I was at a seminar recently where a dissenting opinion from a student was very poorly handled by the instructor. When I tried to define what the teacher had done to let things go so awry, I couldn’t really put my finger on it. It wasn’t that she had totally shut the person down, but she just didn’t make any space for the person’s experience, which was quite singular within the group. Because of the teacher’s narrow reaction, the group didn’t really know what to make of the situation, and seemed to take on a negative attitude towards the person after that. And that’s when it hit me. All this talk lately about whether or not we actually have to tolerate opinions that are offensive to us misses the point entirely. We don’t have to tolerate them. We actually have to make more room for them. It’s like someone unexpected showing up to dinner. You’re all already seated at the table. What do you do? You scoot over, you squeeze in, you make room.
And the same thing applies to people. We need to figure out how to make more room for those we don’t understand or agree with. Stop, I’m not saying it isn’t horrific and upsetting to realize, for example, that there are lots of people who hate you because of your religion, or skin color, or sexual or gender identity. And I’m not saying by making room that you endorse, feel happy about, or encourage someone to have these feelings. But denial doesn’t help. People are overwhelmed right now and part of that is from not knowing where the heck to file all of these hate-filled opinions and more importantly, the people who hold them. There is a confrontation taking place across the divide. It takes time, energy, and even creativity to handle new kinds of people, thoughts, situations. And people are worried they will fail, or that when it’s all over, they will have less.
Speaking personally, I was in the middle of a rather lovely, creative life, with most of my time devoted to writing, singing, and caring for dogs. Where’s the space in that life for this very painful truth that bigotry –in all its ugly forms – is alive and well in a large part of the population. Where does that fit in my life? And besides, didn’t we grow past this? Haven’t we evolved to understand that we are all equal?
Yes and no.
The notion of equality can be constraining if it results in assumptions of sameness. People have different needs, and if we go about resenting people for having different needs, we’ve failed fundamentally at empathy. We’ve expected the world to be an exact mirror, and to sound as an echo chamber only for our own or similar voices.
And that’s not what we want. Because the only thing truer than the fact that we hate different people, is that we love them. We thirst for them. We delight in them. We need them. We celebrate them. We even deify them. So maybe the hating is some intermediary step, something we do as we adjust to the reality of them, and maybe once we know them, we will love them.
But why is the fear and hatred there in the first place? Because people are afraid of other people. We are evolved to be suspicious, wary, careful. It’s said we have five questions we immediately want to answer when we meet someone. These are not cocktail party questions: What do you do? Are you a fan of watercolors? These are our lizard brain questions, the things our limbic system needs to know to decide fight or flight. Here are the questions:
Can I eat them?
Are they going to eat me?
Can I mate with them?
Are they going to mate with me?
And lastly, have I seen them before? And that’s where all the “different” radar gets involved. We run through our database to remember if it’s friend or foe so we can kill it, run away from it, or maybe relax and have sex with it. But if we haven’t seen it before, if it registers as different to us, then we don’t know yet if we’re safe in its presence. So in a modern, “civilized” world, where does this concern go? How is it channeled? Into the mind. Into finding reasons to dislike people, to separate us from them. To render them “different.”
The limbic system also has a lot to do with emotions and emotional bonding and empathy. So what do you suppose happens if you first bond emotionally with people who say they hate Jews? Or don’t like black people? I’m talking about your parents. Your best friend. Your big brother. Or maybe you had a terrible home life and then, in your twenties, you met a great bunch of guys who made you feel welcome. And those guys hate black people. Or you’re black yourself, but had a chaotic homelife, and then found a sense of order and purpose in the Republican party? Either way, even in an atmosphere of prejudice, part of you is learning what love is, what connection feels like. The dopamine in your brain is doing its job as a neurotransmitter as you laugh, are fed by, and hugged by these people. Your empathy is developed for these people, not for those other “different” people.
Is hate taught? Most definitely! But just as the abusive marriage includes strong emotional and sexual bonds that make it difficult for an abused person to leave, bonds of love and connection are formed simultaneously, and it’s not easy to cut these bonds once their developed. Some of the most racist groups are made up of outcasts and abused people who have never found a feeling of love and safety until they joined those groups. I’m not saying it is love. But to some, it’s the closest they’ve ever come, and it feels like love.
The fact that these things are learned should give us great hope. What is learned can be unlearned! Still, there’s no easy fix here, and I’m certainly not going to go out and find the nearest Nazi and give them a hug. But I think there’s something in the idea that we need to make more space, not less, and I always think its best to start the process of change or growth internally. Secure your own oxygen mask before you help others kind of thing. So maybe the first thing we need to remember is that we are very strange ourselves, and isn’t that wonderful! If nothing else, for those of us who are feeling attacked and afraid in the face of this bigotry, it may be comforting to reassure ourselves that we are lovable, in all our weirdness.
So here is a list of five movies I like a lot, each of which, in its own way helped me enjoy and understand someone who is different. Three of them are available free on Netflix streaming. Maybe this list won’t appeal to you. At the risk of repeating myself, we are different.
The Imitation Game (2014) Compelling story of famous British code breaker. A scientific mind struggling heroically to serve his country in wartime, while that same country criminalizes his sexuality. (Free on Netflix streaming.)
Hello Dolly (1969) Directed by my hero Gene Kelly. A treasure. And Dolly Levi is the original fun crazy lady. (Free on Netflix streaming.)
Frances Ha (2012) This indie film about an unusual young dancer in New York City straddles comedy and drama in a way that is odd itself, and if you struggled to find your place in your 20s, you might love this one. I did. (Free on Netflix streaming.)
Cold Comfort Farm (1995) Early film of Kate Beckinsale. A delight. Funny and touching. Weird wins the day with this bucketful of characters at a rural farm in Sussex.
My Left Foot (1989) Well-deserved classic status. Astounding performance by Daniel Day Lewis. The hardships of boy with cerebral palsy in a poor family in Dublin in the 30s. Based on a true story, an inspiring life, an inspiring film.