When I was a little tyke, my parents would take us to Sunday School with my cousins. This practice didn’t last long – both my parents worked, we moved across town, so getting up at the crack of dawn on one of my parents’ few days off was both an imposition and impractical – but for a while, my little brother and I were steeped in the Southern Baptist. There’s not a lot of Bible Study you can give a seven year old, but you can teach the basics: Adam, Eve, and the Apple; Noah and the Ark; The Good Samaritan – those kind of stories. The one thing that actually stuck with me was The Golden Rule: treat others like you’d want to be treated.
When I was a few years older, in school, 7th, 8th, and 9th grades taught History: Texas, American, and then World. American History taught basic Civics; and spent time on The Constitution and The Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Thomas Jefferson put The Golden Rule right there in The Declaration of Independence – everyone is the same, and because they are the same, everyone deserves the same treatment.
Simple and direct: we’re all equal so treat everybody the way you’d want them to treat you. Fantastic advice. Easy rule to understand.
Too bad no one follows it.
Oh, people say they do. People convince themselves they’re on the moral high ground, but the reality is they’re justifying their actions. The reality is they wait to see how other people treat them, then treat them back as they find according. The reality is they treat people they like and respect cordially, but folks they don’t know don’t get the time of day; junior employees get treated like peons; service industry workers get treated like indentured servants. And folks of different backgrounds – different ethnicities, different religions, different sexual orientations, sometimes even different genders – are just flat out shunned. They are Other. And in this world, it is Us against Them.
Because it’s easier. It’s more seductive to see the world in Black or White terms. We are the Good Guys. They are the Bad People. What we do is Right. What they do is Wrong. And it’s easier to entice people to believe as you believe if you make the argument in stark, negative terms: We are the only Ones who are doing Right, the whole world is against Us for believing as we believe; We are The Underdogs, so We can do anything We need to do to protect Ourselves; and anyone who will not see the Righteousness of Our Cause is our Enemy, and must be defeated at any cost. It works, as it calls on one of our most basic instincts: to herd together for mutual protection.
Nuance is hard. Nuance takes work. Seeing the shades of gray means feeling empathy for a stranger. Truly comprehending an issue means putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and walking their mile. Complete understanding means risking the discovery that you were wrong; that you will face the choice between admitting your mistake or burying your head in the sand, pretending everything is still the way you always thought it was.
As a country, we didn’t always rush to the low road – there was a time, not that long ago, when instead of stooping to the lowest common denominator, Americans strived to listen to our better angels. We knew that being an American meant taking the road less traveled; the High Road of Idealism versus the easier paths of Bigotry, Elitism, and Isolationism. And we wanted to do Big Things; we wanted to answer the President’s call: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Not because it bettered ourselves, even though it did; but because it enriched those around us – our service made not just our country, but the world, a better place.
Powerful people learned to pit one side against the other. Powerful people spent a lot of time and a lot of money learning to phrase ideologies in a certain language, an Orwellian Newspeak where greed is good and charity is bad. Powerful people taught their followers and their constituents ideas that had once been noble were now shaming labels. And these powerful people did not do this to benefit others – they did this to directly benefit themselves. For ratings. For votes. For money. For even more power.
It’s not hard to see how we got here, even in such a short amount of time. And it’s not impossible to change the status quo, to remove these powerful people from their positions and prevent them from doing further harm to the country. But it IS hard. It means taking the High Road, even though you’re rather stoop to someone else’s level. It means trying to understand where someone else is coming from instead of just assuming they are completely wrong. It means embracing empathy and sympathy, even for those people we ardently disagree with. It means understanding we are all equal, and we all deserve the same level of respect and dignity. And it means treating people the way we would want to be treated; doing that first, then waiting for the treatment in return.
You can call me a Dreamer. But my hope, my dream, my prayer is… that I’m not the only one.