on stoning: glass houses, arguing badly and hypocritical living

As a novice participant in the Twittisphere, I am new, and frankly overwhelmed by, the manic nature of the thing.   Having spent a lifetime in which completing tasks gives me great joy, Twitter might be my new Kryptonite.  You can’t finish.  It’s never done.  You check and get caught up, and then 10 seconds later there is more, so much more.  Your eyes burn, your brain is constantly in what feels like the-hour-before-a-headache-starts, and your attention span has suddenly always just done a line of coke, unable to focus and jittery as hell.  As I said.  Manic.

But I have begun with a digression.  Twitter has confirmed for me that many people feel under siege.  There is a sense that the sky is falling constantly.  I get it, and I feel it too.  The clarity that arises with 280 characters, combined with the ability to do simple fact checking, can lead one to feel like some of our nation’s leaders are really petty, mean, liars.  And yet, here is my problem: Twitter can be, at times, a metaphorical arena for a brutal stoning.  A target arises who has said or done something wrong, and people quickly gather, rock in hand, and fire away.  I am not that interested in our capacity to be mean to each other. This is not new. What is worth thinking about, however, is the lack of context we bring to the stoning.  How do we, either through attacking a person or even by our collective outcry of “Wrong!”, not realize that we are contributing to the problem?  Not to mention glass houses and all that.

I want to argue that we might temper our engagement in macrodiscussions with an awareness of ourselves in the micro context.  Many of us loathe the extremist and hyperbolic views we hear spouted on tv and social media.  We feel outrage when we hear people tell half-truths or give junk analysis of a situation.  We are angry when a person’s character or judgment is maligned.  We lament the cowards who do not speak up for, or write policies for, the vulnerable among us.

I am all for outrage.  I am all for resistance.  Our status quo is criminally unfair for the poor and for people of color.  To quote Jesus tho, “Let he who has not sinned throw the first stone.”  If we really care about helping each other find our most compassionate, honest selves, can we justify screaming at others for being unkind?  As we engage in this macro battle for our country, can we also wage war in our own micro realities?  Can I see all the terrible out there while also acknowledging all the terrible in here?  As much as it stings to say out loud, I have come to the conclusion that the “Washington swamp” is a perfect reflection of all of us.  I say that with great reservation.  I spent the last year trying to understand how “they” could be so terrible.  How all of “them” voted for “that.”  The truth though, is that the level and manner of discourse out there is not that far removed from my own ways of communicating.  We tend to believe the end justifies the means, but in this case, the end happens in the first place because our means are so dysfunctional.

How often do we talk to people with whom we disagree?  Do we take the cowardly way out and assume it is “bad manners” to engage in subjects that make us uncomfortable?  Many of us talk freely as long as we know no one will disagree or challenge our perspectives.  This kind of hiveminded thinking leads to confirmation bias, strengthening our particular arguments without actually exploring other angles.  And yet this is what we accuse our leaders of doing. 

How often do we weigh in on issues we don’t fully understand, demonizing one position with a drastic oversimplification of the issue?  How often do you double down on your point of view when someone challenges you, discrediting or dismissing your conversant instead of listening with curiosity and responding with humble conviction?  We rarely take the time to inform ourselves and simply dismiss anyone who disagrees by calling them a name or placing them inside a well known extremist tribe.  And yet this is what we accuse our leaders of doing.

How often do we speak up for vulnerable people in a way that brings understanding?  Regularly we either remain silent in the face of passive racism or ignorant stereotyping, or we attack the speaker in a way that shames them and ends the conversation.  Have you ever tried the hard awkward work of firmly, with kindness, challenging passive racism in another?  Of helping someone see their privilege or subtle bigotry in a way that might help them never do it again?  Changing an unjust status quo is exhausting work, but societal reconciliation and economic equity will require all of us; we will never work together if we don't learn to speak to each other without accusation.  And yet this is what we accuse our leaders of not doing.

It is hard work, but the necessary path.  I am not arguing that we should ignore the macro until we get the micro right.  I am not arguing we have to be perfect in order to earn the right to speak up.  I am arguing, however, that many of us regularly contribute to the toxic and mean spirited environment that we now decry.  We have easily identified the guardrails here.  We know it is cowardly to stay silent and brash to publicly destroy people for their inappropriate views.  What about all the options in between?  Before you “stone” someone on Twitter or face to face for being close-minded, extreme or bigoted, explore all the options available to you in the way you interact. 

There are so many ways for us to be a part of the solution. The first is simply to acknowledge that we are part of the problem. It is not just out there. It’s in here. Let’s hold ourselves to the elusive standard we pretend is possible when we criticize our leaders. Could we inform ourselves, pursue collaborative conversations with people whose perspectives differ, and find ways to engage others with compassionate curiosity?  This, although perhaps not instinctive, is, especially in our given context, a bold rejection of the status quo and a major act of resistance. If we the people start acting like we the people, then maybe our leaders will begin to represent us well. Civil discourse doesn't happen on the public stage because it doesn't happen at our kitchen tables or social media feeds.  Right now I am afraid our leaders are the perfect representatives of our bad behavior. 

the destruction of defensiveness: the dodge ad

During Sunday’s Super Bowl, viewed by nearly a third of all Americans, Dodge aired an advertisement found wildly offensive to millions of Americans.  The ad was a mashup of quintessential “American” scenes shown while the voice of Martin Luther King, Jr spoke passionately about the virtue of serving others.  Dodge produced the ad in order to bring awareness to a campaign—called Ram Nation—that is meant to advocate for and celebrate volunteerism in local communities.  In the ad, King reminds us that the desire to be great, to lead, and even to do good are wonderful instincts, but that “he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness.”  

Today King is a man largely misremembered by largely delusional people.

The excerpt was taken from a speech King gave at Ebeneezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, GA, a few months before his death, and is called, “The Drum Major Instinct.”  In it, he discusses the human need to feel superior, and forcefully argues that in individuals this need leads to violent and unjust notions of white supremacy, while at the national level, “the nations of the world are engaged in a bitter, colossal contest for supremacy,” and that America won’t stop “because of our pride and our arrogance as a nation.”  The content of King’s speech makes it very clear that he is presenting a new way to find meaning in life, and that new way is accessed when we use our power in order to serve those overlooked by powerful people.  He goes out of his way to reject the idea that abject power and the accumulation of “stuff” (like a Dodge pickup truck, for instance) could ever hope to bring peace.  I’m not here to defend or condemn the ad; instead, I think our response to it offers an excellent showcase of our tendency to get defensive when we encounter points of view that are different than our own.

Defensiveness destroys conversation. 

I understand the instinct.  For many white folks, at times it can feel as if we walk through a field of land mines when it comes to race and history, as if any misstep will cause an explosion.  For many black folks, the constant demand to justify experience, to legitimize a point of view, is diminishing and exhausting.  These common experiences can make everyone feel like their opinions are offensive, or as if they are only safe with “their kind.”  This preference for similarity, combined with countless experiences of being misunderstood or even accused, can make us all defensive instead of patient and engaged when we encounter others. 

I personally found the ad to be an attempt to appropriate a black cultural icon for the profit of a business.  I thought it was in bad taste, as it commodified the words of King in order to sell a brand.  Regardless of my perspective, I am fascinated as I watch the debate unfold.  Friends who live and breathe the work of justice, who see America as King did—a mixed bag of courageous, democratic idealism and hypocritical, oppressive systems—are frustrated by the idea that a company could try to use King to make a profit.  It smacks of a history laden with powerful folks using black labor and creativity to make profits.  On the other hand, I have seen sincere folks begin by saying they were moved by the ad, only to feel attacked, and then react defensively by saying something like, “Am I not allowed to have an opinion? Everytime I even try to talk about Dr. King I end up getting yelled at for doing it wrong!”

Our country experienced the same ad in vastly different ways, and our responses not only reveal the toxicity of quick defensiveness, they also reveal the deep divide over how we view Dr. King and what he stood for.

While millions of people—black and white—have condemned the ad, millions more thought it was a moving tribute to King.  Because defensiveness destroys conversation, we cannot have a productive discussion about why we might (dis)approve of it. Twitter rants about black sensitivity and white appropriation of King abound from every possible angle.

It goes something like this…

Tweeter A: What a moving ad, spot on. Thankful the words of Dr. King are being celebrated and remembered.

Tweeter B:  Only white privilege could make you think that honors Dr. King in any way.

[Tweeter A either explodes with name-calling and defensiveness or withdraws in shame, unsure of why it is bad to celebrate Dr. King.]

Or like this….

Tweeter X: Of course a giant company thinks it’s okay to appropriate Dr. King to help them sell cars, they love black culture but won’t speak up for black lives.

Tweeter Y: You are impossible to please. Only you would complain that Dr. King’s words are being celebrated.

[Tweeter X either explodes with name-calling and defensiveness or withdraws in frustration, feeling unheard and misunderstood.]

Can't we do better than this? It strikes me that this particular ad, and our reactions to it, offer us a fabulous chance to LISTEN to the perspectives of others.  Our country experienced the same ad in vastly different ways, and our responses not only reveal the toxicity of quick defensiveness, they also reveal the deep divide over how we view Dr. King and what he stood for. We love him for his soaring oratory, for dreams he painted in our hearts, for his vision of collaborative respect, his insistence on the power of light, and above all, the centrality of love in the way forward.  We struggle, however, to celebrate the part of him who argued majority culture was “more devoted to order than to justice”; we bristle at his critique of the man who “paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom”; we feel exposed by the man who said the church is in danger of being “dismissed as an irrelevant social club”; we take issue with the leader who proclaimed “we have no alternative but to protest.” 

Our love of Dr. King rises over a society that has escaped what he called the “inescapable network of mutuality”, a society that struggles to hear and honor the hurt experienced by many people, a society so steeped in delusion that we actively work against our pledge to act “with liberty, and justice, for all.”  Our response to the Dodge ad reveals the truth that King is a man largely misremembered by largely delusional people.  Perhaps we would do well to listen to all of his words, and to reflect on our own defensive postures when we encounter disagreement.  As this debate fades from the public sphere, notice how you listen, how you react, and how you appreciate the experience of others before defensively aborting the conversation.