A reflection delivered by David Stewart
at Northwest UUC on October 2, 2016
In America, some of us are blessed with many surpluses. Surpluses of food. Surpluses of luxury. Surpluses of time. Unfortunately, some of us have also been building up surpluses of negativity. America seems to have built up our citizens’ stocks of rage. Americans are guilty of making enemies out of our fellow citizens for a variety of reasons. We haven’t limited it to citizens, though, as some have vilified resident non-citizens and other people around the world. We are laboriously building, stone by stone, walls in our hearts and some are proposing to do so physically. We seem to be acting out as 4-year-olds would: blaming others for the problems in our lives, raging at others who we blame for damaging society.
I am not only speaking of the folks who are the loudest in our society. For example, I tend to become very angry about our political climate. I rage against the bias in our policing, rage about the treatment of our veterans, rage about the treatment of our homeless, rage about the treatment of immigrants, and I even rage about the treatment of those our society has condemned to be punished in our prisons and execution chambers. And I tend to blame those who I feel are victim-blaming for personal benefit: politicians and media personalities that blame out-groups to build up their credibility.
But is this not what dividers seek? Division, rage, blaming behaviors, drawing both the aggressors and the defenders into a culture war at best and a civil war at worst? They want to divide the body of our society. They want to reduce the complexity of America into simple, bite-sized chunks. And they stoke their followers into wanting revenge against those they perceive to be against their group.
So examine with me for a moment one commonly used mental process that I consider to be causing societal problems. Judging individual people by stereotype is a mental process that allows humans to draw quick, but often inaccurate conclusions about people. The typical targets of this kind of thinking are those who often have less power than others: women, people of color, and our LGBTQ brothers and sisters.
Possibly, the offending broad brush thinkers have not experienced enough of the world with an open heart to challenge the cruel things they were taught. Possibly, they are afraid of what would happen to them in a society that did not automatically place them at the head of the dinner table or the supervisor position at their workplace. Or, possibly they are ignorant because they cannot afford or did not have the opportunity to be educated.
If they personally knew a lot of people in the group that they thought they hated, I have to believe it would be difficult for them to continue their generalizing ways.
Another disturbing behavior, revenge, is the exact opposite of forgiveness. Social psychologist Ian McKee found that vengeful tendencies are associated with attitudes of right-wing authoritarianism and social dominance. “People who are more vengeful tend to be those who are motivated by power, by authority and by the desire for status,” he says. “They don’t want to lose face […] and tend to be less forgiving, less benevolent and less focused on universal-connectedness-type values.”
And why, you may ask, am I focusing on broad-brush thinking, rage and revenge in a discussion about forgiveness? It is, of course, because we are living the exact opposite of forgiveness in our domestic and international politics, in our policing, in our extreme sentencing, incarceration and execution of criminals, and many other contentious areas.