by: Lita Kurth on October 14th, 2013 | 5 Comments »
I opened my email to the news that Governor Brown had vetoed AB 1229 which would have allowed local governments to require a smidgen of affordable housing along with luxury developments. Immediately, I felt tense and angry, outraged that rent control is illegal in California, and now this further setback. I was despondent and disgusted that a liberal governor would veto one tiny step toward affordable housing.
Then I opened another email about a community college inviting for-profit education companies, at least one of whom had said public education was “broken,” to hold a conference on campus.
My stomach tensed. My forehead ached. I felt antagonistic, judgmental, enraged and ready to shout.
Once this state of mind didn’t trouble me. I may even have welcomed the adrenaline. Now I distrust it. Would this ferment color the rest of my day, preventing me from being fully present to the people in front of me or from working productively? Fueled by this mood, would an upcoming dialogue with a local politician turn into a bitter, one-way harangue? This mood had a lot of power; it wanted to settle in, rigid, strong, righteous, indeed, self-righteous.
Humility: the virtue nobody wants
We might ask: what’s wrong with outrage? Don’t we have a right to be outraged? Yes, in a sense we do, just as we have a right to cut ourselves with a knife. And the two are not dissimilar. When I want to rage, here’s something that usually stops me before I go too far: remembered footage of Hitler’s speeches. He raises his arm, vehement, furious, absolutely certain of his righteousness. And I know I’ve felt that too. Some might say, “well, my anger is righteous and his wasn’t.” But isn’t that a little too easy? Couldn’t that free pass cover too much?
There’s a qualitative difference, I notice, between Hitler’s utterances and Martin Luther King’s. Can you imagine Hitler writing something like this?
If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, … I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statements in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms. (Letter from Birmingham Jail)
Patient and reasonable – those aren’t sexy words. They don’t send up towering flames of righteous blaze. Nor do they burn bridges. Outrage might produce a flurry of furious emails. It also might dissipate energy I need for meaningful connection, for mindful, useful activism on a daily basis, activism congruent with my values. Patience and reasonableness allow me to draw closer to the real people I want to help (who, like me, are a mixture of lovable and annoying) and the politicians and businesspeople I want to stop from doing harm (who also personally, hard as it is to admit sometimes, are a mixture of lovable and annoying).
Those people I believe to be wrong track should still be real and human to me, not phantoms I fight in my unconscious. (I can’t address the extremes of torturers or abductors with whom I might have to physically fight to get away; thank God, I’ve never faced those situations.)
Leaving Room For Reality
A powerful metaphor resides in a children’s rhyme about seven blind men and an elephant. Each of the seven touched a different part of the elephant and because each part differed greatly from the rest, all seven fell into a furious fight over the elephant’s appearance. And this represents the best case! None of the seven were lying. None were intoxicated, blurred and biased. All truly experienced something and truthfully reported it. And yet they still differed drastically.
Isn’t it embarrassing to remember times you vehemently supported or opposed something you later changed your mind about? None of us can know the whole of reality. If I put myself in my opponents’ place, wouldn’t I want to know more before deciding that the only reason for their action was absolute evil or corruption? When people on the other side dismiss and diminish our approach and goals, it’s easy enough to see what a straw man they’ve made of us – which only solidifies our view of them as unfair and ignorant.
It will be a lifelong goal to reach patience and reasonableness, but I do see some progress. Nowadays, when I oversimplify to puff up my own righteousness, I feel a bit uneasy, pretty sure that a person of integrity doesn’t do this. I don’t want to promote quiescence and obliviousness or fail to act vigorously on behalf of the good. But how do I avoid becoming a replica of the worst on the other side? How do I leave room for the complexity of the actual world? How do I leave room for solutions I haven’t already thought of, that arise from partnership? How do I remain open to new knowledge? Do I want to bypass a possible win-win situation and jump straight into win-lose?
Given that most issues I care about – poverty, injustice, suffering – are complex, I can’t afford to believe I know it all already. I can’t afford to stop learning.
Does Outrage Work?
When I consider how my own mind has changed, it was never because someone attacked and judged me harshly. It almost always arose from the surprising response of someone I respected. One example: I grew up literally and genuinely homophobic, one of those who are called “haters” though it was not true that I hated homosexuals. Not knowing any or rather not knowing that I knew any (undoubtedly they existed, but in my environs, to be out of the closet was to be outside of society, unemployable, unrelatable), I was terrified of them. Once in high school, a girl started a buzz in homeroom about a lesbian who had attacked someone in the bathroom. Though there weren’t any details, I became afraid to enter a bathroom without my friends, worried about gym showers. I cannot remember exactly what I thought would happen, what the attack would entail. I uncritically accepted the rumor. Later, a friend of mine scoffed, “I know her. She rides my bus. She’s a foster girl. I’m sure she didn’t attack anyone, and I think it’s mean to spread those rumors.”
How I Stopped Being Homophobic
After high school when I lived in England, a conversation came up about Jeremy Thorpe, the Liberal Party leader who was forced to step down after news leaked of a homosexual affair. My new British family expressed outrage that he’d been forced out. I was confused. “Doesn’t the Bible say homosexuality is wrong?” I asked. A look was exchanged in the front seat.
What if instead of a restrained response, they had roundly condemned me? What if they had expressed outrage and mercilessly attacked my ignorance? They would have been justified, and such a response would not have helped me understand or grow.
England was a lot more open about gayness than northern Wisconsin. British language was peppered with gay sexual verbs and jokes, the media chockfull of men dressed as women. But I had lived in a world where the closet was hermetically sealed. Once the group, Queen appeared on Top of the Pops, and after watching Freddy Mercury, I asked my British sister if she thought he could possibly be gay. “Oh, I don’t know. A name like Queen,” she joked. She may have rolled her eyes.
I had to read books about gay people and watch movies before I could call into question my fundamentalist upbringing or in fact, know what I was talking about. At first, gay people existed in my mind like the devil, a nightmare. Because their sexuality did not stay within the bounds prescribed by church and culture, it seemed to me that maybe their sexuality had no bounds at all. Maybe like the plenitude of men in my community, from uncles to priests, who molested little girls, their sexuality had no limits. Next gay people were the object of patronizing sympathy, mentally unwell but harmless. I had to get to know gay people before I could comprehend what day-to-day gay life might be, how it could be one branch of normal. I’m sad that I didn’t know more sooner, but how could I have?
The Power of Personal Stories
Picket signs with personal attacks seldom change minds. They may rally the faithful or amuse the partisan, but chants and slogans seldom convert the opposition. But when people make themselves vulnerable (as so many gay people have), when they truthfully tell their own stories, even stories of imperfection and bad behavior, we have a chance of processing that truth rather than rejecting it. We may find some point of identification. We may not even realize we are changing until we are changed.
How very fortunate that we have numerous means of influencing policy toward the good, of promoting democracy and building community. It’s a long, slow, and sometimes discouraging process, but we do have allies, even in public office. There is always the chance that some unlikely person will change. Thank God, things have not devolved to the point where we are fighting with guns, at least not most of us on American soil most of the time. People with guns facing other people with guns don’t tell a lot of personal stories. They don’t change a lot of minds, and even when they smash the opposition to bloody smithereens, some bitter remainder survives, often bent on revenge. There’s nothing glorious about living in fear and hatred.
In a recent letter, Michael Lerner noted that the left often talks about fairness and justice, but less often about love and generosity. Those are vulnerable terms, personal words, and I agree with him that they are needed in our conversations about everything from Syria to taxes. And so today when I go to my meeting on affordable housing, I’ll go with an open mind, listening for solutions that I can’t entirely predict and certainly can’t control, listening for what I don’t know. I hope to remember what is within my power: to treat other people the way I’d like us all to be treated in a better world.