In the past month since President Donald Trump took the oath of office, my social media has been filled with emotion.
“I really don’t care anymore how I know you — whether we are related, whether we went to high school together, or whether we once called each other friends — if you are celebrating anything that has happened during the last week, I really have nothing to say to you other than that I am horrified and disgusted.”
“If you’re ignoring (or worse supporting) this madman, you are failing your country and shame on you.”
“If this offended you in anyway do me a favor and unfriend my American ass!!!”
These are just a tiny sample of the barrage of social media posts that express the raw feelings many in our country and communities have been experiencing.
Even though the sorting based on ideology has accelerated since the election, it has been happening for a long time. Liberals want to live in liberal cities, and conservatives in conservative communities. We seek news outlets that confirm our biases, and we can’t agree on a shared set of facts. We are quick to judge and attack those who disagree with us, and we find ourselves formulating a response before the person we’re talking to finishes their thought. But most alarming of all is that empathy and understanding of others is occupying less space in our lives.
I’m certainly guilty of that.
Last quarter, I taught a class called “Israel and Palestine Through Film” in Mercer island through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Washington.
After the first session, a student in this class self-identified as a supporter of the current president. Our short conversation started with her telling me about a lecture she attended about Japanese Americans and Executive Order 9066. She felt that the speaker didn’t give an accurate or complete story because she didn’t mention the fear that Americans were going through during World War II, which ignored what she felt to be the valid concerns of the populace.
In our short conversation she also mentioned to me that the last 8 years felt like a constant attack on her values.
“We’re Americans too, you know,” she said.
I gathered that “we” meant conservatives. It could have meant white, I suppose. But our conversation didn’t last long enough for me to ask for a clarification. I had to rush to another class. I asked her to come to the next class early so that we can finish the conversation, but that didn’t happen.
So, I judged. I complained to my friends and family and made myself feel better about our exchange by saying to myself that I am on the right side of history. And I congratulated myself, believing not to further engage is the right choice because I shouldn’t validate such nonsense and hate.
I know very few things about this woman other than her name. I don’t know if she has a family, a job, friends. I don’t know what books she likes to read, what films appeal to her or what music she likes.
Yet I did the one thing I always caution against — “otherizing,” or to harsher extent, dehumanizing someone by dismissing her views.
We all wear different identities. Immigrant, son of refugees, Arab, liberal, father, husband are just a few of mine. And even though these identities shape who I am as a person, I don’t want to be solely defined by them alone. We are complex beings, and if I believe there is more to me than the identities I wear, why am I not extending that belief to others?
I’m sure a lot of us would like to constantly conduct ourselves in a manner that that reflects our goodness instead of our cruelty. If I had the luxury of having this conversation again, I would try to listen without judgment. Listening is the first step toward understanding and empathy.
We are deeply divided and rightfully struggling with many questions about our state, country, and world. What does it mean to be an American? Who are we as a nation, and what do we stand for? When do we engage in these tough conversations, and when do we walk away? And most importantly, how do we draw the line between love and hate?
I am not naïve. I know that our deep divisions cannot be healed through simply listening to different stories and contemplating different narratives. It also won’t just take finding one or two things we might have in common. Or even sitting down and having a meal with someone whose views you may despise. But whether we like it or not, we are all part of the same state and same country. Learning how to coexist is no longer a luxury, but a necessity. Life with fear, anxiety, and distrust is not sustainable, nor is it in accordance with our ideal of the pursuit of happiness.
I want to be more connected and less afraid. I want to make sense of the world. I want to be grounded in the idea that no matter the external circumstances, we as a people can forge a path forward with mutual respect, honesty, and understanding.
That no matter the noise, politics, or even ideology, we can take lessons from our common history, and move forward with a renewed desire for exploration of our American identity.