By Nishelle Gonzales
I want to begin by celebrating and acknowledging how amazing the United States is. I know that “We’re Number One!” rhetoric is an instant eye roll-inducing reflex for the entire world, as our consumerist, elitist culture has in many ways negatively affected the entire solar system. I want to point out what it is we are doing well.
There is no other country on Earth that is attempting to build a society in which diversity and inclusion are celebrated and mashed together, creating the “land of the free.” We started our journey looking for a place to be free, regardless of religious beliefs, heritage or family name. When you travel is when you really see the magic in what we have accomplished in our attempt to create a free and equal democratic republic. Still, it is unfortunate that there are some of us who would prefer to burn down the miracle rather than share it with everyone, but I would have to assume that the reason they have that view is because they have yet to venture beyond this country to see what a fleeting and rare thing we have been striving toward.
It is very easy to be critical of ourselves and each other, and we have a lot of issues to solve. We’re in a melting pot of people, ideas and experiences that can come together to make something better that transcends one group alone. Our diversity is our superpower, and is at the heart of belonging here — a place where we are free to be different and united.
What a great vision to achieve. Although we are not yet at our full potential, it is imperative that we do not lose hope. The real enemy of our free democracy isn’t socialism, communism, oligarchies or theocracy — it’s despair, hopelessness and disgust toward each other. It’s holding onto the belief that your fellow Americans who may be on a different political spectrum than you are not worthy of your breath. It is in the dehumanization of the “others” that you feel are your political enemy.
Your very conservative neighbor may be a nuisance with their “F$@# Biden” flag waving for all to see, but what is most important, is that they are for democracy and respect the fact that they are able to exercise this act of free speech. Your very liberal coworker who keeps talking about transgender rights is actually seeing a way that we can all be more free by rooting for a marginalized community in this fight for liberty and justice for all — as we are only as free as the most marginalized.
I have a habit of seeing all of us as the same, regardless of outward differences. The most telling proof of this lies in the answers to a couple of simple questions: “What do you love about America?” and, “What are the circumstances you need to thrive here?”
Time and time again, no matter what political party you identify with, the answers are almost always the same. It is imperative to see that just because not everyone has bought into actual equal human rights policies, it doesn’t mean that we should discount them and that they never will. There is hope. We need to acknowledge that not everyone can accept these policies as fast as some of us deem necessary.
The superhighway of progress on which some of us are traveling at 100 miles per hour needs better onramps for those who are afraid and not sure how these changes will affect them in the long run. It is the reason that former coal mine workers in West Virginia suffering from black lung are still not bought into solar energy options, voting for the same politicians that tricked them into thinking coal was the best way to energize our nation, despite literally dying from that belief. They are not emotionally ready to get on the bandwagon of progress when there are forces driving them to question the motives and tactics that have been used to dupe them in the past.
When the pandemic was in full swing, and vaccinations arrived from the medical community to save us from the new plague, there were many who resisted this free and accessible miracle — especially when it was mandated. If you are living in poverty, and have been actively ignored and dismissed by the medical community, even victimized by doctors, why now would you trust what they were saying? Wouldn’t your lived experience teach you that medicine and doctors can’t be trusted when going bankrupt over hospital bills?
Of course many people hesitated and questioned the mandates for this reason.
On a different side, people who had faith and a positive experience within the pharmaceutical-industrial complex were jumping onto the vaccine mandates as a cure-all and an answer to all the disruptions of our old normal. The people with that lived experience naively believed the other side was not getting vaccinated because they were that selfish and uncaring of their own neighbors — they didn’t see that trauma and distrust were at the root of their decisions.
We can see with some hindsight that both sides were afraid and uncertain; but, instead of finding common ground and acknowledging this shared fear, we went at each other like rabid dogs. Our differences were weaponized and “both sides” employed the language of dehumanization on social media, creating the biggest threat to our democracy.
This concept has been captured in the book The Persuaders: At the Front Lines of the Fight for Hearts, Minds and Democracy, by Anand Giridharadas. There is a deep dive on how Russian internet trolls and bots were used to divide and conquer us in past elections. What the anti-democratic Russian oligarchs saw as a useful tool to dismantle our democracy was the fact that Americans have always struggled with fear — the engine that drives consumerism. They understood our zest for cancel culture. They played on and poked at our default toward disgust with one another.
There are individuals and groups who are doing this work well, and Giridharadas shares what he learns from them. A key lesson he discusses in his book is not trying to replace someone’s belief with yours; rather, use their own beliefs and values to displace and question what it is you’re persuading them to see.
For instance, the fact that someone is in favor of protecting women’s reproductive rights can be used to dislodge their belief that someone who is afraid of vaccine mandates is a selfish know-nothing. It is critical to understand that both sides want the medical freedom to make decisions about their own bodies.
Conceptually, what we value on one hand can be questioned on the other hand in respectful and hopeful conversation. Losing hope and empathy is the enemy of our democracy. Losing the concept of giving others the most generous assumptions about their intentions is the enemy of democracy. We did not get here because we devalued equality and diversity, we are here because we are defined by it.
The most patriotic thing you can do is hope, not write off your neighbor.
Nishelle Gonzales is a local business owner who contributes occasional essays on social issues.
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