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Is America Possible?

American Flag, Flickr photo by Mike Mozart

Is America Possible?

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By Elizabeth Backstrom

After seeing my post from a few days ago, my neighbor (a Trump voter) came over tonight to talk to us about how we felt. We had a great conversation about the election, what it’s like to be an American Muslim and what some of our hopes and fears are. He is in the military and said that he hadn’t met Muslims before but was grateful that we are neighbors and that he will work to protect our rights. It was heartfelt and brave to come over and I challenge myself and others to reach out and form human relationships with people different than ourselves.

I’ve been all over this planet. And there’s a troubling observation that I’ve made on my way. It’s that mankind, when left to our own devices, does not naturally accept different people. In mankind’s darkest moments, the most common culprit has been that division. (Sean Patrick Hughes) 

The kind of conversation I would have after telling these stories depends on who I am talking to. While I live in a pretty statistically white area of Washington State, my city is home to many different people who hail from all kinds of faiths, ethnicities and political ideologies. I’m bringing this up because I grew up here for 18 years without realizing this was the case. I visited stores and public spaces in my city for almost two decades, and because I did not make an effort to meet people who were different than me, I did not meet them. It’s pretty easy.

I attended private school on a scholarship and moved to the other side of the state to go to college in different city. There, for the first time, I closely interacted with folks who did not look, worship or love like I did.

Today, I know people from all sides of the political spectrum and from many different faiths. In this heated election season, it’s been quite tempting to take sides and write off people as racist or sexist, but my own history won’t let me do that so easily. I’ve watched some folks who I don’t agree with at all politically live out their lives in a way that selflessly helps and serves others less fortunate than themselves. Many of them school me in arguments on a regular basis, and I learn from each of them. If I’d met myself 15 years ago, I’d have called myself racist, and I wasn’t – was I?

Some of my friends can easily spend 30 minutes talking about privilege and inequality in today’s society. Others say they are not racist because they have friends who are black or Hispanic. Many don’t talk about either of these things, but over the past week and in the months leading up to this election, most have expressed grave concern over the direction we’re going – they don’t like the way we talk to each other, the behavior we’re modeling for our kids, and the uncomfortable feelings they get at family gatherings and in public spaces when talk turns inevitably to politics, because they don’t feel they can have a civil discussion or avoid being mocked for their views.

What all sides can agree on is how divided we are. We don’t visit community institutions like churches or libraries or civic clubs at the level we used to, choosing instead to stay home, stay out back or gather with people like ourselves. Many of us have moved our communities online, and most of those are sharply divided along political lines.

“Virtually all means of meeting and getting to know one’s neighbors have been eliminated. An electronically-operated garage door out front and a privacy fence out back afford near-total protection from those who, in former days, would have been neighbors” (Ray Oldenburg, ‘Our Vanishing Third Places, 1996).

As a country, we are literally having two (or possibly five or six) separate conversations on social media, and much of that conversation is populated by fake news. We post links and videos to our own pages, gain likes and comments that largely agree with our views, and block or unfriend those who don’t. Blocking and unfriending, for many people, is not a way to shut down discourse, but a way to avoid online harassment. Either way, the ultimate effect is the same – in 2016, we’re having fewer conversations and in-person relationships with people who are different than we are.  We’re talking less and echoing more.

Now we have Donald Trump. No matter what you think about Trump politically, it’s hard to deny he ran his campaign on a platform of divisive politics – he spoke to supporters about fear of many different groups and things. Fear of immigrants, fear of lost jobs, fear of refugees, fear of a rigged election, fear of people we don’t know doing things we don’t know in places we don’t know about. We can do many things in response to Donald Trump – call our representatives, donate to causes we care about, wait and see what he does, pray for him, decide to protest and demand respect for minorities – each of these is up to us. Our government is what we make it. Personally, I plan to be watchful and proactive. History shows us those who simply sat and hoped for a return of decency have been disappointed.

The fear and anger that helped Trump win existed long before him and will exist long after him, and is growing in countries around the world who are confronting similar movements in the wake of terrorist attacks and threats of war.

In the darkest moments of history, the worst things have been possible not because of a few bad people, but because of many quiet good people. Folks who did not speak up, who knew something was wrong, but were afraid to say anything. It is much easier to be against things than to do the hard, daily work of getting to know our neighbors.

Our fear is often very real, but if we’re going to ever fix this, we should start with the first question that precedes Donald Trump- where does the fear come from? I see many of my friends trying to blame it all on one group or another, but this fear has been with us for a while now, and it predates most of the groups we like to hold up in blame. Many still alive today remember when crowds gathered to throw rocks and taunt James Meredith at the University of Mississippi in 1962.

In an opinion piece for Roll Call, author Patrick Thornton wrote about his experience going to college and living for the first time outside his small rural town. Thornton said meeting his roommate made him change his mind about his stance on marriage equality.

“The first gay person I knew personally was my college roommate — a great man who made me a better person,” he said. “I realized that not supporting gay marriage meant to actively deny rights to someone I knew personally. I wouldn’t be denying marriage rights to other people; I would be denying marriage rights to Dave. I would have to look Dave in the eye and say, “Dave, you deserve fewer rights than me.”

Psychologists call this contact hypothesis – the idea that getting to actually know someone from a group of people can promote tolerance and acceptance. I call it going across the street to meet the neighbors. What we’ve been doing right now clearly isn’t working for us. Bemoaning the loss of civility isn’t working for us. Blaming other groups and retreating into our comfort zones and echo chambers isn’t working for us. Maybe we should swallow our pride and try something different. After all, what is ‘decency’ but the thousands of little things we do for each other every day?

 

Elizabeth Backstrom

About Elizabeth Backstrom

Elizabeth Backstrom majored in journalism at Western Washington University and currently works as a content analyst and grant writer in Spokane. Her background is in newswriting and features, but if an overabundance of caffeine is consumed, she has been known to write a humor piece or two. Backstrom attended various Christian churches growing up in Spokane and currently attends First Covenant Church, an inner-city ministry in downtown Spokane.

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