I write a lot on this blog about spiritual, personal and psychological matters, but I also discuss much more controversial fare, such as terrorism, climate change (e.g. The “Science” In “Climate Science”) and gun control (e.g. Talking About Guns). Over the last couple of years I have found myself moving from a place of taking positions and expressing opinions to one of bearing witness and asking questions. I don’t do this perfectly, for sure, and occasionally the reflection I ask of the reader is masked under an assertion (for example We Are Fueling Terrorism). But I am increasingly finding this is where I belong, and I am also finding it a far more interesting and gratifying position. It is one from which I can participate in open conversation rather than find myself on one side of an ideological chasm; it is a place from which I can learn and grow; and it is a place from which I can engage with a much broader group of people. Not only do I think this a natural outgrowth of how I approach my work, I think that it actually is my work.
The original grounding of this blog was my interfaith experience, and specifically the mission of creating a safe space for people of different faiths and traditions to come together and talk, to get to know each other as people, and to develop respect for each other’s disparate beliefs, traditions and cultures. I have taken that mission much more broadly and want this platform to open up intimacy, trust, and safety for conversations not just about faith and culture but about race, guns, terrorism, climate change and much more. It is a wonderful project and I am finding it extremely rewarding.
But I have a problem.
I wrote about this in my New Business Mindset post the other day, You’re Wrong…You’re Stupid, but I’ve continued to struggle with this issue. No matter how hard I try to hold the middle ground, to avoid indulging in judgment or prejudice, there are a small number of people who stridently assert that I have “checked my intelligence at the door”, “drunk the Kool-Aid” and am “choosing to ignore incontrovertible facts”. At the risk of over-categorizing, these people tend to be strongly independent; proudly self-identified as Republicans; intelligent and extensively (though perhaps not broadly) read. So I have a problem. Actually I have two problems:
- How should I receive the comments that I am being brainwashed and am ignoring incontrovertible evidence (which I generally do read and find interesting but not incontrovertible)? How should I receive criticism that I am not engaging in serious conversation but advocating a polarized opinion? Maybe it should be easy to brush off such comments as the rantings of radicals, but to do so would miss the mission that I have established in at least two ways:
- It is important to me that I seriously listen to the views of all, and don’t exclude anyone based on my own prejudice. If someone tells me I’m dismissing their views based on prejudice, am I really doing so?
- I am working towards a safe forum for all. If certain people feel excluded, I have failed to make it safe for them.
Which leads to the second problem:
- How can I engage in conversation with these people? I think it important that I make an effort, but I find it hard. If people feel excluded from the public discussion, then I have already failed – whether or not I am able to engage in private (which I have not yet succeeded in meaningfully doing). And if they show up to the public forum (e.g. on facebook) and speak in tones that are heard as aggressive, intolerant, and rude, then it ceases to be a safe place for others.
I have been struggling with this for some time. I have learned that holding the middle ground can be really difficult and unpopular all around. For example I remember my dear friend Audrey Galex protesting for peace in Palestine. She would not hold out for Israel, American Jews, or Palestinians, but stood beside all demonstrations with her own placard for peace. She received great admiration from those who understood what she was doing, but received sleights and insults from Palestinian and Jewish protesters alike. And it seems pretty clear that there will always be outliers to the conversation who have a tendency to crash in and make a lot of rude noise. (It would be a rather interesting form of prejudice on my part to assume that well educated, successful, and articulate folk don’t behave this way.) So I will always have to be vigilant if I am to keep the discussion safe, and if I am to make sure that I remain properly centered. But I don’t know how, with confidence, to identify when someone is such an outlier and is not ready to join a serious conversation of exploration.
But my problem goes beyond this. Sure, I receive prejudiced comments from folk who would generally be characterized (and would self-identify) as “liberal”, but they tend to be goofy and inoffensive. I am troubled that all of real intolerance about what I say comes from folk who openly self-identify with what I see described as a traditional slate of right-wing Republican values (e.g. that climate change is a hoax). Not all of those holding these views are stridently intolerant of my work and I do have interesting conversations with several, but I suspect that the more intolerant views represent a large number of Americans; can there really be this many outliers or is my quest to find the middle ground failing? In the honest spirit of self inquiry of my last couple of posts, what is my role in this inability to converse? How is it that I appear prejudiced? Maybe I really am? How should I respond?
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