As a rule, we generally think of ourselves as nice people. We think of ourselves as being as being above average on friendliness and politeness. By all practical accounts people should like us. Our perspectives are rational and make sense to us; most people see the world from our point of view.
We know some basic things about how to get along – many of the things that are summed up in the book called All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. These are great lessons; they’re basic ideas that everyone would do well to remember. Share everything. We should play fair. We shouldn’t take things that aren’t ours and we certainly shouldn’t hit people. They’re not complicated and yet they make life so much easier.
So, what is it about living our lives online that rip these lessons from our brains? How is our online life so different? It’s as though we forget that when we’re typing on our keyboards and staring at our phone screens that there is another person receiving these bits on the other end. Just because we aren’t sitting with another person, looking into their eyes and able to see their pain, doesn’t mean that the words and energies that we put out into the world have no effect.
If you learn only one thing this week let it be this: there are real people with real feelings with real stories on the other side of those screens. You might just see their avatars and profile photos. But they have lived lives and have stories that are beyond anything you can think or imagine. They are no better than you. They are no worse than you. In 99.9% of the cases, they’re nice people who are products of their experiences.
This week I’ve seen some horrible things written on line. I’ve seen a straight, white, privileged man it said that being gay is a choice – that no one is born homosexual. I’ve seen it said by one person that they want to congratulate the man who “destroyed the idea of transgenderism” and that they wished more people would describe being transgender as a mental illness. I’ve seen it said about people who believe that they are passionately standing up for life are in fact closed-minded and regressive. I’ve seen people thumbs-up videos of individuals insulting immigrants and telling them to “Go Home! This is America.”
It’s always better to be nice to people. There is never a good reason for insulting another human being just because they are different from you.
We all see the world differently specifically because we have had different experiences. If you can’t understand why another person views the world the way that they do, reach out to them. Be Curious. Ask them to help you understand their perspective – not to persuade you but so you can start to see the world through their eyes. If nothing else, it helps you develop a sense of empathy and, as far as I’m concerned, empathy is the major deficit that we have in the world today.
Let’s take one of the more offensive ideas: that being transgender is a mental illness. Do you have a daughter? A Mother? A Sister? Any woman that you care about in your life? Look into their eyes, hold their hand, and tell them that the universe made a mistake and that their femininity means that they’re broken. Tell them that you really want them to go to therapy and have a counselor work with them so they can be the man they were always meant to be. Ask if you can pray that they would become a man. Better yet, get angry and tell them to their face that you love the people who rant and rave that women are second class citizens. Tell them that if they were born in another country, they’d probably be killed or given away when they were born.
You would never do it.
And maybe the example is contrived. But it’s also absurd to think that any one person should call out the humanity of another in such a despicable. Still, we do it – or perhaps we let others do it – every single day.
We do it to gays and christians and muslims and conservatives and democrats and immigrants. We do it to people that we don’t know. We only do it because, somehow, we are able to remove their humanity. If they were at our table at the coffee shop, or in our kitchen, we would find ways to be friendly. We would listen. But we don’t have the same sort of evolutionary inhibition when we’re staring at the inanimate object that is our laptop or phone screen. Without a face frowning back at us in response to what we’ve said or another’s voice to challenge our perspective in the moment, we are free to let our emotions run wild. Unfettered. To hell with the consequences.
It doesn’t matter to me what you believe. It matters to me when the things that are said dehumanize someone else, that make assumptions about their reality. These are the things that, ultimately, are said from a place of fear and uncertainty.
I have a rough time with conservative Christians because that used to be me. That part of my life represents a level of discomfort. I am no longer in that world and there is a certain resistance I feel towards ever going back there. There is a certain fear that can surface when I think about those people. There is a level of emotion that wants to motivate me to respond in irrational ways. Now, I can dig my heels in a rage against the conservative machine or I can realize that my story is not your story. If that’s where you are, and it works for you, then I can find a sense of happiness that you have found a place.
Intolerance, as it turns out, is a choice. Staying quiet if you can’t say something nice is a choice.
What is it about the LGBT community that raises your level of emotions? What is it about democrats or pro-lifers or Muslims that send you into a fear response? What tools can you put in place to make sure that you respond with compassion and curiosity and caring and concern?
Most kindergarteners I know are pretty nice. They don’t always say or do the right thing, but they’re quick to apologize and they’re generally able to play with anyone in the classroom.
Perhaps it’s time we started acting like kids again.