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Why Are You Troubled?

“Why are you troubled?  And why do questions arise in your hearts?  Look at my hands and my feet, that it is I myself.  Touch me and see, because a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you can see I have.” — Luke 24:38-39

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Finding Another Way

Still from Antonio French Tweet about Charlotte, NC, protest, May 31

Yesterday, I came across this video from a protest in Charlotte, North Carolina, over the weekend, under the headline, “Generations of pain”:

I wish the video had more context, because how the discussion started could add import to what was said, allowing one to understand what happened beyond the words exchanged. What ideas entered the ring, and which one ultimately won? A video from another angle starts a few moments earlier, with the older man pointing to somebody in his late teens or twenties while saying, “Next week, he’s going to die,” presumably a victim of racism. So, it appears the man in the “Freak” shirt was making the case against whatever happened to be happening near them and the older man was defending it.

However it began, the closing point of the video is unambiguous: Marchers have been marching, protesting injustice for generations, and they keep finding themselves in the same place. The exhortation to the young-adult generation: “Putting yourself in harm’s way is not the way… Come up with a better way.”

There arises the problem. What is “the better way”? Click around any social media platform, and you’ll find different enclaves where conflicting solutions are promoted as if they’re obvious. In the thread of replies to the video above, it doesn’t take long for “universal healthcare” to appear as a solution. I’d offer that particular ideology as the problem, as a constituent part of the way that has led us to this point of division.

In the enclaves where I feel most agreement, people frequently point out that American cities have largely been governed by a single party for generations, and that this party is determined to increase the power and engagement of government, and that the police toward whom so much of this aggression is directed are the community-level manifestation of a more-powerful and more-engaged government. Indeed, one could say they are the working-stiffs only trying (and, because they’re human, often erring) to implement the rules created by the politicians who are even now exploiting this disharmony for their own aggrandizement.

But the specifics of that disagreement are a topic for another day — or rather, for many, many other days. The burning question with which we have to start is how do we begin to create the conditions for the better dialogue that can help us sort through the lunacy of life in a fallen world and thereby move toward the needed better way?

Here, once again, the past few months of our unprecedented experience have provided a relevant lesson. The coronavirus pandemic has shown globally the degree to which we look to others to understand what are reasonable beliefs and what is reasonable behavior. Even those of us who have been skeptical throughout the crisis and who’ve concluded that the facts show the reaction to have been disproportionate find ourselves reluctant to be contrarian — in words, yes, but even more so in action.

No matter what you believe, acting on those beliefs comes with a greater weight of responsibility (indeed, of culpability) when everybody around you disagrees. If a credible authority (or a credible consensus) says allowing your children to see their friends is the pathway of death, you have a responsibility to verify that the claim is credible, yes, but if you do not follow it, that is much more truly your decision. Just so, one might conclude (as I have here and here) that Original Sin entered the world along with the need to take responsibility, because after the Fall, a human being is ultimately acting according to his or her own sense of right and wrong rather than God’s.

Although Adam and Eve bequeathed us that responsibility, we still find it uncomfortable, and we long instinctively for affirmation, taking cues from our groups as to what will bring it. Thus, our “knowledge of good and evil” finds us relying on consensus on those very questions. Somehow, we don’t actually know what is good or what is evil, but must figure it out, which means we are often wrong, and we have responsibility for the error.

One can see this in the contrast between comment threads on Twitter or Facebook in different ideological corners. Two groups of people who might be very similar in most respects can be picking up very different standards for what is acceptable from their groups, and those standards come into conflict when we move outward or are forced to interact politically.

Click on one thread, and you’ll see snarky expressions of disbelief that people who were recently angry that they couldn’t get haircuts are now calling on government to take action against protesters to stop the spread of COVID-19. Click on another thread, and you’ll see snarky expressions of confirmed suspicions that the very people who were just days ago shaming people for ignoring “the rules” have nothing, apparently, to say about “the rules” at all.

When partisans from either camp venture out and begin discourse with those from the other, they can’t help but bring with them some smug certitude, which reads to the others as contempt. For that reason I’ve begun muting and blocking people, which I’d never done before. I’m doing so now not because I’m not interested in or unable to tolerate different ideas, but because in order to add that healthy diversity to my intellectual diet, it has begun to seem as if I must also take a dose of radioactive attitude.

What’s more, I know I’m not innocent of doing the same! Worse, I doubt my ability ever to be infallibly innocent. Some things require response, in the name of justice and in the name of truth, and some things produce outrage. It seems a saintly achievement to keep the other person’s well-being so central in one’s response as to prevent justified opposition to obvious error from bleeding into the sickness of the day: snark.

At least with an acknowledgment of culpability maybe we come a step closer to the solution. As much as we can, we have to stop contributing to the problem ourselves, and in turn, we have to give those with whom we disagree the space to gradually move away from their own contributions.

Maybe little by little, we can begin to feel a part of a larger group in which it is not considered a moral failing to come to different conclusions or even (Gasp!) to be wrong.


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