September 29, 2020
I wonder if dialogue and engaging the other have lost their place in our society. Both the right and the left regularly refute the other side and deny any value in engaging them. When we silence the voices of those that disagree with our view, it feels good but does it do good? Lauding being right feels good but decreases our ability to reach those who are not convinced of our position.
Over time, this distancing has led to a polarized society where the majority of people are divided into two worlds that do not intersect. Each listens to their own news sources, has their own social networks, and follows different political, religious and intellectual leaders. Rarely do the two groups interact, except maybe at the annual holiday table or occasional random encounter while traveling outside our bubbles. We avoid these awkward moments or smooth over them with superficial talk. A poor substitute for engagement, interaction on social media often looks like a public cat fight with each side scoring points and eroding any trust that remains between family and friends who see the world differently.
George Yancey, a sociologist focused on race relations, advocates for an alternative approach that goes beyond color blindness and anti-racism. He proposes embracing mutual responsibility by turning toward one another. He says, “We should seek to identify where we agree with the person, to admit when the other person has made a good point, to build rapport with that person and to truly understand the arguments of the other person. If we can accomplish these goals, then we have a chance to convince them of our point of view.”1
For many of us, we equate this with compromising our social justice goals. Surely, this approach will only give way to gradualism and will not result in the systemic change we desperately need. To recognize any truth or value in the other will only delay justice.
While I admit to having these misgivings about engaging the other side, my commitment to nonviolence tells me there is a better way. While I don’t agree with all he says, Yancey is on to something. Congressman John Lewis taught us that demanding justice and treating others humanely are not mutually exclusive. It’s not a matter of compromising. The power of nonviolence focuses single-mindedly on justice and dismantling inequities without room for retaliation or retribution.
Active nonviolence short-circuits the polarizing process. Black Lives Matter has employed nonviolence and this year’s peaceful protests across the country showed wide public support for the movement. Despite efforts to discredit them with false accusations that they perpetrated violence, a recent Pew Research Center poll shows that 55 percent of Americans support Black Lives Matter. The movement continues to hold up a mirror to the violence of state-sanctioned anti-Black violence while promoting racial healing as Blacks and whites unite together. Nonviolence is power and has led to democratic transitions in over 50 countries from dictatorships or authoritarianism. Transformation will happen here too.2
Where do we stand? The lack of justice for Breonna Taylor reminds us that the system still perpetuates anti-Black racism. This is no time to let up. How can we practice nonviolence in the midst of a country that appears to be tearing apart? We must visualize the change we seek and join others to fight for what Cornel West calls justice—what love looks like in public. While doing so, we would do well to connect to those who see the world differently. Listen to them and acknowledge their beliefs, fears, and aspirations. Stretch ourselves to see the beauty that makes them human. Who are the people in our life that we know but have often dismissed as not worth engaging? Let’s reach out to them.
We witnessed this ability to stand for justice and connect to the humanity of the other in the close friendship between Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Justice Antonin Scalia. They went to the opera together, celebrated New Year’s Eve together with their families, and even shopped together. Could there be a more unlikely friendship—a liberal Jewish woman and a conservative Italian American Catholic man? Yet she said, “We were best buddies.” They had mutual respect but did not compromise. Justice Ginsburg said his critiques made her better.
Justice Ginsburg remarked at Justice Scalia’s memorial service, “How blessed I was to have a working colleague and dear friend of such captivating brilliance, high spirits and quick wit. We were different yes in our interpretation of written text yet one in our reverence for the court and its place in the US system of governance.”3
Unfortunately, public officials of this character are leaving public life over their disdain for the brutal polarized climate we are in today. Let us do our part to practice active nonviolence, demanding social and racial justice while acknowledging the humanity in those who might oppose it.
1 George Yancey, Feel Good or Do Good, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/shatteringparadigms/2020/08/feel-good-or-do-good/, Aug 26, 202.
3 Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Eulogy at Justice Scalia Memorial Service (C-SPAN), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jb_2GgE564A