America on fire
As emotions rage over tragedies of the past weeks and months, we have nowhere to look but inward for answers
By Adam Hocking
The United States is on fire. That is how it seems.
Racial unrest, a battle over gun control, the daily threat of terrorism, and a political culture where it would not be surprising if our two major parties disagreed about the color of the sky — these problems and many more mix together and create a soup of gridlock and hopelessness.
America seems to be one big pressure cooker that is, depending on your perspective, either about to blow or has been exploding for some time now.
What can we do? I can only guess, but I know it is impossible to adequately dress a wound that perpetually splits back open. It is impossible to cure a disease while only addressing the symptoms and not the root cause.
If we look at the race issue and acknowledge that, as many have said, slavery is our country’s original sin, and then we look at how our country has tried to recover from that sin, we see that some symptoms of inequality have been addressed — freeing slaves, giving African-Americans the right to vote, affirmative action — but it is difficult or impossible for the government to control the personal biases that gave rise to an institution like slavery. America has made strides in dressing its racial wound through legislation, but the root cause, inherent racism, is still alive and raging. The same is true for the plight of Native Americans in this country, from whom everything was taken.
When we as a nation look at how we discuss racial divisiveness, gun control, police violence, or terrorism, I think we can start to see why it is so difficult to make progress. I think we start to see one of the major root causes of the biggest American problems: our political culture.
In America, government was set up to protect us from each other and to try to be a common place where all can participate and have a say in the direction of our schools, cities, counties, states, and nation. Government, of course, is an institution composed of human beings and, thus, is not perfect, and some might say it exists only on a spectrum of complete to moderate failure.
Candidates like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump grew out of sharpening discontent with the current political class and the feeling that our voices are not being heard. Indeed, in today’s landscape, where social media is little more than a flood of opinions, it is difficult to be heard. Federal and state governments are so large that there too it seems impossible to have a voice.
And while it is easy to say our institutions are failing us, our government cannot protect us, and our politicians will not listen to us, it is wrong to think that nothing can be done. It is wrong to think we have no personal responsibility in the evolution of our society.
What can we do?
“Do what you can with what you have where you are,” is a quote I have heard many times and is credited to Theodore Roosevelt. I think it holds a good deal of wisdom for the current environment in America.
We must stop turning on our preconceived notions filter, which switches on as easily as the coffee pot in the morning, every time we take to Facebook, Twitter, or read the news. If we cannot turn off that filter, at least we can be aware of its presence and its unfailing impulse to see every issue in black and white terms with no room for nuance. We can acknowledge all sides of the issue instead of succumbing to the fear of losing the political high ground. Progress on one aspect of an issue is better than throwing up our hands and saying “all is lost” just because we cannot agree on some points.
“What we have,” in reference to Roosevelt’s quote, are our minds for understanding and our hands for doing. If we have a mass shooting, it is not all about gun control or only about mental health or solely about defeating ISIS. Yes, we have a gun violence issue in this country, a mental health crisis, and the constant threat of terrorism. However, every time there is a mass shooting in America, we do not have to run to our separate political corners, dig in our heels, and scream at the other side. We can listen first. We can search for the sense in what someone else is saying. We can pursue compromise.
All we do when we scream at each other on social media is create an environment of chaos and confusion, which may spur people to give up hope and act out as we have seen so many young men do, from perpetrating mass shootings to defecting to ISIS. When all we do is argue with each other and lob insults back and forth, we create an environment on social media not unlike a home where a child’s parents are always fighting. We cannot think that nothing we say or do makes a difference or sets an example for others. We cannot think these problems are for somebody else to solve.
There is no excuse or adequate rationalization for taking the lives of others, but we have to be conscious of the environment we mutually create online, in our offices at work, and with our friends on a Saturday night. In today’s day and age, the dialogue we have with each other can instantly be spread globally thanks to the internet and smart phones.
I am as guilty as anyone of firing off a shortsighted, emotionally driven response in an email, on Twitter, in the comment section of a news article, or digging in my heels during an argument and refusing to consider the other side.
Think before you type or speak.
When Philando Castile is killed by police and the next day five policemen are killed in Dallas, it is crazy that people send condolences to only the black community or only police. Both instances are tragic, but we can express support for the police while still realizing a need for reform in police departments. We can argue about whether there is a systemic problem with police culture or just a few bad apples, but we can agree there is a problem here.
We need to leave our political foxholes, stop being entrenched in unchanging beliefs, and applying biases broadly and unfailingly to any issue. We need to approach each other in peace and good faith. While our politicians may not be willing to do this, we can.
Terrorism, racism, violence — these are not issues that arise from nowhere and simply appear on the national news in the form of shootings, bombings, and riots. These problems get their fuel from us, the 300 million American citizens. We are the roots of our biggest issues, and if we want to weed out the enormous problems we face, it is going to take a fundamental change in how we approach each other and how we approach making positive change.