Shooting for the Highest Common Denominator

In 2005, Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön and Alice Walker – best known as the author of The Color Purple, less known for her lifelong, intensive, skin-in-the-game social justice activism – had a public conversation at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco.

It’s a rich conversation that centers around the nature and value of pain/discomfort/suffering, the kind of conversation that I get something new out of every time I listen to it.

In recent days, though, the piece of it that’s been bubbling up for me nearly every day was when Alice Walker described her practice of imagining those standing in the way of social justice as the babies they once were. Think Baby George Wallace, cooing in his mother’s arms, crying for her attention, smearing prunes on his little baby face like any other baby, long before he stood in the schoolhouse doorway, an aggressive political show in favor of segregation.

Why does Walker do this? Remembering this shared bit of life, this humanity within even those who enact abhorrent behaviors, is a way of maintaining her own humanity by not denigrating theirs. She admits in the conversation that there have been certain people she’s actively opposed with whom she’s failed time and again to get to that brand of heartfelt compassion.

And yet, the effort matters. The effort matters for everything.

When we denigrate and dehumanize those we oppose, we further normalize denigration and dehumanization, rather than embodying a belief that there is no such thing as “sub-human.” In that way, we make our own efforts toward creating true equality and social justice that much more challenging because we stay stuck in a place of who deserves equality and justice rather than working from the high ground that everyone does.

When we denigrate and dehumanize those we oppose, we expend energy on mockery and hatred that we could be spending on building the society we want to see.

When we denigrate and dehumanize those we oppose, we become what we fight.

On what grounds do we then have to keep fighting?