Race and Kindness

Two subjects seem to collide regularly in my thinking as of late: race and kindness. While it goes without saying that they aren’t mutually exclusive, they do seem to be, as activities go, a couple of things we struggle doing well in our society. Dissing dying senators and black teens slammed to the floor in Waffle Houses made for a just a minute sample of yesterday’s Twitter feed alone, with much collateral tweeting. It’s enough to clog the soul. I’m not interested in discussing all the nuance of individual situations here because that’s not my point. What I am trying to convey is that we have a problem with kindness in our society, or, I should say, a lack of kindness, and that we have an ongoing issue with race in our society, and that they are interrelated.

One doesn’t have to disagree with President Trump to at least nod to the consideration that much of his rhetoric is derogatory, ad hominem, and generally insulting. And one doesn’t have to spend more than five minutes on social media to see egregious examples of clashing, divergent ideas of power and race in America, regardless of what one thinks the solution should be.

Today, I listened to a podcast from On Being with Krista Tippett. This particular episode was an interview with John A. Powell, entitled, Opening to the Question of Belonging, and it was pervasively good. What I mean is, it seeped into my bones as I listened because Powell did what all really profound public intellectuals do, he synthesized into concise, coherent language the soul-clogging thought and emotional twisting I mentioned above. He talked about our most divisive social issue in the kindest way, breaking down the science of implicit bias, and how we as a society can step on the path to a new understanding of one another. I am now rabidly consuming other talks of his, as well as reading his book, Racing to Justice.

The salient observation here is that kindness –dare I say, love — towards all exuded from Powell man as he leaned firmly on this potentially explosive hot button. It made me long for more public leaders, in thought, politics, or otherwise, who unite with their speech, rather than agitate and divide. And it gave me courage towards examining my own implicit biases.

I want to be someone who fosters belonging.

Bang! Your argument is dead.

I can’t believe I’m doing this. I’m writing about guns. I know almost zero about guns, except to say that everyone I have ever known who owned guns acted responsibly with them. I grew up in a rural, mostly farming town, where most of my friends and neighbors hunted. We had off from school for the first day of hunting season. My friends took care of their guns, were trained on how to use their guns by responsible adults, and were good, conscientious hunters. An ex-girlfriend’s father would go sit in his tree stand and take notes – without his gun – before he ever shot a deer. Total respect.

While I was fascinated by guns, I never truly liked them. I didn’t think they were bad, I just didn’t care for the idea of hunting and killing animals. No judgment, because I happily ate venison supplied by those who did. It just wasn’t my thing.

Watching the debate over “gun control” unfold after the horrific and too many to mention school shootings, is difficult on many fronts. The arguments emanating from those who have suffered are compelling. You have to have a calloused soul to not be moved by their loss, whether or not you agree with their proposed solutions to mass school shootings. However, I believe that many of us who desire a change in how Americans purchase and own guns have started the debate from a place of weakness, because we give away our lack of understanding before we ever engage those whom we seek to persuade. We often don’t treat gun owners as equals, and we similarly don’t care whether or not they have well thought out, sound arguments. They do.

First, let’s stop saying some things. Phrases like “guns are only designed to kill.” They aren’t. Some are designed for sport. Some are designed for hunting. Some are designed for personal protection. Some are designed for military use. Killing is one thing guns can be used for, but not the only thing. Better to say, “it’s the killing with guns that really bothers us.” That’s more honest, and a place from which most responsible gun owners would be glad to step out with us in conversation.

We should drop the term, “assault rifle,” because it makes us sound uneducated about the “killing with guns that really bothers” us. The “AR” in AR-15 stands for Armalite, the original manufacturer of the gun. Are guns like the AR-15 used in war? Yes. We just shouldn’t say “assault rifle,” because we will be dismissed by people who have been regularly and vehemently attacked by many who know very little about what they are talking about beyond how they feel about “the killing with guns.”

Regarding the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution, let’s not easily dismiss it as antiquated. It wasn’t written by a bunch of yahoos, but by the kind of people who get their faces carved into mountains. These were leaders who were hyper-aware of the tyranny of military-enforced governance. “Don’t tread on me!” To be wary of an illiberal government is not unfounded. Let’s respect that concern. We should argue from a place of mutual respect for the laws, documents, and individuals that shaped the nation we are today, imperfect as it may be.

Finally, consider this:

“One factory preset of the human mind is a tendency to assume that our models of reality are identical to reality itself.” – Roger L. Martin (The Opposable Mind)

Strongly held convictions and deeply felt emotions are no substitute for nuanced, thoughtful, evidence-based positions. These positions are never arrived at in a vacuum, much less an echo chamber. We must speak with people with whom we disagree, listen to them, and reflect back to them what we hear them saying until they tell us that we understand them. In the case at hand, if we believe lives are at stake, then getting it right is worth the time and relational commitment required.


A Resistance of Persistent Kindness

“If I’ve got my timings right, and clearly I have…this is Christmas 1914, and the Human Miracle is about to happen – the Christmas Armistice. Never happened again, any war, anywhere, but one day, one Christmas a very long time ago, everyone just put down their weapons and started to sing. Everybody just stopped. Everyone…was just kind.”

~The Doctor (Doctor Who “2017 Christmas Special”)

If you’re not familiar with the series, The Doctor is an alien time traveler who regularly interacts with humanity in Earth-saving, universe preserving ways. In the episode mentioned above, he was tasked by future humanity to return a British officer to a WWI battle, from which he was mistakenly taken, so that the officer could die at the hands of a German soldier who was about to shoot him. The Doctor, who possesses a vast storehouse of wisdom and knowledge amassed over his 2,000 year lifetime, acts on gut instinct and returns the officer at the very moment the German troops begin to sing “Stille Nacht,” initiating one of the most remarkably beautiful moments in human history, the Christmas Armistice, thus sparing the British officer’s life.

How is possible that these warring factions, one bent on overthrowing the other, could find such a moment of peace? How is it possible that these men lowered their arms, crossed no man’s land, and embraced? Shared humanity. Just thinking about that moment, as it really happened or as depicted in Doctor Who, leaves me in tears. Even as I type this, my eyes are filled.

So, what has happened to us on the battlefield of the internet, where fellow humans with whom we disagree are reduced to something less than human? My particular favorite Facebookism is when we refer to someone as a “piece of shit.” What does that actually accomplish? I believe the primary thing it does is diminish another’s intrinsic worth, removing any compelling reason to listen to them, learn from them, or allow them to edit us in any way. There are copious studies on tribalism, confirmation bias, etc., that shed light on these behaviors. What I am talking about here, though, is simple, basic, human kindness. The lack of it is killing us.

Many bemoan the ills of social media, how it ruins discourse. I’m not sure I buy it. The devaluing of another human being is a moral action, not a technological byproduct. Yes, impersonal settings (read, not in the same room with only text and images to express sometimes complex and nuanced ideas) make it easier to lose civility, but let’s be real. We would never allow our children to act the way we grownups do on social media, no matter what the setting. In a society that teaches tolerance and acceptance on a grand scale, in public practice, we no longer value kindness the way we once did. How ironic that we show the least tolerance in the very venues we use to promote it.

Now, before you accuse me of longing for the good old days, I fully acknowledge that pride, bigotry, hate, and dismissiveness of those with whom we disagree have all been around since humans have. But, it seems that there are so few left who will cross no man’s land, who will “put down their weapons and…sing,” who will just be kind. Why? My guess is that we are scared. Scared to be wrong, scared to change, scared to lose power, scared to go first.

What is gained by putting down our verbal weapons, by leaving our trenches, by singing songs, by being kind? Recovered humanity. And doing those things is essential to peace, public service, and productive debate. In fact, it’s essential to everything.

Immediately, some will read this and say, “But the [insert the favorite object of your ire here] really is a P.O.S for saying or doing such and such.” No. No, they’re not. They are people who say and/or do things that we disagree with, or that we may even find reprehensible. Don’t devalue them. Especially don’t devalue the one who you are inclined to hate. In doing so, you levy judgment in a way that, if levied on you, would hurt unfairly, because you know that you are more than your worst behavior. Sometimes, we are hardest on others when we recognize our own failures in them, all the while not accepting that they are more than the sum of their most egregious sins, acceptance we offer ourselves much more freely.

So, should we stop calling out what is wrong? No. Should we let bad or criminal behavior go unnoticed? Of course not. But when we engage in discourse with other people over these issues, we must keep their humanity in view at all times, even if they don’t do it for us.

In my faith tradition, one gospel writer notes that as Jesus Christ was being nailed to a cross in a public execution, he uttered these words, “Forgive them, Father. They don’t know what they’re doing.” He was kind to the people who were killing him. It makes me think of all the times I was unkind to those who were acting out of their own pain or confusion towards me. And it makes me think, too, of all the people who name Jesus as Lord but then spend their time crucifying everyone who they don’t like or agree with. That is worthy of a separate post.

By and large, people with whom we disagree aren’t trying to kill us. In all seriousness, though, when we devalue others as to something less than human, that is essentially what we are doing. When a politician is labeled a piece of shit because he denies climate change, or when he degrades women by his words and actions, we kill him. When a professional athlete is labeled a piece of shit because he protests police brutality against African Americans by kneeling during the national anthem, we kill him. When we launch ad hominem attacks on individuals with whom we disagree, we are dehumanizing. We are killing them. Killing them.

My views (political, cultural, religious, etc.) have evolved, morphed, and even reversed in some cases, all because people valued my humanity while challenging my beliefs, assumptions, tribalism, prejudice, bigotry, you name it. I am so grateful for this. In some cases, my views remained the same, yet I was equipped to articulate them better because of the exchange. In others, I opened gateways of thought for them. In all cases, they shied away from labels, ideological identification, and, above all, anger. They were kind. And the peace that kindness imported to my mind and soul allowed me to objectively assess the topic at hand.

For the sake of our shared humanity, it’s time to raise the level of our public discourse. We must resist with persistent kindness the temptation to obliterate our fellow humans. I kindly welcome opposing viewpoints.



What are we worth to each other?

The juxtaposition of sublime and ridiculous in our media slathered culture is almost too much to bear, even when contemplated for just a moment. Daily on Facebook, we see videos of dogs sitting on cats sandwiched between the latest Kellyanne Conway memes and TrumpCare discussions. (You can decide which of these is sublime and which is ridiculous, by the way. I’m a big fan of canines dominating felines, so you know where I stand.) In the midst of this humorous and horrific hodgepodge, the following was posted, and it revived a dormant man-crush of mine.

In this young man’s speech, I was reminded of his grandfather:

“When you teach a man to hate and fear his brother, when you teach that he is a lesser man because of his color or his beliefs or the policies he pursues, when you teach that those who differ from you threaten your freedom or your job or your family, then you also learn to confront others not as fellow citizens but as enemies – to be met not with cooperation but with conquest, to be subjugated and mastered.

We learn, at the last, to look at our brothers as aliens, men with whom we share a city, but not a community, men bound to us in common dwelling, but not in common effort. We learn to share only a common fear – only a common desire to retreat from each other – only a common impulse to meet disagreement with force. For all this there are no final answers.

Yet we know what we must do. It is to achieve true justice among our fellow citizens. The question is now what programs we should seek to enact. The question is whether we can find in our own midst and in our own hearts that leadership of human purpose that will recognize the terrible truths of our existence.” – Robert F. Kennedy

Kennedy the elder delivered these words on April 5, 1968, the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed. I’ve written about RFK before here, and he is worth revisiting. You would think that this man’s heart, so shaped and shattered by grief, would be reduced to spewing scornful wrath from his public pulpit. Instead, in measured tones, he waded deep into honest assessment, humbly dispensed wise counsel, and embraced higher ideals.

What strikes me is the timeless nature of his words. Consider the tone and tenor of our current public discourse, as witnessed in the deluge of social media postings: hate and fear of our fellow humans; diminishment of others for their race, beliefs, or political leanings; worst-case scenarios over job losses and violent immigrants. It all makes it sound as if RFK was looking over my shoulder as I was scrolling Facebook this morning.

With all due respect, some of the smartest, most gifted friends I have are also the most vitriolic. They somehow see those they disagree with as sub-human. They post or share these types of things:

  • A pro athlete doesn’t stand for the national anthem, and he is a “piece of shit.” “
  • “[Congressman] shreds Paul Ryan…”
  • “Chuck Schumer hits back after Donald Trump calls him a ‘clown.'”

Humans we disagree with are pieces of shit or clowns. We love seeing those in the wrong “shredded,” filling our tribal echo chambers with the gurgles of maniacal glee. What will come of this?

RFK ended his speech with these words:

“We must recognize that this short life can neither be ennobled or enriched by hatred or revenge.

Our lives on this planet are too short and the work to be done too great to let this spirit flourish any longer in our land. Of course we cannot vanish it with a program, nor with a resolution.

But we can perhaps remember – even if only for a time – that those who live with us are our brothers, that they share with us the same short movement of life, that they seek – as we do – nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can.

Surely this bond of common faith, this bond of common goal, can begin to teach us something. Surely we can learn, at least, to look at those around us as fellow men and surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our hearts brothers and countrymen once again.”

While there is true physical violence perpetrated each day, there is more insidious violence among us, the hatred of our fellow humans. If called out, or even questioned, it is often denied, excused, of played down. But when we publicly diminish the value of others – those with whom we disagree, and even those whose acts we find unacceptable – we actually diminish ourselves. I’m learning that I do not need one more person in my life who agrees with me, likes me, or follows me. What I do need is to live at the deepest levels of peace with all humans whenever it is possible, and to keep their dignity intact, whenever it is not. Life is too short, and our desire to live happy, satisfied, and fulfilled lives too utterly universal.