Toward a More Equal America, Part 8
Where do we go from here?
If we remove the blinders and the filters that prevent us from seeing the whole story, if we understand the ethical arguments that change is imperative, how then do we act?
Do we put the blinders back on, retreat into ourselves, our favored communities, our comfortable realities? Or can we act courageously, change ourselves, and change the world?
We have four possible choices, when presented with a request for empathy: individualism, factionalism, distortion, and love.
Individualism says that empathy doesn’t apply because we are all in a fight for survival and are justified in doing what it takes to get ahead. It is the theory of natural selection applied to humanity. A world of individualism is is a lonely world, where we must be on guard at all times, because other people will crush us at every possible opportunity. And it is not really a prevalent worldview, outside of a few true sociopaths. Most of us care about our parents and our children. And if we extend our empathy that far, how can we justify not caring about our grandparents, our children’s friends, our wider community?
Factionalism says that there are Important Distinctions between humans, and that those Important Distinctions determine which humans are worthy of empathy and respect, and which humans are not really fully human after all. These are the axes of oppression discussed in Part 7.
The trouble with factionalism – aside from its moral indefensibility – is that if we are willing cause harm to other groups, we must be constantly on guard against those groups causing harm to us. As with individualism, we are never safe.
Does it feel to anyone else that the United States is being governed by a high school bully? Has it occurred to anyone else that this might be a direct result of those segregated high-school cafeteria rooms, where college-bound kids looked down their noses at working-class kids – the ones flipping burgers, fixing cars, driving tractors? That Donald Trump might be giving voice to an anger that has been repressed for years? We don’t care what your so-called experts say, they are saying. We won’t stand for your so-called social justice that defines our oppression out of existence. We don’t give a rat’s ass about you or your feelings, because you never gave a rat’s ass about us or ours.
If we embrace factionalism, then we must also embrace the possibility of defeat. As long as we are dehumanizing others, we can expect them to dehumanize us, to fight against us. And that kind of conflict is always destructive to humanity. Great buildings and works of art destroyed in battle. Lives lost, in war, or because we cannot agree on how to respond to a new virus spreading among us, or because we cannot work together in response to climate change or any of the other crises facing humankind and planet Earth. Great ideas and initiatives flushed down the tubes of history because they happened to belong to the losing side.
Do you know any of those positive-thinking people for whom life is sunshine and rainbows and ecstatic dance festivals, and any negativity is brushed away? Who respond to real personal stories of harm experienced with answers like your harmful thoughts are manifesting as physical suffering? Change your thoughts, change your life, they suggest. We each create our own experience.
That is one form of distortion, of embracing a version of reality that obfuscates the ethical dimensions of our interconnectedness. We do, in a sense, each create our own experience, but we do so relationally. That is to say that my ability find joy, respect, security, and abundance in life is dependent upon my position along all of the axes of oppression, and that within the context of an inequitable system my own actions and choices are likely to be constraining the ability of others to create their own experiences. A failure to acknowledge this is a denial of reality, and is deeply unethical.
Another form of distortion that I have seen is enabled by spiritual belief systems that devalue our physical existence. This world is just a dream, some say. Our mission is to transcend physical reality. Or Jesus is coming soon to take the true believers up to Heaven. I can’t theologically disprove any such statements, but I can confidently state that it is ethically problematic to devalue our current lived experience, if doing so also devalues harm and suffering, and the ways in which our own choices in this shared “dreamworld” are resulting in nightmares for some and happy dreams for others.
Love is a commitment to acknowledge the humanity in all people. It says, I may not agree with you, but I respect you. It may even say, I cannot forgive you for the harm you have caused me, but I understand that you were acting out your own pain, your own lack of love. It is not warm and fuzzy, it is not absolution, it may not always seem kind. But it is real.
Love is the opposite of “cancel culture” – a phrase making the media rounds these days. Cancel culture is vigilant, watchful, waiting for anyone to make an irredeemable mistake, which will instantly transform them from a Good Person to a Bad Person. Cancel culture serves neoliberalism. We have all made such mistakes; we could all be “cancelled.” So we are careful not to step out of line; we allow our fear to keep us contained, keep us manageable.
Love does not search for a reason to dehumanize people: color of skin, country of origin, even evidence of past or ongoing harms committed. Love listens, in order to understand. Love does not accept prejudice, but neither does it condemn people for their words or opinions. It persistently tugs at the heartstrings to understand prejudice, unwind it, deconstruct it. So you say you don’t like the Somali people in town, tell me why? (Not, goodbye you fucking racist.) I miss the way things used to be too, but change happens, we all have to adapt. Have you tried their new restaurant downtown? I’ll take you there, the food is delicious, and the owner is a friend of mine… Such is the way of love.
This began as a series about economics, about building an economy of, for, and by the people, and we ended up talking about love. There’s a good reason for that. I don’t believe that we will be able to build such an economy until we can choose to love and respect one another, to fully accept those aspirational words written 244 years ago: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all (humans) are created equal, that they are endowed…with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
I borrowed the title of this essay from a book that I highly recommend to anyone who has been involved with social justice but is feeling disillusioned by the lack of real, transformative change: I Hope We Choose Love: A Trans Girl’s Notes from the End of the World, by Kai Cheng Thom. I will leave you with her words:
We must love ourselves. We must encourage love – love that is radical, love that digs deep. Love that asks the hard questions, that is ready to listen to the whole story and keep loving anyway. Love for the survivors, love for the perpetrators, love for the survivors who have perpetrated and the perpetrators who have survived. Love for the community that has failed us all. … We can choose to consume each other, or we can choose love. Even in the midst of despair, there is always a choice. I hope we choose love.Kai Cheng Thom, I Hope We Choose Love, 2019, p. 91.