Monday, October 29, 2018

"Do not fight hate with hate": A Reflection on a Saying

The Don't List:

"Do not fight hate with hate."

Do not confuse hate with anger, with the indignant cry of the victims or the protective fury of those who love them. Some anger is the anger of love, and this anger is an essential tool in the struggle against hate.

"Do not fight hate with hate."

Do not create false equivalences between the hate in the heart of anti-Semites and the reactive hate of those who have been brutalized by anti-Semitism. The call not to fight hate with hate is a reminder of how best to fight the evil of those who swim in the waters of hate. It isn't a tool to re-victimize those who have been splashed by these waters.

"Do not fight hate with hate."

Do not confuse the act of hating people with the act of hating injustice, hating evil, hating hate. While hating people is a poor weapon to fight hatred of people, hatred of hate is essential. We fight hate because we hate hate. We grope for ways to love the human filled with hate because we hate the hate that has consumed then and twisted their humanity.

"Do not fight hate with hate."

Do not let this mantra block empathy for the victims of hate. Do not speak it from a place of privilege, where you sit untouched by hate and tell its victims to be saintly while you wag your finger at them. Do not use this mantra as a test to judge which victims of hate are worthy of your compassion.

Do not fight hate with hate.

The Do List:

Fight hate by loving its victims, all its victims, including those who have been eaten up by it from the inside, including those who have chosen to live in hate as a way to find meaning, including those who have been murdered or orphaned or brutalized by those it has possessed, including yourself.

Fight hate by groping for the words and actions that will lift up the humanity of the person before you.

Fight hate by recognizing its seeds in your own heart: the disdain, the condescension, the dismissal of others based on where they're from or what they look like or what they believe or how they respond to the struggles of life. Forgive yourself for those seeds. Forgive others for those seeds.

Fight hate with the angry love that will not stand idly by while there is preventable suffering.

Fight hate with the mercy that can crack walls of defensive intolerance--mercy for the trembling child huddled beneath the layers of ugliness.

Fight hate with the grace that prevents minor failures from blossoming into larger ones.

Fight hate by screaming "No" to the darkness, and then by shedding what light you can.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Shoplifting: An Analogy

I believe we should have laws against petty theft, and I believe we should prosecute those who break these laws.  And I believe sensible steps to prevent petty theft should be taken.

But I do not believe that petty theft is such a serious threat to our country that it should be a felony, that police should devote detectives and forensic scientists to tracking down shoplifters the way they track down murderers, or that shoplifters should be sentenced to prison and separated from their families.

And if my local department store decided to spend millions to build the most high-tech state-of-the-art surveillance system throughout the store and to fill the store with dozens of security personnel, all to stop the occasional shoplifter, I'd advise them to think about whether their plan makes sense financially and in terms of creating a humane shopping environment that their paying customers would feel at home in.

Oh, and if there's a sudden uptick in shoplifting groceries because (a) the major employer in town closes down, resulting in hundreds of people suddenly without jobs or the ability to pay their bills, and (b) the town has no food pantries and provides no unemployment benefits to help the unemployed through this difficult time, then the major problem here is not the petty theft. And it would be inhumane for the town to address the issue by ignoring the economic problems caused by the factory closing down, ignoring the lack of food pantries or other supports systems, and instead spend hundreds of thousands of dollars ruthlessly policing the grocery stores and filling up the local jail to overflowing with shoplifters who were just trying to feed their families.

Not only would it be inhumane, but it would be counter-productive. A more human approach would probably cost less and do more for the town in the long run. Furthermore, I wouldn't be surprised if the laid-off workers started marching and protesting. And if the protesters became a mob that started to riot, I would not condone the rioting but I would encourage the town government to think about how they'd contributed to the crisis.  I'd tell them to refocus their energies on fixing the root problems, instead of treating those hungry people who shoplift canned tuna for their kids as if they're murderers.

All of this is common sense. Just plain common sense.

And everything I just said about petty theft can, with slight alteration, describe my views on illegal immigration.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Do Not Return to Silence: A Plea

It's a lot to ask, I know, but still I beg it: Do not return to silence.

Christine Blasey Ford didn't want to go public because she didn't think it would do any good. She feared she'd expose herself and her family to all manner of pain and hardship, and it wouldn't make a difference. The engine had been gathering speed for a long time, and her voice would not be enough to stop it.

She was right.

Nevertheless, I beg: Do not return to silence.

There are many who say it's a good thing that her voice didn't prevent Kavanaugh's confirmation. They speak sincerely about witch hunts and the presumption of innocence, about attacking the integrity and honor of a man who has hit all the career milestones and achievements of someone striving to earn a seat on the Supreme Court. They speak of the hardship he and his family must endure because a woman shook off years of silence, stepped hesitantly into the public spotlight, and spoke with credibility and earnestness about a distant memory in which only a few things were utterly clear: his face, his name, the pressure of his body and his hand over her mouth, and the laughter.

We cannot let that be enough, they say, or we open a Pandora's Box of false accusations. We must make an example of her--show the world that her voice alone cannot derail this man's career trajectory--so that men like him do not need to fear.

And so, in the name of keeping men safe, the old social forces grind on, demanding silence.

Nevertheless, I beg: Do not return to silence.

Her words, spoken with such conviction and such power from a place of humanity and pain, were offered without the benefit of the kind of sustained investigation that might turn up corroboration. Never mind for the moment who is to blame, but her words were delivered in a context and with a timetable that guaranteed there could be nothing else, that it would be her words alone, her naked words against a man with the brass ring of a Supreme Court seat almost in his fist, a political party with the brass ring of majority control of the Supreme Court almost in its fist. And the decision-makers went through the ritual of listening to her bare words before delivering their inevitable verdict: "Yes, a credible witness. A sincere voice. No doubt something happened to her. But it's her words alone."

Nevertheless, I beg: Do not return to silence.

She became a target and a pawn in a polarized political battle. Some surely saw her as a tool, as an opportunity to exploit. Others saw her as a threat to their political aims. For a few brief moments, perhaps, as she told her story, they saw her as a person. For an a hour, perhaps, it was about her humanity. But before and after that hour she was one piece to be played for political points, and her humanity was something to be buried by those whose political aims were threatened by her naked words.

Nevertheless, I beg: Do not return to silence.

While some career politicians opportunistically exploited her, others opportunistically exploited the public's disgust with political opportunism and exploitation. They slathered this woman with all the ugliness of the partisan politics that swirled around her, as if she were to blame for it. It no longer became about her and her story and the question of Kavanaugh's character. It became, instead, about whether the Democrats were timing the release of her story for maximum political effect and asking for an FBI investigation to drag out the confirmation process until after the midterm elections. "Is she telling the truth?" was transformed to "Did the Democrats behave with propriety and decency in the confirmation process, free of manipulative tactics?" And the political cynicism that gives an inevitable negative answer to the second question was treated as, by default, giving a negative answer to the first. She was no longer just responsible for her own words, her own story, her own connection to the truth. She was made responsible for all the ways that others might use those words and that story and that truth.

Nevertheless, I beg: Do not return to silence.

The very President of the United States of America mocked her testimony in public. In front of a crowd of cheering supporters, he made the most painful moments of her life into the brunt of a joke. He laughed along with the crowd.

Nevertheless, I beg: Do not return to silence.

She was forced into a room by two boys, overpowered, pinned by the weight of a male body and afraid for her life when his hand pressed down over her mouth to keep her silent. And when forced by the weight of circumstance and her own sense of duty to at last break that silence, she was subjected to harassment and death threats of such magnitude that she and her family had to move out of their home for their own safety. There was no evidence that she was anything but sincere in her reasons for breaking her long silence; but an entire movement built up around the notion that Brett Kavanaugh was the true victim in this case. Images sprang up on social media of him and his family along with the caption, "Pray for this family." Senators waxed indignant about the abuse he suffered, apologizing to him as if he'd been subjected to the moral equivalent of sexual assault.

As if his life would be ruined if he wasn't granted the most highly respected position it is possible for one in his field to receive, forcing on him the indignity of finishing out his career in a position that is merely one of the most highly respected positions someone of his career can receive.

As if it is an affront to his dignity and honor to be required to confront this story, this harrowing story of someone who said she had suffered by his hand (and by the weight of his body, and by the sound of his laughter). Not required to face trial (that would never happen) or even a full investigation unhampered by rigid timetables, but simply to be part of a proceeding in which both he and she are given equal time to state their accounts.

How dare they! How dare they subject him to this witch hunt, this violation, this assault on his good name. As if requiring him to do it is akin to pushing him into a darkened room, tearing at his clothes, almost choking him in the effort to keep him silent.

Nevertheless, I beg: Do not return to silence.

It's asking a lot, maybe too much. I cannot demand it where the costs are so high. I can only beg.

I beg it because it is the only path that has the hope of bringing insight and understanding to a world so fogged by ignorance and confusion. It is the only path that has the hope of restoring balance and equality and the dignity of women and girls in a world that sits in the shadow of centuries of patriarchy.

I beg it because in a world where women and girls are silent, all women and girls are in greater danger of being victims (including the ones who hold my heart). In a world where men and boys can trust in silence, and in the forces that make examples of those who refuse to stay silent, men and boys will think they can get away with it. As they did with so many women I know (I name you in the silence of my heart, because it is not my place to break your silence).

As one of them might do, one day, with my daughter. And her classmates. And her gymnastics teammates. And her generation. Unless the forces meant to keep women silent are battered and battered again by women who refuse to stay silent.

It's asking a lot, maybe too much. Still I beg it. 

And unfortunately I beg it in a world where false accusations of sexual harassment and assault do happen. They are far rarer than the routine reality of sexual harassment and assault, but the forces supporting the status quo have an interest in making those false accusations loom large. I beg you not to return to silence; I beg it so that the truth will loom larger still. If all the real instances of sexual harassment and assault are made evident in a litany of honest voices sharing honest stories without agendas, the fable that the biggest danger is the false accusation will be battered down. False accusations loom large only in a world where the chorus of true stories go unheard.

That doesn't mean we shouldn't hear the voice of the one who has been falsely accused. I feel I must say this to those who are prone to misunderstand. There is a difference between shutting down the lie that false accusations are more common than rape and shutting down the person who says, "I have been false accused." False accusations do happen, and it won't serve the cause of truth to deny this or to pretend that we should do nothing to protect the victims of false accusations. What will serve the cause of truth is to recognize what the existence of false accusations calls for.

It does not call for us to treat every person who comes forward to share the pain of sexual assault as if they were a liar bent on ruining lives. What it calls for is discernment, and wisdom, and compassion.

Acting with wisdom and discernment and compassion means that when we are talking about a criminal trial where the accused faces punishment if found guilty, we should presume innocence until guilt has been proved beyond a reasonable doubt. But it does not mean that we must extend this "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard outside the courtroom. Depending on the nature of the case, a single witness, no matter how credible, may not be enough to send someone to prison for child abuse in the absence of any corroborating evidence. But one credible witness is surely enough to justify my decision not to hire that person to be my babysitter. It isn't wisdom or discernment or compassion to apply the standards fitting for the courtroom to every facet of social life.

And again, so that I am not misunderstood, I feel compelled to add that this doesn't mean there should be no standards at all. It doesn't mean we should be so credulous that any mean-spirited chronic liar can stop us from honoring a deserving person just by fabricating a story. It means that the standards should be determined by what is at stake, by what we risk by being wrong, by who is vulnerable and who is not, and by how likely it is that someone would, in the circumstances at hand, come forward as they have done if what they were saying was a lie.

Most of all, wisdom and discernment and compassion means this: in ordinary life, when someone speaks out about sexual harassment and abuse, we listen to them as we listen to others who share their stories: with a presumption of their innocence--a presumption that they are sincere and honest, not calculating liars aimed at unjustly bringing others down.

Of course that presumption can be defeated. We cannot ignore the character and credibility of those who speak, or close our eyes to the darker motives that may give them a reason to lie. But wisdom and discernment and compassion means we pay attention to whether there are such reasons to doubt credibility. It does not mean we permit sustained smear campaigns aimed, not at determining their credibility, but at undermining it.

What wisdom and discernment and compassion demand depends on context, on what is at stake, on who risks the most and what the harms of error will be. And the world will not understand what is at stake unless the victims of sexual harassment and assault refuse to remain silent, despite all the forces ranged against them.

And so I beg: Do not return to silence. A world defined by wisdom and discernment and compassion depends upon the voices of those with the courage to speak.