It’s hard to maintain perspective on all of the great progress happening in this country from the vantage point that comes with living in a small town in the south. Sometimes I feel so alone in my views, my understanding of humanity and how we can grow as a species and as a nation. Or as I said at a dinner party my husband and I hosted the other night, “Sometimes it’s hard living in a place where I believe that 80 percent of the people – if they knew me, knew what I think and what I believe – would be convinced that I’m going to hell.” Not that I believe in hell. But I think for my imagined (or not so imagined) neighbors this would be part of the problem.
Where I’m sitting, where I live, I am not the norm. I am the sore thumb – I stick out. I think differently. I may be middle class and white, but I am a woman with non-traditional, non-Christian views. And while I don’t want to be or live any other way, it can be frustrating feeling as though I am judged as the enemy, the ‘Other’.
At our dinner party, several of us sat around the table and shared our sorrow of being outnumbered and different. One attendee decried the fact that a Biology teacher she knew would use endless circumlocutions to avoid saying any conjugate of the word “evolve.” We all found this pretty ridiculous. We went on and on mocking the ignorance of conservatives hell-bent on denying any fact that they find uncomfortable. And while it was nice to commiserate with like-minded people, as my lovely husband pointed out – we were all being a bit hypocritical.
When it comes to the community in which I live and our dinner table conversation, it was a case of “I’m going to judge you before you have a chance to judge me.” And I’ve made a lot of these judgements since moving here. I’ve presumed a lot.
When an actual difference of opinion occurs, I become deferential. Instead of inviting honest discourse, I back off, placate at the first sign that someone thinks differently than me. In avoiding conflict, I’m denying myself and the other person(s) an opportunity for growth, understanding and humility. I am a product of my culture. Most of us Americans are so tough that at the first sign of controversy, an opinion different from ours, we fall to pieces. Some lash out. Use vitriol in place of reason. Attack character rather than the argument or logic. Others like me, do nothing at all. Deny we have a position, deny who we are, and then use vitriol and character attacks at shadows unable to defend themselves or their arguments. Either of these options is belligerent and unnecessary.
There are several examples in sociology of the binary quality of defining the self in relation to the ‘Other’ (this link provides a good overview of this concept). Those who aren’t like me, who don’t believe what I believe are wrong, abject, ‘Other’. It’s good to know people who you feel can understand you – they are your tribe. Your people. But there’s a danger in thinking any of the people who aren’t your tribe are ‘Other’ – different in a bad way. That’s where prejudice lives.
The self/’Other’ dichotomy is as dangerous as any other black and white; this country is in dire need of some grey areas. Some understanding. There’s no growth in “us” and “them.” There’s no movement forward. No evolution. Without adaption, we die (it’s pretty much proven, folks). If we cling hard and fast to ideas in stone, we become stone. Love, understanding and compassion live in the grey areas. Hate, stagnation and death lives in the black and white.
I admit my deficiencies and prejudices here. I don’t ask for forgiveness as much as I hope for growth. I won’t pray on it, but I may meditate on it. And those two things aren’t really that different, are they?