Common ground in a potholed culture. Or, how to marginalize the haters

 

These cliches exist for a reason. They’re true.

We live in a don’t ask, don’t tell world. Mostly we go along to get along. You do your thing; I’ll do mine; let’s just don’t do them together. We don’t stand in the school yard with a gun and bar a kid from going to class. We don’t care if Uncle Pete marries Uncle Charlie; we’ll even go to the wedding and bring a gift; just don’t make a big deal of it and don’t make me agree to wear a rainbow.

We give the homeless dude the shirt off our back and take care of his kids, then turn right around and swear at the organizations trying to set up a soup kitchen. We go to church, synagogue and temple and then routinely steal paperclips and pens from the office, cheat on our taxes and let children starve.

We call “others” welfare cheats, then encourage our unemployed friends and children to apply for food stamps and Medicaid. We demand a 10 Commandments stone be in the town square and then call for the death penalty and cheat on our spouses. We fight for the unborn and leave them desperate when they’re born.

We fight the Affordable Care Act, food stamps and government-subsidized housing with Puritanical vigor and apply for Medicare and Social Security as soon as we have 65 candles on the cake. And, don’t be all defensive saying that you earned it. You’re going to get at least $244,000 more in payout than you paid in. Americans all suck on the government welfare tit once they turn 65.

We lay claim to our First Amendment rights of free speech, press, religion, assembly and petition of grievances — and promptly tell those who are different they don’t get to do the same. We call our message truth; we call your message propaganda.

Humans are like that. We’re loving and hateful; smart, wise and willfully stupid; we’re generous to a fault and determinedly selfish; complex, complicated, inexplicable and contradictory.

And then there are the haters.

I draw a pretty clear line between fear of the unknown and willful haters. I believe most of us, if we’re honest, know the difference between the two.

I grew up in the Appalachian-Southern culture of the 1950s and ’60s and 70s. I knew colored drinking fountains and whites-only doors. I knew colored people sat in the back seat of my mother’s car because if they didn’t, they could get killed. I’m told I cried as a toddler the first time I saw a person of color.

I was just about the only kid in class with dark hair because my classmates were all descendants of the Scots-Irish and English. There weren’t any black kids in my schools; just the townies and the poor farm kids. When I went to college in the mountains of West Virginia, my speech professor told me I sounded like a redneck hillbilly — and she ground that nasal, mush-mouth accent right out of me.

When my Southern siblings and I visited grandparents each summer in Pennsylvania, the Yankee cousins made fun of us. And, the California/Alaskan cousins? They were pretty much from another planet.

When I went to work in the early 1970s I was usually the only woman in the room. I hated being the only, the first. It’s lonely at best; soul-destroying at worst. I was always looking over my shoulder and fending off men who thought it was OK to, well, do things.

There’s more. Read the history books. But, here’s my point. There’s a lot of casual intolerance and discrimination in the world, born mostly from ignorance and lack of opportunity to be in the same rooms.

Townies hate the farm kids and vice versa. Rich and poor don’t sit at the same tables. Skin color defines one’s place in the world, and generally the lighter, brighter and more blue-eyed one is, the easier it is to get along.

Discrimination, bigotry, racism, sexism and all the other hot-button -isms are the decaying fruit of ignorance and a fear of the unknown. We’re all guilty of that ignorance and fear. All of us.

Not all the -ists and -isms are haters. Not all the tacky and tasteless are haters. Most are just unwitting products of ignorance. We’re teachable. If we work at overcoming our ignorance, if we work on expanding our understanding, we don’t do as many bad things to each other. We get a whole lot closer to living by the Golden Rule.

But. And this is one big but. The willfully ignorant are haters.

We cannot tolerate haters. We cannot encourage the voices and actions of haters, especially not with our silence. We must shove them back into the bottle from which this presidential campaign released them and then we must guard the bottle unceasingly. We must use our laws to keep them marginalized.

America has pushed past a lot of fear and ignorance in the past century since we were last at this historical turning. We created at each painful, often death-filled juncture a more tolerant, inclusive, compassionate culture. I’ve lived through three-fifths of that; I know and feel the difference, fragile though it is.

There are haters who believe this election and “their” candidate have given them the green light to spill their malignant, destructive slime across this country. They are small in numbers and at the fringes of all political and independent parties, but they are growing more powerful every day.

People of good will cannot allow that to happen.

The first voices must be those of Donald Trump and his most visible supporters for it was their rhetoric, however blandly couched, that opened the jar. The second voices must be those of Hillary Clinton and her supporters whose sanctimonious use of “deplorables” served only to toss fuel on an already ugly fire.

And the loudest voices must be yours and mine. Regular people trying their best to make their ways in the world. It matters not a whit whether we voted for Trump, for Hillary, or, heck, not at all.

It matters only that we stop the haters. Now. They cannot be allowed to destroy this country.

What we do can be as simple as asking a friend for patience: “You know, we disagreed on the election. I need some time to grieve (or celebrate). Can you give me that time? I want us to talk about how we can work together, but I need some time to process.”

Or turn this too often discriminatory cliche into a powerful tool for doing the right thing: See something; say something.

Stop the bully. Push back with the social media poster. Never chuckle at violence or smile when someone falls. Support the agencies, organizations and individuals who are making the world a better place, one small thing at a time.

And, to my boomer cohort: Resist the siren call of what is our worst generational marker, that we are rigid, righteous and reactionary. Because if we don’t, we’re going to lead our children and grandchildren right into a conflagration from which their may be no recovery.

Because then, we will have become the haters.

 

“Dear Connor” is a collection of essays written for Connor Cunningham by his grandmother, Linda Grist Cunningham. I began writing these as my construct for making sense of the unraveling American community. Connor may never read them, nor might others; but they’ll help me distill solutions from the cacophony that passes for discourse in final crisis generational turning of America.