This is a piece I have been contemplating for some time and the concept has been cycling through in my mind to consider its implications. But I also realize that I have been holding back on posting this, not really sure that I am ready to “step into the arena” as Brene Brown challenges us all to do.
But for me to write is to truly understand something better, and so for my own sake, I want to explain the idea and I want you to challenge me on it, dear reader. Certainly dialogue helps us all understand our own thoughts and ideas better, and connections that may form during these debates may help us know ourselves and others better. This idea has been discussed with family members and people close to me. I daresay it was a result of my needing to make sense of what happened last November, and develop an ability to understand what to do next in terms of my own activism and commitment to my beliefs.
When I was choosing a photo for this post, I thought about what images convey, and what our points of view can do to alter how we see the world. I remember being shocked when a coworker told me that she “hated Hillary” and told me that she thought an outsider to politics may be able to create some much-needed change in this country. It took all my wherewithal not to explode into anger but instead get really curious and ask some questions to find out where this was coming from. As a Latina “feminista” I simply could not believe or comprehend what had happened. As we talked further I began to understand that my “echo chambers” which tended toward liberal and progressive were not the same as her echo chambers. We both had them, it seemed, and they simply were not talking about the same things, or putting the world into the same frameworks.
George Lakoff talks about this in his work and I think understanding this linguistic understanding of how we make sense of the world. I used his work rather extensively when I wrote my 2006 masters’ thesis (All Aboard the Green Bus: Mythical Condensation in Electoral Politics). I use one of his quotes here, because I think it does so much to account for what we see happening in the misunderstandings between people in so many of our debates:
“Neuroscience tells us that each of the concepts we have – the long-term concepts that structure how we think – is instantiated in the synapses of our brains. Concepts are not things than can be changed by someone just telling us a fact. We may be presented with facts, but to make sense of them, they have to fit what is already in the synapses of our brain. Otherwise, facts go in and then they come right back out. They are not heard, or they are not accepted as facts, or they mystify us. (p 17 of Don’t think of an Elephant). “
This is so important and helps me understand why there is such a wide gap in the understandings we seem to have in our world. Not only is it the reality we live that shapes our identity and our values, but it is the stories we tell around those realities to make sense of them that shape our identity. These stories influence how we think and feel about what happens in the world, and what actions we take as a result. So some of us go back to our echo chambers, feeling stricken and incredulous, needing to confirm there are others in our “news feed” that are as shocked and saddened as we are. To some extent, this is human nature: we all want to connect with others that form our “tribe” and the people we want to surround ourselves with in safety and in community.
There is nothing wrong with that, and I encourage people to reach out to other like-minded people especially during times of trauma when we need support. Feeling less alone is comforting, and is certainly one way human beings evolved to keep ourselves safe, connecting with others who can provide networks of mutual support. We are surprisingly good at preparing for battle, and I have to admit this was my first instinct when I heard the news – “oh my god, what will we have to do now in order to fight this womanizing, race-baiting, hateful monster when he is the leader of our country.” These are categories I felt completely comfortable and justified in using in asking myself what I want to do or contribute, as I believe I must, in speaking up about issues that are important to me.
But then I realized that the echo chambers had already gone to work in creating more disconnection between people, pushing open more distance. I started thinking that I had some very important internal work to do before I was to take my concerns “out there” and to react to the situation rather than to act from a place of strength and mindfulness. I had to learn more, to do research, to talk with people with views very much unlike my own, and to be willing to listen, with great compassion to the pain so many people in this nation are feeling. I have to be willing to admit that my white and middle-class privilege is something I have taken for granted, that is not available to so many people, and that neither political party was actively addressing these concerns.
Perhaps the election of 2016 was a wake-up call for all the things that are wrong with our nation, for all the ways in which we fall short in caring for our common home. Perhaps making just small, incremental changes to a system that no longer works for the vast majority of people will not work anymore. Perhaps we must now look in the mirror and acknowledge the imperfections and blemishes we have developed as part of our national identity. Would it benefit us to take a good, hard look at what we brag about to others?
When I heard so many democratic speeches at the convention about the U.S., touting our nation as the best nation on earth, it made me shudder a bit. By what measure are we the best? We are the fifth highest on the list of OECD countries in terms of infant mortality for children under five. In terms of political empowerment of women, we rank #72 out of 145 nations compared in a 2015 Global Gender Gap report authored by World Economic Forum. We are far behind many European countries in terms of educational achievement, many measures of income inequality and general quality of life and personal security.
I am proud of much of the progress this nation has made throughout history, and I certainly do appreciate many benefits and privileges we are able to enjoy as a result of democracy and shared power. However, we can be patriotic and loyal to our country, and still question if we are doing the best for all of our people. We can ask how we might build a better nation, how we might strive to take an honest and compassionate look at our faults and flaws, and then strive to become better.
Indeed, I believe some of our best leaders have done this, have challenged us to look inward, and not to accept the status quo as “good enough.” When we consider how to put Trump into context, I find it ironic that some have called him a narcissist and use that mythical framing to explain his behavior. But have we not also done that as a nation, fallen in love with our image in the mirror, waved our flags proudly and refused to see the stains that are showing through, the blood that is leaking out of the places we refuse to see and examine closely?
What if we consider how the ego-driven, materialistic, self-centered urge for power, admiration and accolades reflects not just the person elected to office, but our nation as a whole? Might this help us understand why so much pain exists right now for so many people, and why entering into combat with this character simply allows us to deny that reality? In what ways might we use this frank self-examination to admit the ways in which we have bought into our American ideal without considering its effect on the overall planet, or on other people in the world? Can we use this period in history to delve deeply into our consciousness and get very truthful about our role in hurting others and perpetuating injustice in small ways that later become magnified?
Obviously, I have a lot more to say on this topic, but this post has already gotten very long, and I will return to the theme again in the future, I will leave things here for now. I would be very interested in your thoughts, if you care to leave a comment. Thank you.