Each passing day seems to increasingly expose the surprisingly utopian bubble where I grew up. A beautiful suburb filled with diversity. Truly perfect? No. But the community and schools were filled with a variety of religious backgrounds, socioeconomic backgrounds, racial and ethnic backgrounds, etc. The schools placed a focus on discussing and addressing the concept of diversity and inclusion. Whether we “succeeded” at perfect diversity or not, however success may be defined, it was surrounding each of us. For me, it became a priority for me in every environment I entered once I ventured off on my own as it had been so core to my younger years and growth.
Beyond the diversity, growing up Jewish, I was part of a large, vibrant Jewish community in the area – enough to lead to our public school respecting many major Jewish holidays with additional days off. This was normal life to me. Normal was my mom cooking Shabbat dinners for me and my friends – Jewish, Catholic and Hindu to name a few identities. Normal was friends having some basic understanding of Jewish culture, holidays and vocabulary (and me enjoying some basic understanding of their religions). Normal was friends not needing to feel my head to check for horns or question my intentions in life being any different from theirs.
Oh how I wish that bubble extended beyond the boundaries of my hometown.
A Week of Hate
Mailed pipe bombs to government and community leaders. Racially motivated murders at a grocery store. Fatal mass shooting at a synagogue. Another week passes in 2018.
I am torn between feeling terrified and feeling numb. Saturday, the day of the shootings at Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill, PA, was a day of numbness. Squirrel Hill, another suburban US city known for its Jewish community, is where my mom was born and not far by car from where her family moved shortly after - where I grew up. We were warned about anti-Semitism around the country and around the world. Last year, during the protests in Charlottesville, we even heard chants of it. But this weekend, we were faced with it head-on, no looking away, in a way we hadn’t felt in US history on US soil. But, as the theme of fortified and dangerous divisions has continued throughout 2018, I was left without shock. The deadliest anti-Semitic attack in our country’s history and I simply sat numb watching the headlines, videos, interviews and analysis of hate. Just our regular replay: breaking news alerts and panels of experts; videos of SWAT team or military teams or groups of local law enforcement rushing into a structure previously thought of as a safe space; pictures and lists of names memorializing those gone much too soon.
The days after were filled with sadness. For the lives lost. For all the lives lost this year due to hate or mass violence. For the Jewish community. For the American community. Then to end this week, back to the feeling of concern and, sure, terror. For our country. For our future.
We Hate Too Easy
Is this who we are? Is this who we are meant to be? From across the political aisle, from across geographical borders, from across our inserted, unseen divides, we stand and blame. We judge and criticize and let hate fester towards each other. We shoot words and bullets, both to cause equal harm. We don’t understand each other and ironically in a world that is over-connected, we elect to find our corners of like minds and disconnect from any others. In a world where likes and comments seem to be confused with self-worth, we crave to be the first and loudest and don’t always filter our most extreme thoughts. We throw the word hate around without weight and are quick to label a neighbor as an enemy. So are we surprised when that somehow manifests itself into what many of us would call unthinkable acts?
The Anti-Defamation League created a resource they call the “Pyramid of Hate”. At the bottom-most layer is “Biased Attitudes”, at the top, “Genocide”, with “Discrimination” neatly sitting in the middle. They speak to the fact that the top of a pyramid is completely dependent on the foundation that sits below it. Similarly, something as common and simple as a biased attitude potentially builds into violent acts. The ADL discusses how normalizing the bottom layers can, maybe inadvertently, lead to normalization of the more drastic behavior that sits above.
We seem quicker to fortify divides than to bridge them. We find it easier to blame than try to understand. We create a hate culture that is no longer sitting in pockets. Our actions and our words are fueling fires that allow it to linger in the cloud of smoke above us. And in the aftermath of this last week, we yet again are in darkened smoke wondering if it will ever clear. Well, I have not lost hope.
Cooling the Fires
Can we rid the world of hate entirely? I don’t know. But something needs to change. We need to leave it only in the corners we can’t access, and we need to better recognize when we ourselves are fueling flames.
With the Pyramid of Hate in mind, we have a chance to catch the fire before it takes over. We know bias is all around us, including within us. Though there will still be extreme hate that creates itself within communities we don’t have access to, there are too many stories I have heard of those who were found by extremism at a point of complete vulnerability and desperation for belonging. As we increase our division, I fear that we are leaving more and more longing for belonging, feeling unheard and feeling undervalued.
So, first, let us look inward and set an example for those around us. Let us within ourselves try to allow love to respond instead of hate. Let us find a curiosity underneath it all that makes us want to reach out and learn more, instead of sit back and judge from afar.
Then I make a personal promise in the memory of those we have lost, and I ask you to join me, to reach out to the stranger. If somehow I am lucky enough to cross-paths with an anti-Semite and they are willing to listen, I will share my story to simply give perspective to who I am and who I am not. But for anyone I disagree with, I will reach out with an intent to engage in conversation where we #ListenFirst to understand each other before leaping to conclusions or trying to change each other’s minds. And for those who seem alone and lost, I will try to reach out to listen to their story and give them open ears and an open heart.
And even for those with bias and hate, I will listen to understand better where and how they reached their conclusions as that perspective will only help me better explain mine. When we attack, they attack. When we listen, they may listen. And when we talk, we open minds including our own. We humanize each other, and we quiet a spark instead of fanning a flame. So let’s talk about hate; let’s talk to stop hate in its tracks.
Jaclyn Inglis is on the Listen First Project Executive Team and serves as Partnerships Director for National Conversation Project