By any accepted standard, I am ill-qualified to discuss socio-economic issues. I am a married, heterosexual, educated white female born to educated, upper-middle class WASP parents. My doctorate isn’t even in a social science. Yet, I will submit that one factor alone qualifies me to hold forth on the human condition, to discuss issues of race, of discrimination, of equality — I am human.
Discussions of social issues have begun to resemble junior high school dances. Each side lines uncomfortably along the wall, looking anxiously at the other, focusing on the otherness. Occasionally interaction occurs; heckling by the bullies or awkward flirtation. We each bob uncertainly to our own rhythms, unable to hear the common beat through the walls of self-consciousness. Unable to bear our discomfort, we retreat to our separate corners — us vs. them.
Here’s the problem — we are all standing in the same room. There is no us; no two people standing along that wall have the same thoughts, the same experiences. There is no them; we all bleed when pricked, cry when hurt. Generalizations are the refuge of the terrified and ignorant.
Humans are animals, programmed to fear the “other,” the unknown, the unfamiliar. From a food-chain standpoint, this makes sense. An unfamiliar animal may be a danger. Members of the herd that look “different” may act as visual cues for predators. In horse herds, flamboyantly colored horses such as grays, paints, and palominos tend to be ostracized by the more common-coated animals. Light-coated horses tend to roll more than darker ones as well, presumably using dirt as camouflage. If you are likely to be eaten, this behavior makes sense. A distinctively patterned animal is easier to pick from a moving herd — the animal kingdom’s equivalent of a blue plate special. Humans, however, are not horses.
We have a highly developed fore-brain that controls thought and reasoning. We possess the capability to override hind-brain impulses, to make choices based on reasoning, empathy, and compassion. We can do better. Prejudice, fear of that which is different, may be ingrained in each of us, but so is the capability of reaching beyond that fear.
God is in the details. — attributed to Mies van der Rohe
The key to overcoming intolerance hides, with God, in the details. Sweeping generalities accomplish nothing. To paint the portrait of humanity, we need detail brushes, not rollers. Humanity is a collective of individuals. To overcome our tendency toward social cruelty, we need to put faces to the issues, to see the souls behind the labels.
Illegal immigration has once again become the “us vs. them” poster child — this time the specter has been raised in the health care debate. Regardless of political opinions regarding government involvement in health care, the notion of excluding ANY group from medical care presents a grave danger to the collective. Disease does not discriminate — flu, tuberculosis, HIV, staphylococcus — none of these agents give a damn about citizenship. Public health is a collective problem. If one segment of society, ANY segment of society, is denied health care or is discouraged from seeking care, the risk increases to the entire population.
But, back to the faces: I was raised, work, and now raise my children in the Central Valley of California. This is an agriculturally dependent economy, and agriculture lives or dies by immigrant labor. Legal or illegal, it makes no difference. I do veterinary work for a ranch where, rumor had it, the herdsman had documentation problems and was deported back to Mexico. The duration of his fortunately temporary absence adversely affected the running of the ranch and much of the society in the area. He is the unofficial translator for many of the Hispanic workers in the area, well known for miles. The sense of relief, of ease, brought about by his return was palpable. His is a face that I see in this debate.
Last November, California passed Proposition 8, effectively banning gay marriage. One of the arguments used by the “Yes on 8” crowd was that they did not want their children exposed to the notion of homosexual marriage. Strangely, they didn’t seem to have a problem using their children to hold signs on street corners. My children have several friends and classmates with two mothers. These families share many of the same struggles and triumphs as my family. We commiserate on schoolwork, on our relationships, on our inability to stop volunteering for school activities. Whenever I see remnant signs referencing Proposition 8, theirs are the faces I see.
My husband’s Japanese-American grandmother was interned along with the rest of her family in Missouri during World War II. Her husband was in the U.S. Army. When the notion of detention without charges in support of national security is raised, hers is the face that I see.
I have three children. The oldest has brown hair, olive skin, and hazel eyes; the middle child has red hair, impossibly fair skin with freckles, and blue eyes; the youngest has dark blonde hair, light olive skin, and green eyes. All three share the same heritage: Japanese, English, Scottish, Welsh, German, French, Norwegian, and Cherokee. When I hear people make racial generalizations based on appearance, theirs are the faces I see.
We live in a world of individuals, not of issues. None of us can ever completely understand the motivations, needs, desires, or fears of others. To generalize by culture, by skin color, by sexuality, by politics, by gender, by religion, to try to jam people into narrowly labeled boxes dehumanizes us all.