Maybe It Takes Getting to Know One Another

“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.

‘MERICA!

Reuniting the US sounds like a Herculean task

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.

Abortion Doesn’t Have to Divide Us

I think there is a foreseeable future in which the issue of abortion does not divide people and determine elections. That doesn’t mean I think that people are going to stop arguing about whether or not abortion should be legal. At least not in the US, not in my lifetime. But it does not need to continue to be the political football that it is.

What got me thinking about this was this piece on what it was like before abortion was legal in all 50 states. It was pretty harrowing to read what women who felt that they needed abortions had to go through before abortion was legal. Then, a friend of mine commented on it:

Friend: “I take responsibility for all I do. I break it I buy it. I don’t see a difference in having sex without condoms or other controls. Don’t play the game unless you can live with the outcome. Its still killing a child no matter how they want to paint it. When my wife said she was pregnant and asked what we should do I said..have a baby..I was out of work..she had a low paying job and we struggled..I sold things to make ends meet. We used WIC for a short time..but we didn’t kill our baby because it cramped our life style or it was the wrong time..bullshit excuses..grow up. Take responsibility for your actions and their outcomes.”

I responded: “I get wanting people to take responsibility for their actions, but I also think illegalizing abortion will take us back to the world described above…” (above being in the article)

A lot of people, like my friend, like to couch their view of abortion in the language of personal responsibility. But a child is more responsibility than one person can bear. As a father, I can tell you that having a child really is more responsibility than two people can bear without a lot of support. Every woman who is pregnant has to make a judgement call about whether or not the community around her will support her in raising her child. This isn’t something that the pregnant woman will necessarily have thought of before. I would hazard a guess that most people don’t think about it. At least in our culture, that seems to prize independence, I wonder how many people think about their wider community when they are considering having a baby. How should people even begin to think about that? But I’m getting off on a tangent…

My friend, and many other people, argue that if you can’t live with the consequences you shouldn’t do the deed. That’s fine as an argument, but we aren’t going to be illegalizing unprotected sex. Nor are we going to be making a law that says someone can only have unprotected sex if they want to have a kid. People are well within their rights to have unprotected sex if they choose to. So sure, you can tell people that they shouldn’t have unprotected sex if they aren’t ready to have a kid – but saying that isn’t going to stop anyone from having sex, nor is it a substitute for policy. Ultimately I’m not sure what good it does to even make that argument.

I suspected that the reason most women have an abortion is because the logistics aren’t lining up for them. So I googled, and literally the first relevant response backed up my suspicion. 86% of respondents in the most recent study I found cited reasons for getting their abortion that I would categorize as logistical: unready, can’t afford baby now, has all the children she wanted or all children are grown, has problems with relationship or wants to avoid single parenthood, is too immature or young to have a child, would interfere with education plans/would interfere with career plans.

This makes me think that we’ve been focusing on what divides us instead of what can unite us. Sure, whether or not abortion should be legal is a thing that divides our population. But making sure that pregnant women have the support they need to confidently give birth is a completely different conversation that does not have to divide us. That is simply a question of logistics. What logistics would make a difference for people who would, in today’s world, consider abortion? Enough maternity and paternity leave, robust adoption and foster programs, affordable day care and affordable medical coverage – I’m just brainstorming here, but these are what come to mind. I imagine that those of you reading this can come up with more good ideas as well.

If it is indeed roughly accurate that 86% of abortions in the US in a given year are due to pregnant women not feeling like they can get the support they will need (don’t take my word for it, I just did a cursory review of one study)… then we’ve been having the wrong conversation this whole time. The primary question is not “should abortion be legal?” but “how do we support women who are pregnant?”

Whether or not abortion is legal isn’t going to change the demand for abortion. But I do think we have to consider the role of government policy and/or private institutions in a woman’s calculus when she is choosing to have a baby or not. I think that if we address this as a society, we can look towards a future when the issue of abortion is actually in the rearview mirror. When we can read about it in history class, instead of in blaring headlines in the news feed of our choice.

Our Views Have Been Weaponized. Or, What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Immigration

In America we don’t actually talk about immigration, really. We talk about loosening immigration or tightening it. We talk about where immigrants should or shouldn’t be from. Or what kind of people they should or shouldn’t be. A conversation about immigration would be much different than the conversation we are having.

If we were going to have a real conversation about immigration we would start by answering the question of; how many immigrants do we want at once? What is the ideal mix of new and old residents that preserves the original culture while being enriched by the culture of the immigrants? How do we ensure that immigrants enmesh themselves in our society instead of forming their own little enclaves of like-minded people and not interacting with the culture as a whole? Are there certain kinds of people that we want to actually recruit to come to this country? Doctors, for instance? Temporary workers? Is there a percentage of the overall number that we want to reserve for refugees?

So that’s step one, determine how many immigrants we want in our country at once. Have a nationwide conversation to get some sort of agreement around that. For the purposes of this post, I’m going to choose that America can manage an immigrant population of ten percent. I don’t know what an actual ideal number would be, but ten percent makes the math easy. Ten percent of our current population, according to the population estimate on Wikipedia, would be 32 million people. But it probably takes more than 1 year for someone to acclimatize to living in America, to “become American.” Let’s say it takes an adult five years. We divide our 32 million by five and get: six million, four hundred thousand people.

So, let’s imagine that we decide 6.4 million people can immigrate to the country each year. The next question is, how long do we want it to take for someone to get approved to immigrate to the US? The actual immigration process rarely gets the coverage it deserves in this country – but it seems that an underreported issue is that the reason we have so many illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central & South America is due to the insanely long wait times for residents of those regions to get into our country legally (check out this post to get started on your research). If you have to choose between being able to feed yourself and your family, or waiting to get into our country legally, well I don’t really begrudge anyone for breaking the law in those circumstances. Once we pick a timeframe that someone has to wait (say, a month), then we staff the US Citizenship and Immigration Services to meet the demand.

There are a few more questions to answer. Are there certain types of people we want to weed out of the immigration process? Serial killers, serial rapists, people who habitually commit crimes and aren’t going to change with a change of scenery, people who are going to blow stuff or people up…. Then, do we have reliable ways of identifying those people and removing them from the immigration pool? If not, can we create ways to do that? I personally think that if we haven’t developed means to do that, it is well within our capabilities. If you don’t think so, I would assert that you aren’t talking to the right people.

So that’s a framework. Develop some consensus around answers to those questions, and in this country we will be well on our way to winding down immigration as the hot button topic that it is today.

I’m going to assert something here, something that may sound like a bit of a stretch but that I think is worth considering. Or, it maybe old news to everyone reading this. I really am not going to be able to tell until I post this and see how you all respond: If the politicians/political parties/pundits/”news” outlets that you follow are not working to answer the questions above, they’re not interested in actually resolving anything for this country. Politicians are using the fact that you are for or against open immigration as a rallying cry, to easily and effectively motivate you and people like you to take action. The great majority of politicians are mediocre at best, and don’t have great speeches that they can pull out of their back pocket. So they use political footballs like immigration to get people excited about them running for or staying in office. The pundits and media use your passion about issues, like immigration, to generate clicks and views. The more they inflame people on both sides the better their ratings are. Issues that become political footballs are divisive, so as politicians drive supporters to them, they are also driving detractors away and widening divisions in our country. But in the short term, people get elected by using political footballs. That’s why they stick around. This is why everyone keeps talking about immigration, but rarely do people talk about specifics.

As soon as you start talking about specifics, you start talking about things that actually affect people’s lives. Hopefully I’m not losing too many of you here with this metaphor, but our political footballs are about scoring points. Not about actually affecting people’s lives. It feels good to “score one for the immigration team” to beat the “anti-immigrants.” Or vice versa. They are about winning and losing – yet not about people who actually win and lose because a policy has been enacted – winning and losing for your ideological team.

So am I saying that we could solve all the world’s problems if we were just able to give up beating the other guy that’s different than us?

Well yes, apparently I am…

I guess the important distinction here, after writing all of this, is that it’s time to call out our leaders on this behavior. It’s time to say “hey, if you were really motivated to resolve this you wouldn’t be talking about Muslims or sanctuary cities or immigrants stealing our jobs. You would be talking about how many immigrants we want, how we make sure they contribute to society, and how to make sure people aren’t foregoing the immigration process because they simply can’t wait through it.” Or instead of asking “how are you going to make ‘what we think’ into the law of the land?” asking “how are you going to lead our people to a solution that will work for a large majority of the population?” Or however you want to say it. Don’t use my words, use your own. To be fair to our politicians, and most people who are talking about the issues in general, is that most probably don’t realize that how they are talking about these issues simply perpetuates them. They don’t realize that by taking a side in the fight they simply further entrench both sides. So I suggest… be nice when you’re calling people out on this stuff?

In any group of people there are always going to be interests that pull people into conflict and interests that drive people apart. A capable leader is someone who gets people’s interests aligned where possible, and gets them out of conflict when alignment isn’t possible. It is not an easy thing to do – but it is the opposite of what our elected representatives and our media have been doing. They have been inflaming our differences and driving us apart for political expediency. Because conflict is more invigorating and motivating in the short term than resolution. Nevermind that constant conflict has a negative effect on our country, and on the ties that bind us together as a people. Nevermind that it affects everyone in their daily lives whether they notice it or not. Nevermind that the issues that we have been wrestling with for years remain unresolved, and that we are not moving on to new challenges as a people.

My friends, our views have been weaponized. They are being used against us.

 

PS: I would love if there was research on the effects of constant “perceived conflict” have on people within a society. If you are aware of any research like that, please let me know.

PPS: Until I get a graphic designer to work with me for my posts, they are going to continue to feature pictures of my animals. I hope you like the unrelated sleepy cat 🙂