We Have the Power
One of my friends recently commented that it seems like her Facebook feed is full of sadness and bad news. Well, there’s a lot of bad news to be had. Christians have been driven out of Mosul; bombs have been falling from the Mediterranean practically to Tehran; Rohingya people are still being terrorized and driven from their homes in Myanmar/Burma; Muslims have fled their homes in the Central African Republic; South Sudan has fallen into civil war; the genocide in Darfur continues; children as young as five or six, many of them Native Americans, have been fleeing violence in Central America to come to the United States alone; Ebola is stalking West Africa in much the same way that the Black Death stalked Europe. It is important to know what is going on with our neighbors. How can we help them otherwise? How can we show them compassion when we don’t know they need it?
It’s also important not to fall into the trap of thinking the world is getting worse, and despair is around every corner. It’s not so much that things are getting worse as that we know more about them, and we are overwhelmed by the information.
Well, everyone, I have good news for you. We are not helpless. The international community advocated, and Meriam Ibrahim has escaped Sudan. The international community advocated, and a Ugandan activist has been given asylum in the United States. The international community advocates because advocacy works.
But advocacy is not all you can do. In fact, advocacy is one of your lesser tools.
Humans are remarkably social. Genocide gets its strength from our tendency to do what those around us are doing, believe what they believe, enjoy what they enjoy, and revile what they revile. Yes, we are individual people, each different, but we want desperately to belong. Humans are always lonely, always searching for each other. So even when we know something is very wrong, we tend to give it a pass, or even rationalize it as being for the greater good. Standing up is difficult; it puts us at risk. The loss of family and friends is a serious matter for humans. Isolation is such a powerful tool that it is considered torture to impose it on prisoners for more than a short time. Moral courage is a rare virtue because it is costly.
Moral courage can also be taught. You can teach yourself to behave courageously. (Courage is a behaviour, not a feeling!) You can teach your friends, your spouse, and your children to do so also.
Conversations at the workplace, at places of worship, on the bus, and in all sorts of other everyday settings are full of casual bigotry. It can be hard to tell your friends that using words like “gypped” or “faggot” are fueling hatred, but they are. (I’ve even known people who don’t believe that the Roma (gypsies) exist or are an ethnic group.) It is even harder when the issue is not the word being used, but the sentiment expressed. (News flash: telling Black children not to look/behave like thugs or want designer shoes would not have saved Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown.)
Do Your Homework
It’s easy to focus your attention on others’ ideas and actions, but it takes a lot more work to confront your own. Doing your homework isn’t just about not saying things that are bigoted. It’s about changing your attitudes from the inside, and that takes a lot of consciousness (you have to know what you are before you can change them) and a ton of honesty. It is much more difficult to confront your own darkness than that of others. All I can tell you is that it’s a road that you can travel today that will save lives in the future. Just as you look to others for your cues, they look to you; use human sociability to heal rather than hurt. You might not see the results, but the results are there.
Talk About It
We all have prejudices. It’s likely that you share yours with someone who is really close to you. So talk about them. Explore what you’re thinking and why together. Talk about how these attitudes are unfair to the people who fit the category in question. Learn about it together. Evolve.
We have the power, friends. We can change what the world looks like by cultivating everyday courage in ourselves.