It’s only day three of knowing who our next president will be, but it feels like a month. There doesn’t seem to have been enough time to have felt all of the things I’ve felt, read all of the articles I’ve read, and seen all of the painful things I’ve seen.
In the midst of all of this reading and watching, I have also been thinking. Thinking about what it means to be an American. A Millennial in a multicultural family and diverse community. An intercultural professional. And most of all, a human being.
The clarity I seek hasn’t been easily forthcoming. Admittedly, my heart hurts. My brain is tired. Like most of us, I already had a million things going on – you know, managing life – and being hurried does not help. Even so, here are my emerging thoughts.
First, on listening. Commentators have blamed a “failure to listen” for the election’s outcome. Their reasoning seems to be that a) the left didn’t listen to the right, b) listening would have changed the campaign, and c) then we could have won the election. Maybe, but there are four problems with this thinking.
First: urban/rural, coastal/central, blue collar/cosmopolitan, and religious/secular America differ sharply on what matters, what we should value, how we should live, and who counts. Moreover, a toxic brew of suspicion, nativism, sexism, racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, homophobia, ableism, etc. has long been looking for any excuse to spill out. Tuesday’s victory is a reflection of all of this and other factors as much as a lack of listening.
Second, many of us simply don’t know that many people who disagree with us. Seen this way, it’s less about just listening and more about encountering and knowing. (More on this later). Third, a majority voted for Hillary Clinton, but she lost the electoral college, and it’s unclear that red states felt un-listened-to as much as decentered. Finally, this reasoning takes a utilitarian view of listening – as in, we should have listened in order to win. This sounds more like a call for better focus groups rather than for real dialogue.
Second, on false parallels. Our society tends toward “he said, she said” when considering points of view. Sometimes, this may be reasonable – but often it is recklessly imbalanced. People might be angry that their country is changing, but this is not equivalent to people being assaulted or threatened because of their identity.
Tying this back into listening, we see a major obstacle: If the conversation is one about how your very presence in the country causes offense, what is there to talk about? Why engage? And how? Where is the common ground? As one person said, it wasn’t like we just had a passionate debate about tax policy. The election was personal and vicious.
Third, on connection. The election revealed that many Americans are siloed, our Facebook feeds are an echo chamber, and we have fallen into the trap of single stories that turn us into heroes and villain-ize anyone who disagrees with us. The thinking goes like this: “If we are right, they must be wrong. And if they are wrong, they must be stupid, or intentionally trying to upset us. And if that’s the case, there’s no point in talking.”
Once we start down that road, we soon meet antipathy and intolerance and discover a desire to pre-emptively burn down bridges lest the enemy cross to our side. Which, I think, is where we are now. For the first time in my life, I feel some inkling of understanding about how people in war torn countries can so loathe each other that they believe connection is futile. And that scares me. It’s not a place I want to dwell.
Together, these three points leave me in a hard place.
On the one hand, I am firmly committed to my own values, especially social justice and pluralism. And, frankly, after seeing the other party fight tooth and nail against President Obama for eight years, I am eager to dig in my own heels and raise holy hell against the Donald. On the other hand, I feel my country teetering on the precipice, and I feel a personal and professional obligation to make things better.
So, what does that look like? What can I do? Here is what I have come up with so far.
I can do everything from place of love and compassion. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other change agents didn’t change the world by fanning the flames of discord. If we are indeed in a dark hour, then we need more light. As George Takei so aptly put it (in a Harry Potter reference), it’s time to lift our wands up to the sky.
I can see nuance and avoid stereotypes. As someone from Arizona, I know what it’s like to be viewed as a racist by coastal liberals. As a Christian, I know what it’s like for people to assume that I can’t also be an intellectual. And as a woman, I know what it’s like to have people assume that I’m going to fit a certain mold. I know what it’s like to have my own personality and concerns dismissed, to be viewed as a joke, to be talked at and over rather than talked with, and to have people put walls up before they even get to know me. I can avoid doing that to others. And I can stand up for those it is being done to.
I can look for places where dialogue is possible. As a progressive in a conservative state, I know that the only way forward is to build coalitions of the willing and available, even if those people may be flawed. There is so much work to be done; where my concerns intersect with someone who voted differently, I can be ready to roll up my sleeves. I can’t afford to dismiss possible allies out of hand. That’s not how social change happens.
I can do the hard thing. I love talking to my fellow interculturalists because they mostly agree with me, but isn’t that too easy? What if I put intercultural theory into practice, starting with the contact hypothesis, which asserts that the first step toward improving intercultural relations is (. . . wait for it . . .) getting to know each other. This may mean different things for different people. In my case, maybe stepping out from behind my screen where my writer self is so comfortable to engage in more face-to-face conversations, where the interaction is real and I might make a mistake. (Please do note, however, that I am not calling for anyone to put themselves in danger).
I can avoid either-or, zero-sum thinking. Here again, intercultural experts are helpful. Muneo Yoshikawa used a Mobius (the infinity sign) to represent our own fluidity and flexibility as we move between cultures. In this context of political polarization, this is a good visualization of how we can hold onto our values while also stretching and reaching and leaning toward others. We can also allow others to do the same, rather than trying to fix all of their nuance and complexity into a rigid box.
Similarly, Vicki Flier Hudson has talked about the perils of A-B thinking, which make us zealously fight for one option over the other, while blinding us to infinite possibilities. Put in concrete terms, the only choice cannot be electoral victory or defeat. We need a new vision, and a new future – starting with making America kind again. If Estonia can have its singing revolution in the face of Soviet tanks, then we surely have not lost all hope.
I can remember the first part of the serenity prayer: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
This will not be easy. There will be abundant opportunities for outrage, and I will have to pick my battles. I will have to have courage. I will have to have intention. I will have to have compassion for myself, and for others. I will have to know what my objective is. And I will have to have resilience.
I can make a commitment
Finally, I can make a commitment. Apparently so many people thought of fleeing the country that Canada’s immigration site crashed – and I understand the sentiment. I worry about whether I will be safe here, and most of all whether my husband and his family will be. And I would be lying if I said the possibility wasn’t tucked in the back of my mind.
But having worked in relocation, I know that the immigration hoops are likely more than we can jump through – and even if we managed them, what about our parents? Second, the problem is not just that our country has dived headfirst into populism, but that the entire world is doing so, too. People were wanting to immigrate here because it was safer than home; what’s to say that we won’t move to Canada or Australia only to find them lurching to the right as well? Finally, from a moral perspective, is that really what I am called to do at this hour? Run away and let someone else fight?
And so, I have no other option than to accept my quest. After all, it is what I trained for.
Friends, this is a difficult but urgent time to do intercultural work. We need clear heads, open hearts, and steadfast spirits if we are going to continue our important mission of bringing people together and advancing the cause of cultural pluralism and positive intercultural relations. We need to be here now.
Please join me.