Who Do You See?

 Guest blogger, Pegge Adams, is a former Genesee County Commissioner and a graduate of Central Michigan University (BS, MA) with most of her pre-retirement years spent in various areas of education. She is a lifelong resident of Genesee County as well as a card-carrying Democrat and Precinct Delegate for over a decade.

Who Do You See?

Is it color you see first? Age? Eyes? Hair? Features? Clothing? Height? Weight? The way someone moves? The odds of being incorrect using physical characteristics are high. Even intangibles can lead you to the wrong conclusion. Charming may turn out to be sociopathic; cold and unfriendly may turn out to be reflective and caring.

Even guessing a group is often wrong, especially if color or physical features are your guide. The person who is surely Native American may turn out to be Jewish, the African American may turn out to be from Fiji. The very blonde, very white individual who looks purely Scandinavian could be Sitting Bull’s progeny with a dash of Dutch and Roma. Chinese? No, that would be Anishnabe. Grouping can matter in terms of how that person feels, or it may not. The human rainbow is like that of the earth. Many traditions, including the Bible, say humankind came from the earth, but specify no color. Genetic research has demonstrated that we all have a common ancestor. Our original hue is impossible to know, but not important. Dust ranges from gypsum white to lava black, with an amazing wealth of shades of brown. And so it is with the human race. We have variability. And that is a good thing. Isolated cultures are more vulnerable to disease, and the inbreeding of royal families in Europe in centuries past led to a variety of physical and mental disabilities.

Still, people tend to categorize, especially if they happen to be journalists. Over generalization is common. That has been particularly pronounced in recent years, where there is a community for every possible aspect. In addition to the usual, a community could be based on types of impairments, beliefs, orientations or pretty much anything. Belonging to a single community, however, doesn’t give a complete picture of an individual. But the former use of the word, which was lump people together by where they lived, didn’t tell the whole story either.

Some years ago, I watched a program that demonstrated the fallacy of categorizing by race. It was a fairly large group of young people, and a variety of “communities” (from race and religion to hobbies and interests) were called out and they would group accordingly. With each grouping, they were with
different people. By the end, it was clear that most would need a crazy quilt of Venn diagrams to truly describe their communities. And for each community, there could be a subtle or great influence on perception. Lots of possibilities beyond what was seen there: people who paint, people who are musicians, people who are scientists, people who code, people who have suffered abuse, people who love science fiction, people who love to travel, people who hug everyone they meet, people who are wary of physical contact, people who are brilliant, people who are ignorant. The list could be close to infinite, but the principle is simple. Given opportunity, every group tends to be diverse.

Culture and customs within an ethnic or religious group may dictate behavior, but often that isn’t true, particularly in this country. And wherever people live, there is often really glaring conflict between supposedly core beliefs and actions. If you look at two large groups, one labeled Christian and one labeled Muslim, you could find much common ground in terms of scriptural core beliefs, but enormous differences in daily dogma and behavior. Now add two more groups, Hindu and Shinto. No scriptural common ground at all, but some shared common beliefs. For most religions, the most common core value, and the one most ignored, is the Golden Rule: treat others as you would want to be treated. Despite that, Christians and Muslims have been at it for centuries, and even within their general categories, they also kill each other. Catholics and Protestants visited terrible violence on each other in
Ireland for decades. Shiites and Sunni did the same across the Middle East. And recently, ISIS has targeted all of them. Until recently, America was one place where various religions could coexist in peace, due to the strength of our Constitutional right to freedom of religion, which promotes tolerance Despite some really glaring failures, particularly in the area of race, this has been a country where someone could be true to many communities without conflict. Recently, though, our country’s intolerance has grown in all directions. Since Trump’s awful misuse of the phrase “Both sides”, people shudder to use it, but sometimes it is legitimate. There are often multiple experiences and shades of feeling that influence an individual’s response. Sometimes people who mean well come to a group’s defense without bothering to consult anyone in that group, or take one person’s or a sub-group’s opinion as representative of the whole. Crystal Echo Hawk, Pawnee, wrote about one such instance when she said “the thing that really, really got me about these articles is the emphasis is on all the outrage of behalf of Native Americans, but they’re not talking to any Native Americans about it. At all.” It has become rare for people to engage in conversation that may lead to better understanding. Too often, even among Democrats, even among Progressive Dems, not saying exactly the right thing at some designated timeline can lead to harsh condemnation. A rumor or innuendo on Facebook can lead to a knee-jerk, high velocity pile-on that is devastating, even if it is responding to a misrepresentation or outright lie. It happened to Hillary Clinton. It’s happening again, just as the Dem candidates for 2020 leave the starting gate.

So who do you see? What do you see? If you take time to base your opinions on evidence, and see each person as a unique individual, you contribute to a better future for us all. If we engage in true conversation, not only presenting the strength of arguments (as in making a case, not having an argument), but then truly listening and responding, we’ll have something to build on. If we debate issues with respect, we will emerge with strength going into the 2020 election cycle.

The Russian bots and their minions have already started their work; we must start ours. Resist snap judgments. Listen carefully to candidates. Look carefully at their track records. What has this person accomplished, what is their experience, and what have been their reasons for actions? Look at more than ideological purity, because just because someone tells you what you want to hear doesn’t mean they can get it done or work positively with others to achieve progress. Look at others working for democracy with respect, one individual at a time. Perhaps you learn something that changes your view. Perhaps they do. Perhaps you must agree to disagree. And then, look at candidates as you would at someone’s resume if you were hiring for a really important job. Because for every office, you are.

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