Wednesday, August 16, 2017

We Are Not Innocent Bystanders...and We Haven't Been for a Long Time

It's easy in today's world to feel helpless and small.  It's easy to read articles and see injustices and think that the world's problems are too big to deal with or too big for us to fix.  We might feel far away from the problem.  We might feel like we have enough problems of our own.  We might feel frightened to get involved, worried what others might think, or that we might say the wrong thing. In general we become overwhelmed and we often detached.  Maybe we stop even watching or reading the news.  Maybe we stop talking about it with other people.  Maybe we try to forget or maybe we even start to convince ourselves that things aren't really that bad after all.

I go through this pattern myself at times.  And I have to admit that I started down this same path after I read about Charlottesville.  My heart hurt and my head hurt and I honestly just wanted to turn the other way and pretend I hadn't read anything about it.  I felt sad, and angry, and honestly horrified.

I've seen a lot of articles talking about the terrorists and  bullies in this situation. And I've seen a lot of articles talking about the victims. But what I'd like to talk about another key player in our world situation and that is the bystander.  We've often heard bystanders referred to as innocent bystanders.  The reason we use the word "innocent" is because up until whatever event they are about to witness they are innocent.  They aren't planning to hurt anyone or be hurt by anyone.  They are simply there when the event happens. HOWEVER, and this is important, once the innocent bystander has witnessed something, like Charlottesville, they are no longer innocent.  They've now been enlightened.  They've seen something happen and they must make decisions. What they say or do from that point on is now conditioned on what they saw, or heard, or read.  And because they are no longer innocent or ignorant they can no longer remain in innocent silence.  Silence says something.  Silence sends messages. Silence condones.

One of my favorite quotes by Maya Angelou is "I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better."  If you didn't know the alt-right existed until last week, fine, but now you know.  And if you didn't know that there were people out there so filled with hate that they could plow over a crowd of people with their car and then reverse, fine, but now you know.  Or you didn't think you'd ever see the day where a group of people walked down the street holding Nazi signs and lanterns and the President won't even call them out for what they are, now you have seen it, now you know. So now that you know, what will you do??

The first thing we must do is start acknowledging others' pain, even pain that isn't ours, even pain that we don't understand.  And that means we might also have to acknowledge that sometimes we have contributed to that pain just by ignoring the fact that it exists.  I've thought a lot about the Black Lives Matter movement. I've heard the argument against them saying "all lives matter".  But saying black lives matter doesn't mean that all lives don't matter. It is saying we know all lives matter but some have not felt part of that "all".  They are saying, "Hey remember us, we are part of the all, we matter".

Sometimes in an effort to help, we respond "of course you're part of the all, everyone knows that" or "of course you matter, you don't have to tell me" and while on the surface that seems like a good thing to say it doesn't acknowledge the hurt and therefore it doesn't move past it.  When someone tells us they feel hurt we have to stop and ask them about it and let them talk about it.  How have they been hurt? What can we do to help the healing process? Sometimes just the acknowledging of hurt helps to heal it just a little.

We can try and have empathy by thinking about times that we haven't felt part of the "all" and think how we feel when our worries are dismissed as non-existent by others who have never had to deal with our same worry.  As a woman I know sexism exists and it's frustrating when people don't acknowledge it.  As an overweight person I know prejudice exists and it's frustrating when people think it's okay to make "fat jokes".  As the mother of a special needs child I know that ignorance exists and it's painful when people I love still vote for presidential candidates that make fun of cerebral palsy.

And I know that most men in my life don't mean to be sexist but sometimes they make mistakes because they just don't know what it's like to be a woman.  And I know my thin friends just want to help me when they give me weight loss advice but they just don't know what it's like to be so overweight you feel embarrassed to even head back to the gym. And I know my friends who voted for Trump didn't think his impression of the reporter was "that bad" because cerebral palsy just isn't something that is in their daily lives.

Once I come from this place of empathy I can then turn the situation around and acknowledge that in many cases I'm the friend who doesn't know better, or doesn't think about what I'm saying, or just doesn't understand.  And race issues, for me, is one of these areas. I don't know what it's like to be hated for the color of my skin.  I've never been afraid to walk down the street because of the color of my skin.  I've never walked in a room where I was in a racial minority.  I don't know what that feels like. And even though I've always tried to not be racist I'm sure there are tons of times that I've been insensitive, made mistakes, and caused extra pain that I didn't even realize. So no, I will never experience racism first hand,  but when I have friends, loved ones and others telling me that they have experienced it I have a responsibility to listen.  To acknowledge their pain.  To acknowledge that racism exists.  If we didn't believe racism still exists a week ago, we certainly have to now! And once we know better, we have to do better!

The second thing we can all do is to stop being silent.  Whether you've been silent out of fear, or ignorance, or feeling like it didn't pertain to you, or just not knowing what to stay.  Step up and say "This is not okay!".

The third thing we need to do is to define what "this" is in very clear terms. So first let start with the things most of us can agree on that aren't okay.  It's not okay to murder people.  It's not okay to run people over with your car.  It's not okay to hold up flags and symbols that were used by a group of people who slaughtered Jews, minorities, and their supporters. It's not okay to hate other people simply because they are a different- race, gender, economic bracket or religion from you.  It's not okay to think yourself superior just because of your membership in a particular race, gender, economic bracket or religion.  It's not okay to be the leader of the United States and not call the Neo-Nazis out by name just because you don't want to lose their political support. Especially when you seem fine calling out just about anyone else who doesn't tweet nice things about you or sell your daughter's clothes.

From there we have to start talking about some of the "this" that we don't all agree on.  When I say "This is not okay" I mean hatred and anger in all it's form.  I know many people reserve the right to have a righteous anger.  But the fact is that what is and isn't righteous is subjective. The alt-right think they are righteous in their anger. They think their lives have been harder because people are different than them. They see no value in the lives of those that are different than them. We hear that and we say, that's not true, every life has value.  But then we turn around and call them "human garbage" or we say things like "I wish they were all dead". And when we say those things, even about people who make terrible choices, aren't we really just perpetuating the idea that some people don't have value?  That it's okay to think of some people as "garbage"?

I'm not saying that we need to try and see things from their side.  Their side is completely misinformed and wrong.  In fact what they are saying is a load of garbage. I'm not trying to defend them in any way. I'm just saying that I don't believe in human garbage.  I believe humans believe garbage. They sometimes say garbage and treat others like garbage. But I'm not willing to say someone is just plain garbage. Yesterday I read a comment where someone said "They're Nazis, I think we're allowed to hate them". And it's true, you are allowed to hate Nazis.  I'm just saying I don't think your hatred is going to change anything.  We can't tell Nazis to stop living their life in anger and hate and then invite them over to our side of the fence when we're also living our life in anger and hate. I hate what Nazis believe.  I hate what they do. But more than that want racism to stop because I love people.  I love my friends and family no matter their gender, race, age or religion and I want them to be happy and safe. And not be hated or live their lives hating others.  The love I have for people making good choices is greater than the hate I have for people making bad choices.

Sometimes when we are hurt or kicked or scorned we think we are now justified to hurt, kick or scorn.  But that action leads to someone else feeling justified to do that. And the next person. And the next generation. And there is no end.  Not to mention us getting angry and fighting and acting out is exactly what they want us to do because it justifies their anger and hate.

The only way to end hatred, the only way to end violence, is love.  That doesn't mean we don't tell them their actions are wrong.  That doesn't mean we don't stop them from hurting others.  That doesn't mean we don't stand up for ourselves and for those around us.  That doesn't mean we don't put them in jail when they run over people with their cars. But that means that our motivation in doing so is out of love for all our brothers and sisters, not hate. Martin Luther King said, "darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive hate, only love can do that".

I would be lying if I said that I haven't ever felt anger or hatred.  I have. But I can acknowledge that nothing good grew from either of those feelings.  Anger might prick at our heart to let us know something is wrong.  But it can't be the seed from which we act.  When it comes to actions, if we want to be effective, we have to move beyond that initial anger or wound.  It's easy to look at the college-aged alt-right marchers and just want to scream in their face about how privileged and spoiled and wrong they are.  And that might make us feel better temporarily but it won't solve a problem.  It's reacting to the symptoms, it's not actually treating the cause. It's a little harder to step  back and ask- how can people so young be so filled with hate? What happened to this person that made their world view so distorted? What a terrible way to have to live...fueled always by hate. And then the hardest question of all-What have I done to contribute to this problem? How have I been blind to this? How has my silence on these issues allowed this person who is in the same race as me, or political party as me, or religion as me- to see the world in such a terrible and bleak way. Which leads me to the third thing we have to do.

The final thing we have to do is start educating those around us.  We have to start assertively acting out in positive ways.  We can't just assume that since we know it's wrong to be racist that our children will just understand by osmosis that being racist is wrong.  We have to start conversations with our children now. We have to explain what is happening in the world and why it's wrong.  And what we can do to help. And what they can do to help.  When they see something on t.v. or in a movie or in real life we need to pause and take time right then to talk about it with them. 

When we hear prejudiced comments or racist jokes we can stop the conversation. We can respectively tell people that we don't agree or we don't approve. Or ask them why they felt that joke was funny or why they felt the comment was prejudiced.  I recently read a quote in an article about Charlottesville that said there is a big difference between those who laugh at racist jokes and those who run over people with their cars.  And while there is a difference, we should at least acknowledge that they are rooted in the same incorrect and hate-filled thinking, and that the distance between the two actions are not as far as we might think.

The members in the alt-right movement were not born hating others.  They learned it bit by bit. The man who ran over people with his car didn't start out on the alt-right path with that in mind.  First he felt pain. Then he decided to blame others for that pain. Then he felt anger and then he decided to run people over with his car. Some of it was probably learned from people explicitly telling him that the hate was good but some of it was also learned each time he told a joke or made a racist comment and no one listening told him it was wrong.  We might not all be able to march in peace protests or create national movements to oppose white supremacy, but we can all speak up within our own circles of influence and call people out when they say something that is racist.

The members of the alt-right don't live in a bubble.  Sure some might live in the mountains on compounds but a lot of those marchers live among us. They are college students, one was even the president of his college's republican group,  they are someone's kids or siblings or parents. And now they will go home to their families, schools, their communities, their church groups, etc. And that is where we must stand up.  We have to tell them- that thinking doesn't have a place today.  And when we see new people starting down that path we need to stop them in their tracks before they get to this place where the are marching around with nazi flags. 

Our influence starts with our family. If we're teachers our influence extends to our classroom. If we are church leaders it extends to our membership. We can use our influence to write blog posts, letters to the editor, emails to our government officials. We can invite our neighbors over more. We can join community groups. We can make an effort to break out of the thought bubbles that Facebook and our favorite news channel creates for us and start trying to see things from another perspective. We can take a look at the groups we associate with and see if what they are doing is helpful or hurtful.  It's easy to correct someone in a different religion or political party when you disagree with them.  It's a little harder when it's someone standing next to you in your own group.  Do we have the courage to lovingly correct our political contemporaries when they've gone off track? Do we have the courage to lovingly correct our brothers and sisters at church when they've forgotten to have charity?

And when we, ourselves, do something wrong or misspeak or have turned a blind eye and someone who loves us calls us on it, do we have the courage to apologize.  We don't need to get defensive or push back or say things like "all lives matter".  We can simply apologize.  We can simply try better the next time.  I do things wrong all the time.  I say things wrong all the time. And people who love me correct me all the time.  When I'm confident in that love and they are confident in my love then we can together work through differences and problems.  That's why, in the listening and correcting of others, we can't be fueled by hate.  It has to be love.

We know that shaming others rarely leads to lasting change.  Shaming people leads to a shallow temporary change of behavior at best and a hate filled, self-righteous rebellion at worst. Shame feeds the other's sense of rightness.  Rationalizing their thoughts like "they shamed me because they do hate me, so I was right to hate them in the first place!" When we correct someone by trying to shame them it's usually out of us wanting them to know that they were wrong, wrong, WRONG! And while white supremacists are absolutely wrong, just telling them they are wrong doesn't give them any tools for changing their wrongness.  When we correct someone out of love by trying to teach them we do more than just tell them what is wrong, we tell them what is right! We teach them what is right through our words and our actions. So after we have unequivocally told them this cannot continue and their thinking is completely wrong we have to then be an example of what is right by loving those around us and refusing to let their wrongness change how we are acting toward others.

Now obviously once someone is bulldozing people down with their car the time for talk is past.  When someone is burning down others property and holding up Nazi signs the time for sitting down and talking is past.  That's why it's even more important that we are talking and helping long before we get to these points of crisis.

And even when people are so far gone that they are willing to embrace hatred and white supremacy and all that it entails we don't give up on correcting them.  We don't cry that these problems are too big or we aren't up to the challenge of fixing it.  We just each keep doing our parts (big or small) to teach others what is right.  To tell racists everywhere they've made a misjudgement.  They've gone down a wrong road.  We ask them to stop living their lives full of hatred and to join us in love. And the only way to show them they are on the wrong road is to show them where the right road is.  We must over and over again declare racism and supremacy are wrong in all their forms! We must be vigilant in making sure there is not a place for racism in our families, in our communities, in our political parties, or in our religions.  And the way we make sure there is no room is by filling each of those communities with love.  

All people everywhere have the responsibility to stop ignoring hate, speak out against hate, and then educate others about what is right.  We can only do all of these through the path of love. Sometimes love means forgiving when we can, sometimes love means learning more about another person, sometimes love means admitting we have been wrong, sometimes love is listening to others, sometimes love is correcting someone who is wrong, sometimes love means sending people to jail when they've hurt others, sometimes love is using whatever influence you've been given to promote that love, sometimes love is meeting a new person, sometimes love is approaching a situation in a different way, and sometimes love means helping others find their voice too.

It's easy to love those who love us.  It's easy to hate those that hate us.  Can we love those who hate us? Can we speak up and tell them they are not right? Can we help to show them what is right? That's the power of the bystander.  Innocent no more, we realize it's time for us to choose. It's time for us to love. It's time for us to act!

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