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On Being Humane in Inhumane Times

At noon Friday, Donald Trump becomes the president of the United States.

It’s a prospect that I can barely wrap my head around. At times, it enrages me. Many of my liberal friends have spent the last couple of months giving voice to that rage, breaking off relationships with Trump-voting family and friends. I’ve sought to resist that path, which at times has seemed to incur further rage from my liberal friends. But I understand the temptation to offer a hearty “fuck you” to some people that, in all other cases, I have cared dearly about for years or even decades.

So far, I’ve been able to resist the temptation. I’ve had to remind myself of a truth that I’ve discovered as I’ve gotten older: Almost everybody I’ve ever thought of as my “enemy” – and there have been exceptions — has, over time, also showed me grace I never expected from them. The people I disagree with are not devils. They have their own sets of fears and hopes. They are human, with all the complexity that involves.

This may even be true of Donald Trump.

So. How to be humane in seemingly inhumane times?

To answer the question, let me first express what the goal isn’t: I’m not interested in political surrender, or in coddling people who have “deplorable” beliefs and motives. Justice must be the foundation and object of everything we do. But I do want to leave open the door to reconciliation with people who don’t conform to my sense of justice.

The Martin Luther King Jr. Center has “Six Steps of Nonviolent Social Change” on its website. Here’s Step Six:
“Nonviolence seeks friendship and understanding with the opponent. Nonviolence does not seek to defeat the opponent. Nonviolence is directed against evil systems, forces, oppressive policies, unjust acts, but not against persons. Through reasoned compromise, both sides resolve the injustice with a plan of action. Each act of reconciliation is one step close to the 'Beloved Community.’”
And this is part of Step Four: “Do not seek to humiliate the opponent but to call forth the good in the opponent. “

Reconciliation isn’t the opposite of justice, in other words. It’s an essential component of arriving at justice. I’m pretty sure most of my friends —most of whom laud MLK — don’t have much interest or belief in “calling forth the good” in our opponents. (This assumes there is some good to be called forth; I think that’s generally the case — the real Hitlers in our society are few and far between, I’m convinced. But perhaps this is wishful thinking.)

So. How to be humane in seemingly inhumane times?

These are the answers I have today. I hope that this list will evolve over time. For now….

RESTRICT MY SOCIAL MEDIA ACCESS: I’ve written before how Facebook saved me from total despair and loneliness while I was in the hospital. I don’t believe social media is totally a bad thing. But when attended to obsessively — and here I plead guilty — it shortens my attention span and puts me in the mind of responding to news and opinions glibly, quickly, and with a minimum of actual contemplation. Right now, I’m going to try to limit my Twitter access to 20 minutes a day. That should be more than enough to dip my toes in the currents, right? It helps that I’ve got browser settings that limit my online access to the site; my phone is programmed to deny me access entirely.

I NEED TO KEEP BREAKING OUT OF MY BUBBLE: My relationships with non-liberal friends have grown brittle in recent months. I don’t think that’s entirely my fault, but: I need to keep listening to them. Moreover, I need to stay in touch with outlooks that are going to make me scream in anger regularly. Sites like The Federalist, National Review and others can drive me batty sometimes, making me long for the soft warm bath of like-mindedness. But that bubble isn’t real — or, at least, isn’t the whole picture. Frustrating as it may be, I think being humane includes not allowing myself the convenience of caricaturing those I disagree with, or dismissing them out of hand. Even though I really, really want to sometimes. 

ART, ART, ART: “Beautiful, or subversive.” A wise suggestion from a friend. The most amazing moment I had at the Philadelphia Museum of Art — and I had more than a few — was during a visit where I found works by Langston Hughes, Gordon Parks, and Aaron Douglas placed together. All black men, all Kansans who had fled the state for the Harlem Renaissance. I don’t know if the curator placed those works together with that connection in mind; seeing them together made me weep. At its best, art puts us in touch with our most humane selves. 

TRY TO LISTEN MORE INSTEAD OF WINNING ARGUMENTS: Winning arguments is easy, or at least convincing yourself that you’ve won the argument is easy. It’s not necessarily a path to truth, justice, or reconciliation. As Ta-Nehisi Coates once wrote, in a quote that has been memeified in the years since: “If your chief goal, as a thinking person, is to find a path to making yourself right, you may never amount to much of a thinking person, but you can never be disappointed." I need to try to win arguments less often. 

VOLUNTEER:
I’ve not done a good job contributing to my community in ways that stretch me beyond the office or church. That needs to change. I’ll update you on my efforts soon, I hope. 

AGAIN, ALWAYS, AIM FOR HUMILITY: The trick is being firm and confident in one’s beliefs while balancing that with A) acknowledging that there’s a possibility you’re wrong and B) being open to changing our minds when the evidence calls for it. Humans aren’t really good at this; I’ll not claim to be any better. And yet: It’s a hedge against the kind of self-righteousness that leads to the kind of inhumanity I want to avoid. What’s more: There really is a possibility of being wrong.

Your mileage may vary on these ideas. You may even think the aim is incorrect — that resistance, resistance, resistance should be the name of the game now. And it should be! But that resistance should be in the service of ideas that are truer, better, and more humane. That means the practice of being humane is needed, by me at least, more than ever.

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