“I have never met a man so ignorant that I couldn’t learn something from him.” —Galileo Galilei
I saw this quote, and I thought it applied to the recent victory for marriage equality. Not the long journey to get to that point, nor the win itself, but these next few days….these next few years….these next few decades. These are the ever important next few delicate steps. It’s not how you handle defeat, so much as how you handle victory. How will we conduct ourselves? The answer to that question might very well hold the fate of relations between the Left and the Right in this country, and for generations to come. We must walk proudly, but tread lightly. Naturally, these are happy times for equality and social justice, but I think it’s important to remember that while it may be a milestone for what the LGBT community has won, it’s also a time when the whole other half of the country grapples with all they have lost. So what? They’re bigots and they deserve to lose. To the victor go the spoils. While I completely agree with the sentiment, I am wary of where it may lead.
Of course those who oppose gay marriage are on the wrong side of history, and bigotry is savage and unacceptable in any civilized society. No one has the right to legislate another person’s body, dictate who they should love, or deny them the right to marry whomever they please. Those are innate and inalienable rights, and those who disagree, deserve to be called to task. They’re in for a fight! It’s not that I’m suggesting we don’t hold these bigots accountable, but only that we look to the way in which we do it. Calling them ignorant slobs and white trash gun nuts and religious zealots is not exactly the most tactful way to win the hearts and minds of a group as wide and diverse as we are. Some may foolishly oppose Evolution, others may fly Confederate flags, and still others may try and pray your gay away, but they are human beings, and deserve our respect and attention. To give someone your undivided and open-minded attention is one of the greatest gifts a human being can endow another with. I”m not suggesting we agree or validate their opinions, or even that we not argue our side of the issue. Of course. I’m just saying that the Right isn’t the only hateful and hostile side in this debate. We on the Left do a disservice to ourselves and this country when we sweepingly dismiss nearly half the country as idiots, and speak to them as if they unquestionably were. That’s one out of every two Americans. Is THAT bitter enmity acceptable in a civilized society?
I used to teach high school in the inner city to poor, at-risk black students, and I can’t even describe the kind of severe learning deficits these kids possessed, and the kind of unthinkable classroom behavior I dealt with day in and day out. If you were to walk into my classroom, and see kids climbing the walls, braiding each other’s hair, throwing sunflower seed shells on the floor, and very little learning being done, you would likely question my abilities as a teacher. But if you saw these ninth graders barely reading at a fifth grade level, and kids that knew nothing of basic grammar, you might begin to shift the blame on them. After all, every class you had seen that day was the same, and every kid struggled to succeed. Perhaps you might choose to make generalizations about race, and conclude that black kids are less intelligent than whites, and have far greater intellectual deficits. If so, you wouldn’t be alone. I knew many teachers in my time in education that came to the same conclusion, and that attitude was evident in the way they taught and disciplined their students of color. For the rest of us moral crusaders and bleeding heart liberals, we held onto the truth that it was no wonder these kids lagged behind. Most came from difficult single working mother families with few positive male role models, and even less exposure to adults with degrees and diplomas. They also attended horrible underfunded schools with overworked and overtaxed teachers like me, who were trying to undue a system that had failed them, in the course of a single school year. That’s an impossible task, as we all know. My point is, until you’ve walked in another person’s shoes, you don’t know their true journey. Sure, what’s there to know about hatred and bigotry? Who cares? Evolve and be civilized! But I could have thought those very same things about those kids. I could have determined they were dumb, and effectively given up on them, That’s what many of their teachers before had done, and what society did long ago. But I got to know them as people, and I grew to love them. And I saw how much innate intellect these kids really had. They might not have been built for standardized tests, but they sure could fall into the rhythm and meaning of Shakespeare’s verse better than any white classroom I ever had! They were instinctively smart, but it came across as street smarts only. And attitude. But these weren’t street thugs, they were fragile and innocent kids who had gotten a rough break in life, and grew up undereducated and instilled with beliefs that might sometimes conflict with the goals of education and social equality for those unlike them. But that’s why it was even more imperative that I model good behavior, and try to impart the value and worth of an education, and the greater odds of success in life with a degree and a career. Not just a job. Many who oppose gay marriage come from similar backgrounds, deeply rooted in Church and traditional family values, and for many, the rich legacy of being a white southerner. Or a black southerner. The face of the person we call “bigot” may not be what we imagine. If every bigot learns to hate, then every bigot can unlearn it too. Lest we be judged…
Just as you and I learned to love and embrace diversity, bigots learned to hate and distrust those who were different. Or at least mildly disapprove of such behaviors. For progressives, such ignorance and intolerance is revolting and an indignity suffered at the hands of oppressors for too long. And yet, if we learned how to love, surely they can too. They are our friends and neighbors, teachers and politicians, coworkers and family members. They are us. If we truly believe in the value and importance of education in unlocking doors of tolerance and acceptance, we must give it as well as accept it. Now is not the time to gloat and rub their noses in their own fetid defeat, no matter how satisfying and justified we might be in doing so. We must be better than them, and model the kind of behavior we want our children to learn and adopt. In this time of pent-up anger and resentment, and all the vitriol being hurled at us from the Right, it would be easy to match their anger and use the same old scorched earth battle tactics employed by them for decades. Drop a nuke, obliterate the enemy, and throw a party. And we would all be perfectly justified in doing so. But we can’t preach the values of #LoveWins and then turn around and only apply it to gay marriage. LOVE wins. If love is a blind and boundless mercenary of the human heart, it would stand to reason that it has the capacity to work its way into even the most tightly guarded of places, and as you might guess, those are the places that need it the most. If we wish to emerge from the shadows, we can’t wait for the sun to rise, we must shine a light into the darkness ourselves. Martin Luther King, Jr. once famously said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Bigots aren’t cured of bigotry by divine intervention, but by human intervention. They are cured by love and the human decency they didn’t have the capacity to extend themselves.
No one has a monopoly on love, and we can’t hoard it to ourselves just because it has been cruelly withheld from us. If we truly believe in educating the ignorant, and honestly believe that love conquers all, then we must allow it to conquer US. It’s easy to love those who look like us and share our hopes, dreams, and beliefs. That’s what bigots have been doing for centuries. BUT SO HAVE WE. It’s much harder to love your enemy, and take steps and make inroads into their heart, even if you despise everything that’s in their head. We learned through teachers and adults who modeled tolerance, and passed on a legacy of acceptance and social justice. Now we must really put those egalitarian ideals to the test, and see if we can tolerate those who harbor even the vilest of beliefs. I’m not saying I’m about to go have a beer with Paul LePage or Rick Santorum any time soon, but rather, I’m going to try and hold myself to a higher standard then they ever granted us, and try and remind myself that we aren’t just talking about a small minority of haters and bigots. Over 40% of this country opposes gay marriage. That’s nearly half the country. Try and remember that when we elected Barack Obama, he opposed gay marriage. And if you remember Hillary’s interview on Fresh Air, Terry Gross grilled her to admit that she in fact once firmly opposed same sex marriage too. Admittedly, the jump is far closer for a liberal than a conservative, but it goes to show that as a people, we are all growing and evolving. Some of us are just doing it more rapidly. The point is, we can’t simply choose to ignore half the country and label them bigots and backwards yokels. These are our neighbors, and we must all live together. If Washington gridlock and vicious partisanship continues at this rate, there will be blood in the aisles before too long, my friends. We must find a way.
Love and tolerance are learned and modeled, and ignorance isn’t cured in a bubble. It happens through repeated exposure, glimpsing the humanity and shared bonds in someone ostensibly unlike you, and being treated with the kindness and respect you might have denied many countless others. It’s about being the better human being. And above all else, it’s about sharing love and unconditional kindness to those who least deserve it and whose beliefs may violate everything you stand for. Remember the words of MLK: “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Let’s take this incredible moment in history to spread love, not hate, and be the change we want to see in the world.