A couple of weeks ago, in Washington DC, a small band of protesters from Black Lives Matter turned up at the ‘Mother of All Rallies’ organised by Trump supporters. After the horrible events in Charlottesville, their courage was particularly impressive.
Indeed, the organiser of the Trump rally, Tommy Gunn, must have been impressed, because he invited the President of the New York chapter of Black Lives Matter, Hank Newsome, to address the crowd.
Gunn gave Newsome two minutes to speak, saying “…whether they agree or disagree with your message is irrelevant. It’s the fact that you have the right to have the message.”
If you haven’t seen the video of what happened (its been doing the rounds on social media) please watch it. It is a wonderfully disruptive moment, where a black man wins applause (and yes, some boos and catcalls) from a hostile crowd as he clearly and reasonably puts his case. Basically, he wins them over.
By the end of the event, people who might be characterised at first glance as at best rednecks and at worst racists and white supremacists are lining up to take photos of Newsome posing with their (very blonde) children.
Watching that video made me think about how we have increasingly been retreating into armed camps, hurling insults (and worse) at those we see as our enemies. I include myself in this. I have as many prejudices and biases as the next person and there are people at whom I look askance, even though I know nothing more about them than how they present.
I came up against one of my prejudices recently and both had to face it and – thanks to the grace and generosity of my supposed “enemy” – relinquish it.
I was about to meet a Muslim Imam, not something that has happened to me often, and just before we were introduced I was warned he did not shake hands with women. As an atheist and a feminist, this triggered my prejudices. I was polite but, as he prepared to speak (we were at a conference), my attitude to him was – like the Trump supporters at the Mother of All Rallies waiting for Hank Newsome – hostile.
As I listened to him make his points, however, I found my prejudices challenged. This man was gracious, intelligent, liberal-minded and compassionate. I agreed with him on almost every level. If we had been at a rally, I might have cheered. The only point on which I still disagreed was when he talked about the cultural conflict around shaking hands with the opposite gender. He argued that the intentions behind this were not disrespectful, but rather kindly meant.
After the session had finished, his gentle and reasonable approach helped me find the courage to approach him about the issue, and we talked. I made my points and he listened carefully. He made his points and, following his example, I also listened carefully. I don’t think he entirely agreed with me and I did not entirely agree with him, but I enjoyed our conversation and I learnt a lot. We parted friends and I felt not only genuine admiration for the devoutly religious man I had just met, but gratitude that his grace had shattered my prejudice.
I am still not very good at approaching those I perceive as ideological and political opponents. I’d have lots of problems with a No voter or a gun enthusiast, for example, not that I meet too many of them – that’s how far into my armed camp I have retreated, but I now think I should make more of an effort.
In the face of the appalling massacre in Las Vegas, for example, we can see the usual responses from both sides. There are those who shake their heads in disbelief (like me) at the inability of the US to legislate sensible gun controls, and who cry out in their grief, anger and frustration against the gun lobby. I have been guilty of it on social media myself in the last couple of days. But all that seems to do is make the gun enthusiasts dig deeper into their bunker and, worse, if gun sales are any guide, add to their arsenals.
Yet, as the initial shock fades, and I look around me at the entrenched and ever-widening ideological, religious and political divides in the world, it seems we have never needed to talk to our enemies more.
Newsome said of his experience at the Trump rally, “I feel like two sides that never listen to each other actually made progress today”. The credit for that progress must go both to Tommy Gunn, who gave Newsome the chance to speak, and to Newsome himself who spoke with generosity and grace.
We are finding it harder and harder to accept that those who disagree with us may also come from a place of goodwill and that we may – despite our differences – still be able to find areas of respect.
As Newsome also said, “It kind of restored my faith in some of those people.” Just watching the video did that for me. For those who live on the very edge of sanity – like the shooter in Las Vegas, perhaps – I worry that the increasing lack of faith the rest of us have in one another creates an atmosphere of anger and resentment that may help push those on the margins over the abyss.
Maybe in the face of the vitriolic same sex marriage debate, the religion versus secular divide, feminism versus men’s rights, private versus public, labour versus capital, authoritarian versus liberal, gun rights v gun control, Kim Jong Un v Trump we have never needed to talk to one another more.
Maybe our very survival depends on it.