to actually think about what they are saying? How much easier is it to, then, just write off people who share those views and de-friend them or block them out entirely? How hard is it to have your ideas challenged online and to refrain from yelling or letting the conversation devolve into insults?
“We readily help kids and cute animals, in part because we know that whatever trouble they’re in, they can’t really be held accountable,” (Zak) said. “We’re less likely to be so understanding and forgiving when it comes to homeless adults or drug addicts. This tendency to judge rather than help is partly the result of a spot in the prefrontal cortex called the subgenual cortex. It’s full of oxytocin receptors, and it appears to modulate the degree of empathy by regulating the release of dopamine. No dopamine means no reward from engaging with the other person, which makes it less likely that we’ll reach out empathically.”
In America, there seems to be a very strong desire to withhold services from people who don’t “deserve” them. This makes sense if, when we feel powerless, we dehumanize the people in our communities who need help. Since they are still suffering, they are living proof of our failures….
I’ve been wrestling with the idea that humans have an innate desire to help other humans. That commerce is based on contribution. What do people pay for? They pay to be contributed to. Whether it’s food, housing, entertainment, interaction. We pay for other people to contribute to us, and we want to contribute to other people. When we see people who are homeless, most of us see people we can’t contribute to. Most of us see that we have failed to help them.
Is it easier to blame the homeless than to take responsibility, as a community? I would guess that most of us don’t even think in terms of our community. We don’t think about what services we want to be sure that our community members have access to. We don’t think about what we as a community are doing to alleviate suffering in our midst. Is it easy to say “they made their choices,” “they are addicts,” “they are getting what they deserve?” Maybe the people who say those things felt the powerlessness of dealing with someone who’s choices were chaotic and out of control. Maybe they had to detach from a loved one to maintain their sanity and control over their own lives. A real community has each other’s backs. What’s it going to take to start thinking like that?
“If we design interventions to help people meet members of such stigmatized groups and get beyond the stereotype and see the person behind the social category, they tone down their judgments and feelings,” (Hewstone) said.
Hewstone is literally saying that if we get people from different social groups to meet and interact, then we will ratchet down the judgement, the yelling, and the divisiveness.
WHAT A THOUGHT
So then, if we had strong communities, maybe we wouldn’t be having this problem in the first place?
Now I’m going to talk about politics. I think that the level of division in our country is a security threat. It is a threat to our democracy. It appears that multiple foreign countries have figured out how to manipulate our elections and political process for their own gain. Almost exclusively, they are preying on our own divisions to do so.
Is it an incorrect conclusion then, that the best way to fight for and save our democracy is to get to know our neighbors? To meet and get to know people in our community who don’t think or live like us? To talk with the homeless, the middle class, and the rich? To talk with brown, black, white? To talk with young, middle-aged, and old? With men, women, and everyone in between?
That seems like a logical conclusion to me. It seems to me that it is time to do our patriotic duty. It seems like, all it’s going to take to stand up for the principles that our country are founded upon, is for you and I to go out and bridge the gaps in our own lives.
Bridge the gaps, instead of fighting for our point of view. No one is going to do it for us.
How can I accept my country slowly, painfully tearing itself apart? A country who’s founding motto is “Out of Many, One.” A country that calls itself the United States.
A comedian friend of mine posted on facebook, that he wore a shirt that had some American flag themed decoration on it for his comedy set. That after his set, a lady came up to him and told him that he should not wear that shirt because he was obviously a liberal and liberals aren’t patriotic.
This is where we are at today.
We’ve been leading up to this for a long time. Way back in 2003, if my memory serves, I was working on a bond campaign for a local library. I was talking with a potential volunteer for the campaign, and he asked me if I was a Republican. I said no (I’m not registered with any party), and he said good – that he would never work with a Republican. But it was different then, than it is today. It wasn’t quite so… visceral.
I remember reading about a time when the political parties in this country could get along. Or at least, not view each other as the enemy. It seems to me that all that came crashing down when Newt Gingrich was the speaker of the house in the 1990’s. But the days of seeing allies across the aisle, if they ever existed, seem to be gone.
This is very upsetting for me. Because at some point, this state is a conscious choice for everyone involved. We choose to badmouth our political adversaries. We choose to lie about them. We choose to heap endless tons of criticism upon them. We choose to distort what we see to serve our political ends. We choose to tear down our fellow countrymen and countrywomen. We choose to shut out wide swaths of our own people from the political and policy making process. We chose this, and we choose it again every day. We are 327 million people (last I checked) choosing to do this to ourselves.
How does anyone turn that around?
I don’t know.
Maybe I have an idea, though. What I can do, is bring people together locally. Maybe that will make a difference. Maybe there are other people, in other parts of the country, who are doing the same.
Maybe getting people off of the internet, out from in front of their screens, and talking to each other – maybe that will make a difference. I feels, to me, that social media and media in general today is just designed to inflame. That we are all inflamed, and that’s why we don’t hear each other. That’s why people who think differently than us look like the enemy.
Normally, when I write about something that is bothering me, I write until I feel better. In this instance, I don’t know that I will be able to feel better about this. How can I accept my country slowly, painfully tearing itself apart? A country who’s founding motto is “Out of Many, One.” A country that calls itself the United States. A country where every man (and woman) is equal. The land of the free and the home of the brave. Maybe all that great stuff I was told about our country as a kid was hokum.
But that hokum is worth fighting for.
I don’t have easy answers here. Maybe all there is to do is to continue to move forward. To continue to try things, and to see what works. To continue to stand for what I believe our country should stand for.
Right now, that’s all I’ve got.
I’ve been thinking a lot about democracy recently. How, ideally it seems, what democracy allows in a society is the ability for a population to consent to their own governance. Which is really great. Like really great you guys, really this cannot be understated. The opposite of consenting to your own governance is oppression, manipulation, exploitation, disempowerment… and people generally having less say and control over their lives and the direction of their community than they want.
Image made by the very talented Josh Coffy. Check out his stuff here.
Democracy also requires people to engage in a certain level of civility. To really do democracy, you have to be willing to accept that the ideas and beliefs of other people are valid and need to be addressed – even if you think those ideas and beliefs are completely and totally wrong. Because otherwise, how can you work with them? Democracy, as is defined by google, is “a system of government by the whole population.” That means you have to work with the whole population, find common ground, and create agreement so that you can move forward in the best interest of your town, city, community, state and/or country.
I’ve been thinking about democracy a lot because everywhere I look in the news and world today I see either failures of democracy or people deliberately subverting democracy to achieve their political goals. There are a lot of reasons this is foolish, but I think the most important point is that when we erode democracy to reach our goals then our achievements are decidedly temporary. When you do not create consensus, or even agreement, what you get is instant resistance to your policies regardless of how good your policies are. It simply does not matter how right it is, the thing that you want to do. When you force that thing upon people they are going to focus on the negative aspects of it.
A textbook case is the most recent attempt by Mitch McConnell and the GOP to “repeal and replace” Obamacare. Whether you agree with that idea in principle or not, I can tell you with absolute certainty that writing the bill in secret, giving people an hour to read it, and then forcing a vote is not an effective way to create consensus. And what do you know? They couldn’t even get the 52 Senators in their own party to agree on the thing.
Another disparate example is the first post-Saddam Hussein government in Iraq. It seemed to be more interested in subjugating the Sunni parts of the Iraqi population than serving them… and then the Sunni militia Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad became Al-Qaeda in Iraq – which then became ISIS. Many more people have written much more in-depth than I will about ISIS, but making sure a significant portion of your country is not served by your government is a great way to destabilize your country.
“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable” -JFK, according to the internet.
Whether or not JFK actually said that (I’m not going to believe stuff just because it’s been made into memes on the internet), I think that quote is the most prescient lens through which to look at events throughout the world today. Functioning and effective democracy is a means by which we allow for peaceful revolution, as well as peaceful change and peaceful growth. A judiciary based on the rule of law is another. When those institutions are subverted, we increase the likelihood of injustice. And when that injustice is not addressed, eventually people turn to violence.
Not that we should be waiting until people want to take up arms to secure the institutions of our democracy. I value consent, and a functioning democracy ensures that it’s citizens our governed by consent. Maybe not everyone values consent? I don’t know. But for me democracy is important because it is the best means we have to governing with consent. And we should always be working to make sure that whatever our government is has as much consent as possible.
That’s what I’m thinking about these days…
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