How Can You Hate Me When You Don’t Even Know Me? Communicating in Troubled Political Times
“Returning Hate for Hate multiplies hate, adding a deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars…” MLK Jr.
Messages that "only love can trump hate" sound good but can seem unreasonable when one feels anger at injustice. Anger in the body has energy behind it that instinctively wants to move forward, often toward a state of fighting. Those movements can lead to good or bad action. Last night I felt compelled to attend a prayer vigil for Heather Heyer, the young activist killed by a White Nationalist who plowed through protesters at a White Power unity rally in Charlottesville, Virginia this week. My family warned me to be careful, out of fear that a counter-protest would ensue. But anger and a sense of duty trumped fear. At the end of the rally, I spoke to some police officers who admitted they were relieved that there was no violence last night.
That many of these white nationalists could parade without donning KKK hoods was an action I feel was emboldened by Trump’s tacit agreement and support of their ideology. That scared me. But some good came out of that. In this day of instant digital identification, one Nazi marcher, when his face was recognized on social media, was fired by his boss who put a message outside his store that “…we believe in diversity in the workplace.” Another, whose face was recognized, had his behavior publically denounced by his family.
Images of the week that were poignant: A tiny two year old toddler in full KKK garb, including pointed hat and cape, curiously touching the shield of an older black police officer, who had a sad but knowing look on his face. And the caption, “Prejudice is taught.” Another image that caught my eye was of a black woman confidently and firmly standing face to face and looking into the eyes of a hooded White nationalist.
I wonder what she said to him? Maybe she asked, “How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?” How can you communicate with others with a very different belief system? I will share three stories, all of which involve non-violent communication tips for addressing this issue.
1. In this real example, someone was left feeling “poisoned” by listening and not speaking up to an individual who was making judgmental comments about others. Later he came up with this, “I wish I would have said” scenario:
I am listening to you right now and what you are saying goes against my values about what is good and kind in people. It makes me feel heartsick, sad and discouraged. Stop talking this way and please recognize that it is hateful speech.
Notice that he follows the 4-part “whole message” communication tool: sharing facts, beliefs, emotions, and wants.
2. In this next real example, I was running a therapy group years ago at an alcoholism treatment center, when two new people, a white man and woman, who had just flown in to California from Southern USA, walked in and joined the group. By way of introduction, they looked around at the all white group and said something racist.
I immediately responded, “Oh I do not allow any racist or sexist language in this group. Either stop that talk or leave.” They looked shocked, glanced at each other, stood up and walked out.
Notice that I set a boundary, choosing the group ethics over making the new people comfortable. Saying nothing would have communicated that everyone in the group felt as they did.
3. In a third example, I was the one being confronted. I attended a non-violent communication group, where we were discussing ways to open up and talk to people on the other side of the political spectrum. I consider myself a moderate, but I was more conservative than a progressive liberal, who decided to use the tools we had just learned by confronting me in front of the group. Everyone stared at me as he confronted me and I suddenly felt in the minority, with my sense of belonging shaken. I was able to take a breath and articulate my beliefs with confidence. But the focus here is two following tools we learned when seeking to “know” the person with the opposite ideology. With an attitude of openness and receptivity ask the two following questions:
1. Why do you believe what you believe?
2. What in your background led you to believe the way you do?
Hearing the answer to these questions can help melt the fury of hate into one of compassion, if not love. Everyone is looking to belong: the 2 year old in KKK robes whose sense of security is in being like mommy, the Southerners in my group who thought they were in the company of like minded people, and me when I was challenged in the workshop. As humans, we are all hard-wired to go against what we feel threatens us and to go toward the safety of the warm and familiar, no matter what robes it requires us to wear.