Time to Pass the Torch

The political analysts, along with the rest of us, have been hard at work for over a week now, trying to figure out why things turned out this way. There are, of course, many reasons offered, some of them conflicting, and almost all of them at least partly right. But analyzing this election is rather like the analysis of the elephant done by a group of blind men. We all get hold of a little bit of the truth, but we can’t see the whole animal. And of course we’re only feeling around on the surface.

I’m as confused and conflicted as anyone else. But it appears to me that something profound is going on. So let’s go deeper.

There are some huge discontinuities in our world that this election has made unavoidably obvious. Discontinuities, as in the mathematical point of change at which a curve shows an abrupt shift. As in the boundary between rock types deep in the earth’s crust, where seismic waves shift. There are discontinuities in cultures, too, when perceptions of truth and purpose change abruptly (see the work of Michel Foucault). In such social earthquakes, shifts can move in several directions at once.

Such shifts occur when the weight of power becomes unbearable, or when things are no longer perceived and known and accepted in the same way. The rise of democracy in the eighteenth century was the product of one such shift. The end of colonialization is another example. The rise and fall of the Soviet Union is yet another. These shifts may be common enough, but they’re also profoundly difficult.

My generation – Boomers and pre-Boomers – lived out such a discontinuity when we were young. Our parents were themselves young in a time of great discontinuity. Our parents’ lives were shaped by the Great Depression and the Second World War. They grew up in a time of upheaval, uncertainty, and deprivation. By 1945, with the end of the war, what they wanted most was peace and stability. My generation, in contrast, grew up in a time of relative comfort compared to our parents. And some of us, at least, saw the stability they valued as complaisance and even selfishness.

We thought the world needed to change, and we thought we could do it. We made a lot of noise, we marched, we protested, and we did in fact help bring about some pretty significant changes. The Civil Rights movement was largely fueled by some members of our generation, as was the feminism of the 1970s.

Now we’ve had a black president for eight years, though we’re still a long way from losing racial bias. When I started teaching, women made up less than ten percent of the faculties of public universities; that number has tripled by now – but it’s still below 50%. Notions that were revolutionary in 1970 now seem normal to many younger people: racial bias is wrong, equality matters, women who work are normal, people are just people no matter what their gender, skin color, religion, or sexual preference may be. Our commitment to social justice did make some progress.

What we’re seeing now seems to be another cultural shift, one that has been going on for a long time and is now shaking us like an earthquake. The volcano of hatred that erupted in the Holocaust has sent out seismic waves that still rattle the earth. While some parts of our culture have been steadily shifting away from old assumptions and biases, others have been shifting into a mode of self-protection characterized by anger and fear at what they regard as a threat to their own beliefs and their own safety. This is manifested as ethnic and racial hatred, and contempt for anyone who isn’t a heterosexual while male.

At the same time that many young people function comfortably in a multicultural world, we’re in the midst of a tsunami of bias, bigotry, misogyny, and racism. And it isn’t only the old who fuel the tsunami. There is a reactionary wave among younger people as well as older ones. The current discontinuity is throwing off shifts in many directions.

Part of what enables all this is technology; our culture has been working through another very large discontinuity, with the shift in communications brought about by computers and the Internet. I was in my early forties when I bought my first PC. The Internet was just getting started, email was new, and there was a pretty frequent need for Norton Disc Doctor. Young people in 2016, in contrast, easily master sophisticated electronic options. By now, I’m pretty computer-savvy for a seventy-something, but what I know about computers, tablets, and smart phones is way below the understanding of the average teenager.

Before the rise of the personal computer and the Internet, hard as it may be for young people to imagine, serious information was found through card catalogues, indexes, and periodical publications. Communication took place in person, through letters (remember those?), and through telephones that stayed in one place and did nothing but provide a connection for direct speech. But if it’s hard for a twenty-something to imagine what it was like to gather information and communicate before computers, it’s equally hard for me to imagine and appreciate the connectedness those twenty-somethings experience as normal.

The deeper, more profound shift we’re experiencing is a change in the way human relationships are perceived. There are profound generational differences in how issues of privacy and transparency are viewed. Connectedness is valued in ways many of us who are older can’t understand. Perhaps we are seeing a movement from the old American ideal of the rugged individual to a different vision of global community. In any case, old patterns of relationship are shifting.

If I’m right, and we’re living in a time of particularly strong discontinuity, it’s no wonder this election has caused – and reflected – so much polarization. Things are different now. My generation can no longer offer leadership that represents the best in our culture and at the same time generates enthusiasm and support. It’s time for new leadership. Time for ideas that will inspire a powerful movement in this country and in the world in the way that President John F. Kennedy’s statement in his inaugural address, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country,” and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech, “I Have a Dream,” inspired us.

It’s time to pass the torch. Time for new leaders. Time for new voices. So to all of you people not yet into middle age, please move on. Take over the political parties, or start new ones. Find new ways of using your experience (and ours), new ways of understanding the world. Don’t let my big and noisy generation tell you how to be. We can still be useful as advisors, but always remember that our perspective is not yours. And the world is yours, for better or for worse. Here’s your torch. Run with it.

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In a Time of Pain, Where Can Healing Begin?

How I Feel Now

I’m not sure where to go with this. My heart is full of pain, disbelief, and betrayal. How can a nation founded on principles of equality and religious tolerance have moved so far from those principles? How can so many people, including people I love and respect, have chosen to elect as president a person who freely uses bigotry, hatred, and anger to get his own way? Who stirs up fear and xenophobia in his followers? A narcissist who doesn’t read, doesn’t listen, can’t accept criticism, thinks he’s smarter than anybody else, and trusts and respects nothing except his own gut instincts? Has the country’s lowest common denominator become the dominant definer of who we are?

Last Wednesday morning, trying to get my mind around what had happened, I realized that I felt very much as I had on the day – May 4, 1970 – when thirteen students were shot (four of them killed, one paralyzed) by the Ohio National Guard on the Kent State University campus. My then-husband and I had come to Kent to teach the fall before; he was teaching that Monday morning and I was at home in our apartment across the street from the campus when I heard the shots. I felt the same disbelief, the same sense of betrayal this past Wednesday. The same sense that the country I knew and loved wasn’t what I thought.

Pain All Around

There’s pain on both sides of last Tuesday’s election. I’ll leave the analysis of voting patterns to others with a better knowledge of politics than I have. What concerns me most at this point is what this campaign and this election say about the country and the world we live in. If we view the whole thing only on the surface, we might say that government has become a spectacle, a media-driven power battle with no rules and no standards. In this milieu, we can’t even talk to each other. But underneath, I think there is something more significant going on. And I keep thinking that this must be like what was happening in Germany in 1933-34.

There is an underlying pain in our country and elsewhere in the world that must be healed if we are to move beyond the hatred and strife that seem to be in charge of everything. Some of that pain comes from a sense of betrayal, a feeling that the establishment that seems to be in charge of the country isn’t doing a very good job. Much of the pain comes from fear – fear of change, fear of the loss of whatever is important.

For most of us, it’s hard to accept anyone or anything that seems to threaten what we see, consciously or not, as stability and comfort. Such fear has nothing to do with reason or principles – it has to do solely with our instincts of self-defense and survival. But we are more than the most destructive members of the animal kingdom. We’re able to think beyond our immediate time and place, and beyond our own worst impulses and most primitive instincts – if we care to do so.

The Shadow Within

It’s important that we see and acknowledge the ways in which this long campaign and election have given voice to the worst that is in us all. We all are beings of light and shadow, and Trump’s campaign rantings gave voice to that shadow side that distrusts, fears, and lashes out at anything that seems to be a threat. That lashes out without thought or logical analysis, and without love or kindness. Those rantings gave permission for the open expression of hatred and bigotry.

If we are going to encourage and support the healing our society needs, we have to begin by getting to know our own individual shadow sides, as well as the shadow side of our country. Denying either will not help us move toward reconciliation. And we badly need shared understanding and reconciliation.

So we begin by a close examination of ourselves. What do I fear? What lies behind those fears? Why do I hate what I hate? What makes me angry, and why? Who do I fear, and who do I blame? What causes these feelings, and what have I done to overcome my negative responses to others?

Examining one’s own worst feelings and fears is not pleasant, but it’s necessary. If we can’t look at that destructive part of the self that fears difference and see threats everywhere, then we can’t assimilate it into our best self and let it be kept in balance, healed, and transformed into an understanding of all the hurting and unhealed. If I can’t acknowledge and come to know my own fear, how can I understand yours and support you as you deal with it?

Some Steps Toward Healing

  1. Taking responsibility. If the division in our country that currently has erupted in hateful slogans in high schools, violent public action, and loud expressions of bigotry, misogyny, and racism is ever going to be healed, we must all take a part in the healing. That includes those of us who wear safety pins to show we stand with the threatened, people who feel – and are – threatened, those who hate and attack, and those who see a changing world that seems to deny their basic beliefs. All of us. All of US.
  2. Listening. Refusing to associate with those whose views we find repugnant isn’t the answer. Nor is trying to “fix” one another’s views. We have to be willing to hear ideas we can’t accept and recognize their importance and their truth to those who do accept them. We need to listen to one another – listen without the intention of refuting or denying perceived truth, listen in order to understand and find the common humanity that underlies all our differences.
  3. Giving respect. Respecting others, even when they don’t respect us, is not easy. But the pain that lies beneath so much vicious expression today is real pain, and ignoring it or dismissing it as invalid doesn’t lead to understanding and reconciliation. Respecting others and the pain they feel is vitally important. A willingness to be with those with whom we disagree and to listen to their views can help close the gap that divides us. It is more healing to simply be together in a spirit of acceptance than it is to try to reach agreement.
  4. Teaching. The eruptions of hate in some of our schools show how much education is needed if future generations are to work together for the common good and not perpetuate current divisions. It’s unreasonable to expect the schools to do it all for us. Every one of us has the responsibility to teach by example as well as by precept. If we believe in love and equality and justice, we need to live out those values and express them wherever we can in the way we listen, respect, and treat others.

The divisions in our country and our world will not be healed overnight – will probably never be entirely healed. But if we do not work toward healing, they will surely get worse. Let us all work together for the sake of a future without concentration camps, genocide, racism, oppression, and meaningless wars.