Changing “Us”

Image - a dialogue circle made of lego figures
I like the idea of this dialogue circle,
even though I couldn’t help noticing that the Lego people all seem to be presenting as male.

I have been thinking a lot about how to “be part of the solution rather than part of the problem” these days. It really started when I began noticing that my own and others’ tendency on Facebook and other social media is to make quick comments that assume or presuppose that all of one’s readers share the relevant point of view. It’s something like “preaching to the choir” or muttering “ain’t it awful” – it’s expressive, and doing it may help me feel that I’m part of something, part of a group, an “us.” It doesn’t seem particularly helpful, though. If “the problem” is polarization, or inability to communicate or to regard certain “others” as quite as valuably human as ourselves, this behavior feels more like part of perpetuating that problem than part of solving it.

In the same vein, it has been dawning on me that “Donald Trump” is not “the problem.” I think Donald Trump being the official nominee of a major party and an actual candidate is a problem; I am not going to vote for him, and I hope more people vote against him than for him; I anticipate disaster if he becomes the President of the United States. [It seems pointless to keep my views on that subject to myself here – my demographic speaks loud and clear.] But Donald Trump is not “the” problem. His political success is undoubtedly a symptom of “the” problem. He has undoubtedly exploited “the” problem; and perhaps he has revealed the very existence of “the” problem to some people. But he didn’t create it, and it doesn’t begin and end with him. Whether or not he wins the presidential election of 2016, “the” problem he reveals and exploits and that his candidacy is a symptom of and a response to will still be with us.

That is what has me thinking. From my perspective, this problem, whatever it “is” and however it might be described, needs to be solved. As Abraham Lincoln said a long time ago, and as Jesus said even before that, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” We are not facing civil war, thank goodness – at least, I don’t think we are. But it seems to me that we are facing profound challenges to the resilience and sustainability of our public institutions that stem from our various communities’ inability to pursue and resolve conflict in humane and productive ways.

How that situation is to be improved is far from obvious to me. But it is becoming more and more clear to me that whatever I have been doing for the last 20 years or so has not contributed much, or perhaps anything, to its solution.

It’s not that I’ve been entirely irresponsible or unproductive. I’ve gone to school, I’ve worked in education, I’ve taught college students, I’ve worked for the church, I’ve been an active member of a progressive congregation. I’m not saying I haven’t done anything. I think there’s a decent argument that I’ve been reasonably, or at least conventionally, responsible in my choices and activities.

But I don’t see how it can have been part of the “solution” to the crisis or crises we find ourselves in at present, rather than being part of the problem. I’m acutely aware these days that I don’t spend time around … some people. I hang out with people I like and get along with, people who share my views and my perspective, who are about as educated and liberal as I am. I don’t spend much [any?] time with people who think a lot differently. When I do hang out with people who have different attitudes and beliefs of a certain kind, people who would would vote differently or make political contributions to a different side or show up at different demonstrations, we avoid those topics. And when we don’t avoid those topics due to some lapse of caution, when they actually come up and we actually touch on our differences, we don’t begin to know how to deal with them.

For one thing, I don’t have talking points at my fingertips. I seldom feel really “well-informed,” at least not in a detailed way. But then, I don’t feel the differences are about information, ultimately; they feel more about something else: perspective, life experience, world view, values, commitments, “web of belief,” something that comprehensive. I know there’s little chance of anyone persuading me, for instance, that institutional and paradigmatic racism isn’t at the root of white police officers killing black men. I have a whole well-integrated framework of knowledge about the world, human beings, how people think and behave, and how the world works that supports that conviction; to me, it’s obviously true. I don’t imagine I have a much better chance of shifting someone else from their deeply-held, well-integrated framework of knowledge about the world and human beings and “how things are” and “why things are that way” that is profoundly different from mine.

Solving this communication impasse may not solve “the” problem we face – if, indeed, we face a “the” problem, rather than several, interlocking, mutually reinforcing problems. But one thing it might accomplish would be to prevent me from yielding to the temptation to feel and think that “those Trump supporters” are “the” problem. And perhaps to encourage “those Trump supporters” to back off on feeling and thinking that “those gay feminist ‘politically correct’ ‘libtards’” are “the” problem. Because as long as we are identifying one another as “the” problem, we are ignoring whatever the problem is that actually faces “us,” that is, the “us” to which all of us, different as we are, belong.

[The image came from an interesting, accessible Wikiversity treatment of dialogue, which seems entirely relevant.]

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