We live in a country that honors free speech, and that is wonderful. But what I’ve noticed is that people get overly judgmental and tend toward one extreme opinion or the other. And so we have great polarity in our country. We’re like two boxers in our respective corners, occasionally coming out to battle each other, then separating and returning to our corners for a time. We talk, but seldom to each other. And even then, we don’t listen to the other’s viewpoint. We react with a preconceived notion. We seldom come to a meeting of minds. We are, then, a divided country, perhaps even several divided countries within these supposedly United States.
We have our opinions, about abortion, about same sex marriage, about our political affiliation, about gun violence, about police brutality, about our religious beliefs, about race and racism, about diet, about sexual orientation, about our next door neighbor’s choice of car. And we build walls around these opinions and beliefs. Solid, high walls, complete with barbed wire on top. A political campaign begins and we know who we’ll vote for right from the start. And nothing will convince us otherwise. From politicians down to the trash collector, we ignore nuance. We become rigid in our thinking, because it’s safest to do so. It’s safest because we don’t have to think any further about the veracity of those beliefs. We have more important things to do like shop, work, pay the bills, raise the kids, deal with the neighbor parking in our right of way, calling the plumber, talk with one’s mother who is facing surgery–a whole myriad of modern day, and certainly legitimate concerns. And yet, the lack of nuance is strangling our democracy.
And what constitutes a democracy? Above all, a democracy requires an exchange of ideas, a willingness to listen to the opinions of others, and to find common ground. A democracy requires coming to consensus which is not easy and involves the peculiar and, these days, elusive concept called compromise. The New England town halls of old were good examples of this. If there was disagreement you just hung tough until everyone agreed. No one left the hall until there was complete agreement. Compromise? Sure, we can do that. Without that, you have unhappy citizens. You have majority rules. You have, OK, let’s take a vote. Juries are also good examples of a workable democracy. There has to be unanimous agreement on a verdict. Otherwise, it’s called a hung jury. Hung, indeed. Our country is presently a “hung” country. But there’s no second trial. Different factions, with their precious opinions, stay separate, and sometimes even resort to violence to express those opinions, like attacking Planned Parenthood clinics, or bringing firearms to peaceful protests, or sending death threats to government officials.
Let’s look at abortion, for example. This one issue has divided this country irreparably. It, alone, has decided presidential elections. It alone has led to murders and bombings and violent protests. Why? Because it has become either/or. Either you’re for it or against it. No middle ground. No compromise. And yet, there is plenty of room for compromise and consensus. What are the two sides? Pro life and pro choice. The right of a fetus to live and be born; and the right of a mother (and father) to choose how to manage her own body and life. But consider this: I am against abortion. I really hate the procedure. But I am in favor of a woman’s right to choose what to do with her body. The fetus is still totally dependent on its mother, and so the mother gets to choose its fate as she does with her kidney or heart if it needs replacement. That makes sense to me. But I am really dislike the practice of abortion. The law says abortion is legal, so I must somehow comes to terms with my dilemma of being in favor of choice and in dislike of abortion. So I look at the law more closely and see if I can nuances that make me more comfortable with it. I see that it comes with conditions to make abortion safe and that encourages a heartfelt reflection on the decision to proceed. For me, the mother’s life and welfare are primary. If legal and regulated abortion was suddenly declared illegal, women would be forced into back-alley procedures and we’ve seen what that leads to.
In other words, there may be laws I don’t fully like, but I will abide by them for the safety they bring me and others in society. I trust that the lawmakers and judges who approve them have the general welfare of citizenry at heart. If you trust the government and how its laws are decided, then you will abide by a law even if you, as an individual member of society, don’t agree with it. To not do so is anarchy. And anarchy can never be part of a democracy. So with abortion, as I’ve demonstrated, it is possible to be against it, but to honor and abide by the law as it was enacted. Like required seatbelts, motorcycle helmets, and no smoking in bars you abide by the law even though you may not agree with it. If you don’t like a law and want to see it changed, democracy offers a number of options to proceed. Violence is not one of them. Nor is intimidation.
And how about gun ownership, another hot button issue that, on its own, has decided key elections and pitted one vociferous group against another. The Second Amendment, though vague, has given our citizens the right to own a gun. It does say fairly clearly that that right should be “well regulated.” I think we can all agree with that. Yet many gun owners, along with the National Rifle Association (NRA) have resisted even the most rudimentary safety regulations like safety latches to prevent kids from accidentally shooting someone while playing with something they think is a toy. Also, simple background checks would prevent citizens who shouldn’t have a gun from purchasing one. And high capacity ammunition magazines would probably best be banned, thus preventing many mass shootings against innocent men, women, and children. But no, none of that has been approved or sanctioned by the NRA who applies the requisite pressure on lawmakers to reject such restrictions. So, how do we come to consensus on this controversial subject?
Personally, I’m in favor of a citizen’s right to own a gun. I don’t own one myself, but I think it’s fine for self-defense and outdoor recreation purposes such as legal hunting and target shooting. When I was a kid, I won awards for target shooting with a .22 caliber rifle, given by the NRA. I do not fear that the right to own a gun will be taken away from me, regardless of which political party is in power. To change the Second Amendment would require 2/3rds of the states to ratify a change. That is not at all likely. But my common sense tells me that “well regulated militia” as it is written in that amendment, opens the door for regulation of a deadly weapon. It also tells me that the Amendment was written in 1789 when the principal gun for militias, and the one that won the War for Independence, was the single-shot musket, a gun even a child couldn’t fire unless well-trained. So the compromise I propose is that yes, citizens do have a right to own guns of any kind, but that there should be safety regulations in place that would prevent children from accidentally shooting someone and would prevent people with severe mental illness, suicidal tendencies, and felony convictions from buying one. That’s a nuance worth examining in deciding about gun regulations.
Another that needs examining before you instantly oppose is mandatory regulations regarding lockdowns and the use of masks in trying to bring the coronavirus pandemic under control. Again, there are opposing sides of opinions that has caused unnecessary division in our country. There was also opposition to seatbelts, motorcycle helmets, and smoking restrictions when laws were first enacted. But citizens ultimately examined the nuances that made those regulations necessary and eventually came to comply with the laws. I would suggest the same close examinations for the need of lockdowns and masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. When compared to the value of saving human lives, it’s really not that big a deal.
Continuing, let’s examine another loaded issue that our society has grappled with: same sex marriage. Like many, I believe marriage should be between a man and a woman. It’s just the way I was raised and taught. And I still believe that. However, I also believe that love knows no boundaries, which challenges my beliefs around same sex marriage. So, to come to terms with this conundrum, I began to think it through. Again, a true, working democracy requires a citizenry willing to think creatively and independently separate from the influence of others, but open to the needs and rights of others. So I came to see that same sex marriage, an expression of committed love between two people, regardless of gender, was valid. Although I still find it odd, they deserve to be legally married if they chose to do so. Same as a heterosexual couple. Every citizen, regardless of gender, race, religion, etc. has the same rights as every other citizen. If I believe in this government and the principles of its founders, I had to come to the conclusion that same sex marriage was legal and valid. And in coming to that conclusion, my views and opinions around such marriages began to change, which is exactly what is happening in our country today.
And yet another example of the need for nuance is a most personal one for it involves anti-Semitism. I am Jewish and have experienced my share of slurs, mean jokes, and stereotypes over the years. These characterizations of Jews die hard and linger in the collective consciousness. Since time immemorial Jews have been seen as greedy, aggressive, arrogant, pushy, isolative, provincial, exclusive, depicted with long, crooked noses, and, perhaps the most deleterious, the murderers of Jesus Christ. None of these is true. Yet all of these persist, perpetuated by conspiracy theories and the politicians who support them as well as extreme right and left wing groups. Yes, the Proud Boys and QAnon on the right and the BLM and antifa on the left have demonstrated anti-Semitic messages from time to time. President Trump and his surrogates have as well, via insensitive tweets and retweets. All of these make specious use of Jewish stereotypes and denigrations that go back to the Middle Ages.
I can tell you that as a Jew, I am none of the above. My nose is not unlike Ralph Waldo Emerson’s aquiline nose. My hair is blondish, My eyes blue, And my skin is so white I daren’t leave the house without sunblock. I am of a gentle nature, somewhat passive even and co-dependent. I am intelligent but no more so, on average, than any other citizen. I like what Jesus preached and often quote him in my writings on living life. I am the opposite of pushy or arrogant or aggressive. I disagree with some of the polices of the state of Israel but totally agree that Jews should have such a country to retreat to and live there in peace, given the way we’ve been treated, particularly by the Nazis in WWII. I am not a murderer or kidnapper of children. I have spent my life not accumulating wealth but, as a counselor with a masters degree, have helped thousands of people, regardless of background, deal with and overcome mental illnesses and addictions. I was paid insufficiently but reasonably for my services and am now retired living on a small pension. I never had children, have been divorced twice, and currently live with my third wife in a modest apartment in southwestern Washington state. I am a cancer survivor, have heart failure, prostate troubles, peripheral neuropathy. I love golf, photography, hiking, travel, animals, reading, writing, music, a good meal out on occasion, my wife’s scallops or hamburgers at home, my own omelets for breakfast, talking with friends, neighbors, and family, mostly on the phone these days. Being at high risk for the coronavirus, we are staying safe and taking care…just like you.
So Jews are not necessarily who or what you think we are. They, like me, are nuanced, and should be seen that way. Please, then, put aside your stereotypes and misperceptions of Jews and treat us like “you would like to be treated.”. Anti-Semitism hurts and separates us from the mainstream. At its core, and taking to a much more vicious level, it’s what the Inquisition and the Nazis did. So look within and see if you have any vestige of anti-Semitic attitudes or thoughts. If so, check the filter in your brain before you verbalize any of these thoughts, and stop before you speak or act. Being aware of our nuances will help us all realize the deep connection we have with each other.
My final example is perhaps the most critical for healing the wounds of our society. We will eventually get through this pandemic and all the misinformation and conspiracy theories that have lurched from it. But after the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis in early 2020, the country was confronted with both its racist past and its racist present. Initially resistant to the concept of white privilege after my wife introduced me to it–a concept that contended that the mere fact that I was white made my life considerably easier than my Black neighbor’s life–I realized that neighbor was as entitled as I to the rights allowed every citizen in our country. But it was the color of his skin that made him less equal in actual practice. Yes, Black lives did indeed matter but I somehow felt an affinity with the conservative signs that said All Lives Matter.
Carefully thinking this through, though, I began to understand that even with all lives mattering some lives were less equal than others, in everyday circumstances, and, to me, that was unacceptable. For now, the focus needed to be on Black lives. This was a major revelation for me and increased my understanding of how our country developed through the continued discrimination and condescension of people of color, particularly Blacks who were enslaved for several hundred years. And even after slavery was abolished, we held a figurative knee to the neck of our Black neighbors, preventing them from thriving and benefiting from our land of good and plenty.
With more and more information out there, I began to study the effects of this horrible and horrifying practice of slavery in earlier centuries and how that spilled over into our present-day society. It is not my intent to go into the details of slavery here, but let me say that I recommend you take on that education, the details of which have been whitewashed by our public schools over the years. I just didn’t realize the extent of suffering Blacks had to endure at the hands of slave owners, and, subsequent to Emancipation, most whites in all parts of America. I just didn’t realize.
But now that I do understand, my views about racism in our country have changed from Blacks causing their own social, economic, educational, and moral condition to seeing that after slavery ended, they were never given the “Marshall Plan” that would have restored them to a level of humanity that would have allowed them full and equal citizenship. Instead, we figuratively held a knee to their necks, as those cops literally did to George Floyd, and suffocated an entire race of people in the process.
To their credit, and as evidence of their capabilities, endurance, perseverance, faith, and intelligence, Blacks have survived and have contributed to the building of our country in remarkable ways. What an amazing story of survival in the face of Jim Crow laws, segregation, lynchings, housing discrimination, economic deprivation, a Constitution that initially branded them less of a human being, racial profiling, police brutality, educational discrimination. I could go on and on how Blacks were enslaved, then freed, but never given the means to catch up and succeed.
So there are many in this country presently who are still in denial about, and refuse to recognize, the debt we owe Black folks. From the President of the country on down, they believe there is no systemic racism here. The word systemic means system wide, usually something toxic that affects the whole system. It’s really not up to white folks to determine what is toxic to Blacks. Blacks will tell us. And lately, they have been. After doing some research, I see now that what they’ve been telling us is true. They’re hurting. And as a retired social service professional who has dealt with people with severe mental disabilities, I can verify that when one group of people in our society is hurting, then we all need to figure out how it got this way and how we can help. That goes for homelessness, recidivism, cancer and heart disease, drug and alcohol addiction, pandemics, hunger, poverty, among other issues. We must all take some degree of responsibility.
So getting back to my premise, I feel that, yes, Blacks, themselves, can help break the chain of racism (many have overcome these chains on their own) but that I, as a white person, needs to acknowledge my role in perpetuating the stereotypes and recognize my white privilege that helps keep the chain intact. Again, compromise to come to consensus and make things right, better, more unified, throughout this fractured country of ours. A healthy democracy requires a sense of belonging and a sense of support from our fellow citizens and our representative democracy.
So things don’t have to be one way or the other. Everything is nuanced if we would only be open to those subtle elements. Then who we vote for has more to do with a candidate’s content of character than how they stand on one particular hot button issue. Then when we see a same-sex couple on the street, we can wish them well instead of criticism. Then when gun legislation comes up, we don’t have to immediately default to NO, and perhaps take a breath and consider how many people’s lives could be saved without you having to give up your guns. Then when you see a homeless person, instead of thoughts of aversion and derision, you could at least send that person good thoughts if not doing something more active like a donation of time or money. And then when you see human rights protests on TV, you consider what emotions and events led people taking to the streets to voice their concerns and desires. And even if and when those protests turn violent for reasons more complicated than we know, we can look for the nuanced reasons instead of instantly labeling them thugs, troublemakers, and anarchists. Perhaps we can look under the veneer for nuances to better understand what’s happening, and do something to help.
Think about it.
Very well written and thought out Stephen. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us all.
Stephen Altschuler says
Thanks very much, Richard. Happy to share my thoughts, and hoping they stimulate discussion.