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I am the Other

June 1, 2018

“How can Sacred Discourse address the rising discourse in our country around white nationalism and violent misogyny? How would Sacred Discourse address this harm in a practical, material way?”

These questions came from a subscriber. She referenced, as an example, the rising popularity of Jordan Peterson, citing a NYTimes article from May 18, 2018, in which Mr. Peterson states that “enforced monogamy” is a “cure” for men who feel rejected by women. Unbelievably, Mr. Peterson believes that violent attacks happen when men do not have partners, and that society needs to be sure those men are married ….

I read the article, and I, too, disagree strongly with Mr. Peterson’s views. And, beyond my strong disagreement and opposition, I am curious about Mr. Peterson and the people who follow him. Staying in a place disagreement does not help to shift toward positive discourse, however; choosing to be curious just might.

In the space of disagreement or opposition, there is a natural impulse to see the person with whom I disagree as “the other” — someone who doesn’t get it, someone who is wrong, someone with whom I cannot converse. I choose to shift and look at this differently, precisely because I am as much “the other” to Mr. Peterson as he is to me.

The concept of “the other” is prevalent in this article. Positions are formed and solidified in response to what one person says, without taking the time to know the person. The comments from Mr. Peterson’s followers are often in the language of responding to something someone else said or did; in turn, the comments from Mr. Peterson’s critics are also steeped in a we/them mentality. From a policy perspective, I stand with the critics, to be sure; yet, I also realize that not engaging with the person because I disagree with the views will never help to bridge a divide.

Any possibility of being able to bridge any type of divide requires that I realize who I am in relationship to people with whom I disagree. I am “the other” to Mr. Peterson and his followers. I am the person that people disagree with, that people don’t understand.

Starting from the place that I am the other to a particular person, I look at the person I may see as other to me in a different way. I have a need to be understood; the person who is other to me has the same need.

To be sure, when people are being harmed or even threatened, then ensuring safety must come before understanding. Let’s all choose to be on the front line of that fight. That’s clear.

When the fight is based in words and debate, however, more words and argument will not create the connection that is essential for any understanding. A choice to be curious, to listen, to really get to know the other, in contrast, may be the first step in a shift toward connection and, maybe, even respect. From the place of connection and respect, needs can be heard and understood.

Daryl Davis, as well-documented in the movie Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America, has devoted much of his life connecting with the other. Mr. Davis, an African-American man, now counts many former members of the Ku Klux Klan as friends. As the movie portrays, Mr. Davis starts with a conversation and a question: “how can you hate me when you don't even know me?”

Not everyone thinks Mr. Davis is taking the right approach, given the atrocities committed by the Klan. Mr. Davis, though, has chosen to go beyond opposition to curiosity to connect in a disarmingly open way, as the other. While not tolerating what the Klan stands for, Mr. Davis is still willing to engage with the other for the sake of connection and understanding. As that has happened, many former Klansmen have turned over their robes.

Similarly, what might happen when someone who disagrees with Mr. Peterson asks to sit down with him to better understand why he thinks the way he does. And, what might happen if Mr. Peterson had an experience of being heard, listened to. Might Mr. Peterson then turn to the other and give that person the same opportunity to share their story?

Imagination alone does not create a transformative conversation; yet, it is a starting point that just might pivot a conversation away from divide to connection. When faced with what seems like an insurmountable conflict, imagination of what could be different is essential.

Unyielding opposition to hatred and violence is always critical. Going beyond opposition, though, is where the possibility of transformation lives. This possibility of transformation begins with a choice to be curious, to be willing to ask questions and listen to the answers without rebuttal or judgment. Then, and only then, can someone with whom I disagree really be open to what I have to say. We may or may not change our views, yet we will be conversing in a way that promotes civil, and even sacred, discourse.

Thomas McSteen