aim higher: on smoking and toxic speech

If you listen closely to the stories of people born to a generation different than yours, you will quickly remember that cultural norms are always in flux. What we think of as normal is actually a set of loosely held beliefs, shared collectively by those similar in age, geographical location, religion or ethnicity. Normal for you might not be normal for me.

We know this, and yet those very norms are incredibly powerful. It is easy to shake our heads as kids lose their way in the face of peer pressure, but are we any different? Adults, claiming to live with free agency, often mimic their younger selves, following the herd in which they find themselves, doing what everyone else does. We easily replace our own sense of right and wrong with those who claim the right path is the one that doesn’t ask me to change.

For good or for bad, norms are comforting because they help us understand the context in which we live, revealing good ideas and bad ones as we decide which habits must change. When such change comes, it is easy to lose the sense of comfort that came with knowing what ‘normal’ felt like. When norms change, some people feel alienated, and left behind.

Consider smoking. My extended family was sitting on the beach recently, and one of the ten grandkids started waving her hand flamboyantly in front of her nose. “What’s that nasty smell?”, she nearly yelled. “Smoke!” another kid answered, “someone is smoking out here.” Kids groaned, parents rolled their eyes, and then looked around indignantly, as if to say, “Who dares to think its okay to smoke out here? Disgusting!”

Full disclosure, I was also appalled, bothered that we were being subjected to such a destructive habit. Later though, I heard my family tell stories about past vacations where aunts and uncles smoked incessantly, inside, outside, and most certainly on the beach. Our thoughts about smoking are a direct reflection of the cultural norms that surround us. Apparently everyone used to smoke: pregnant women, folks lounging in bed, and matriarchs rolling out biscuits for Sunday lunch…it was neither appalling nor disgusting 50 years ago.

Not a fan of cancer, I am thrilled that smoking is now considered taboo. I’m thankful my kids nearly think it is a sign of moral destitution to light up regularly. What about the smokers though? If you came of age in a time when smoking was ubiquitous, the changes that made smoking frowned upon labeled you an enemy of public decency.

That is the tricky thing about norms: They constantly change, and yet our attachment to them can make us feel dislocated when changes inevitably occur. There is a pervasive alienation that comes when the thing that is normal for me is suddenly outlawed out in the real world. If unexamined, it can begin to shape our understanding of our place in the world. Feeling as if my habits or instincts are not appropriate for public spaces can make me feel desperate for a place to fit. Moreover, it can make me feel as if I am a victim of public progress, a person now deemed unfit for proper society.  It can make me long for things to go back to the way they were.

It is easy to imagine the resentment smokers feel when obnoxious children loudly condemn them on a random beach. As we think about expanding our embrace of the different folks around us, it is also helpful to imagine the resentment people might feel who are increasingly told their opinions are disrespectful toward women or bigoted toward certain others. To be clear, I find misogyny, racism, homophobia and xenophobia even more toxic than smoking. Nevertheless, I have come to understand it takes hard (and perhaps unfamiliar?) work to recognize the evil and abusive nature of a set of opinions one has held for decades—that were once widely shared among his ancestors.

Rather than loudly condemning them as toxic, could we help them see the norms they have long accepted are destructive? When it is okay to insult and denigrate others based on gender or race, inequity, exclusion and power imbalances become the natural norm. If we want to live in a country with liberty for all, then this change is good and necessary. It is also worthwhile to recognize it takes humble reflection and courageous curiosity for those who found the old way of interacting acceptable. Rather than simply accusing them of disgusting behavior, it would be more productive to make space for their questions and frustrations, giving them a place to belong as they change their way of speaking.

I should say here that so many women and men from minority communities have been creating space for bigoted folks to learn to be less bigoted for centuries. And many of them are done with that work. It is incredibly costly for a person to sit with another person and explain to them why their perspective is hurtful, demeaning or oppressive. It is a cost borne by those who are not served by the status quo or norms of the past. Every time they step forward to sit across the table from someone angry or just confused by the need for norms to change, they are required to face dismissive prejudice or outright hate. Folks historically marginalized have been inhaling that cancerous smoke for longer than I’ve been alive, and the effects are often toxic.

It is incumbent on the rest of us to pull a chair up to the table and talk openly about why blaming other people for the alienation one feels is not the path forward. The task before us is to ask those who feel left behind to stop blaming women and men already victimized by prejudice. We must also make every effort not to condemn those who find themselves outside societal norms for being frustrated as they learn to respect and even honor the new norms for public interacting. Habits won’t change unless people are willing to calmly explain why it is necessary.

 In an age where every other podcast discusses the power of tribal connectivity in this political moment, it might help us to acknowledge that some of our tribes become strong because the rest of us point our fingers at those who need a little time and help in discovering how our old norms dehumanized and hurt a lot of people. Let us not talk falsely now, but instead commit ourselves to support any effort made to reflect on how our commitment to some norms hurt the people around us. Offer people a seat at the table instead of kicking them out of the house.

on inauguration day

thoughts on the transfer of power

This morning our country witnessed the peaceful transfer of power, from one President to another.  The power did not just move from one man to another, it moved from one vision of the world, one set of core beliefs, to one, although obscured and unknown in many ways, that is certainly very different than the vision proclaimed for the past few years.  While the title and power of the Presidency has certainly been placed upon the shoulders of Donald Trump, I am hopeful that his vision for our country will not supplant the vision of his predecessor. 

I must recognize that I am predisposed, and biased, toward an inclusive vision of our country.  I am a person of faith, and my approach to others is foundationally shaped by the movement of God toward all people created in God’s own image.  I believe that my value, indeed all of humanity’s value, is rooted in the dignity of our creation, guaranteeing that we are all made with equal worth and promise.  I am not more valuable because of the work I have done; indeed, I know that my accomplishments are a reflection of the foundation of privilege into which I was born.  Because I believe my redemption comes from Christ, I am also fully aware that my knowledge of God, my dependence on God, my purpose within God, is only possible because God moves toward me with forgiveness, sacrifice and grace.  This awareness gives me no choice but to move toward all the people around me with a similar sense of forgiveness, sacrifice and grace.  This bias, which I fully own, leads me to align myself closely with the vision of Barack Obama, and to reject the vision of now President Trump.

I fundamentally believe that I am stronger and wiser and more resilient when I am confronted with and impacted by the diverse perspectives of others.

I fundamentally believe that I am stronger and wiser and more resilient when I am confronted with and impacted by the diverse perspectives of others.  I fundamentally believe that the opportunities and prosperity of others do not threaten my own in any way.  I also fundamentally believe that my own prosperity and security require me to give others the same privileges I enjoy (I realize that I have lived a life of abundance and it is a privilege to not feel threatened by the growth of others).  

President Trump disagrees.  He has consistently argued that immigrants are destroying the American way of life, and that corrupt and selfish government has bankrupted this country in order to build and bolster other countries. These statements and decisions are manifestations stemming from a belief that immigrants and all other nations are takers at best, and out to destroy America at worst.  His vision, I think, is a direct reflection of “American Exceptionalism,” that is, the idea that America was founded on a grand idea, and that our ability to reject our colonial founders, establish a lasting democracy, and quickly rise to become the leading world power means that we are God’s chosen people and THE global authority—morally and otherwise—in a way impossible for other nations.  While this idea is certainly gratifying, it can lead to a certainty that our perspective is uniform, and always correct.  When we encounter a perspective that confronts ours, or find evidence that we have not behaved as the exceptionally correct and magnanimous power we believe ourselves to be, that exceptionality, indeed our identity, feels threatened.  This foundation leads, I believe, to President Trump’s posture of chronic defensiveness, and although it starts at a national level, it results in a fear and rejection of individual others.  Because I see through a frame of appreciating and moving toward others in curiosity, I have to challenge his policies and rhetoric that encourages the demonization of others.  Will you join me?

President Trump’s inaugural address has been called a Populist Manifesto.  Indeed, he offered a prescription for healing the divides his campaign speeches widened by saying, “when you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.” 

He called out the selfish corruption in Washington, and this year he consistently promised to never again forget the countless people our government has left behind.  Any honest look at our country, our history, and current reality will confirm President Trump’s wise assessment that our country does not actually value all “the people.”  I am thankful he acknowledged this inequality, and appreciate the attention he has given to those who have struggled to find a place in our rapidly changing economy and cultural norms.

His vision for our country and his promises to “drain the swamp” or that they “will be forgotten no more,” however, do not line up in any way with the decisions he has made during his transition.  First, 15 of his 20 cabinet-level nominees are white males.  These men, most of whom are millionaires who have been very politically active, are Trump’s most trusted advisorsI see their uniformity of class, race and gender as a sobering reminder that President Trump does not know or value perspectives different than his own.  Many of the men he has placed in his cabinet and on his top advising team have no track record of remembering those Trump rightly claims have been forgotten.  It is troubling to me that he has surrounded himself with people whose life experiences mirror his own, and I have to challenge the notion that the best professionals in every sphere are white males.  Will you join me?

I see their uniformity of class, race and gender as a sobering reminder that President Trump does not know or value perspectives different than his own.  

My other concerns are more specific, and involve economic prosperity, tax rates and regulatory reform.  Wealth inequality has been growing, as middle and lower income earners’ wages have stagnated, while investors and owners’ wages have increased.  Since 1963, the wealthiest Americans’ net worth increased 6 fold, while the bottom 50% barely grew at all (Urban Institute).  In fact, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), our poorest 90% must share 24% of the country’s wealth.  President Trump is right!  90% of our country has been forgotten!  While technological advances continue to present challenges to our work force and model, the greatest blow to our economic stability came in the Great Recession, precipitated by rash and greed-fueled decisions made by members of the financial industry.  These decisions were permitted because laws regulating the industry had been repealed.  Knowing that the removal of these regulations paved the way for decisions that caused the global economic crisis—felt most destructively in middle and lower class homes—Trump has promised that one of his top priorities is to deregulate the financial industry.  Moreover, his tax plan shows no consideration whatsoever for the ones he calls “forgotten”: the CBO predicts his tax plan will raise the incomes of the top 1% by 10% or higher, while the tax impact on middle and lower classes will remain unchanged.   In this and so many other arenas, his cabinet picks and policy commitments prove his real vision to be quite the opposite of the promises he made in his inaugural address.  Because I reject the notion that deregulating industries and lowering tax rates for those who provide capital will cause wealth to “trickle down” to the rest of us (a notion never successfully demonstrated in America), I have to challenge his policies based on the premise that if we trust the guys at the top with more power and money, the rest of us will be okay.  Will you join me?

Despite my grave and worthy concerns, I have committed to keeping an open mind as our new President is sworn in.  To that end, I must say I am heartened by the inclusion of Rabbi Marvin Hier, who uttered the following maxim at today’s ceremony: “A nation’s wealth is measured by her values, not her vaults.”  This notion feels endangered by our current power structure, and yet these words continue to articulate an idea many Americans want to embody.  Whoever our President, most Americans also want to be part of a government by and for and of the people.  If this is true, we must join together now and demand policies—not just promises—that demonstrate these values.  Will you join me?