Just yesterday at lunch a couple of wonderful individuals, one a dear friend, told me they can’t talk to people who are going to vote for Donald Trump. My lunch companions are loving, intelligent, open-minded people who act as great forces for good in the world. Both are doing wonderful work to encourage inclusion and personal growth, education and awareness, peace and harmony. But still they say they can’t talk to Trump supporters, that “these people are racist and bigoted and intolerant. We have nothing in common.”
But polls suggest that Trump voters number 30-45% of the population. Can our society really be so divided that such wonderful people are unable to talk to over a third of the population?
This reminds me of another challenge: I still regularly bump into people who say they don’t know a Muslim or a refugee and are scared of both. Those who have never been exposed in a significant way to cultures and faiths outside the dominant US culture. This division and lack of conversation is perhaps the greatest challenge of our time. In today’s piece I explore this issue and offer up five simple things you might do to start to become part of the solution.
What Is The Problem?
It’s easy to identify the person you can’t talk to as the problem. It’s easy to say that they have beliefs incompatible with your society. It’s easy to close them out amidst assumptions and generalizations. Sometimes we all wish the world were like this. It can be really difficult to accommodate those not like you, particularly if you don’t know them, doubly so if they are strident or you find them unpleasant. If you go down this path you may make your life more comfortable in the short term, but as you keep going you play into a deeper and more insidious problem.
The real problem is simply the lack of discussion, the breakdown in conversation.
Political and social extremes have become more polarized and continue to push even further apart due to one simple factor: fear. As a general matter this fear is based on ignorance – lack of knowledge of the other. It manifests on the one hand as racism and as Islamophobia, and on the other extreme as maybe an impractical idealism and an intolerance of ignorance. It manifests on the one hand as casting the net too broadly and outlawing Islam, and on the other as being unwilling to see the Islamist terrorist as a religious fanatic and a real face of Islam (I wrote last week in Promoting Moderate Islam: How To Respond to Terrorism and Suppression). It manifests as an inability to accept that some people are too scared to take the risk of opening their eyes to look.
In the face of this fear and prejudice, voices have been raised on both sides and the loudest and most attractive have been the intolerant, angry voices from the extremes that have promised overly-simple solutions: “send them home”; “let’s all just love each other”. The conversation – such as it was – has diminished until all that is left are sound bites, intolerance and threats.
The middle ground has been silenced. And the middle ground comprises a very large group of people. It is probably a majority, certainly larger than the extremes on either end. And it likely includes you.
You want to do something, but you are also scared. And your fear is making you look around for a safe harbor. As you hear the rhetoric, your fear grows. You find yourself pulled into one polarized sphere or the other, either rejecting “those who will vote for Trump” or moving away from all the scary “minority” groups: Muslims, immigrants, refugees, and the poor. You think you are rejecting hate and moving to safety, but you are becoming polarized, becoming part of the problem.
It Is Important To Have The Conversation
Edmund Burke once wrote, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
When society is working well there is conversation in the political middle. We are talking to each other, recognizing common goals – a safer world for our children, a happier world and a more prosperous world. We recognize that we have different priorities and methods, even differences in ideals and faith, but fundamentally we see that in many important areas we have common ground. The common ground is the starting place for conversation, and is that place to which we return when things get tough. It is the place where we recognize shared humanity and where we find that by working together we can accomplish far more. It is the birth place of hope and of getting to know each other and of the compromise that is so important to the proper functioning of a nation.
If you give in to fear and allow spiteful and ignorant political rhetoric to drive you out of the public square, you join the ranks of the good people who do nothing. You allow a gap to open up, and by your silence you facilitate it expanding into a chasm. Before you know it there will be no middle ground, just the extremes, and by your silence and inaction you will have assigned yourself to one of them. A nation divided against itself in this way can only collapse into infighting and ultimately civil war.
If you allow yourself to be cowed by hate and prejudice, if you allow yourself to believe you cannot talk with those who think differently than you, then you become part of the problem.
What Kind Of World Do We Really Want For Our Children
In recent conversations, Turkish friends have shared with me perhaps the greatest tragedy of the current political situation and of the behavior of Erdogan against all associated with Fetulah Gulen: it is the long term effect of dividing a nation against itself. This happened within Nazi Germany, it happened in colonial African nations, and it happened during the period of slavery and segregation in the US. But what is so terrifying about Turkey today, about Rwanda and Burundi, about Yugoslavia during its civil war and fragmentation, is how easy it is to create division, suspicion and hatred, and of how long it can take to heal. What is terrifying is that in the short term we can inflict damage that is multi-generational.
The Southern Poverty Law Center keeps track of what it calls “extremist groups”. We may differ on the inclusion or exclusion of specific organizations, but the broad trends seem pretty stark: during the years of George W. Bush’s presidency the number of such organizations bounced between 130 and 175, but in the years since it has leapt. In 2012 it reached 1,380, and while it has since fallen a little, it was still 988 at the end of 2015.
What kind of world do we want for our children?
Violence and crime are part of human nature, and while we would all like less of it, our children are going to see that. But hate and prejudice? Intolerance? Talk to a school teacher in a minority school and they’ll tell you the experiences and fears of the kids they teach. They’ll tell you of children who fear they are going to be sent out of the country – or perhaps more traumatically that their parents will be sent away. This obviously relates to children of Muslim parents and of refugee parents, but it also relates to Latino and Latina children. The teachers will tell you of children who are the victims of hateful comments and of violence in grocery stores, while playing school sports, while just walking down the streets. They will tell you of children who feel unsafe and unwanted and who experience American society as hostile to them, to their family, to their entire culture. And they will tell you the stories of the children who treat minorities with contempt and hatred, who bring prejudice and violence, arrogance and anger to the school. They will tell you of a generation of parents educating their children in fear, intolerance, and separation.
Is this really the world we want to create for our children?
Five Things You Can Do To Help
The problem is not just that we don’t know each other, it’s that we feel we don’t have to. Maybe even that we are safer if we don’t try to. We live in our safe spaces and don’t talk to each other. But hopefully you are persuaded that you need to change this, that you need to start to have more challenging conversations. Here are some suggestions on how you might go about this.
- Go to where “the other” is at home: If you want to talk to someone not like you, then recognize they likely see you as “not like them” too, and this may be more scary for them than it is for you. So don’t ask too much, and be willing to make yourself uncomfortable. Be willing to go to their safe space and not to demand that they come to yours. For example, if you want to talk to a Muslim, then the best way may be to a mosque or to a marketplace in a dominantly Muslim community. This might be too difficult at first, which we’ll discuss below. Similarly if you want to talk to a Trump supporter, don’t expect them to come to your liberal group meeting and be completely overwhelmed by what he or she sees as a scary and hostile environment; go to where they live, to where they spend time.
- Start small:If you’re scared of Muslims or Trump supporters, if you don’t know how to start a conversation, then don’t begin with a radical Muslim cleric or Donald Trump himself; start small. Most of the people you include in that large group of “other” are comfortably in the middle ground. They want the conversation just as much as you do and want to know you just as much as you want to know them. But they are just scared. If you help them to feel safe, they’ll jump right in and you’ll find you have a lot of fun! But just as you should not ask them to do something unsafe, you don’t need to do anything too unsafe for you. If going to a mosque to meet a Muslim is too hard, then don’t do it; and if going to a Trump rally feels scary, then don’t go there either. Use your friends and business acquaintances and congregational leaders to help you find someone to talk to who will be accessible and open, and invite them to name the meeting place. Or write to me and I’ll help you too!
- Get to know the other as people first…and save politics and religion till later: This is an important and easily overlooked point. It has become normal to identify people by what they believe and by our assumptions about what that means. When you identify someone as Muslim or Christian, Democrat or Republican, you may assume you know what that means and who they are, but beliefs are heavily nuanced and the spectrum is huge. What we all have in common is that underneath all this we are children and parents, lovers and friends, brothers and sisters. We have hopes and dreams and fears. We have successes and failures. So when you first start talking to someone, share stories of your hopes and fears. Be willing to make yourself vulnerable and talk of personal grief or failure. You’ll be amazed at the connections you can make. And once you really know each other, you’ll find that your beliefs matter far less.
- Be the change you want in the world: This is one of my favorite mantras from Gandhi. If you wish society were not so divided, then be the bridge that brings it together; if you wished people talked more to those not like them, then invest of yourself in having such conversations; if you wished there were less hate in the world, then show great love in everything you do – especially towards those who would hate you.
- Think and act long term: Hate and anger flare up quickly, but the foundations for the kind of world you want take time and slow, deliberate efforts to build. They require investing the time to really get to know each other, to build friendships and trust across divides. So don’t think that you can have a couple of conversations and be done: recognize that if you want to close the chasm, you will need to redirect your life and make a commitment to invest in this on a long term basis. Break bread together; hold community conversations on race and religion; engage with others in feeding the hungry and helping the homeless. But be brutally honest with yourself, too. You may think this is what you are doing, but if you are excluding others from your table, you are not fully doing the work. For example, if you are a liberal-minded group but there are no Trump supporters at the table, you are not yet dong what you need to do. If it is not uncomfortable for you, you likely are not making progress.
These are difficult conversations to have, but over time the difficulty becomes natural and an important part of who you are. You had invited black voices to a conversation about racism, but you come to recognize that after generations of being ignored, those voices had not really been speaking up. You come to recognize that you had no Latino voices at the table, and your eyes open up to a completely new vista of prejudice, oppression and racism. You notice that you have no Asian or Native American voices at the table. As you stretch yourself you become better at the conversation, you build stronger community that has room for everyone, and as this community becomes stronger and larger, there is less room for hate and anger in the world.