I’ve been thinking and talking a lot lately about “right vs. wrong” — the tendency for us to cling to a simplistic solution that there is a “right” side (mine) and a “wrong” side (yours). And what do we do when faced with those who disagree with our version of “right?”
A year ago, I saw a young man wearing a T-shirt that said, “You’re with me or against me.” I instantly thought, “This man is part of the problem in our country.” Well before the 2016 election, I was confident that “his” viewpoint was comfortably being relegated to the sidelines, and the open-minded “us” were leading the way to a society that embraces multiple perspectives.
Which is why the election results hurt so much, in the center of my chest, leading to sobs, and hugs with friends, and a deep grieving process that kept me in the house most of that month. “We” were wrong. There is so much more hatred and bigotry than we can easily overtake.
With a wider perspective, I began to see that many of the people in my community have been trying not to say out loud the same sentiment that was on that man’s T-shirt. “Those who voted against us are against us, period.” It’s hard to be open-minded when you also wish half the country lived on their own island.
What If Being “Right” Is Wrong?
I watched a Ted Talk with Kathryn Schulz, “On Being Wrong.” She pointed out that by the age of nine we’ve learned in school that there is a “them” with red ink on quizzes and the way to succeed is to never make mistakes. We also grow up believing that what we see reflects reality. If someone disagrees, we assume they are ignorant and that if we share information they will see the light and join the team. When that doesn’t happen, we assume they are idiots. And when we discover that people who disagree with us can also be smart, we decide they are deliberately distorting the truth for their own purposes — and thus are evil.
Eventually I got out of the house again and away from the computer headlines. I met with three young friends who care about what is happening in this country — and also are trying to sort out how to find a long-term relationship, create a family, start a business. Slogan: What is my future in this world?
I went to a conversation circle of long-time protestors — some going back to the Vietnam War and women’s reproductive rights — as well as those who are reticent to be public, afraid non-violence might give way, or worried about arrest because of young children at home or job security. One man had family deeply impacted by McCarthyism. Slogan: Will I be safe defending my values?
I went to the bar mitzvah for a friend of my son’s — a young man who had the composure and the dedication to stand up in front of a full synagogue and sing and read alone in Hebrew, supported by grandparents and great-uncles and family friends and cousins. It reminded me of the “laying on of hands” ritual when honoring transition at my Humanist Unitarian Universalist congregation, when we physically link in entirety with a hand on the shoulder of the one next to us. Slogan: I value community.
The rabbi at Shir Tikvah had a powerful statement in response to a question from the young man about the “truth” of sacred text. “The stories are not about fact but about trust. Believing in human promise and dignity, even with the challenge of injustice, intolerance, indifference. A leap of faith, over and over again. What would life look like if everyone had the ability to trust that every human has the spark of ‘God’ in them?” Slogan: I believe in a sacred truth.
I went to a discussion at the University of Minnesota with a large group interested in leading meaningful, difficult conversations. A take-away was that deep listening involves three aspects of language at the same time: hearing someone’s facts, seeing their emotions, and recognizing their values. Some of us are more comfortable listening to the facts of a conversation, while ignoring other messages also being conveyed. Slogan: How can I connect with you?
These are the conversations I am paying attention to, as I digest what we can do, as the interconnected community we are, to begin to tear down the “us” vs. “them” wall we are so good at building.
My resolution in this new year: Person by person, learn what slogans those of us in conflict can equally wear on our T-shirts with pride. Because “Make America Great (At Last)” will require all of us, whether we like it or not.