A handful of years ago, back when I lived in wee rural Floyd, VA, a fairly stout number of people (given it’s a town of 500 in a county of 13,000) gathered on the courthouse steps one evening to demonstrate for legalized gay marriage.
I was a mighty proud aunt watching my nephew stand with the crowd and wave his sign, too. A local pizza shop owner brought us a few pies to share around in support and then drove by twice more just to honk and wave.
Off to the side of our demonstration was one single counter-protester. He held a sign that said this was Floyd, not California. I guess different cultures, different laws? Two or three people from “our side” went over to him and had peaceable conversations about their differences of opinions and perspectives. Someone took him a couple of slices of pizza.
We didn’t change his mind; he didn’t change ours. And yet there was no aggression there, no yelling or dehumanization or belittling. Just two different opinions, each held with enough conviction to get us all out into the cold mountain air that night.
It’s easy to turn those we disagree with into two-dimensional versions of humans. In fact, it’s so easy that psychologists have a term for it: The Fundamental Attribution Error.
When falling prey to the FAE, I would look at the lone counter-protester and say, “That guy doesn’t agree with me because he’s a flawed and stupid human being.”
Meanwhile, I can easily see the complexity of my own reasons for supporting gay marriage – not just my own sexual identity, not just the dream of equality for all, but the more pragmatic reasons, like the financial perks and legal protections that legal marriage offers that was then being denied to same-sex couples and their children.
But that guy with this sign on the corner? The one who chatted with us amicably while never wavering from his conviction? He wasn’t flawed or stupid. His reasons for his beliefs were just as complex as mine. He is just as complex as me.
We are in a time of deep divisiveness in our country. It’s a divide that is being reinforced like a terrible feedback loop as the algorithms that shape our searches and our own intentional molding of our social media experiences give us the information we most want, reinforcing and then deepening whatever beliefs we may have. We are hard-put to find a neutral, reliable news source these days but, friends, that’s because we give more attention (and therefore more money) to the ones that offer sensationalism and bias.
I’m not some innocent bystander reporting, either – I’m a part of this feedback loop, too. My social media feeds are tuned toward liberal activism; my podcasts often originate in NPR.
My incredible ex-husband is one of the few people I’ve known who actively engaged with a wide variety of news sources to broaden his awareness and challenge his biases. I give him a ton of credit for it, and to others who do the same.
For the rest of us, for those of us who find that level of broad engagement too energetically draining, too disheartening, I offer us this, a reminder:
Above all else, be careful that you don’t become that which you fight.
If you believe that the “other side” is devoid of compassion, strive to embody compassion more fully, to come at ’em with love so radiant as to be undeniable.
Dr. King, John Lewis, Ruby Sales – they showed us the way. They didn’t give up the fight, not for a second, and they didn’t let the fight tear down their humanity.
If you believe that the “other side” is stupid, blind, or poorly informed, remember that they may well think the same of you. See your own complexity and know their complexity, their fear, their hope is every bit as profound as yours.
Reductive labels reduce us all without buying us anything.
It is only through connection and thoughtful communion that we can change hearts and minds.