Sunday, October 28, 2012
Learning the language of others
“We can’t be friends with them because they don’t speak our language,” an Afghan soldier told a reporter in discussing tense relations with US troops. I was struck by this remark because it could be applied to the breakdown of public conversation in America today.
Whatever the outcome of the presidential election, one thing is certain: the victor will be faced with governing a country growing ever more divided around social and cultural issues and more unequal than any other society in the developed world. Both Republican and Democrat campaigns have played to our fears and insecurities; they have not called on our best instincts.
The vast majority of Americans expose themselves only to media outlets that confirm their own biases and prejudices. Rich and poor live insulated lives. According to some surveys racial prejudice has actually increased since 2008. Most striking is the growing demographic evidence that Americans are choosing to live in regions where the population tends to reflect similar political views and moral priorities.
I am very aware of how easily my own “hot buttons” get pushed by certain people. It’s as if they are speaking a foreign language. “How can they be so stupid?” I ask. “What planet are they living on, what century are they living in?” Yet I know that many of the people whose views I abhor often feel equally bewildered and threatened by the agendas of the other side.
It will take inspired and courageous political leadership to transcend this dangerous trend toward fragmentation. But each one of us can make a start by refusing to indulge in stereotyping and taking whatever steps we can to learn the language of others. We can remain true to our own beliefs while recognizing that none of us are keepers of the whole truth and that we can gain new insights even if they are difficult to hear.
In The World at the Turning, Charles Piguet and Michel Sentis write: “We have learned in thirty years of working with Buddhists, Hindus, North American Indians, Africans of all beliefs, militant communists, young revolutionaries, powerful capitalists, peasants, politicians, trade union leaders, that hope is not confined to any one temple…The intimate experiences of the heart and spirit are a reality which can be communicated and which every other human being can respond to…This reality has to be stripped of the intellectual and religious verbalizing we normally clothe it in: words, like grand garments on a wasted body, can hide internal poverty. We need to rediscover the one universal language – a life lived out.”
As hurricane Sandy bears down on the east coast we can be sure that Americans of all stripes will band together to protect their neighbors and their communities. Perhaps the storm will cool some of the emotions generated by the election.
Everyone is needed to build a future of hope and possibility: liberals and conservatives, people of all racial, ethnic and economic backgrounds, and people of many faiths. Can we as Americans discover a new language of a life lived out?