Emma said something privately the other day which she has given me permission to repeat here:

…to speak up for my principles, however politely, in the presence of someone who disagrees with them is hard for me to do.

This is a problem I have as well.  I think it comes from two things.   The first is an unreasoned faith in our own rightness.   The second is the belief that when someone disagrees with us, they are not merely wrong, but that there is something wrong with them that leads them to hold the beliefs they hold.

My upbringing was strongly anti-religious and had a deep undercurrent of logical positivism.   When at the age of 33 a series of events and realizations led me to a spiritual awakening, I felt sometimes as if a stranger was inhabiting my mind.   In a sense I felt as if the culture war that has paralyzed our society since Newt Gingrich’s “Contract With America” had suddenly come to life within me.   This has given me an unusual perspective on the conflict, because I know why I thought one thing, and why I now think another.   Before my spiritual awakening, my opponents in the cultural war seemed simply to be evil or insane.

I started to have some very uncomfortable conversations with my peers.   Suddenly I could see the logic behind beliefs that I would formerly have attributed to the “other side.”   I had to re-examine many convictions that had once seemed unshakeable.   And I started to feel what it might be like for a person on the other side of the cultural war.   I had the privilege of experiencing a kind of pain with which I hadn’t previously been acquainted – the pain of having a loved one berate me for holding an opinion that, in his mind, was not only unsupportable, but immoral.

Emma went on to talk about a specific incident–a march for peace in Sierra Vista.   She felt uncomfortable marching there–the economy in Sierra Vista flows predominantly from employment at the military base, Fort Huachuca.   I think she was right to feel uncomfortable.

There’s a strong tradition in peace movements throughout the world of assembling, of marching together.   I think this is an important tradition, for two reasons.   First, a peace march allows people who believe in peace to gather and connect, to find solidarity and strength.   Secondly, it is a statement to the people who are deciding whether or not to go to war, that some citizens do not want to go to war.

But what it does not do is to change the minds of fellow citizens who are in favor of the war.   Worse, if they see the peace march as being a statement directed at them, it will make them feel defensive, and disrespected.   Instead of being a peaceful activity, the march actually winds up being a battle in a war.

People hold the opinions they do for a reason.   When we dismiss another person’s opinion as not merely incorrect but unacceptable, and when we see that person’s reasons for holding the opinion they do as essentially pathological, we have only one choice: to stop them acting on their opinion.   To use force.   In our culture, the force we use is largely the power of the pen, and of the vote, and of the pocketbook, but it is still force.

So if we feel uncomfortable at expressing our opinions, perhaps we ought not to dismiss that discomfort as a thing to be overcome.   Perhaps it is telling us something important.

Last week I received a copy of a mass emailing that my mother had received from a cousin in the Bible Belt.   The letter was a paranoid screed about how the new administration was going to legalize twenty million new citizens, and that as a consequence of this, the balance of power in the country would tip irreversibly.   I don’t normally respond to screeds like this.   I am very conscious that if I express myself poorly, I will likely just confirm the fears of the person who sent the screed out in the first place, and so instead of promoting peace I will feed the cultural war.

But because of my experience in becoming a Buddhist, I feel that I actually understand the mindset of a person from the Bible Belt.   And I do think, as Emma does, that it’s important to try to communicate – to try to bridge the gap.   And so I responded to the message, but I tried to use my understanding of the religious mindset – instead of preaching, I tried very carefully to connect.   I reminded my cousin to have faith in his country, and in the democratic principles that have allowed so many generations of immigrants before the current one to become Americans and to participate in American society.   I quoted sections of the New Testament to support the point I was making. I sent the message, and I braced for impact, hoping for the best, but fearing the worst.   A day later, I got back a message, the gist of which was “I liked what you said.”

America’s culture war is largely responsible for the really serious missteps we made during the Bush years.   Because we were so busy seeing each other as the embodiment of evil, we failed to stop a real tragedy from occurring.   I think it could have been prevented, if we’d spent less time preaching and more time listening.   Less time judging, and more time trying to understand.   I think it’s vitally important that we speak out.   But what we say needs to be said carefully, and with purpose, and with respect for the people with whom we desperately need to communicate.

I’d like to go into more detail about this, but I think it will have to wait for another article, because I’ve already broken a thousand words, even though I’ve been trying to be succinct.
Instead I’ll leave you with a link to an article in the New York Times magazine about how Facebook is changing the way activists communicate – providing an alternative to the peace march in places where peace marches aren’t a safe option.

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