I understand deep emotions and heated conflict over politics and social issues. I have those deep feelings, myself, and I engage in discourse with passion. I guess I prefer such heated emotions to apathy, which is the response that brings out my inveterate anger. What I don’t understand is being mean to people over these conflicts—mostly because I just don’t get the use in being mean.
This morning there are two articles in The New York Times about communities being torn apart by suddenly being thrust upon the national stage. One is Burns, Oregon, the other Manitowoc City, Wisconsin. People who have been friends and neighbors for years in both small towns have stopped speaking to each other. Their deep political divisions are spilling into elementary school playgrounds.
I am not untouched by this. Where I live, a hotly debated school board recall became snippy and unkind online, pitting neighbors against each other. One man in our county called for the execution of all members of our local teachers’ association. Of course, how can this surprise anyone in a country where the governor of New Jersey said teachers who belong to their union deserve to be punched in the face?
While the violent threats did seem to be mostly anti-teacher, there were moments of online pettiness worthy only of cruel adolescents that came from the side I most identified with, and let me tell you, those made me cringe. I believe we had right on our side. We needed no more than to make our case—loudly, yes, but civilly, too. The only time I made any sort of personal outreach to one of the board members with whom I vehemently disagreed, it was to offer condolences on the illness of his father. Perhaps everyone should sit down and reread (or read for the first time) Countee Cullen’s “Any Human to Another.”
Over a decade before the recall, I saw how the judgments of outsiders, people who knew nothing of Columbine High School, poisoned our community. I saw kids who were as traumatized and bewildered as anyone suddenly feel unwelcome in a school that had always operated as a family, simply because they had been friends with two boys who had done something no less shocking to those who knew them than it was to those who didn’t. (If it is any comfort to Burns and Manitowoc City, time has done much to heal those wounds, though they have left scars, for sure.) I saw kids who thought (correctly, I believe) that their school was a great place to learn, suddenly wonder whether they had all been ruthless bullies without knowing it. (They were not.)
We can, will, must disagree. Conflict can often lead to the best outcomes, because any one side on any given issue is seldom 100 percent right. But we can love each other anyway in the meantime. We all need comfort when we grieve and watchful eyes on our children because we can’t be everywhere at once. Weddings and births are causes for joy, whether the parents of the newlyweds or babies will be voting for Trump or Sanders, whether they own guns or eschew them.
The beauty of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge will endure decades (centuries, if we care for it) beyond the grudges of today’s strife. In time, I hope, we will learn what we can from Manitowoc City to further the cause of justice throughout our nation, and we will leave behind our judgments of the community and its people—people we don’t know and, ironically, cannot ourselves fairly judge.
For the second time this week, I come back to the quote attributed to Unitarian minister Francis David: We need not think alike to love alike.