This evening at twilight, I had a few moments to go write in my hammock during the intermission between rainstorms. I typed away happily in my beloved hammock under soft, slate-gray skies, with a cool breeze. The real stars of the night were the birds who serenaded me. This is the happiest of happy places for me. I don't know if you can hear them in the video I shot, but I wanted to share the tranquility. I'm not sure why it's sideways. And I can't fix it. But hopefully the birds are still nice.
I've been disturbed for a long time by the growing anger and ugliness in our public discourse. I'm especially troubled by how ugly things can get online. There are modern mobs who abandon all ideas of "innocent until proven guilty," or other basic aspects of civilization.
I find this so troubling because it seems to me that we are using advanced technologies to rush headlong back to the Dark Ages. Back to Witch Hunts, back to tribalism, and back to a nasty, brutish jungle law where we hunt in packs and savage our ideological foes.
I've been thinking a lot about this because very year at school we show students a clip from To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus Finch is a lawyer defending a young black man, Tom Robinson, who was accused of raping a white woman. Knowing a lynch mob will form, Atticus goes to the jail. He brings a reading lamp and a chair and sits there reading a book.
When the mob comes, as he knew they would, Atticus calmly stands there and explains that he won't allow a lynching. His client is entitled to a trial, and Atticus aims to see that he gets a fair hearing.
One man against the mob, who are rushing to judgment. One man standing up for the idea that we ought to have fair trials, that a person is innocent until proven guilty, and that mobs don't execute justice very well.
Atticus can't change his society, even though he sees how wrong it can be. So he does what he can. He stands up and says, "No. This is wrong."
People read or see this scene and think of how wonderful Atticus is. I suspect we also imagine ourselves standing up and facing down bigots just like Atticus. That's nice, but those are cheap thrills and cost us nothing.
In the meantime, mobs run wild all over the internet and, without a thought, savage people's reputations, destroy careers, and lead to terrible suffering.
And I wonder, how can I keep showing this clip to my students and telling them to stand up and stop bullies and be brave and strong and so on when I am quiet.
So I want to try something. It is hopelessly idealistic, extremely impractical, and probably impossible. But I still want to do it. I'm thinking of something called the Atticus Society. A Facebook group of people who find ways to stand up and say, "No. This is wrong."
A group of people who call for calm when feelings are inflamed. A group of people who suggest patience when the mob rushes to judgement. A group of people who send out Tweets and messages of support when people are being savaged. A group of people committed to the ideas of due process, of dispassionate justice, and of civil, reasoned, calm discourse in the body politic. A group of people who interpose themselves between the mob and the victim and who really believe that Free Speech is worth defending.
Such a group can't fix everything, can't be everywhere. But it might be a few places. It might help a few people, soothe a few situations. Imagine what an organized cadre of people calling for calm and civility might do?
It could be quite fun, actually. Quixotic, but fun.
Who's in? If you are maybe willing to join, or simply intrigued, send me an email here. Let's talk and see what we can do.
Or, does it make more sense to wring our hands, lament loudly, and hope things change, or at least, hope the mob will never hurt someone we love?
I suppose I might make a lot of people mad with this, but I feel like it needs to be said.
One of the greatest things about my life is that I have friends of pretty much every ideological and philosophical stripe. Some are just shy of socialists, some think Margaret Thatcher was a little wobbly, and many fall in between. Some are deeply religious, others are deeply irreligious. Some of those religious friends are liberal, and some of the non-believing friends are conservative. My Facebook feed is a fascinating mash-up that might include Rachel Maddow, The Huffington Post, Breitbart, and The Blaze, with the Washington Post and New York Times thrown in for good measure.
Consequently, I hear a lot of different viewpoints. I like that because it gives me a lot to think about. The thing is, though, that all my friends are absolutely sure they are right. Positive. I rarely hear anything like, "In my opinion...", or "I could be wrong but...." Rather, differing viewpoints are presented as fact. But obviously, they can't all be right. Right?
Because of this vast divergence in opinions, I am not sure how well legal means can really solve deep-seated cultural problems. Yes, a court can rule, or laws can be passed. But with so many differing opinions, so many people believing so many different things, that might not have great outcomes. Consider the abortion debate, it's legal, but has been fought over bitterly for years, with no end in sight. Perhaps one side will muster the political power to simply smash all resistance and impose their will. That's probably not great for long-term stability. Or, maybe we'll self-segregate into red and blue states and boycott each other until we are two countries. None of these sound wonderful.
The only real, long-term answer I see is the easiest and the hardest. It's empathy. Basic, human empathy. The ability to look at a complex situation and say, "If that were me, I would like to be treated thus." That is the only hope I have for us, honestly. People acting without malice, without anger, and trying to understand how the other person feels.
I've been thinking about this a lot lately, and asking some questions. I'd love for everyone to ask these questions in the quiet of their own conscience and answer honestly.
First let me set this up.
I'm a Mormon. I'm many other things, but I suppose that being a Mormon is one of the most fundamental aspects of my identity. It hits me at my core.
Many years ago, a story made the rounds after one of the big hurricanes. A small town in the South had been devastated and many people lost their roofs.
The roofers finally came and started working. One of the people in the neighborhood was a Mormon. The owner of the roofing company came into the house and noticed that there was a copy of The Book of Mormon. Because he was an Evangelical Christian, he felt he could not repair the Mormon guy's roof. He apologized and left.
I have no way of knowing if this story is true, but it doesn't really matter. It made the rounds through Mormon circles, where it was met with anything from head-shaking disbelief to shock and indignation.
Let me use another example. I applied years ago for a job. Objectively speaking, I was qualified for the job, but didn't even get a call. I heard later through people-who-knew-people that it was because my resume indicated I had attended Brigham Young University and was therefore a Mormon. This happened one other time as well, when I was being considered for an award.
Beyond any damages in potential earnings and that sort of thing, there is something gut-wrenching about having some part of your core identity singled out like that. There is a visceral response when your group, your tribe, the people with whom you identify are singled out.
As I read about the most recent dust-up in the culture wars, I keep wondering what the reaction would be if a business hypothetically refused to serve a Mormon missionary's homecoming party. Or Christian wedding, or an Orthodox Jewish Bar Mitzvah. Insert whatever other group you want to insert.
Try a thought experiment. Insert the group label with which you most identify and imagine someone saying, "I'm sorry, but I don't believe I can participate in a (Insert your own group's special function)."
When it's your group, how do you react? And, with what level of refusal of service do you find comfortable? Are you okay with a restaurant saying they'll serve you, but not cater your event? Think about that for a minute and be honest. How do you feel? And if you are okay with it, where do you draw the lines?
I can't get that question out of my mind. What if it was my group?
When it's my group in question, it makes me think there ought to be a pretty high bar to clear to refuse service to someone. I suspect most of us are the same and can quickly cite reasons why our group shouldn't be treated differently, etc.
Aside from the basic morality of the situation, this seems to me the way for civil society to quickly degenerate into factions, and we all have a stake in keeping a stable social order.
But now, that raises some other questions. Who enforces this? The Federal Government? Local police? Social media vigilantes? Is it just and fair that the pizza parlor owners have basically lost their livelihood because they answered a hypothetical question?
Say you have objections to something. Real, deep-seated objections. Maybe they are principled, maybe they are prejudiced, maybe they are any number of things. But they are your views and you live in a free society where you are guaranteed freedoms to live your life as you see fit.
In this case, your views genuinely bring you to the belief that you can't do something. It's not a matter of serving someone in your restaurant, or roofing a home. It's catering an event for a group with whom you disagree. Or building a church that actively teaches things you take issue with. Something that requires more active participation on your part than simply serving a customer.
Should you be forced to participate?
If so, what should be the consequences of your refusal?
The loss of income?
None of those sound good to me.
I toss these questions out there in the hope that we might all think through things and calm down a bit and see things on a human level. Humans--like us. With hopes and fears and dreams. That gay couple has feelings. They may carry baggage and deep wounds from growing up and feeling bullied and persecuted. That Christian couple who owns the business, they have feelings too. Fears and concerns for this life and the next. We reduce each other to objects so quickly and so easily.
And so, I come back to empathy. Basic, human empathy. The ability to look at a complex situation and say, "If that were me, I would like to be treated thus." That is the only hope I have for us, honestly. People acting without malice, without anger, and trying to understand how the other person feels.
It's so simple--and so difficult.
If you want to comment, please be respectful and civil. I can't control the world, but I can control my blog and want it to be a polite place.
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