BLOG | April 5, 1968
Over the last month, I've thought a lot about the way humans value each other.
About the conscious and subconscious methods and criteria we use to determine the worth of another person's life, and the subsequent way we treat them: not according to what matters - to who they are as a sentient being of flesh and blood - but only according to what we think about them.
I thought about the power of a public platform when used for good, and when used for evil, by the famous, the infamous and the anonymous.
I thought too about how, regardless of who we are, where we come from, what we look like or how we live, we have this one giant thing in common - our humanity - and so can never be separated fully from each other.
No matter how much we pull and tear at that pesky seam of life that joins us. No matter how much we scratch and scrape and hack at the various unbreakable threads that bind us.
I thought about how we react to those who strive daily with open minds, open ears and humble hearts, to operate at their best; and how we react to those who seek daily - with their closed minds, selectively-deaf ears and a shadow where their heart should be - to do no better than their very worst.
I wonder about that point: the point at which we will finally agree to call each other out - call out society as a whole - and be brutally honest about the double standards we have not only created for ourselves, but perpetuate daily.
And despite having all the words in the world at my fingertips, nothing I came up with could even come close to summing up this feeling I had: one of great hope but at the same time, rampant frustration. At the world. At people. At myself. How were we all born into the same species, with the same capacity to do good in all of us, yet still - senselessly, tragically - our greatest skill has become taking each other apart, as though somehow being alone and superior are the only ways a species that is physically built for cohabitation and community can survive.
And so - stuck in that place - for a moment, I let myself give in to the powerlessness that a nameless, faceless shadow would have me feel, just because they needed a target at which to aim their hate, their impotence. Someone needed to throw a punch, and they threw it. And there I was - there a lot of good people were - ripe for the hit. I cannot tell you how much I wanted to give in to the weakness I felt as I read those things - awful, degrading, disgraceful things - and just keep quiet. How much I wanted to say nothing, because it would just be easier that way. Despite what you might think, by nature, I despise conflict and I despise public conflict even more. I despise what it turns good people into and the power it gives bad people to do damage.
Just let it go, I told myself. The only person who will lose sleep is you.
Trolls feed on misery, double standards and self righteousness, I told myself.
You will never win.
But then I remembered two things.
Firstly, I remembered who I was before the world told me who I should be and what I was worth. And that woman was not born to be a doormat. Nor was she born to go quietly into the night just because some punk with a keyboard, a grudge and a WiFi connection saw her as an easy mark. Because the person I am gets neither her identity, nor her strength, nor her value from someone else's opinion.
Which is not to say that the opinions of others - be they friend or foe - don't have any value. Such opinions teach us the difference between what it looks like to be rightly challenged on our behaviour and thoughts, and what it looks to be bullied simply for being and thinking differently than others. Because that person - who I am, just as I am - is enough. She is of equal worth to any other human being - no more, no less.
Her humanity alone makes her worth contending for.
Which is why I did what I did. I contended.
Could I have articulated my anger and frustration better? Perhaps. I was livid and I was not in the mood to be victimised - with either outright aggression, or passive aggression: I encountered considerable amounts of both, even from people I respected - within the construct of what is a woeful double standard. I let myself be angry. Worse, I let myself get angry. I gave into the bait of bullies who sought to do nothing but misconstrue any words contrary to their hate, and shape my own into a club with which to beat me over my own head. For that - for such capitulation - I'm sorry. But to be sure, I'm not in the least bit sorry for standing up for myself.
Indeed as I sat and considered writing this post - as I looked for inspiration and examples that would help me to articulate and understand everything that has happened since I wrote those words, to help me understand why it just did not sit well with me to stay silent in the presence of the loud and malignant malintent I could see happening everywhere I looked - somewhat providentially, I stumbled over these sentiments:
"...We seemingly tolerate a rising level of violence that ignores our common humanity and our claims to civilization alike...Too often we honour swagger and bluster and the wielders of force; too often we excuse those who are willing to build their own lives on the shattered dreams of others. Some...who preach non-violence abroad fail to practice it here at home. Some who accuse others of inciting riots have by their own conduct invited them.
Some look for scapegoats, others look for conspiracies, but this much is clear: violence breeds violence, repression brings retaliation, and only a cleaning of our whole society can remove this sickness from our soul."
On April 5, 1968 - one day after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on a second floor motel balcony in Memphis, and a mere eight weeks before he himself would be murdered in the same way - Robert Kennedy delivered these words as part of an extraordinary but largely overlooked address at the Cleveland City Club. The day before, Kennedy had given the iconic speech - rendered to a shocked and grief stricken African American crowd in Indianapolis - that alerted a nation to the death of one of the greatest, fiercest and most gracious leaders in human history.
Doctor King was the kind of leader that even the greatest leader could often only aspire to; a man of true humility, with a lion's heart, determined to do his part to reforge a world that would one day fully, actively acknowledge - in word, deed and opportunity - the fact that all human beings were born equal.
In a climate of hate, unyielding pigheadedness, ignorance, racism and judgement, King preached change; courage; true equality for all; generosity; uncompromised, unfailing love; and forgiveness. And he preached it all with unshakeable faith in the power those things had to change the world. His brutal passing left a scar on both the US and humanity, so in some ways it is not surprising that the words and sentiments from Kennedy that ensued in the following hours - aside from the Indianapolis speech - were overshadowed.
Thankfully, though, someone did record them. Kennedy, that night, went on to say this:
"When you teach a man to hate and fear his brother; when you teach that he is a lesser man because of his colour or his beliefs or the policies he pursues; when you teach that those who differ from you threaten your freedom or your job or your family, then you also learn to confront others not as fellow citizens but as enemies - to be met not with cooperation but with conquest, to be subjugated and mastered.
We learn, at the last, to look at our brothers as aliens, men with whom we share a city, but not a community, men bound to us in common dwelling, but not in common effort. We learn to share only a common fear - only a common desire to retreat from each other - only a common impulse to meet disagreement with force.
For all this there are no final answers.
Yet we know what we must do. It is to achieve true justice among our fellow citizens. The question is now what programs we should seek to enact. The question is whether we can find in our own midst and in our own hearts that leadership of human purpose that will recognize the terrible truths of our existence.
We must admit the vanity of our false distinctions among men and learn to find our own advancement in the search for the advancement of all. We must admit in ourselves that our own children's future cannot be built on the misfortunes of others. We must recognize that this short life can neither be ennobled or enriched by hatred or revenge.
Our lives on this planet are too short and the work to be done too great to let this spirit flourish any longer in our land. Of course we cannot vanish it with a program, nor with a resolution.
But we can perhaps remember - even if only for a time - that those who live with us are our brothers, that they share with us the same short movement of life, that they seek - as we do - nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfilment they can.
Surely this bond of common faith, this bond of common goal, can begin to teach us something. Surely we can learn, at least, to look at those around us as fellow men and surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our hearts brothers and countrymen once again."
The full version of the speech can be found here, via the JFK Presidential Library and Museum.
So why am I sitting here consumed with the overwhelming need to say all these things to you. After all, I'm not imparting any real revelation here. The value these men placed on human beings learning to consistently treat each other with an equal modicum of human dignity and respect - despite our differences - is a vastly self evident truth, that shows itself in their deeds as much as the words they left behind.
As for myself, I'm not writing this to you from some poverty stricken hovel in a third world country. I don't sit here terrified about whether or not I'm about to be shot at for the colour of my skin; or mutilated or stripped of access to education because of my gender; or live in fear that the government is monitoring my every move with a view to condemn me to death if I should even utter a word against them.
I am in no way unaware of the fact that like Kennedy - while I was never a famous politician, or part of a dynasty that continues to hold appeal for the world - I have still lived a free, abundantly privileged life.
What is my motivation then, you ask - indeed, what gives me the right - to quote men such as these.
I'll tell you why.
First off, if you read my blog, you'll know that I write a lot about a TV show. If you've followed that program at all on social media, you know that there is a storm of controversy surrounding the death of a character with whom many people identified. Right now, I am putting the cause of that controversy aside, because if we think that - thought it surrounds a hugely important cause - it is the biggest atrocity playing out here, then we are wrong.
In truth, the greater atrocity is that right now, thousands of people are participating in a large scale movement of harassment and intimidation, without thought or care or accountability for the consequences. The behaviour is being undertaken both against others, and with others, against both entire communities and particular individuals alike.
This is not a situation or comment about sides. This is not about who is right, or who is wrong, about the outplaying of what is first and foremost a piece of fiction. Instead, this is - bottom line - about incited, encouraged and willingly undertaken behaviour that is causing lasting damage to the mental and emotional health of other human beings, as well as to the perpetrator.
Regardless of your reasoning, cruelty - whether enacted on a playground, the internet, or a presidential platform - is never okay. There is no justification and no excuse.
The only way to face this issue head on, then - with any hope of good, lasting change - is to take heed of warnings like those of Kennedy in the speech above. We must, in his words, "find in our own midst and in our own hearts that leadership of human purpose that will recognize the terrible truths of our existence."
We must have the most honest conversation of our lives, about our lives.
First, with the person in the mirror. And then - only then - with the people around us.
For my part, I think that our terrible truth as a society is that we have become wildly, inordinately gifted at being offended at the entire world and everyone else in it, and yet we look in the mirror and find scant offence at all in our own behaviour. We make a point of pointing out the log in every other eye but our own. Our greatest shame seems to be that we have no shame at all in the mind-blowing double standards we set, then enable. Seriously. At what point did we become a generation defined by our ability to dismantle the worth of a life, and break it down even into such trivial things as dollars, cents and the number of twitter followers gotten, gained or lost?
How did we become so selfish? Worse, so shallow?
All of which brings me to my second point.
Much of what I blog about here pertains to storytelling.
Aside from the real life events that take place in our world, it is through the stories we choose to tell that will show the generations who come after us, who we truly were, at our best and our worst. Long after our bones have turned to dust, the story of who our generation was in life - as individuals, but moreover as a society - will continue to have a life of its own. Only once we're dead, it's a story we will no longer be able to control the telling of. But as long as we do live, the kind of example we leave behind is determined by who we choose to be and how we chose to act, right now, and in every moment that comes next, until we are no more. Those choices - made everyday, by each of us - will determine whether our legacy as a whole becomes an inspiration worthy of being lived up to, or a painfully cautionary tale for those who come after us.
And to be sure, we should be mindful of the fact that that story will not simply be told by the TV shows or the films we create or the books we write in our age. It will be told predominantly in our Facebook posts. In our blogs entries. In our billions upon billions of tweets, which will continue to be accessible long after we've shuffled off this mortal coil. These will be the things that tell future generations what our priorities were. What mattered to us. Who mattered to us. And why. They will be able to find with the click of a button every word. Every uplifting compliment. Every astute argument. Every degrading insult. Every war of words. We are in essence already writing our own digital epitaph. And the contents are more condemning than we care to admit.
Because indeed Kennedy was right when he discussed our common impulse for conflict: in the face of such things, there is no final answer. But while there is no final answer as to why people act this way, there is still the answer as to what we must do, right now, and how we must do it. If this generation is to get better - is to be remembered as something greater than a society addicted to social media and that spent all of its time spouting opinions of the world, but never really looking at it with their own eyes - then the change must start with us. We must act with courage, with clarity, with compassion and with conviction, and we must take a good hard look at ourselves in the process.
People like Doctor King and Bobby Kennedy - who for all their fame, were still just two human beings: equally flawed and good, and made up of no more special flesh and bone than yours or mine - died still dreaming and in undaunted pursuit of the nobler legacy they knew our species had in us to leave behind. They didn't know why human beings choose to act the way we do, as cruelly as we do, but they knew they had to do something about it in order to move forward to something better. To do something that would help to create a legacy worth inheriting. They got a keener insight than most - particularly Doctor King - into the dark waters of a truly hateful tide; they daily found themselves up to their necks in it. Yet not once did it deter either of them from the act of swimming in the other direction. They did it not because it was easy, but because it was right.
Herein though, challenged by a better example than mine, I found my only point of regret in getting angry in an already angry environment.
Once upon a time, a truly great, humble, and brave man stood before a sea of people who had known nothing but inequality, and generation after generation of savage and demeaning oppression, and said these words:
"But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force."
Martin Luther King knew nothing of social media. He knew nothing of Twitter wars or Facebook rants or endless cruel Tumblr posts that are regurgitated over and over again in order to make one human being feel more righteous than another by stomping on their worth.
But he knew most everything about what it was to stand face to face with oppression, injustice and human cruelty. He knew that as much as those things pronounce judgement on the person enacting or endorsing them, how he reacted would ultimately be how others judged him. How history remembered him. He knew his reaction was always, always his choice - no-one else's - and he lived as such.
Because he did not choose to attack those who had attacked him.
He did not choose to use a physical feature of another human being - either that of his own, or his opponents - to define their human worth.
He did not seek to portray his enemies as less humanly valuable, in order to heighten either his own value or that of the people he championed.
He did not choose to dishonour those who had dishonoured him.
Instead, he chose to look past a past he could not change, towards a future where great change for the better was still possible. He chose daily to make a commitment to show honour to all, to show love to all. Not because he was guaranteed to be shown these things in return, or even the first place, but simply for their own sake.
Herein lay my own lesson, though I felt justified in becoming so riled up at the taste of hypocrisy and hatred I encountered.
Because Doctor King chose grace for the good of all, over all else. No exceptions.
In the end, it was an example and a legacy that cost him his life.
Fast track to now and you will see that here in our individual hands, you and I - as much as we hold our own reasons for being angry at the world - also hold our own portion of that legacy of grace, as shown by people like Doctor King and Bobby Kennedy. As they demonstrated, what we do with this costly, exquisite beautiful thing, for which so many have given even their very lives to defend, is a simple choice, made definitively in how we decide to respond to each other, in any given moment. What we choose to do with this legacy, for better or worse - in light of our own individual worthiness; in light of the human worth of both our friends and our enemies alike; in light of every living, breathing soul under the sun - will likewise be the legacy we leave behind.
Which brings us back, doesn't it: to the two of us - you and me - either side of this screen. You know, what either of us have done up until now - whether its been for the better or for the worse - neither of us can change. But starting with ourselves, starting right now, he have the capacity to prove that we are capable of creating a tomorrow that is worth waking up to.
Once upon a time, a good man had a dream.
Hopefully one day, we have the courage to make it a reality for us all.