Thursday, May 21, 2009
Let's agree to disagree
"One of the worst problems in America--not just in America, everywhere--is demonizing. If you disagree with a person, then you think they are a demon. I don't think people realize the cost of hatred; how it not only corrodes the person feeling it but makes the possibility of persuasive conversation with the hated person impossible. Hatred has only one object: hurting the target. I think it is very important to disagree without venomous hatred, without insult. No one changes their view, or even considers a differing view if it is presented as a personal attack."--Paul Ekman, from Emotional Awareness: A Conversation Between the Dalai Lama and Paul Ekman, PhD.
This past Mother's Day, my mother went to a brunch at my aunt and uncle's house (I couldn't be with her that Sunday, but saw her the following weekend.) She told me that a woman I had met before, an older woman related to my aunt, was there with her boyfriend. Apparently the topic turned to gay marriage, and this woman (let's call her Bea) was vehemently opposed to the idea and wasn't shy about expressing her disdain. My mother said, "It was a good thing you weren't there." And I thought about that. Usually I steer clear of weighty topics like gay marriage and immigration rights and abortion and organized religion--even politics--unless I know the person I'm talking to feels the same as I do. I also think you should respect people who are older than you. But is silence a form of agreement? And if I were to actually argue with someone whose beliefs diametrically opposed my own, could I keep it civil?
It's like when someone criticizes you or does something that feels like an infringement. Do you retaliate or walk away? I'm sometimes caught by surprise by my own venom. If I feel someone has disrespected me or done something rude, I often get very, very angry, spitting angry. For someone who likes to get along with people, there's a part of me that also wants to slap them at the least provocation. But if I retaliate, or if I argue, isn't that escalating things? And won't that make the situation worse?
In 2004 I marched in a women's right to choose rally on Washington. Bush was in office and women's reproductive rights were being threatened. Because I surround myself with people who share my liberal views, I was taken aback by all the pro-life advocates who lined the streets where we were marching. I held up a sign that an artistically-gifted friend of mine had made for me--a dove with a gag in its beak--meant to represent the global gag rule. It was a kid's drawing compared to the visceral, bloodied, and horrific signs the pro-lifers displayed. At first I recoiled, and even felt hate rising in me for these people. But then I thought--this is what animal rights activists do--show shocking pictures of abused animals--and you support them. These protesters are just trying to get their point across, and a graphic visual may be the only thing that registers with people. Still, I felt angry. In fact, even though I was too much of a coward to say anything, I was secretly pleased to be walking next to a very vocal marcher who shouted down the pro-lifers with absolute ferocity.
But that's the problem, isn't it? For all the times that I seethed at the people storming the gates of Notre Dame when Obama was giving the commencement address, or crossed the street when I saw anti-gay marriage protestors, wasn't I shutting myself off from trying to understand people who happen to have an opposing view? Growing up in the Northeast, I'm so buffeted by liberalism that I have become the very elitist that infuriates the right-leaning.
Now that Obama is in office and trying to make both party sides come together, I've been thinking about how you make change in the world. It's not by being hateful of others because of their differing beliefs. It's about expressing your view, calmly and peacefully, while allowing other people to disagree. What would have been accomplished if I had yelled across the table at Bea about how gays should have the same rights as everyone else? I could have still made my opinion known, while keeping things pleasant between us, therefore not ruining the entire brunch! And I wouldn't be left seething and angry and distant--and ultimately sorry that I had lashed out.
This is why I hate talk shows where liberals and conservatives are pitted against each other like roosters in a cock fight. The only thing that comes out of it is a lot of ruffled feathers and a dead rooster.