This letter does not intend to push forward an agenda. My goal is to bring forward an idea that I think has been missing in all our talks about civility, left/right polarization, and community division: not often enough do we acknowledge how our beliefs and opinions can cause devastating pain to people.
This is the topic I would like to write on today, if you will allow me to occupy some space in your thoughts. To begin, I would like to mention a few things to inform you on the perspective I am writing from (because much as I would like this to be read through a non-partisan lens, I am not unconscious of my own bias):
· I hold left-leaning views in the political and social realms
· That being said, I grew up in a very conservative area, surrounded by conservative thought so, while I don’t agree with most beliefs on the right, I understand for the most part why conservatives believe what they do
· There are some topics that I believe are very clear. Some examples: if you don’t believe Black people’s lives matter, then you are racist. If you support white supremacy, then you are racist. Climate change is real and science-supported. If you don’t believe in climate change, I recommend you have a conversation with any of W&L’s wonderful faculty in the environmental studies/biology/geology departments. Please keep these things in mind when reading the following discussion as I do not intend, with any of what I’m saying, to sympathize with racist ideas or denial of science.
With all of this said, I would appreciate those that hold all points of view read the following, because it is not targeted at any one particular leaning and I tried to be as unbiased as possible.
The topic of this discussion first came to me in a two-part tweet:
“idk who needs to hear this, but part of being a good ally (heck, being a good person) is recognizing how your opinions and beliefs can hurt people. That doesn't necessarily mean you have to change them bc you probably have reasons for believing what you do, but you need to at least recognize that your beliefs are not a one and done for everyone and can devastatingly hurt other people. And you need to try to see what you can do to remedy that hurt even while still holding onto your beliefs. I'm not asking you to change, I'm asking you to Grow.”
My goal today is to expand on these initial thoughts, and explain them a bit further. With the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement this summer, the question of how to be a good ally has circulated through all social media platforms and some mainstream media. While I would point you to the books How to Be an Anti-Racist and White Fragility: Why It’s so Hard to Talk to White People About Racism to get a more complete answer to this question, I think one fundamental step to being an ally can be found in the most basic answer: being compassionate. The core idea I allude to in the above tweet is having compassion and empathy for other people. It is through these practices that we can understand why people hurt and recognize how we, and the ideas we support, are sometimes the source of that hurting.
To admit that you contribute to someone else’s pain is a terribly difficult thing to do and one of the reasons I think we cling so tightly to our political identities and defend them to our last breath. Admitting that a belief included in your political ideology maybe isn’t such a good idea is admitting that you’ve contributed to something that hurt other people. No one wants to admit to that. It makes you feel like a bad person. Are you a bad person? Well, I believe that fundamentally all humans are good, but with a capacity to be bad and to wound, some more than others. Regardless of what your capacity for the bad is, however, whether you let yourself manifest that side is what really matters.
Ignoring other people’s pain is manifesting that capacity to hurt.
Neither the right nor the left is fundamentally evil. These two identities are comprised of people with unique circumstances, different moral codes, and personal life experiences that are not universally understood. It is because of all these factors that the two sides hold contrasting perspectives on the way things should be run, and people on both sides have very valid reasons for believing what they do. This I know from growing up surrounded by people that held different political views from myself and my family. Were they bad people? No, not in the slightest. Your political leaning does not make you evil.
An unwillingness to learn why people may disagree with you, a refusal to see how the policies you support and beliefs you uphold can contribute to the suffering of others, does, in my view, start to manifest the bad. Like I said in my original tweet, it is crucial to recognize that our ideology does not apply in the same way to everyone and can, in fact, be damaging to others. I struggle with this myself in some of the topics surrounding climate change. For example, the fast fashion industry is horribly destructive for the environment and a disaster in terms of workers’ rights; I wholeheartedly believe it needs to be drastically reformed if not straight up eradicated. However, in holding this belief I need to recognize that not everyone has the privilege of being able to think in this way. Lower income families don’t have the means to buy expensive fashion, nor do they have adequate thrift stores in their areas. Especially with thrifting recently becoming “trendy,” many thrift stores have started to mark up prices. That leaves these families to rely on fast fashion for affordable clothing. I struggle, every time the topic comes up, to say that it’s okay for some people to buy fast fashion. I want to think of alternatives, but the only real foolproof one is to say, “well if you can’t buy non-fast fashion then don’t buy at all” and that is a statement that reeks of privilege and lack of compassion. So, I have to modify my thinking, mold my belief so I still hold onto the fundamental idea of it—fast fashion needs to be restructured— but make room in that belief for the people that are oppressed by it—in this restructuring of fast fashion, we need to provide viable, reliable alternatives for people that only have access to and can only afford fast fashion.
Now, this belief is a fairly easy one to accommodate because no one’s life is threatened by the belief that fast fashion should be eradicated, however many positions on topics such as immigration, police reform, the war on crime, and many, many more do pose a threat to people’s actual lives and well-being. In these cases, if you are on the side that would cause hurt, it is difficult to mold your views because you would have to acknowledge, face-on, that what you believe can cause a lot of suffering for other people. And that is not to say that what you believe is fundamentally wrong, because there is reason behind both viewpoints, and you do have a right to hold that belief. However, here comes the part about being a good ally and having compassion. It is crucial that you recognize how your beliefs can hurt people: that your belief may be what’s best for you and the people you care most about, but that is not the case for everyone. And while you can continue to hold your belief, a true display of compassion comes when you take the time to learn how your belief can negatively impact others and amend your way of thinking to be more compassionate and inclusive of everyone involved in the equation.
True growth comes from understanding our flaws and being able to acknowledge and amend them. You do not need to change who you are to have compassion and grow. You need to find the best version of yourself, a version that is inclusive and unafraid to admit when they are wrong. A version that is unafraid to challenge their own deep-seated beliefs and become more open-minded and compassionate to those that disagree with them.
I would like to end this open letter the same way I did my tweet, with one final phrase that I hope really captures the message that has been the muse of this letter:
I’m not asking you to change, I’m asking you to Grow.