“When we hear people referred to as animals or aliens… ‘disgusting,’ ‘ingrates,’ ‘pigs,’ ‘retard,’ ‘fag,’ ‘bitch,’ or other labels… we should immediately wonder, ‘is this an attempt to reduce someone’s humanity so we can get away with hurting them or denying them basic human rights?’ We must never tolerate dehumanization – the primary instrument of violence that has been used against mass groups of people recorded throughout history.” – Brene Brown, Braving the Wilderness
I was thinking this statement over last night when I realized that it’s easy for me to get behind Brene’s words, as long as she’s talking about the marginalized, the minority and the oppressed. But I discovered that I felt differently about her statement when I replaced words like “aliens” and “fags” with words like “white-supremacist” “bigot” and “racist.” Suddenly, it wasn’t so easy to recognize my own need to lay aside the labels. Because what we’re talking about here are not character flaws or states of being (after all, people CAN BE “disgusting” and others ARE, by definition, “aliens.”) What Brene is talking about here is how we USE those words to lump people into categories and reduce their humanity. And when I switch the words out I am forced to see that it happens on both sides. It happens inside of ME.
I began discussing this with a friend on facebook last night and some excellent questions were asked: “don’t some of those groups, like the ones marching in Charlottesville, DESERVE to be labeled?” and: “Are we just supposed to ‘turn the other cheek’ in the face of evil and become doormats?”
These are good questions, but if what Brene is telling us is true, there is a third option to consider: MOVING CLOSE. As Brene writes: “people are hard to hate close up.” We can choose to love the person behind the hate even when its hard, because people deserve to be loved and we deserve to be the kinds of people who love. This doesn’t mean we check our morality at the door. It means we find a way to connect while firmly holding our position and gently seeking to understand theirs better. Those who are filled with hate have things inside them that are difficult and disturbing… but that is not all they have inside of them. They have friends and family they love deeply, they have struggles and conflicts that are difficult and painful. When we label and dehumanize people – any people – we participate in the false dichotomy of “us” vs. “them.” This is a position that will lead us nowhere but further apart. A friend of mine likes to say that it’s a game that is rigged. The moment we start to play, we’ve already lost. In order to win, we must find a new game to play. Move closer. Moving close means being brave enough to walk through our own pain in order to understand theirs.
This is what we run up against as we consider this issue. How so-damn-hard it all is. How agonizing and upsetting and hopeless everything seems to be. But this is where it starts. We break the mold by breaking it within ourselves. We start the change by finding the strength to change ourselves. Others may never bend (although when faced with love and understanding, people usually do,) but WE can bend. And when we do, we become like the blades of grass which allow the wind to bend them, and in doing so, ensure the wind will never break them.