My Turn: Let’s foster a new normal of understanding and empathy

  • A man walks in Los Angeles on Thursday. AP

For the Monitor
Published: 12/10/2016 3:05:22 AM

Over the Thanksgiving Day weekend, there were numerous cautions on radio, TV and in print media urging the avoidance of political conversations around the Thanksgiving table.

A significant motivation for this caution is the increasing divide between blue-collar or no-collar low-income working people and intellectuals who benefit from higher education.

The former group is cast as hard-working with common-sense ideas about relationships, personal freedoms and familiar values. The latter group is perceived as a privileged elite claiming superior reasoning power. They seek to dictate values and rules for their own benefit, advocate for “political correctness” and designate how people should relate to one another.

It’s difficult to talk about this divide because each of us belongs to one side or the other and therefore cannot claim unbiased insight. However, I find myself trying, even though I’m perceived as living on the side of the educated elite. I protest that I have labored as a farm worker, worked as a waiter and sweated on a road-construction crew. In the Army I advanced only to specialist 5th class.

But I’ve also earned a master’s degree and have earned my living with words, spoken and written. Therefore my education and subsequent profession leaves me isolated from a man, whose job relies on physical strength, who once said to me: “It’s not right. Just because you have the ability to write, you are able to push your bad ideas in a newspaper article. Clever words are not my way. I use plain, common-sense and simple language, saying it like it is. It does not make good copy for the newspaper. But it’s the truth.”

Even the language we use separates us into two different worlds.

It seems this past election cycle has exacerbated this burgeoning divide in the American psyche, with the potential to split friends and family members into separate angry camps of people who voted for different candidates.

People who voted for Donald Trump protest that others are branding them with unjustified labels related to Mr. Trump’s rhetoric. Many women, people of color, people of different national and cultural origins, the GLBTQI community and people of diverse religious faith expressions are interpreting the Trump win as giving permission to threaten their integrity.

President-elect Donald Trump continues to feed this divide.

He has branded with his name the endorsement of aggressive language and crude labels against people and groups perceived as enemies or different. He has encouraged suspicion, bravado and uncensored attitudes where the value of a person is determined by shirt collar color, education, physical prowess, religious belief, cultural origin or choice of beverage.

Harry Reid recently wrote, “If this is going to be a time of healing, we must first put the responsibility for healing where it belongs: at the feet of Donald Trump.” However, we cannot wait for Trump to apologize for setting a course of words and actions that denigrates swaths of people. Nor can we wait for him to acknowledge flimflamming the people to vote for him. It is not enough to accept the defense of his followers that he only exaggerates to make valid points. It is time to reject all of the divisive labels and open a conversation across the divide.

The key to crossing this divide involves, first, the recognition that we are presently experiencing the worst of our human nature and inclinations. Then, rather than accepting this predicament as inevitable, let it lead us to shift the focus toward the integrity and value of each and every person among us.

Where we’ve been complicit in devaluing another, begin to acknowledge our abuse of power. Where we’ve been silent, begin to talk to one another across the divide, nurturing the strength of spirit that does not depend upon the weakness of others but on the contributions each person makes to our society and country.

We are a people who depend upon one another. My well-being counts on the contributions of the store clerk, the factory worker, the elected official, health care professionals, the farmer, the migrant worker, educators, tradespeople and so many others.

We all suffer when a union is busted, familiar physical work disappears and low-paying service jobs replace former middle-class jobs.

We are all impacted when some lose medical or pension benefits and opportunities for education that recognize differing learning aptitudes and skill sets.

We are only weak when we let the Trump mind-set pit us against each other. Then the only winners are the ultra wealthy and dictatorial despots.

Our strength as Americans is measured by our determination to stand with any group that is depreciated or denigrated. Our nation will gain strength and integrity when no bigoted action, statement or joke by a politician or a stranger on the street goes unchallenged.

Perhaps the Christmas / Hanukkah / Kwanzaa holiday table is a place to demonstrate a determination to feed the human ability for passionate reasoning, careful listening for understanding, empathy and love.

This transparency can open us up to face into, name and overcome racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia and other attitudes that divide us.

Open trusting conversation will create a new normal of hospitality, of understanding other cultures and religious faiths and of empathy.

Now that’s a conversation with which we can live and thrive.

(John Buttrick lives in Concord.)

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