The internet’s ability to connect people has further polarized our culture instead of knitting it together. People with different opinions become opponents to our views instead of opportunities to understand someone’s views. Anonymity eats empathy and leaves behind nothing but contempt.
Though I don’t blame those who do so, I don’t block the people in my social feeds who hold to views I disagree with, or even find offensive. If anything, I probably pay more attention. Not because I agree with them, or want to in any way, but because I want to understand. As tempting as it may be at times to call somebody who believes in abstinence education a fucking idiot, to verbally eviscerate someone who thinks that Muslims are all terrorists, or to just tear into the toolbag who thinks that people shouldn’t be allowed to use language that they find offensive, I try to understand where they’re coming from. I think about how I’d react if they were standing in front of me, instead of in front of a different screen connected by some wires and servers.
I’ve learned a lot. The abstinence-only proselytizer likely grew up in an environment where that was the only option and told that those with a differing viewpoint were evil, whether they knew it or not. The Anti-Muslim crusader most likely comes from a place where they don’t interact with any, or at least have never had a meaningful conversation with one, and have only seen them when they make the news. The language police have most often been the victims of some hateful shit and are trying to keep others from being hurt as they have been.
Are they right? I don’t think so. But, neither of us will grow if we don’t interact civilly, and it’s impossible to do that if we’re not willing to consider WHY someone holds their views and accept that they may be valid reactions BASED UPON THEIR PERSONAL EXPERIENCES. We’ll just keep yelling into our own echo chambers and hear variations of our own voices come back at us forever.
Daryl Davis is a personal hero. He’s a black man who owns a closetful of Ku Klux Klan robes that he’s been handed by former members. He was given them by men he sat down and talked to, who he listened to, and who he gave the opportunity to talk with him. Mister Davis isn’t Ghandi, but he didn’t react the way we’re all trained to, and I don’t think he could’ve done it communicating on the internet. He had to be able to look those men in the eye to remove that sense of Other so they could see him as a human being. What he’s repeatedly said was that the men he’d talked to had never sat down and actually spoken with a black man before.
You don’t have to agree with someone’s opposing viewpoint, or even respect it, but disrespecting the individual who holds it and cutting yourself off from them will only hurt you both. The racist becomes more racist when they’re greeted with hurled insults and bottles. When an atheist attacks a Christian’s faith instead of discussing it, you’re just reinforcing their view that you’re hateful. When a white man says #blacklivesmatter is racist, he’s not being petty, he’s being thoughtless. When a black woman says that #alllivesmatter is stupid, she’s being defensive, not dismissive.
Our viewpoints are informed by our experiences and how we relate to what we see and are told. For example, when Eric Garner’s death made the news nearly everyone I knew cried out that he was attacked as he was because of his race. The first time I saw it, I thought it was because of his size. Black Americans have experienced people looking at them askance and seen mistreatment of people like them. When I was a kid I was told that I’d always have to be careful around cops because I’d make them nervous. Though I’ve turned out to be a damned skinny dude, I’ve found it to be true that cops and bouncers watch me and if there’s trouble I’m the first one grabbed, whether I’m involved or not. But, I didn’t tell anyone who said Garner’s treatment was racially motivated that they were a fucking idiot because my personal experience said it wasn’t (though I was nearly crucified for suggesting it might not be). I listened and read and made attempts to understand the reasoning behind people’s beliefs.
Don’t engage in the craziness, but don’t cut yourself off from what you think are crazy beliefs. There are truly crazy and stupid people out there, but if you listen to most folks you’ll find they aren’t. John Doe who’s voting for Donald is an individual who has reasons he thinks are valid. He’s not a mindless construction of the Far Right, no matter how much you may feel he is. If you can keep yourself from belittling or insulting him for long enough you might figure out how he reached his conclusions. And if you can do that, you might — just might — be able to change his mind.
Who would be down for funding a cultural exchange program? We create groups of 2-4 individuals from disparate backgrounds; rich, poor, right, left, black, white, yellow, red, green-if-we-can-find-some, southern, yankee, midwestern, left coast, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Shinto, atheist… All of ’em. We then force them to sit down for 2 hours and drink coffee. We hook up electrical probes to them, and anyone who raises their voice to a yell gets shocked. If any one of those people goes home to their insular group and teaches them something, I think it’d be worth a pretty hefty sum.