Friday, November 13, 2015

The Problem with I-dentity Thinking

Unless you've lived sans the internet the past week, you've heard something of the unrest taking place at the University of Missouri, where the President resigned in an attempt to address or redress the complaints of student activists about his handling of several incidents of racism.   Some feel, it was the hijacking of free speech for group think, others feel it is an indication of how difficult it is to get administrations and institutions to address the very real problem of racism, and still others, felt this to be a victory.  

Reality is never neat, and I suspect, the resignation of the President and any others as  a result of student protests and raised awareness, football team boycotts and classes being cancelled, won't bring about the brave new world where no one ever hears a discouraging word. Whatever it is to live and work at a place where all thought, written word and speech are hermetically sealed and approved for public consumption, it isn't reality.

The problem seems intractable because there seems to be no means of redress or deescalating the situation. If one is in a position of privilege or power, and one errs in word, speech or deed, or fails to act perfectly, the presumption is malice.  The decision by the grad student to go on a hunger strike until the president of the university lost his job, gave the parameters for the fight. There was no opportunity for dissent, or discussion, if the rules are capitulate or lose your job.   As a rule, people being threatened, are unlikely to have a genuine conversion or conversation, and as such, no one will feel satisfied if they give an inch.  The President didn't, and so things grew worse until he surrendered.

Victory!  Not so fast.

Likewise, throwing up one's hands and surrendering (stepping down), means no discussion has been advanced.  If the person in a position of authority, had been blind to injustice as a result of privilege, might having him stay now that he'd been chastened, make him wiser and more responsive to students experiencing racial bias?   The next person will be at least wary, but that doesn't mean anything has been done to grow trust across the student body, or between the students and faculty or administration.  It means, the activists got rid of someone; they have emotional power and political heft.  It doesn't mean, the problem was solved.

Getting rid of people with whom we disagree, doesn't create the harmony people want, or the fair treatment people claim they hope to see as a result.   People aren't problems to be solved or eliminated, but to be loved and served.   That can't happen if we must live in a bubble without anyone's thoughts or feelings ever differing from our own.  Why can't it?  Because in a world where everyone says the same thing no matter what, everyone is lying.  No community can be built on lies.

What is needed in our society, as a nation, is a means of redress, and a means of seeking, and receiving forgiveness, but that involves surrendering the privilege of being hurt, not because one wasn't hurt, or there haven't been systemic hurts throughout all of history, but because to have true peace between people, people must forgive. People must forebear.  People must show mercy.  There is no greater mercy than forgiveness, for it abandons the claim for justice or revenge, it surrenders the club of "You owe me, or you deserve this," in favor of forging a deeper new relationship.  "Begin again."  "Try again."  "Trust again."

Some would argue, those who need forgiveness, do not feel sorry or in some cases, aren't even aware of how they offend.  That is often the case, it is why forgiveness is so difficult and so sorely lacking in the pubic square of discussion, whether about politics, history, religion, or any other subject you'd care to bring up around the dinner table.  Offering forgiveness reveals the soul of the forgiver, not the forgiven.

Forgiveness and mercy, they do more than offer a new chance to those who cause the injury, they allow the injured to not stay wounded as well.  There has been a recent demand on the part of students for "safe zones" to ensure they never have their hearts or minds or preconceptions troubled by the differing opinion of another.  Sadly, the universities have begun creating these walled off areas, that keep all others out.

 Perhaps universities would do better if instead of "Safe Spaces," they created "Forgiveness zones." where people could stop to reflect on who they need to forgive, whether or not the person or persons are present, and drop that emotional baggage as the great weight it is, and get on with the business of learning how to open doors between people, rather than shut out all those who disagree.

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