Hello. It’s nice to see you. I’d like to tell you why I’m here.
Mostly it’s because language is full of hidden assumptions and riddled with little stories most people don’t even realize they are hearing. Some of the stories are basically harmless. Others are powerfully destructive.
Whether the person speaking believes the stories or merely hopes that the rest of us will believe them, the effect is the same: The stories get stuck in our heads like irritating pop songs. We repeat them over and over until they are part of us.
I just want you to know it doesn’t have to be that way.
We don’t have to assume anyone is out to get us. We don’t have to yell or call anyone stupid. We just have to learn to spot the story behind the words and then repeat it out loud. Make it clearer.
Here’s how we do it.
The first thing is to look honestly at what’s happening. That means describing the situation with simple verbs and no adjectives. Then, just to be sure you’re not bullshitting yourself, repeat the exercise from the perspective of a person who has an opinion different from yours about what SHOULD be happening. The point is to settle on a description that feels as neutral and non-judgemental as possible. Once you have done this, any disagreements about what SHOULD be happening will make themselves known.
Yes, obviously, empathy for people who have less power than us, fewer unfair advantages, who suffer in ways we can barely even imagine, yes, yes, of course. But also empathy for people who spread bad ideas — ideas that hurt people. We want those people to shut up a lot of the time, but we have to remember they are people just like us. No matter how hard we disagree with them, no matter how much their faces annoy us, no matter what kind of havoc their awful ideas are wreaking out in the world, they are human beings and that means we have a lot in common with them. For example, none of us thinks of ourself as a bad person. We think we are good and they think they are good. We are starting from the same place. We have to remember.
That doesn’t mean we should keep quiet when we notice an idea that is harming people, but it does mean that we don’t attack people. If we must attack, we attack ideas, and always with the goal of making the world a kinder, more thoughtful place.
You might be wrong. That’s okay! We’re all wrong all the time. If you are wrong, there is no need to feel defensive about it. Simply change your opinion to accommodate the new information you’ve received and you’ll be right. Unless you’re still wrong.
the pale blue dot
One of my favorite pieces of writing is Carl Sagan’s “pale blue dot” monologue. It’s a beautiful reflection on the ways our planet is both utterly insignificant and the most important place in the cosmos. I think about that a lot. Everything we do matters so little and so much.
Life is short and we don’t always get to choose what we’ll do with our time. I’d like to spend some of mine here with you, thinking critically about the stories we hear (and tell) every day. Maybe write a few new ones. We have a lot of work to do. I hope you’ll stick around.