As the days, weeks, months, years pass, I feel the ground bubble beneath my feet, a magmatic tension nearing the surface, ready to burst through the crust – a fracture, an irrevocable fissure. Everywhere I turn, humanity is at war with humanity, picketing on opposing sides of an invisible fence, placing stakes in the ground:
I’m right. You’re wrong. My side wins. Your side loses.
No. We all lose.
When did we stop being Americans? When did tribalism leave the boundaries of Sunday night football and bleed into every waking hour? Why didn’t we leave Red Rover, the game where you picked a side and held hands with your allies in hopes of capturing a member of the opposing side before they broke through your stronghold, on the playground?
More importantly, when -and why- did we stop listening? What happened to empathy?
Recently, I read Dan Rather’s book, What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism. Not only were his narrative reflections on his youth relatable – as a native Houstonian and Sam Houston State alumni (now employee) – but his societal observations were poignant.
Here are some excerpts from What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism that struck a chord within me:
“It is important not to confuse “patriotism” with “nationalism.”… nationalism is a monologue in which you place your country in a position of moral and cultural supremacy over others. Patriotism… is a dialogue… about not only what you love about your country but also how it can be improved.”
One aspect of my character that can be perceived as negative, yet has continually propelled me towards my dreams, is that I am on a quest for self-betterment. When I reach one goal, I become introspective, analyzing what is holding me back from the next, what I need to improve about myself. This facet of my personality has bled into how I feel about my homeland as well. It is not traitorous to question aspects of your country that you feel need improvement. After all, that is what the country was founded on –
“The United States was born from perhaps one of the most radical lines of dissenting speech in human history, the idea that the citizens of a land should live by the consent of the governed and not the whims of a monarch.”
If no one ever critically evaluated the world in which they lived, there would have been no progress. Moreover, if no one had ever listened to or consulted the ideals of others who think differently than them, there would not have been the common ground that led to the forming and signing of the Declaration of Independence.
“Our Founding Fathers had sharp political differences, but they were almost all deep readers, writers, and thinkers. When they set about to create a modern republic, they went into their libraries and pulled out the works of philosophers such as John Locke and Thomas Hobbes. They consulted the Greeks, the Romans, the philosophers of Europe, and the Bible.”
When faced with conflict and dissenting opinions amongst each other, the Founding Fathers reached for knowledge and guidance, rather than staunchly supporting their own opinions, to find common ground. It’s not only the Founding Fathers, however. Anytime we have moved forward as a society, it has been the result of someone who noticed something was not quite right and took the time to investigate – not to be traitors to their country, but to improve the state of affairs.
“Where would America be without the muckrakers of the progressive era, like Ida Tarbell, who uncovered the perfidy and immorality of the Standard Oil monopoly under John D. Rockefeller; without the New York Time’s publishing of the Pentagon Papers, which exposed the lies around the Vietnam War; without the dogged work of the Boston Globe in documenting sexual abuse within the Catholic Church? Because of the press, powerful institutions were held accountable for their actions”
Growing up in the Bible belt, it has been my experience that people are often afraid to even listen to beliefs that differ from their own. To listen to a belief is not to adopt that belief. To listen to a belief is to gain knowledge of that belief – to learn about a perspective which differs from your own.
“Patriotism…takes knowledge, engagement with those who are different from you”
I have friends from all walks of life and spectrums of belief. The most meaningful relationships in my life are not with people whose belief systems mirror my own; they are with those whose beliefs differ from mine, yet we share polite discourse, allowing me to learn about their point of view while sharing my own. I’ve had many discussions where, although we did not change each other’s perspective, we mutually gained valuable insight and understanding.
“Free speech must be protected so that we can hear from those who challenge our beliefs.”
Freedom of speech is hindered by those who bully others into feeling uncomfortable with their voice, shaming them into silence. The most repressive feeling is when I’m with someone who I love but know is not a safe-place for my opinions. When someone doesn’t value my opinion, it means they don’t acknowledge me as an intelligent human-being capable of critical thinking and free thought. To value is not to agree with – to value is to respect one’s right to another opinion and process for forming that opinion.
“The more we are around people with a variety of life experiences, the more we can understand and value the needs and worth of our fellow citizens.”
Nothing has shaped my world-view like becoming a teacher. Before having my own classroom, it was easy to surround myself with like-minded individuals without even realizing I was doing it. When I was assigned my roster of students, however, they each brought their own story, circumstances, beliefs, rituals, struggles, triumphs, and so forth. It was my job to respect them and encourage them to respect each other. I could no longer ignore or distance those who experienced aspects of life I had only read about or seen on the news. I was faced with the ignorance of some of my own biases and assumptions because I had access to the concrete, not the abstract.
“When we live in a self-selected bubble of friends, neighbors, and colleagues, it is too easy to forget how important it is to try to walk in the shoes of others.”
I’m not naive – sometimes, even with polite discourse, you encounter someone whose views vehemently oppose your own ideals or, worse, you deem morally reprehensible. You don’t have to say, “I see why you feel that way.” Empathy only goes so far. The point I’m making here is not that you should give everyone a platform to express their heinous ideas and pretend that all trains of thoughts are acceptable. I’m simply saying to listen first. Evaluate and respond after. Give people a chance to explain themselves to you. Live by the golden rule. Don’t stonewall someone on the assumption that they have no valuable opinion or reason for believing that opinion; that hinders progress, proliferates division, and possibly prevents someone from learning from you.
“democracy requires open access to ideas. It requires a willingness to struggle and learn, to question our own suppositions and biases”
The person who knows it all knows the least. I am knowingly ignorant; there’s always more to learn. I am wrong, and I am right, and I don’t know what I don’t know. But – through reflecting on my own beliefs, listening to the viewpoints of others, slipping on their shoes for size, I gain a wider understanding. The beauty of Democracy is that we have voices. The enemy of Democracy is stifling those voices.
“In books we can find expert and trustworthy scholarship on any subject… By reading books, we can continually challenge our own biases”
If you don’t readily have access to diverse groups of people, start with books. Anonymously soak in another person’s perspective and affirm or negate your beliefs in the words on the page. Go ahead and start with What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism while you’re at it; while you might not agree with everything, you’re sure to encounter enlightening nuggets of truth.
“Our own history has shown that we are stronger as a mosaic than a melting pot. Our nation is bound together more by ideals than by blood or land, and inclusion is in our cultural DNA. We should feel proud that we are not all the same, and that we can share our differences under the common umbrella of humanity.”
Red Rover, Red Rover – Let Empathy Come Over.