on 'free pass' people and what they teach us

Expand Your Us offers a different way to imagine ourselves and our connections to one another.  We live in troubled times, with palpable tension, easy binaries and divisiveness in the air we breathe.  Even those of us who recognize that defensiveness is destructive, that binaries destroy, or that our biases shape the way we see others fall into these traps.  If we celebrate the dignity of all others, we walk a narrow road of empathy, and the ditches of distrust on either side are large and strangely inviting.

Choosing to extend compassion and understanding to another human being is always a choice. Within our tribes, these choices are often instinctive. What if we chose kindness more often?

While this is an accurate description of who we are, it is not the full story.  We have become instinctively divisive in the way we consume news and engage others in the public sphere, and yet we continue to be good at loving our “us.”  Yes, we are often quick to demonize, caricature and misunderstand others; however, given the right circumstances, we are also quick to listen, extending grace to people who don’t deserve it.  I call them “free pass” people, because they are the select few who always get the benefit of the doubt.  Even though we are stingy with grace or understanding for people with whom we don’t agree, we all know how to care about our free pass people:

We know how to forgive instinctively, before we are asked. 

We know how to listen with empathy even when an action seems selfish or hurtful. 

We know how to lean in when we want to point a finger in judgment.

We know how to use our power to pull strings for a person who might blow the opportunity. 

We know how to be generous to people who haven’t earned it.

We love our tribe even when they are defensive, argue an irrational point, or make selfish choices.

Choosing to extend compassion and understanding to another human being is always a choice. For our free pass people, these choices are easy, even instinctive.  By observing these choices, noticing them when they happen, could we become better at intentionally choosing kindness to more people more often?  Could we realize we achieve very little when we refuse to access compassion for a large segment of society?  Could we widen our circles, extending the mercy and empathy we reserve for our tribe to others?  Could we recognize that we are part of the problem when we only value our us? 

If we blindly let our instincts decide when we choose compassion, and when we choose to demonize, we miss the opportunity to examine what empathy costs, and how it might heal.  Given our public discourse, it is easy to think we are devolving as a society.  Perhaps we need to be reminded that we already know how to care about people whose perspectives or choices infuriate us.  I have been delighted to realize that many of us are, in fact, expanding our us at an astonishing pace.

For instance, I see transformative reform in the way old divides are being erased through collaboration and resistance.  The last few years have witnessed the exposure of widespread injustice, but we are also witnessing game-changing reforms.  Black Lives Matter brought to light deep patterns of inequity in criminal justice and legal systems.  Brutality is not new, it is simply now exposed in the public sphere, and this exposure necessitated change.  While it is true that many deny injustice exists, even more law enforcement agencies are hard at work improving their relationships with ALL the communities they serve.  In fact, systems are reforming: from body cams, to prosecutors who examine their relationship to police and defendants, to engaging in restorative justice, to de-escalation training, to mental health awareness, to reforming unjust laws, to judges working with communities for fair sentencing, justice is on the move because we are listening to each other.

Similarly, the #metoo movement has exposed deep patterns of misogyny in almost every industry.  These problems are not new, they are simply coming to light in the public sphere.  Millions are teaching us that objectifying women in any way has consequences; there is no such thing as innocent locker room talk.  While some men belittle this abuse, many have listened and responded by examining their potential influence to improve the way we speak about and relate to each other.  Because of brave women and thoughtful men, behavioral norms are changing.  Children are taught differently, coaches coach differently, new staff orientations occur differently and mentors lead differently.  We are learning to honor one another.

This notion of expanding our us instead of demonizing those who dare highlight problems plaguing society is catching on.  In Nashville, a school that was chronically labeled as troubled is now being celebrated as a leader in forming community partnerships; across the nation educators have noticed the ways they collaborate with the city, families, teachers and students to reform approaches to education.  In fact, last week, the Director of Metro Nashville Public Schools and a Nashville Precinct Commander visited Pearl-Cohn, listening and partnering with school Principal Dr. Sonia Stewart, who replaces despair with hope and agency every day.  I am encouraged that our city and state officials are paying attention to our resilient students and the leaders who champion their voices!  This week, the State of Tennessee’s Commissioner of Education, Dr. Candace McQueen, publicly stated that resisting systems based on violence and fear is an important part of the educational process.  She therefore recommends that no student be penalized for participating in next week’s #nationalschoolwalkout protest.  Dr. McQueen understands that we can find hopeful paths forward when we listen to each other rather than demonizing any act of resistance.

Imagine how interconnected our society would be if we started to treat more people the way we usually treat our ‘free pass’ people.  What are the costs of expanding our “us”, so that we give others the benefit of the doubt, committing to listen, seek understanding, and extend compassion more regularly?  Granted, it might cost us our precious binaries, our approaches to others as Good or Bad.  It might cost us the chance to judge before we listen, and it will surely lower the number of people we ignore or even loathe.  I suspect that replacing judgment with generous curiosity will not just improve our connections to others, it might make hopeful peacemakers out of us all.  

the destruction of defensiveness: listening is hard

If you haven’t had the privilege of being around fighting kids in a while, allow me to reassure you: They still do, usually for ridiculous reasons. Another fun fact: Kids are wildly hypocritical. And so are we.

For instance, one of my kids is fond of calling his brothers “tattle tales.” It makes him furious when he gets outed for being less than awesome.  In his mind, no sin of his is even remotely as egregious as the act of exposing said sin to a nearby adult. He can’t deal, and it makes him not only blind to his original sin, but fuels his righteous indignation at the poor kid who reported him.  He gets mad at the conversation instead of the act that caused the conversation.  Even worse, despite his firm stance against others disclosing his bad acts, he is known to throw a brother under the bus. In other words, he who hates a tattle tale is, in fact, a tattle tale.

While defensiveness is common, it is lazy, destructive, and selfish; we have to do better. 

Thank God we have outgrown such childish ways, right? Not so fast, my friends.  We know that defensiveness destroys collaboration; indeed, we see how destructive it is in others.  A friend snaps at another friend, but explodes when she is called on it instead of saying, “yep. My bad.”  A subordinate at work fails at an assignment, and rather than admit it and learn, he makes excuses.  A leader who is interviewed gets the inevitable question, “Any regrets?”, and responds with deflection, doubling down on bad choices as “the right choice at the time.”  It is easy to see how ridiculous others are when they fail to listen and then reflect on how they might become healthier.  In someone else, it is easy to see the willful ignorance required to deny a bad outcome or one’s own role in it.  It is much harder to avoid defensiveness when our own relationships (or sense of right-ness) are on the line.

In the last year, voices deemed hysterical or whiny or angry by those in the American majority have been elevated.  By some miracle that I don’t fully understand, many Americans now listen to women who claim #metoo, and are wondering what can change to ensure men do not treat women as objects to be assessed, groped or raped.  Many Americans now listen to those who are pleading for black lives, and are wondering what can change to ensure black lives do, in fact, matter.  Many Americans now listen to rural voices who have lost jobs and respect, and are wondering what can change to ensure we don’t ignore voices outside the city center in planning for our future.  Many Americans now listen to the voices that claim Confederate statues actively erase important parts of our history, and are wondering what can change to ensure we recognize and hear our whole history.

But many others feel attacked when those voices utter a word.  When we hear the story of another as a personal attack on ourselves, we don’t hear those voices.  Defensiveness and listening are mutually exclusive activities. A few weeks ago I wrote about Generation Bruh, and how my white son’s response to reading about Emmett Til’s murder was disgusted outrage.  Importantly though, his outrage was laced with defensiveness.  As a white male reading about horrible violence committed by other white males, he felt attacked.  I was dismayed by his defensive response to Til’s murder, and yet it reveals the destructive and pervasive reality of defensiveness in our American momentIf a person lives in the majority, is served well by the status quo, and has experienced a merit-based fairness in the systems of society, it is very easy to feel defensive when confronted with evidence that suggests injustice abounds. This feeling of defensiveness is heightened when the reality sets in that the people who often benefit from this abuse of power look like you. 

Defensiveness and listening are mutually exclusive activities.

The jump from recognizing injustice to feeling blamed for injustice is a short one for many of us.  We live in a largely segregated (and gender coded) society, and such divisions have kept us not only from having authentic relationships with each other, but also from understanding different versions of ‘reality.’  I assume that my understanding of history is the THE way to understand history, and I have no need to hear about the experience of another (especially one who might discount my understanding).  Defensive responses stem from feeling attacked, and are clear indications that many of us have one-sided historical understandings.  When confronted with diverse realities, our own perception of America is disproved as perhaps incomplete, and it is easier to react defensively than face the injustices pointed out by others.

It is quite hard to be an informed person in the United States and not know that our history, systems, institutions and laws favor white, wealthy, increasingly urban, males.  The fact that defensiveness is a leading response to this reality is absurd to me, but it also makes sense.  The weight of historical and current injustice is SO overwhelming that many of us cannot bear it.  We resort to a defensive posture out of self-protection.  Something deep within us wants to cover our eyes and ears and cry, “It’s not my fault! It can’t be true! What do you want me to do about it?”

Whether we feel overwhelmed or personally attacked, defensiveness is a privileged response.  It ruins relationships, prevents honest reflection and hurts our chances to collaborate or improve.  Rather than listening to understand the perspective of another, we end communication, absolving us from reflection, abolishing our potential need to make amends, and delegitimizing the initial problem.  As long as I respond defensively—like a child yelling, “tattle tale!”—I do not have to engage in the revealed pain of another.  I do not have to confront the histories or inequities I have erased or ignore.

I want to posit that while defensiveness is a common approach, it is lazy, destructive, and selfish; we have to do better.  My teenager is learning to make sense of the world, and I hope defensiveness is only one step in a long journey toward an awakening into his place in the world.  If we hope to offer Generation Bruh help or wisdom, we must confront our own delusions, legacies and defensiveness.  Whose histories have we erased? When do we feel attacked or overwhelmed? Whose experiences do we diminish? How do we respond to the pain of others?