Tag Archives: Social Change

Science Can’t Give Us 20/20 Next Election… Not Without Fiction

Photo by Frank McKenna on Unsplash

Vonnegut gave us poor Billy Pilgrim for a reason

We know a lot of stuff. And there’s so much more stuff, continuously generated, some of it brilliant, some of it noise. We’re living in a zettabyte era (a zettabyte equals 1 sextillion bytes or 1000 exabytes; an exabyte is 1 billion billion bytes).

We also live in a culture that values knowing ourselves (nod to Socrates), and a need to know others, which gets sticky and even painful when those we thought we knew say and do things outside our expectations. How dare they?

The problem isn’t a lack of knowledge, it’s deeper than that. Too often we conflate knowledge with insight. Too often we mistake knowing more about someone — their age, their tastes and interests, their politics and religion — with insight about the complex person they are.

Insight literally means looking inward, hard enough when it comes to examining ourselves. And impossible to transcend our own container of a body to look inside of another person.

The Internet in all its zettabytes glory cannot help us here.

We cannot — and may never — know what it’s like to experience life as someone else does. With virtual reality and AI in general, more insight may be possible, but it’s hard to imagine swapping brains, chemicals, DNA and neurology. To truly understand what it’s like to be in another’s body, with their wiring and experiences, thinking their thoughts, making their decisions.

If this sounds ridiculously obvious, it is. And it isn’t.

Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash

I am bracing myself

Eighteen months until November 3, 2020. I’ve considered barricading myself from the impending shit show that seems likely, given what now passes for news and acceptable decorum among elected leaders.

(As a response, you’ve either nodded in agreement, perhaps smirked, or you’ve decided my bias is shining through.) My point is not to provoke, but to question what we assume we know about each other and every other in our lives.

Although I know better, I frequently presume that everyone who’s rational and has their basic needs met sees the same world and makes decisions as I do. I come at life every day with an expectation that other humans are seeing and hearing and tasting and feeling the same or very similarly. That we are experiencing life in like fashion. So why wouldn’t others, especially those I know, make the same choices or have the same beliefs and attitudes as me?

Loving Science and Accepting its Limitations

Original art by Devin Bill

Science is one way of knowing how similar and different we humans can be. It aims for an objective truth by getting enough agreement (usually with data) among us to generalize to a wider population.

Think sample size in polling. Getting enough responses or observations (n=?) to generalize leads to more confidence, less inference, in the findings.

My point is not to insult your knowledge of stats or to raise your political blood pressure. It’s a simple reminder that knowledge and insight are different. And if we remember the virtual improbability of gaining insight into another person’s thoughts and actions, we might reframe our expectations, particularly the ones that lead to conflict. And that doesn’t require statistics.

Example: a poll taken six months ago found that 77 percent of all Americans are dissatisfied with their elected leadership. It’s easy to imagine that 887 of 1,152 respondents (total sample size) are totally aligned on being dissatisfied: they like or don’t like, agree or disagree with Congress and/or the President. But this statistic is a deceptively narrow aperture. Why each person responded as they did and how each (n of 1) views and makes sense of their world (i.e., unique insights) are missing.

n = 1 is my reminder that understanding and predicting human behavior (a goal of science) rarely gives us satisfying answers about why individuals don’t or can’t or won’t see things our way. Science can’t do anything about the fact that we’re each strapped to a steel lattice, bolted to a flatcar on rails, restricted to a one- or two-millimeter opening within a vast panoramic view.

Like poor Billy Pilgrim.

We Are Billy Pilgrim

Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five has given me some insight. Among them, rich imagery of how much we — individually and as a species — can’t understand about one another. (Note can’t, not don’t or won’t.)

…among them was this poor Earthling, and his head was encased in a steel sphere which he could never take off. There was only one eyehole through which he could look, and welded to that eyehole were six feet of pipe.

This was only the beginning of Billy’s miseries in the metaphor. He was also strapped to a steel lattice which was bolted to a flatcar on rails, and there was no way he could turn his head or touch the pipe. The far end of the pipe rested on a bi-pod which was also bolted to the flatcar. All Billy could see was the little dot at the end of the pipe. He didn’t know he was on a flatcar, didn’t even know there was anything peculiar about his situation.

The flatcar sometimes crept, sometimes went extremely fast, often stopped — went uphill, downhill, around curves, along straightaways. Whatever poor Billy saw through the pipe, he had no choice but to say to himself, ‘That’s life.’

Photo by Seth Doyle on Unsplash

Vonnegut reminds us of something very precious, scary, and supremely important: We are each one in 7.5-plus billion. I can only be who I am according to what I am able to see, hear, taste, touch, smell, understand, intuit, feel, and believe. This is true for everyone. We are each, and all, Billy Pilgrim.

What About Others (Who Seem) Like Us?

It can be particularly frustrating when our first and sometimes our strongest identity — family — disagrees with how we see the world. Even more so when they disapprove or disown us.

And while two people can share several identities and common experiences (work, race, gender, religion, politics), none of these shared identities mean that those two people share the same position on the flatcar or that they’re looking down the same tiny pipe opening.

My n = 1 realization hit me in the solar plexus of my political identity. Just last week.

Better Angels

I drove from Athens, Georgia to Anderson, South Carolina for my first Better Angels (BA) workshop. BA is a citizens’ organization that unites red (Republican-leaning) and blue (Democrat-leaning) Americans with an aim to depolarize America. It doesn’t try to change anyone. Just to facilitate dialogue instead of dissension.

BA gives an equal number of reds and blues (five of each) the space, time, and some reasonable structure to try to understand the other side’s point of view; and to engage those we disagree with, looking for common ground and ways to work together.

Photo by Devin Edwards on Unsplash

I’d asked one of my dear friends, a BA organizer, if I could observe, but because there was a shortage of “blues,” I was asked to participate when I arrived.

A fascinating thing happened:

I found myself frequently nodding yes — agreeing with! — two reds and one blue who was a self-proclaimed libertarian (albeit left-leaning on several topics).

It wasn’t that I agreed with all the reds. But I didn’t agree with all the blues, either. One red introduced himself as a fervent believer that Ronald Reagan was the greatest president of all time. I was similarly uncomfortable when another red said his biggest concern is that America has shifted to the extreme left; that what was radical 10 years ago is now normal and accepted.

My thoughts: Where is it that you live? What America do you see?

At times, I was uncomfortable with my own “team”. One blue (during a break-out session) said that Bernie had crossed the line. Felons? Able to vote? He threw up his hands and everyone else agreed.

I stayed quiet, memories of canvassing in Raleigh, fall of 2008… several men who answered the door looked down at the porch and said, “Felony, can’t vote.” I now work with a former felon. It pains me to use that label because he’s not that. He paid his debt and transformed into a peace-maker, even in prison, helping people learn how to restore themselves and others to their better selves.

The biggest takeaway for all 10 of us was this: The issues that reds and blues chose to stereotype about their own parties (we were asked to articulate what the other color thinks of us, first, and then articulate our reality) — were virtually identical. For example:

Abortion: Blues said they may be seen as “baby killers” but they wanted women to have some agency over their own bodies; reds said they were all considered pro-life, but this did not apply to a large faction of the party.

Guns: Reds said they imagined blues thought they were “gun nuts” but most were, in fact, in favor of reasonable regulation. Blues thought they were seen as pushing to eradicate the second amendment, but they wanted kids to be safe at school and everyone to be safer in public spaces.

Environment: Blues stated the “tree huggers, anti-business” stereotype but they wanted a sustainable world for future generations with corporations paying fair taxes; reds said they were seen as “non-green” but that most were not climate change deniers.

Immigration: Blues thought reds saw them as no-walls, no restrictions and reds thought blues saw them all as anti-immigration, eager to build walls ‘at any cost’. Both groups saw themselves as more centrist.

Toward the end, someone mentioned how we were more productive in those three hours than Congress had been in years. We all chuckled, but there was a sadness behind it. If there was any truth in the quip, it is that our two-party dysfunction seems unending. Will it ever get better?

Photo by Ali Yahya on Unsplash

Maybe. I visualize Billy Pilgrim wearing an n=1 tee. I imagine him somehow finding the insight he needs to unstrap himself from the railcar and remove the narrow pipe from his one eye. Being human, he’ll still be burdened with another (hopefully wider) pipe to look through. Not perfect, but a few more pixels of color, maybe new movement or shape to consider.

Especially now, it’s important to be better angels. Not out of obligation to others but to responsibly stop ourselves from falling headlong for data, sound bites, polls and posts, influencers and bots, ratings and tweets to describe the whole picture. None of these will give us the insights we need. Having conversations with curiosity will. It takes a bit of dedicated time, like reading a novel, to stop conflating knowledge and insight. To consider that all we know isn’t our entire landscape of possibilities.

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The Blur Between Being Friendly and Being a Friend

Photo by Darius Bashar on Unsplash

Ellen’s coming out about George started something worth wrestling with

The word friend has become really fuzzy. Way before Ellen’s video about being friends with George W. Bush. Yet, strangely, all the social media backlash has brought two questions into focus:

  1. What is a friend versus being friendly?
  2. Must we be “aligned” with others’ beliefs and actions to be a friend?

The meaning of friend or friendship is about as amorphous as love. Especially since Facebook. Collecting “friends” has never been easier or dicier.

Clear definitions are important because language is about utility. So that we can better understand one another. The term friend has become about as useful as trying to change someone’s opinion with facts.

Initially, the Ellen clip struck me as a funny, timely Hallmark message. But of course, it’s not just any ‘ol conservative she befriended. It’s that guy who, in a different era or political climate, could have been tried as a war criminal.

Bush’s beliefs are irrelevant here; his actions are what matters. He was one of the most destructive presidents in modern American history; a man who has never been held to account for a long litany of crimes, misdeeds, and abuses of power committed during his two bloodstained terms in office. The reason “43” should be treated as a pariah is not because he is a Republican or a conservative, but because he caused the deaths of thousands of innocent people and tortured hundreds of others. — Medhi Hasan, The Intercept

I remember good ol’ George W, whom I’d never imagine referring to as good ‘ol if we didn’t have the current Oval Office occupant as a reference point. I remember where I was March 19, 2003, when the first Tomahawk missiles hit Iraq: Behind the wheel of my parked car in a faculty lot, tuned to WUNC, vaguely aware that I would need to stop crying before walking to class.

My Daughter’s Post

In the immediate wake of the Ellen video, my daughter posted an NPR story about Daryl Davis, an African American who befriended dozens of KKK members for over 30 years. She said she was a fan of speaking her mind to people she doesn’t agree with. (I can attest to that!) But that she also was a fan of surrounding herself with diverse people. “If we stay in our bubble, how can things change?”


Even though she’s in her 30s, it’s hard for me to read harsh comments on her wall. Actually, scratch that. The comments weren’t that harsh. (But my own slip into fragility here will help illustrate another point in a few paragraphs).

Ahem. Some opposing comments her “friends” wrote on her wall felt like something big was starting to rub up against my beliefs or values or ego. Maybe all three. Like a bit of friendly fire in my brain.

Comments went something like this (paraphrasing):

It’s a straw man to dismiss others’ feelings by calling for “kindness” when the root of their upset is forceful use of government to codify unkindness.

The left is always willing to listen. Those that need to listen are the right.

You insinuate that we should forget justified grievances in the name of showing kindness. Those grievances are because he wasn’t kind. He started a revolution in politics of unkindness; he is a symbol.

There are some a-holes on the left. But their anger is usually due to oppression. Your solution advocates appeasement… telling the oppressed to be nice to the oppressor and all will be good. And the oppressor says, Yeah, see, your leader says be nice to us… and then they go on to heighten the oppression.

Photo by June Intharoek from Pexels

Her responses:

Not advocating appeasement at all. Personal relationships can be a good foundation for having difficult conversations. That’s not appeasement. That’s healthy conflict.

Having a personal relationship with someone can make tough conversations a lot more fruitful.

The discussion wasn’t between Republicans and Democrats. But it quickly took on a win-lose vibe.

Kind of a Friend

So I’m meeting a kind-of-a-new-friend over coffee two days later. She asked me to meet her a week before, intimating that it had to do with her run for a local office next year. We’ve been Facebook friends for a year or more; we’re in a few local (political and social) groups. I assume she’s going to ask me to help with campaign communications, writing posts, that kind of thing.

The night before the meeting, I wrestle with a couple things:

1. While most of her posts are ones I agree with, and some I’m not sure about but they get me to think, a few are too much for me. The ones that call out white women as responsible for our social and political problems. I KNOW my gender and race are big parts of the problem but it feels like she’s trying to alienate, not educate, white women. Will this be an issue for me?

2. While her more inflammatory posts don’t put me off in terms of being friendly, being in the same book club (it’s called White Ladies Get Your Shit Together), and being a helpful neighbor, could I work for her campaign?

Could I canvas and convince constituents — mostly white in our district — that her comments about white women on social media are meant to hold us responsible, to get us to think about our bubbles, our silence, our privilege and our implicit biases?

Our coffee shop conversation begins with the Ellen/George thing, moves into my daughter’s post and the responses to it. I broach the blurriness of friendship in question form. What is it?

She talks about her senior year in high school when a debate teacher “had the audacity to tell me that I came across uppity. Basically I was a snob and none of my friends could tell me that.”

Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

So we talked about what friendship means — especially within the white girl lanes that we knew so well: validating everything about the other; being on guard not to hurt one another’s feelings, even when you knew they were wrong; putting yourself down to praise someone else; “protecting” fragile feelings.

We mused about the kind(s) of women we’d be if we’d been taught to be an honest friend to others and expected nothing less in return.

We talked about pathologies that stem from patriarchal culture, centuries of reinforced white fragility, fear of “other,” and the privilege of turning away from racial and poverty issues.

This new friend or person I’m friendly with doesn’t turn away. At all. We are in a town that is purple in a sea of red (major districts of Atlanta, withstanding).

For example, State Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick, a Cobb Co. Republican, was quoted this week in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

Most of my neighbors want to be left alone and raise their kids. They’re not at the Capitol waving signs,” said Kirkpatrick, a surgeon. “Our party sometimes gets a little off when we let a few people make loud noises and hijack the whole thing.

It takes the constitution and commitment of the person I’m now friendly with to make the loud noises and say the things that are uncomfortable. Even when she paints white women with such a broad brush (sigh).

At the end of our exciting and extended meeting, she asked (surprisingly tentatively) if I’d be willing to host a neighborhood meet and greet for her next month.

I think she saw my half-second pause before I said “sure” as being less than sure. But I was simply surprised she didn’t ask me to do more.

She and I may never have a closer encounter than our two-hour meeting at the coffee shop, but the cool thing is I don’t have to put her into one of two categories: friendly or friends.

And as for the DeGeneres/Bush thing? I asked my kind-of-a-friend what she thought about people being capable of real change, “Yeah. Of course people change. We don’t do a good job taking that into account.”

I was glad to hear her say that. Not that I was seeking her approval or anything.

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Lorde Help Us

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Brandt Jean’s call for forgiveness set off a few alarms. We should listen.

Consciously study how to be tender with each other until it becomes a habit.” — Audre Lorde

Brandt Jean, brother of 26-year-old Botham Jean who was shot dead in his own apartment, extended nothing less than amazing grace to the officer who killed his brother.

Jean not only forgave Amber Guyger. He expressed love for Guyger. And then he asked permission to embrace her, which he did a very long time.

It was astonishing and beautiful in its authenticity.

Yet, I couldn’t share it. Couldn’t like it, love it, be sad or angry about it.

There are no emoticons for moments that reveal our deepest, fullest humanity. Especially when our country has a history that continues to haunt us.

No need for a history lesson. We already have too many fresh reminders like Garner, Brown, Bland, Rice, Jean and many others to believe that the next death of an innocent black or brown citizen will end in justice: a sentence that is equally meted out, regardless of race.

But when a white defendant is remorseful, admits error, and is female, the handwriting on the courtroom wall becomes more convoluted. Before sentencing, it appeared to read: This verdict ain’t gonna satisfy nobody.

As I scrolled through my feed after Guyger’s sentence — accompanied by footage of Jean’s statement and the long embrace, followed by the judge hugging Guyger (which I still can’t wrap my head around) — I realized that this verdict would please a lot of people.

And that’s a problem.

Shouldn’t We Try a Little Tenderness?

Brandt Jean’s actions embodied the best of what is humanly possible. The problem is not his humanity.

“Our feelings are our most genuine paths to knowledge.” — Audre Lorde

The problem is that this miraculously tender moment gone viral encourages illusions that make us (especially white people) feel better. It sparks hope that if this can happen, things aren’t really all that bad and maybe they are getting better.

Bernice King, the youngest daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., tweeted that “racism and white supremacist ideology can’t be ‘hugged out.’” The Rev. Michael W. Waters, Dallas pastor and activist, expressed deep concern about how acts of forgiveness (as were extended by members of the historically black Charleston church in 2015) “have been weaponized to thwart our work for justice in this nation.”

Brandt’s actions should not be mistaken as a feel-good indicator that our legacy of racism is fading or ending, that we don’t have to pay as much attention or work quite as hard to combat inequalities, or (gulp) that black people are becoming more tender toward their oppressors.

If we make that mistake, we are fools.

If we are vilify Guyger, we are fools.

If we take up for her, we are fools.

The False Dichotomies Between and Within Us

“I find I am constantly being encouraged to pluck out some one aspect of myself and present this as the meaningful whole, eclipsing or denying the other parts of self.” — Audre Lorde

Photo by Julian Schröpel on Unsplash

None of us — within any race, ethnicity, or gender group — is alike. We nod in understanding the dangers of stereotyping, yet if we know two or three Indians or Israelis, for example, we’re tempted to generalize those people’s traits and behaviors to entire cultures.

Black Americans can be equally foreign to white people who say they have black friends, but most often have superficial exchanges or no relationships with them. In fact, most white Americans have no black friends. No wonder why so many Americans actually don’t see — as Lorde put it decades ago — others’ meaningful whole, as other aspects of them are ignored or denied.

This is why it’s so important not to see Brandt Jean only as a black Christian man. Yes, he’s a paragon of grace and agape.

But he’s not the black guy who “gets” white folk.

He’s not giving this country a pass.

He probably struggles with mercy and justice. Just like everyone.

Justice and Mercy

Not between groups, but within each individual exists our greatest differences. And each person is infinitely more complex than hundreds of assessments, surveys or even our autobiographies could possibly reveal about us.

Take the popular Myers-Briggs Temperament Sorter. One of its forced-choice questions is What do you value more: justice or mercy? I don’t like that question. My context-specific head wants to know: to whom and what situation, exactly, would this question apply? There is no box for it depends.

Photo by Clarissa Vannini from Pixabay

Mercy is compassion shown to someone who is powerless or to someone with no right or claim to receive kindness. And justice is guided by truth, reason, and fairness with the aim of being righteous, equitable, or moral.

Which is more important?

In a perfectly equal and equitable world, no one would need mercy and we’d be guided by justice that works for everyone.

But we do need mercy. Not only because our religion, ideology or spirit might urge us to. But because we don’t have justice for all.

Mercy is tenderness. And tenderness can be much harder to give than justice. Especially for people who rarely receive either. And particularly for people like Brandt Jean who offered mercy to someone who represents the power behind and within an unjust system.

Of course, I don’t know thoughts or emotions that Jean might have wrestled with before deciding to publicly forgive Guyger. It seems he would agree with Audre Lorde: that the risk was worth it.

“I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.” — Audre Lorde

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Listening at the Intersection of Mercy and Justice

We are entrenched in the same systems of inequality, inequity, and political polarization. Because the systems affect us very differently, we must listen to one another. And especially when we don’t like or agree with what’s said, to remember:

“When we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard or welcomed. But when we are silent, we are still afraid. So it is better to speak.” — Audre Lorde

Speakers need listeners.

Last week, over 500 registered American voters were invited to spend a weekend outside Dallas to prove that there might be a better way to disagree. (Amazingly, as tension in Washington was building over the possible impeachment of the president, Trump’s name barely came up.)

Put a diverse group of people in a room…and they’re likely to mute their harshest views and wrestle more deeply with rebuttals. They become more informed, even more empathetic… not just relying on sound bites and tribal cues. — The Upshot, New York Times

If you want to listen locally, Better Angels is an organization run by citizens that unites red and blue Americans in a working alliance to depolarize America. My experience with a Better Angels workshop helped me understand several republicans’ views (and those views were surprisingly diverse). It also empowered me to ask questions about the whys behind those views.

Sometimes just asking questions creates space for people to question their own beliefs.

And all I knew was, the only thing I had was honesty and openness.” — Audre Lorde

We can choose to answer the call (and all the alarms) by speaking up. Even when we’re afraid. And we can listen to others who, like us, also get afraid.

Let’s not allow Brandt Jean’s words and gestures to be swallowed in the syrup of the internet, only to become a soon-forgotten meme. Or worse, provide maudlin evidence that all is well.

Audrey Lorde’s body of work is proof that we can stand strong for justice and keep our hearts tender.

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