What a year, huh? From burning continents to murder hornets to global pandemics and nation-sweeping protests, the last six months have been a relentless torrent of deeply unsettling news. It seems we hardly have a chance to come to grips with one disaster (never mind recover from it) before we’re hit with another, and you could be forgiven for feeling just a little exhausted from it all.
What seems to have made it worse is that, with every horrible thing that’s happened, there have been legions of people who continue to live in absolute denial about it – whether it be the ‘all lives matter’ crowd, or the ‘I need a haircut’ crowd, there has been no shortage of groups of people resisting even the most common-sense, obvious voices that are trying to make themselves heard.
Unfortunately, these people are only too-easily understood – and their voices are loud. Self-victimizing, inconsiderate, insecure and belittling people have always had a way of making every problem about themselves, and how they’re affected – or not affected – and therefore everyone else is wrong. This kind of mentality is easy to dismiss as that of a raging lunatic, but I challenge you here: have you never thought the same to yourself? It’s easy to say that others are selfish; it’s easy to cry foul when you see blatant, racist aggression caught on camera. But there is a lot more in common with these kinds of people and the rest of us than most of us would care to admit.
You see, as a human being with limited mental capacity, you literally can’t care about everything the same. It’s just not possible. If every plight in the world affected you to the same degree, you would either go mad with grief or tune it all out completely and become a psychopath. There are degrees of connection between the world we see – and the world we’re shown – and our own lives, and we’re naturally going to care more about those that align closer with our own life experiences.
This makes it easy to say things like: “I don’t have COVID-19, so why can’t I go out to a bar?” It also makes it easy to say, “I’ve never said something racist, so I’m not the problem.” We might not think these things consciously all the time, but deep in the back of our minds, if we really take the time to self-analyze, we should be able to recognize this as true.
When faced with a truth that works against our world-view – and I say truth as synonym for fact, because everyone’s ‘truth’ is tainted by their world-view in the first place – we can find ourselves going to outrageous lengths to protect when we believe, even if the evidence is directly contrary. This is called cognitive dissonance, and it explains a lot of things from racism to religion.
Most people, I think, don’t have nearly the self-awareness to recognize this. Instead, they take as fact what is presented to them with little effort to organize their own research, or to try and see things from a different perspective. We don’t recognize sensationalism for what it is, and assume that people in positions of authority must by definition know what they’re talking bout. If you believe Trump is a good president, you will naturally focus on those facts that make it seem to be the case, listen only to the narratives that support this view, and vehemently oppose anything that threatens your belief. The same is true of those who decry him as the worst president in history; ask them to name something good Trump has done, and most will be at a loss for words.
There is hope, however, and it’s in the very fact that, even if as individuals we lack the insight to know when we’re being biased, as a species and culture we’ve realized that this is one of our inherent flaws. And being aware of the possibility of personal bias is the first step toward addressing it.
However, it can’t end there. Knowing that we are all biased to the world to some degree or another, we have to then find the courage to face those uncomfortable truths, and ask ourselves whether what we believe is supported by fact; whether what we want is right; and whether there might not be other, equally valid truths in the world that we could see if only we took a step to the left.
And how, you might ask, can we do that? The answer, I think, is surprisingly easy. It starts with listening. How can you possibly open your mind to other perspectives and realities if you can’t keep your own mouth shut long enough to listen? And how can you hope to fix a problem if you can’t hear someone say that you’re a part of it?
Listen without action: that’s the next step. It’s what we need now in the world: to stop trying to fix problems with band-aid rhetoric, and simply let the oppressed speak. You’ll be surprised at what you hear; you’ll be hurt by what you learn. You won’t want to know their perspective, because knowing it – truly understanding it – means acknowledging that you’re a part of their suffering. But you can do it: trust me, you can. There’s no hurt or guilt in the world that we as the oppressors can possibly feel that could compare to centuries – in some cases millennia – of systemic racism, inequality and prejudice.
But listening isn’t enough on its own. It’s where it starts, but not where it ends. After we listen – after we’ve heard what’s being said – the time comes for action. But be warned: action without permission is as bad as acting without listening. You might think, having heard the horrors that black people and gay people and religious minorities face every day, that you therefore have permission to act on their behalf. After all, your voice is louder, it can amplify the message, it can speak for the unheard.
But that might not be what the unheard want. Before you act out against racism, bigotry, intolerance and hate, consider whether those people who’ve been victimized for so long want you to. Don’t assume you know what’s best, and don’t think you can say it better.
What’s needed now are allies, not saviors. No one is asking white people to save the black community; perceiving it as such is in itself as racist as assuming black people can’t do it themselves. Instead, try giving them a forum to voice their feelings. Give them the space they need to heal. And ask what you can do for them.
For many people, this is one of the hardest truths to grapple with: the idea that not only do you not have the answer, no one’s asking you to have one. Such is the difference between empathy and sympathy; the difference between alliances and savior complexes. It’s the difference between a world that doesn’t see color, and one that embraces all colors.
So I implore you, go out into the world with your mouth shut and your ears open. Look, but don’t touch. And when you think you’re ready to speak, do so in questions. Ask how your brothers and sisters are feeling, and what you can do to support them. We must do this ourselves, each and every one of us, because change won’t come from the top; it won’t happen from ‘trickle-down economics’. We need the self-awareness and humility to recognize that, after all these centuries, we might still be wrong – and to ask how we can help.
It’s hard – but it’s not that hard.