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Carl Thress | Sunday, January 24, 2016

The older I get, the more I realize just how much fear and hatred we have in our world. Much of that loathing is set aside for people we deem ‘others’ — those who don’t fit neatly into our comfortable molds of what a person should look like, believe in, think, feel, or love.

In some ways, Donald Trump has given a face and voice to this hostility, but he is hardly alone. One look at the current political and social climate — or a quick perusal through the comment section on most news sites (not recommended, by the way) — makes that abundantly clear.

The truth is that this kind of animosity cuts across political, religious, ethnic, and socioeconomic lines. It’s found on the right. It’s found on the left. And it’s found in the middle. It infects the 2% and resides among the 98% — the occupied as well as the occupiers.

Disdain and disgust for people we don’t understand — those we can’t relate to, who consume our sacred cows and dare to disagree with the things we believe — has become the new status quo. We vilify and pigeonhole, stereotype and knock down in an effort to prove we’re right and justified in saying and doing whatever we want, damn the consequences to anyone who stands in our way.

It scares me to read comments from and stories about people who are consumed by hate for their fellow human beings based solely on ethnicity, skin color, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, or some other perceived ‘abnormality’ that offends their sensibilities. It saddens me to see how quick we are to paint entire segments of society with a broad brush, yet cringe or cry foul when someone else tries to box us in based on similar criteria.

No, all conservatives are not cold-hearted money-grubbers who only care about human life before a person is born but have no place for helping anyone after that. And no, all liberals aren’t anti-Christian baby killers looking for a handout and entitlement at every turn.

All Muslims are not radicalized extremists intent on killing those who oppose them and enacting laws based on their strict religious beliefs. Neither are all white, conservative Christians.

Yes, all lives matter, but calling attention to the fact that society doesn’t always act that way is not reverse racism or race-baiting. It’s focusing light on a problem that warrants our attention.

As a straight, Christian, middle-aged white male, I’ve never had to worry about what might happen if I gave the perception of showing “attitude” to someone in authority. I’ve never faced the threat of being disowned, bullied, beaten, or killed based on who I love or who I’m attracted to. I’ve never needed to concern myself with how people might perceive me when walking down the street or what society might think if I got a job or promotion over someone else. I’ve never had to deal with sideways glances or people’s first impression of me being a “deadbeat,” “thug,” “criminal” or “terrorist” based solely on the color of my skin or the clothing I wear.

I’ve never given a second thought to practicing my faith openly without repercussion. I’ve never had to walk past armed protesters to enter my house of worship or been called on to openly denounce the actions of a few radical extremists who profess to serve the same God I do just to prove I don’t condone their actions. I’ve never had to carry on private conversations with friends in a non-native tongue, so strangers didn’t feel compelled to threaten or injure me for not talking or sounding “American” enough for their liking. And I’ve never been told I had no moral compass or been compared to a sadistic rapist and murderer for not believing in someone else’s deity.

It angers me when politicians of every stripe use tragic events, arbitrary and exaggerated figures (or completely made-up ones), and disenfranchised groups as political pawns to try to push their agendas, justify their positions, and gain political points. I’ve seen it happen on the right. I’ve seen it happen on the left. Hell, I’ve been party to it myself, I’m sure. But whatever the source, I’m sick and tired of it happening at all.

The same is true of people caught in the political crosshairs due to economic challenges. All people who rely on unemployment, food stamps, or welfare are not looking to cheat the system and get by without having to work. Some are, yes, and that is a problem. But most are good, hard-working people who have fallen on hard times and just need a hand up to get them back on their feet. Whether it’s government’s place to offer that hand is, of course, up for debate. But vilifying those who need help — and painting them all with a broad brush as lazy mooches who feel entitled to handouts and getting by on somebody else’s dime — should not be part of that conversation.

Frankly, we’re better than that. We need to start acting that way.

In that spirit, I’m turning the finger and pointing it squarely back at myself. I know I’m guilty of grabbing the paintbrush that often seems far too easily in reach. I’ve liked and commented on stories I would have been better off to ignore. I’ve fumed over perceived injustices and bought into stereotypes common sense and my own personal experience should have told me were wrong. I’ve been a hypocrite, ridden that high horse, and put way too much stock in some dubious sources, just because they reinforced and pandered to my own misguided views of the world outside my window.

In real life, I’m quite reserved. I don’t like to share my political, religious, and social views with too many people — or too often. I grew up in a house where political and social debates around the dinner table were the norm. I took part, but for me, that’s where they ended. I knew I could trust my family to love me whether or not they agreed with everything I said. I’m not nearly so confident of those same things with everyone else in my life. I’m a people pleaser. I want to be liked, and I worry people won’t like me if I say the wrong thing. So I remain silent.

Does that make me a hypocrite? Absolutely. Does it make me shallow? You bet. Am I proud of it? No way. It’s who I am, but it’s not who I want to be.

I admire people who speak their minds freely and put justice and fairness ahead of their own likability. I’m not talking about people who speak solely to offend, incite, or hear the sound of their own voice. I’m also not talking about those who use words to divide, attack, and promote a climate of fear, hate, and distrust. There is nothing worth admiring in that kind of rhetoric. But people who speak their minds and offer well-grounded arguments have always resonated with me — even if I don’t always agree with the points they’re trying to make. Why? Because I know just how difficult it is for me to open up to anyone.

So what’s the point in all my rambling? What, if anything, am I trying to say? Quite simply, I want to work harder to become the change I hope to see in the world. I want to be a better person, and I know I have a lot of work to do to get there. I want to be more open to opposing viewpoints and less quick to jump to conclusions based on stereotypes and biases. I want to strive more to see the good in people, rather than focusing on their shortcomings. I want to focus on the positive, which my wife will tell you is going to be a challenge for me. And I want to be more transparent in expressing my views when I feel led to do so.

I’ve started the process by unfollowing several political pages I found too entrenched in their thinking about those who oppose their viewpoints politically. (No, everyone who openly disagrees with you is not a “troll.”) Life is too short and people are too important to pigeonhole.

I’ve committed (and recommitted) to reading fewer comments on articles I know are controversial. I’m trying to scroll past posts I know to be false or misleading and just let them go. (The letting go part is especially hard, but I need to do it for my own mental health.)

I’m also committing to staying open and positive in the things I post. I want to avoid cut-and-dried, ”us” versus ”them” arguments as much as I can. That’s not to say I’ll shy away from calling a spade a spade. When injustice, hate, bigotry, stereotypes, or baldfaced lies stare a person in the face, it’s their moral obligation to shine a light on those things to keep them from festering in the dark. That’s not being negative or feeding into the opposition. It’s elevating the conversation — as long as it’s done in a respectful manner that avoids hyperbole and answers love for hate, justice for injustice, truth for lies, reserve for rhetoric, and inclusion for bigotry and rage.

That’s a tall order, I know, and I won’t always live up to that expectation. Slipping into old habits — particularly bad ones — is far too easy, especially when discussing something I feel passionate about. I need to remember it’s the shades of gray that add richness to black-and-white photographs and that the same is true of life. No one is a caricature. When we start looking at people that way, bad things happen.

I realize I’m far more liberal than many of the people around me and less liberal than others, so it’s pretty much a given that not everyone is going to agree with every view I hold. I need to come to grips with that and realize it’s ok.

Just because someone disagrees with me politically doesn’t mean they will automatically think less of me as a person. I don’t agree with everyone else’s views all the time, either, but I still like and respect them as friends, family, and colleagues. In fact, some of the people I respect most in my life are as far to the right politically as I am to the left. Some perhaps more so (I don’t know for sure). I need to trust that those around me feel the same.

To think otherwise would be falling into the very trap of generalization and pigeonholing I’m trying to avoid. And that would do nothing but ensure I remain firmly entrenched at square one.

Stepping down from my soapbox and depositing two pennies in the jar...

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