not political? get practical: 5 ways to stop being the problem

Last week’s essay made the case that the problem with our current national public devolution is not outrage or political involvement. Rather, our apparent inability to communicate with each other is a result of our obsession with ourselves, our restricted interaction with people whose life experience differs from ours, our clear commitment to prioritize that which furthers our agenda, and our discomfort with ambiguity. I heard from friends who read, nodding, grateful tears running down their faces, and from friends annoyed that I suggested “outrage” or “getting political” could ever be a valid option (and many people in between!). Here’s the thing: We all agree we are really, really bad at talking with each other about the state of America right now; we shake our heads, tisk our lips, and roll our eyes at the state of us, but we fail to recognize that we are both part of the problem and have infinite resources to change our behavior.

I’m a college professor, and I regularly tell my students that we adults have utterly failed them. That we are terrible at talking to each other. That we seem to have no ability to lean in to the lives of people whose experiences differ from ours. That we are actually not the kind of adults anyone should want to be. They laugh, but some of them agree with me. When I remind them that it takes difficult work to recognize our own bias, to admit that the problem in not “out there” but “in here”, that we are deeply lazy, selfish people who love to blame others instead of doing what we can do to make things better, a few of them get a panicked look in their eye, because they know they will turn into us if they don’t find a different way to be in the world.

In an effort to promote a different way to be in the world, this week I’d like to offer suggestions on how to stop screaming at your television/radio/neighbor and instead invest in your own environment, changing the way “normal” is done around you. There are many ways to respond to the Kavanaugh hearings. Decrying public engagement or passion as ridiculous, shallow outrage, is not helpful in my view. Here are a few practical suggestions that might serve the cause of justice and promote communal flourishing as we all learn to be better grown ups who share a country and a neighborhood.

 1)   Don’t undermine women in your life. Don’t use phrases like “middle school girl drama” to describe grudge-holding or silly bickering. Remove gendered insults from your vocabulary. Treat women as if their value and importance to society go far beyond their physical endowments. Teach them to speak up for themselves and then listen and respond when they do so. Don’t talk trash about your mom or mother-in-law, your boss or your waitress.

2)   Instead of raging about the inequality displayed in the Senate, take inventory of your own power. In your home, community or place of work, how are people respected and how is gender navigated? How do you show respect, and who do you silence? Who gets the benefit of the doubt and who is treated with skepticism? Clean up your side of the street, in the places you live and play and work. If you are privy to sexist or denigrating comments, whether sexual in nature or gender-based hyperbole, speak up! Let people know that you are neither safe for male locker room talk nor for females bashing males.

3)   Don’t confuse young men with conflicted and gendered teaching. In the South especially, young men are taught to protect women, to open their doors and to carry their things. Often, the same men who teach these lessons tell off-color jokes, clearly appraising women’s bodies with their eyes. They extend their “protection” of women to a patronizing withholding of information from women: ‘I don’t trust your ability to function in stress or to contribute to solutions’ gets phrased as, ‘I didn’t want you to worry.’ Don’t tell young men to treat women one way and then undermine that with your own behavior.

4)   Openly engage in the world around you. Refute the bullshit that paying attention or commenting on the political arena is somehow hysterical or an act of outrage. If men can grow up so insulated, with such privilege, that they regularly got blackout drunk and violatingly handsy with women in their paths, yet still demand the respect of others, we should be outraged! If a man spent a career respecting others, admitting mistakes, making amends, and applying the law to society in just ways, but was falsely accused of multiple counts of sexual assault, we should be outraged! If a woman’s understanding of her own body, safety and sexuality was badly impacted by an early assault from an entitled peer, we should be outraged! If our elected officials acted to further a conspiracy of damaging lies, or looked the other way when someone committed multiple counts of perjury, or acted to protect powerful unrepentant sexual assailants, we should be outraged! The presence of outrage does not presuppose an unhealthy person. Engage in the world around you, and consider what will make you speak up, or in whose defense you will stand. If there is no scenario that might make you speak, or gently disagree with a friend, or defend a person your circle has dismissed, then ask yourself what holds your love and loyalty.

5)   Know your history. Face the sexism and abuse and misogyny that has carried our country along. Explore the dark activities we have called normal. Educate yourself on the differences in patriotism and nationalism, between leadership and greed. Look into the divides between who we teach our kids to be and who we are when no one looks or no one cares. Many of our recent public moments could help us face a culture that excuses or even encourages behavior that destroys or handicaps lives. Don’t allow one person to be the anomaly; look for patterns and find your own places of compromise. Face the reality of our past, confront our present, and change the future.

 Our choosing of sides is problematic. Our love of finger pointing, blame, victimization and outrage are absurd. Our jump to accusation and defense are not helpful. But they aren’t the main problem. The answer is not to back away. Apathy is not a spiritual gift. Standing aloof will not bend us toward justice. Perhaps the answer is to get more involved, more engaged. What can you do, tomorrow, to be a part of the solution, rather than blindly being a part of the problem you complain about?

the destruction of defensiveness: generation bruh

My oldest son is a teenager, and he calls himself part of Generation Bruh. When asked to expound on what this label means, he responds with hilarious memes of people dramatically being “done.” Mildly annoyed, sarcastically dismissive, mocking the obvious, hilariously put-out…all of his examples are basically combinations of 3 sentiments: Adults are dumb; Not my problem; Boy Bye.  Nevertheless, I have reason to believe Generation Bruh knows very well that America is their “problem”, and that they only dismiss those of us who live in isolated, defensive denial about what America represents.

Last week he was reading about the violence that tragically helped bring about the legislative victories of the Civil Rights Movement.  Specifically, he was immersed in the details of Emmett Till’s death and its aftermath.  When he looked up I caught his eye and asked him how it made him feel to read this part of our history.  He looked me straight in the eye and said, “It is terrible. I hate it. And I hate reading about how, once again, white men are the worst. I’m sick of it.”  

I was stunned for a couple of reasons. His honesty shocked me.  I was also dumbfounded that his response to the senseless and vicious murder of another human was somehow defensively about himself.  Generation Bruh is done with drama. They are done hearing about all the inequities and hypocrisies of America.  But they know it is there. The challenge facing all of us is how to face the good, bad and ugly of American history and culture without getting defensive or checking out.  

We, collectively, are raising kids who understand our country was founded on an idea of equality and dignity that we have yet to realize. 

Pity for white men is not an appropriate response to our racist history.  And yet, as I talked with him about his fatigue, I realized he is growing up exposed to realities of abuse in law enforcement, churches, medical offices, work spaces, churches, schools and homes.  He is growing up during the era of church sexual abuse, Black Lives Matter, and #metoo.  He is growing up in a world where the most powerful men in our country openly belittle and discriminate against women of every race, the foreign born and people of color. He is constantly bombarded with evidence that our world is unjust, and he only has to look around to see that white males possess most of the power and wealth in our country.

As a white male himself, how is he to navigate this world?  He observes abuse everywhere, and now he contextualizes that abuse with an honest historical examination of colonialism, patriarchy and a racially stratified America.  Perhaps my son is “done” with talking about the need to face historical abuse or to pursue diverse perspectives because he already does this on a daily basis (#sorrynotsorry).  I was not taught to recognize the deep tensions or hypocrisies in American history.  I was taught Columbus discovered America and the intercultural celebration of Thanksgiving was indicative of the dignifying partnerships between new settlers and Natives.  My son, on the other hand, knows that Columbus didn’t discover anything, and that the pilgrims’ approach to Natives was one of theft and displacement. 

The challenge facing all of us is how to face the good, bad and ugly of American history and culture without getting defensive or checking out.  

I was taught Christianity was always a force for good, and that every person who worked hard could improve their prospects. My son knows that Christianity largely legitimized the abusive global power of Empire, and that our laws created generational poverty that hard work cannot overcome.  I was taught that education is the great equalizer, and that if kids would only stay in school they would leave poverty behind. My son knows that many communities fail kids, and that majority minority schools in our city regularly graduate kids who do not read on grade level and will flunk out of college.  I was taught that democracy is fair and that voting gives us a voice.  My son knows that voting rights are not universal to American citizens, and that gerrymandered districts have corrupted our ability to ensure effective representation.  Generation Bruh can act oblivious, but they know things, yall.

We, collectively, are raising kids who understand our country was founded on an idea of equality and dignity that we have yet to realize.  As the Grammys opened Sunday night, Kendrick Lamar rapped while black men in hoodies were systematically picked off, all in front of an American flag.  U2’s Bono and the Edge walked through the men, reminding us, “It’s not a place, this country is to me a thought, that offers grace, for every welcome that is sought.” As if they knew we Americans are not so great at hearing the truth uttered by voices different than our own, Dave Chappelle stepped forward as a translator of sorts: “I just wanted to remind the audience that the only thing more frightening than watching a black man be honest in America is being an honest black man in America.”  Generation Bruh are growing into American adulthood as the idea of America is deconstructed and resignified.  Their entire nation seems to ask: Are we, as Lincoln said in Gettysburg, “A new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”?

Can we blame Generation Bruh for doubting, with all their eye rolling and sighing and “lookatthisdude”-ing, that we in America are “dedicated” to that incredibly obvious proposition?  A simple look at our jails, schools, tax code, neighborhoods, payroll, or welfare programs clearly reveal that we are dedicated to no such thing.  We need only listen to comments collected at random from elected officials to know that we spend a great deal of energy governing on the proposition that all people fit nicely into a society stratified by economics, race and gender.  Our kids must grapple with what America is and what their places might be in it.  My study of Generation Bruh encourages me that their attitude of “done” stems not from apathy, but from a deep security that they understand inherent equality, and the open attacks to that equality, better than we do. 

We all need to struggle with our cultural legacies, and with the particularized setting history has given us. I am intimidated and profoundly grateful to have the privilege of helping my kids position themselves as subjects with agency, even as they are contextualized by a history of often failing to embody stated ideals.  Sadly, the wide range of defensiveness I hear from adults reveals the fact that many of us have not moved beyond feeling attacked by any reference to our unjust world.  My hope is that a diverse Generation Bruh can move through feelings of defensiveness or victimization into full agency as they reconcile the America that can be with the America that is.

In the coming weeks I’ll try to help us recognize and ultimately reject defensiveness as a response to the pain of others. In the meantime, adults who interact with Generation Bruh might do well to pay attention to what they see and hear, and join them in wrestling with how to be an American adult.

the danger of exceptional thinking: parenting

Recently, on NPR, a commercial aired for a private, Christian school in Nashville whose primary pledge is to help discover and celebrate what makes each of its students unique.  On the face of it, this is a fabulous thing.  We all want to be special.  If you scratch a bit below the surface though, this message becomes absurd.  This school is promising to identify, distinguish, evoke and celebrate the absolute uniqueness of all 600 of its students.  How is this even possible, I ask?!

Nevertheless, this ridiculous message resonates deeply with parents all over Nashville.  Not only do most of us want to be special, we also insist our kids are special.  We cater to them in sports, music, school choice, bedroom color, learning style and life trajectory in the hunt for, and then announcement of, their discovered uniqueness.  Parents move heaven and earth to get each child into the perfect school.  Not college; elementary school.  Moreover, we often treat participation in sports as all-important, as if each child’s primary identity will be shaped by the narrative of this miniature athletic “career.”  Perspective is lost, even though most of these “careers” phase out not after 5 seasons in the pros, but before 8th grade.  The obsessions with sports—the pressure, time and money—are easy to mock, but they are merely a symptom.  The problem I want to elucidate and explore runs much deeper, and dictates many of the expectations we place upon our children.

One of the central problems of the exceptional paradigm is that it destroys community.  One’s value is only found in the context of being other than, or more accurately, better than.

The import of this kind of thinking and parenting is that every child is exceptional, and their worth is only found in regularly manifesting their exceptionality.  This is dangerous for several reasons, a few of which I will address here.  First, this assertion of exceptionality implicitly and explicitly applies overwhelming pressure on many kids.  There is a frantic look in their eyes, for they know they wear the mantle of “Exceptional.”  If a child is as exceptional as they’ve been told they are, it only follows that they MUST make the honor roll, or start on the soccer team, or be an outstanding leader, or be an artistic savant, or get into the school that is designed to perfectly draw out their unique awesomeness.  Are we kidding?  We have all seen the numbers of rising anxiety in elementary school aged children, not to mention the angst and increasing trends of self-harm in high school students.  Instead of reminding them that their exceptionality must be demonstrated with concrete evidence for which they are responsible and by which they will be measured, what if we instead used every opportunity to show them the nature of our love for them? What if, instead of demanding a demonstration (for this is what we communicate when we involve them in so many activities), we demonstrated to them that our love and support of them exists outside of their effort or ability to prove themselves worthy? What if our love for them reflected God’s first—unearned—love for them?

Entitlement is the natural side effect of raising a child to think she is exceptional.  We cannot reasonably expect our kids not to be self-absorbed when our every move is geared toward proving how exceptional they are to the world.

Second, telling kids they are exceptional encourages self-absorbed living.  If kids are exceptional, then they must reach their full potential at all costs!  Of course the whole family should suffer to make sure each child is driven to and from the school designed perfectly for them, the year round sport at which only they can excel, or the choir in which only they best sing.  They are exceptional!  Entitlement is the natural side effect of raising a child to think she is exceptional.  We cannot reasonably expect our kids not to be self-absorbed when our every move is geared toward proving how exceptional they are to the world.  If, however, we instead help them understand how their gifts, talent, genius and interests are part of a communal whole, they might catch a vision for collaborating with others to ensure the flourishing of the community, instead of only accomplishing their own goals.

Compassion and empathy are skills needed in order to engage those with different perspectives; indeed, these are the seeds of leadership, not evidence of weakness.

Third, this emphasis on being exceptional reduces their ability to be compassionate and empathetic.  They are not like other kids; they are exceptional.  One of the central problems of the exceptional paradigm is that it destroys community.  One’s value is only found in the context of being other than, or more accurately, better than.  When this is the framework, empathy and compassion cannot exist.  At worst, we are raising our kids to fight for their primacy at all costs; at best we are teaching our kids to offer condescending pity to their non-exceptional peers.  Imagine how the fabric of our society could be strengthened if we actively parented in a way that celebrated points of connection in the midst of diversity, rather than diminishing any contribution that comes from another.  Compassion and empathy are skills needed in order to engage those with different perspectives; indeed, these are the seeds of leadership, not evidence of weakness.

My wonderful parents were masters of raising exceptional children.  They just couldn't help themselves; they thought the four of us hung the moon!  We were told, with no hesitation, that we were simply more gifted than others, and our childhoods were magical.  Our assumed exceptionality was hidden under the guise of humility and “to whom much is given much is expected;” nevertheless, the message stuck.  Indeed, the motto of our elite school was Principes non homine: Leaders, not men.  This community was so committed to the exceptionality of each child that these messages were thought necessary to help a child reach her potential, not ideas that might create little arrogant, self absorbed monsters.  My parents mitigated all the praising of us by leading remarkably service- and other-oriented lives.  They raised us to know we were God’s greatest gift to earth AND to be adults who consistently notice and advocate for others.  Importantly, they continue to model deep humility in the way they encourage us to raise their grandkids with a different emphasis.  I am grateful for my remarkable childhood even as I also see the danger in raising my kids to think they’re exceptional.  Do we really lose anything if our starting point becomes, “You are delightful, and I can’t wait to see where you decide to put your energy to make life better and more meaningful for yourself and others”?  If we want to expand our us, we must interrogate the impact of the messages we send our kids...on themselves and their communities.  Consider the disservice we offer our kids when we tell them, in words or with our actions, that they are exceptional.