Monday, January 15, 2018

Build the Beloved Community

One of the strangest things I cannot yet understand in my life is the knack for falling into the right place at the wrong time, or at the wrong place at the right time. Sometimes it feels like life mimics The Wizard of Oz.  At some point in our lives a storm comes and drops you on another place or moment. The colors change, perspective changes. Light becomes darkness, darkness become light.

Every year, when this date comes around I'm reminded of one of those "happenstance" moments; the privilege of acting as personal interpreter to Mrs. Coretta Scott King.* On one of those occasions, as I escorted her and her assistance to their car, she began to recall the moment she received the call notifying her that "Martin was dead." Just the three of us in an elevator. I will never forget it as long as I live. I will never forget her strength.

Our current political culture is ill. It will require strength to save it. The strength of love.

The problem with our political culture is not that we disagree but how we now disagree.  Disagreements appear to be not only about ideas. They have now become personal. The principle of civilly agreeing to disagree has been replaced with the personalizing and psychologizing of differences in opinions. It is no longer "I disagree", "I don't see it that way", but "you" are a bad person. Disagreements seem more based on "you" rather than on "if". Considering all the progress humans have made in means of personal and mass communication, in studies and discoveries about how best to communicate, we should be able to do better.

Everything has become politicized. Sports, entertainment, religious services, education, all have become politicized. Areas of life that exist for the purpose of allowing for different public and community spaces are now under threat of becoming not truly diverse and inclusive but the opposite, ideological camps. And yet, there can be no civility without the existence of these civil spaces. Now, it also seems we have also arrived at the dangerous zone of psychologizing and moralizing political differences at personal levels.

Social media has actually become anti-social, a sort of battlefield defined by political trenches. Take for example "the no-man's land" (in reference to the land space between the trenches of the Germans and the Allies in WWI) of Facebook. Whereas in the recent past we would meet people and introduce ourselves or were introduced by a common friend or acquaintance in a real social setting, now we take a chance on our reputations when we participate in social media with a friend and complete strangers attack us with word grenades from either side of those trenches.

Words have meaning and are valuable because of it. They are the coinage of our social interactions. Now, I'm afraid they are being misused as weapons. Socrates, one of Rev. King's object of admiration once said, the "misuse of words is not only troublesome in itself, but actually has a bad effect on the soul." ** And, as with the overuse of coins, with time they become worn and meaningless. Take for example the word "racism", which conceptualizes truly a vile belief among humans. Yet, perhaps even more vile is its misuse and abuse. To unjustly accuse anyone of being "racist" without any basis, other than a facile way to avoid dialogue, or to label others and discard them, is also truly vile. As with this and other terms, we should hold the accusation of racism to the higher tests of that condition before lobbing it around as a verbal grenade. Unfortunately, this has become a sort of new normal.

Dr. King's "dream to transform the discourse of our nation" may still be a dream, but it is still possible. It might depend on us. "Our goal is to create a beloved community, and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives."

The command to "Love your enemies" is not easy, but it has a practical goal-oriented purpose. "There is another element that must be present in our struggle that then makes our resistance and nonviolence truly meaningful. That element is reconciliation. Our ultimate end must be the creation of the beloved community." If you love your enemies, they are no longer YOUR enemies.

But who are our, your enemies? If you love, YOU have no enemies. In other words, you do not consider others as enemies. Your enemies are those who think of us as THEIR enemies? Why? The reasons could be many.

Personally, I'm not afraid of social tension and tense interactions, tension is what makes a violin make music. But I do oppose violent tension, especially verbal violence. In that, I agree both with King and Socrates. King, "I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal.."

Unfortunately, it is often the case now that it is from those who should know better, those who advocate for peace, non-violence and so on, that some of our current uncivility comes from.

So, if we can exchange goods in the market of goods, why shouldn't we be able to exchange ideas in the market of ideas, and in the spaces of social interaction?

One way out I propose to start to come out of our current polarization is the "principle of thinking small" or what I call "the ripple effect" of our words and actions in the community in which we live, and this, based on an ethics of care.  Start with building community with those closest and most immediately around us, your immediate community.

Long term, we need to think in terms of building "the beloved community". All parties in a conflict have at the very least one thing in common, to end the conflict and to satisfy their interests. Usually, those interests are based on a human commonality. Find out what they are. Violence whether physical or verbal will not help us in our search. Again King, "There are certain things we can say about this method that seeks justice without violence. It does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent but to win his friendship and understanding. I think that this is one of the points, one of the basic points, one of the basic distinguishing points between violence and non-violence. The ultimate end of violence is to defeat the opponent. The ultimate end of non-violence is to win the friendship of the opponent."

We need to "tune out" more and "tune in" less. Invite a friend home, or to coffee or dinner, who has different views and do not "argue" but try to understand or share the why of your points of views, the stories behind your views. We need to recover and practice the art of hospitality (which comes from hospital, where we go to heal). It is what we used to do when we had time to visit with each other before I-phone and "social" media, when we actually paid attention to each other.

We need to risk conversation and do less of the confrontation atmosphere of the anti-social model of "social" media. Yes, conversation is risky. It implies a two-way street of mutual discovery, but most risky of all it is the risk that involves openness to be "converted" to another point of view. But the fear that this openness creates may be minimized if we understand the differences between understanding another point of view and accepting it.

Build the community.

* (Bernice King was a classmate of mine)
**(words attributed to Socrates attributed by Plato in the "Phaedo")
Quotes about the "Beloved Community" by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Socrates in Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "A Letter from a Birmingham Jail"


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