My admiration for a professional acquaintance grew during the Indiana RFRA upheaval (which I introduce here as an EXAMPLE, not something I really want to debate right now*). She is a life-long Republican activist. And I do mean activist. She organizes and attends political rallies, works in campaign offices, and is always ready to intelligently discuss policy. My beliefs and hers overlap in very few places, but I’ve always enjoyed our conversations whether we’re agreeing or disagreeing.
She held strong beliefs against RFRA–beliefs she determined were more in line with her vein of conservatism than that of RFRA’s supporters. Knowing she’d forever damage her standing among segments of her party, she became one of the loudest and most reasoned voices speaking for its amendment or repeal. Many of the photos you’ve seen of local rallies include her. She was even asked to speak at the largest rally. And she spoke to her fellow conservatives at every opportunity.
Coolest of all? She consistently delivered moderate messages regardless of her audience. Since the message was both inclusive and diverse (it touched on social, economic, personal, national, political, and generational responsibilities), people on both sides listened.
Even so, folks on one side bad-mouthed her as a fake supporter and criticized her mention of economic motivations as cold-hearted and selfish. Folks on the other side bad-mouthed her as a fake Republican intent on attacking religion.
But in the end, she and others supported and achieved a middle ground: Indiana has an RFRA that is more in line with the original intent of the Federal RFRA, and the folks whom the original Indiana RFRA drafters targeted were extended protection, and the discussion continues.
Oh, and Indiana state government has allocated millions of dollars to marketing and public relations intended to repair the damage done to Indiana’s convention and tourism business.
There is a charming innocence in believing life is like a box of chocolates. I rather hope that isn’t true because that would mean some chocolates are rotten, or filled with venomous spiders, or imbued with the ability to randomly kill those I love. I’d prefer my chocolates to be like chocolates, thank you very much.
Life is really a plane filled with passengers who ought to be prepared to slip into The Langoliers without warning. The view is fantastic and the destination just might be wonderful, but at any moment something will go terribly, irrevocably wrong and your survival will depend upon not only your own preparations but the attitudes and preparedness of those sharing your plane.
That’s why a passenger who refuses to take their seat when asked can be kicked off the plane prior to take-off or arrested after landing at the destination. It isn’t because failing to sit down when asked, even when nothing bad is happening, is a life-threatening crime. It’s because a person who can’t follow simple directions—who cannot fathom an existence beyond their own experience and desires—is a threat when reality slides to the left. Better to dump the passenger at the gate, or arrest them in the hope it’ll change future behavior, than deal with a jerk suffering from narcissistic tendencies in an enclosed space where errors result in death.
Over the past year—with all the intra-industry battles over publishers, booksellers, platforms, publication paths, convention policies, and now the damned awards—I’ve had much better luck judging behavior than opinions. I admit I can be harsh about it at times (my explodes-at-the-end-of-a-long-fuse temper is not my ally), but I’ve had more than a couple harsh experiences that taught me life is short, unpredictable, and enamored with its own brutal streak.
So yes, I’m far more interested in knowing who keeps a level head, who is smart and wise enough to entertain doubts, who is able to able to balance intense passion with a wide perspective.
I’m choosing who I want to be on my plane.
It takes little effort and willingness to experience empathy for people we agree with. It takes a great deal more of both to experience empathy for those we disagree with.
The stock phrase about being doomed to repeat the past because the past is forgotten is true only to a certain extent. It’s actually the lack of empathy for the opposition that causes us to perpetuate the same conflict-ripe conditions. The inability to see why a single issue matters, the unwillingness to examine motive and motivation, the so-young belief that acknowledging a fact is the same as approving of what someone does with it, the simplistic and lazy assumption that the opposition fights because they’re evil and nothing else—that’s what dooms us.
The mistakes don’t lie in choosing strategy and tactics. The mistakes lie in not asking why we’re needing to make those choices again. Again. Again.
Empathy is the ability to imagine what the world looks like when viewed from a different window. In practical terms, it’s about listening to what folks say rather than hearing nothing but a Charlie Brown adult croaking while you think of your response, and about accepting that your personal experience is not universally shared or understood or even known.
Specifically, it’s about understanding a person who has been shunned and physically threatened because of their gender identity just might be furious about a law touted as a means of exclusion. It’s about understanding a person of faith, who has heard the millionth attack on religion as the cause of all ills, will be defensive about a seemingly small joke. It’s about looking at why a person thought to be awesome and welcome and level-headed suddenly accuses those who thought they’d been nice of doing harm.
It’s about peeking over the great wall of righteousness to glimpse the landscape that impacted the other side’s beliefs, actions, and reactions.
Empathy isn’t an endorsement of belief or behavior. It is, at its heart, the path that leads to connections and solutions.
Just about everyone is wired for sympathy. Not everyone is wired for empathy by the time they reach adulthood. And of those who are empathetic, even fewer are willing to acknowledge it. Fewer still are willing to share their empathetic understanding for fear the un-empathetic will accuse them of evil.
If you’re interested in practicing empathy, imagine how the person you most disagree with might read these words. Imagine that what you apply to the Other Side is now being applied to you.
Now don’t run away from those thoughts.
You see, we’re very quick to ask, “How would that make YOU feel?!?” and very adverse to coming up with an answer. And very, very reluctant to admit the answer might be, “I’d feel the way you do right now.”
Nothing happens in a vacuum. No story exists without backstory. A villain without motivation is a failure of storytelling. Real life seldom makes that error.
In my rural county, the most commonly spoken endorsement of a person’s ability and morality is, “She’s a good Christian.” From babysitters to financial advisors, therapists to farmers, politicians to plumbers. “He’s a good Christian,” is regional shorthand for moral, trustworthy, hardworking, good-natured, and every other positive trait you can imagine. I’ve often heard some variation of, “You know, she can’t do the X, Y, or Z parts of the job, but we keep working with her because she’s a good Christian.” Folks will tell you anyone is welcome, regardless of creed, but those same folks will listen for the “She’s a good Christian,” endorsement. Or pay close attention to its lack.
If you’re not “a good Christian,” you know you’re automatically lower on the list for danged near everything.
As someone who is not a church-going Christian (heck, I’m barely a cultural Christian anymore, truly), I totally understand the desire to have a place among friends who do not use religious belief as the basis of acceptance. I have an empathetic understanding, too, for those who feel so outcast by the “He’s a good Christian” environment—and who have been passed over for social and professional opportunities because of it—that they want a place to be completely devoid of Christian presence and acceptance.
But the truth is that the overwhelming majority of Christians haven’t the slightest inclination to use religion as criteria for employment, friendship, or anything at all. The overwhelming majority have no interest in recruiting you into their belief system, in demanding every public interaction conform to their Biblical interpretation, in punishing those who do not share their beliefs.
And yet—for heaven’s sake, be honest, my darlings—there are environments within the SFF community that will deride any and all stripes of Christianity, and gleefully so. There is even an SFF-community version of “She’s a good Christian.” It’s applied to those whose practice of Christianity either conforms with what’s assumed to be the preferred beliefs, or those whose practice is so rarely spoken of it is able to be ignored.
Right now—right this instance—if your thoughts are beginning to spin with, “Yeah, but…!” I invite you to take a step back from this part of the discussion.
Rest assured, anyone on any side of this debacle is well aware of the extreme ends of the beliefs. Truly, identifying that is the simple part, arguing it is for emotional satisfaction, and continuing to focus on it offers a dead-end.
I’m talking to those who are utterly sick of the spouting of the obvious, the screaming of pointless invective, the fingerpointing and the backslapping and cruel debates that seem to have completely forgotten actual people whose professional work is being trampled in the middle have been deemed acceptable collateral damage in the proxy war.
I’m talking to those who are more interested in exploring conversation with those who hold different beliefs than in beating the obvious extremist about the head. I’m talking to those who define victory as a lasting compromise, not those who equate winning with subjugating the opposition. I’m talking to those who want more than anything to discover why a conflict exploded—and who understand that discovery involves talking with people you don’t agree with rather than assigning motive from on high and plotting ways to stick it to the Bad Guy.
I’m not talking to those who prefer clever quips over substantive discussion.
I’m talking to those who listen when others talk.
I’m talking to the majority, my darlings.
There is a difference between winning a war and solving a conflict. Humans aren’t very good at the latter. Or, perhaps, we’d be better at solving conflicts if it weren’t so easy to let the war-winners assure us we don’t really need to solve anything as long as we can keep tearing it down.
But on my plane, I want people who can not only answer this question, but put the answer into practice:
True or false — If some Zoogs are Quigs, and all Quigs are Nofs, then not all Zoogs are Nofs.
As for the RFRA, if you want to look at the solution—which didn’t make much news—rather than the nasty battle—which certainly did make the news—take a look at how Utah handled the matter with discussions, negotiations, and the even-handed assumption that a solution didn’t have to involve a parade of the conquerors.
*If you really, really, really want to talk about RFRA, I’ll do a separate post on it. Otherwise, I ask you not derail the conversation about connecting with arguments for or against RFRA legislation.