In May of 2016, I wrote the following article. I never did anything with it, because I felt that the topic was too controversial and feared my intentions would be misunderstood. It just didn’t feel like the theory was holistic enough.
Then, in November of 2016 our Presidential Election occurred while I was leading a six-night backpacking trip with students, and (it seems) that everything changed. When I got back to civilization and turned on my phone, I went through the stages of grief and cried for a while. I feared that the results would divide people into ‘us and them’ even further, and create a Nation mired in hatred. I mean to say that ‘both sides,’ the ‘us’ and the ‘them,’ would begin to have one commonality: labeling people and only thinking about their side. Not to be too divisive, but that one side, that believes in democratic process, thought, and inclusion, would bow down to the less moral tactics of another side, leaving us all in a state of disillusion and primitive thinking.
The events of the last week have brought up my concerns once again, and I no longer know how I feel. I would like to continue walking the same path as Ghandi tread, but no longer know the feasibility of such a path. I post this article now, at some of the hardest of times, as an experiment in thought, vulnerability, and seeking to advance my own morality. I hope to hear thoughts that may help to advance the theory, though positive critique is also welcome.
Last week I went on a bike ride from Richmond, Virginia to Williamsburg, with thoughts swirling through my mind given the current political atmosphere. I had just chatted with a young man – let’s call him Alex – who told me he was working on a couple of fronts for LGBT rights – I thanked him for his work, yet couldn’t help but go off on my normal spiel: “I just don’t understand how LGBT Rights are even an issue to be debated anymore? It’s a fundamental human right, there is no debate to be had!”
As we continued to cruise through rural Virginia, I thought about the fact that we were most certainly in a piece of the country where some folks would have a different perspective on the issue, yet, I couldn’t even determine a reason why (or how) that could be the case. As a friend and mentor of mine likes to say, “I am financially conservative but socially liberal. People always ask me what I mean by that; it means I’d like to keep my money as often as possible, but I refuse to tell people what to believe or how to live because I’m not the God… ” Along those same lines of thinking, it’s hard for me to understand why people want to be God.
As we continued to ride, Alex told me tales of historical events that shaped and molded the anthropogenic landscape enveloping us. Massive plantation houses still loom on the horizon of the undulating fields, and occasional road-side historical markers tell of events that transpired during the Civil War. “The plantation owners out here didn’t necessarily agree with or promote the morality of slavery,” Alex said, fresh off an extensive amount of research on the subject through both reading and interviews. “but at the time, slaves were considered an economic asset, and many plantations had far more wealth tied up in slaves than they made in a year.” So it was possible for a slave owner to actually be morally against the archaic practice, but still be opposed to ending the practice because of the practical implications: their equivalent of ‘life savings’ would be stripped from them, reducing them, economically, to nothing.
Now, I’m in no way saying this justifies slave owners in the Confederate States. Having one family’s life-savings stripped from them does not compare to having many families lives taken from them; however, an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, so what I am saying is that this conversation changed my perspective on the caricature that was Southern stakeholders, as taught to me through my Northern(-ish) school system and my millennial upbringing. These weren’t evil demons. These were people. And they had many differing motives, and many did a lot of bad things in the name of money and traditions handed down to them. They weren’t the first in the world to do that.
While the evil caricature of the Southern people certainly did serve to teach me that, morally, the practice of slavery was beyond wrong, it also taught me to separate people into ‘us vs. them,’ ‘good vs. bad.’ Which feels a lot like where America is at right now (in many cases). And every side, by not stepping into the shoes of the other and analyzing the situation from up-above, separated from self-interest, staunchly believes they are the ‘good’ side.
The reality of the situation is that people are people, with different upbringings, motives, and life histories. Educationally, I think the path towards a better society doesn’t reside in teaching morals by labeling people as good vs. evil, but by engaging in the process of perspective expansion. The point is to have conversations with the purpose of stepping into another person’s shoes and viewing the world through their eyes, understanding their situation and recognizing its validity, and hoping to make change using a detachment from self-interest and a connection to the interests of the earth as a whole, including its human inhabitants.
Perhaps by seeking to understand others and make decisions based on the good of the earth and the interests of all people, detached from self-interest, we can change the way we interact as a species. To tread this path will be like any journey worth taking: difficult and full of setbacks, but it seems worthy. And to begin this journey, I think it is essential that we teach the idea of Perspective Expansion through Dialogue in schools. Yes, we should still teach character and morals. But also avoid the separation and labeling of groups of people, which only serves to cause more derisiveness.
Towards the end of the ride with Alex, we had to pedal on a country road for a few miles. A ear-splitting honk nearly scared us off the road as a big Bronco Truck sped by us within inches of our shoulders, and the motorist yelled out the open window at us. I couldn’t make out what he said, but let’s just say that the tone was not nice.
This type of event always makes me angry, because my perspective is that bicycling is a path towards saving the world – it’s better for the planet than driving and it fundamentally makes people happier. But instead of getting angry, I took it as an opportunity for prospective expansion. This time, not the perspective of the asshole driver, but from the perspective of underrepresented or stereotyped populations. While I occasionally have to be on high-alert for people who are assholes while driving, people of color may live their whole life looking out for assholes or people who are stereotyping. This requires being cautious in all interactions, not just while riding a bike. That’s a high level of cortisol to have present at all times. Even more disturbing is that in today’s climate, they have to fear a bullet from a police officer – something that I had never feared before trying to understand what that might be like. I’m not saying that me thinking in this way will eliminate assholes from the roads, but that if we at least teach kids in our schools to do this, future generations may have less of them.
As J.S. Mills wrote, “No great improvements in the lot of mankind are possible, until a great change takes place in the fundamental constitution of their modes of thought.” I’m not sure expanding our perspectives is a path to tolerance, but I think it’s an experiment worth trying.