Saturday, February 4, 2017

Going Gray in a Black-and-White World

Nearly 20 years ago, I had the opportunity to participate in the California Agricultural Leadership Program. During the course of this incredible two-year fellowship program, I began to realize that issues I saw as black-and-white as a twenty-something were rarely as simple as I assumed. Now, as somebody who will mark a half century on this planet in a few months (I'm startled to realize that I've escaped middle age!), I find the world to be increasingly gray - things are less black-and-white for me today than they were 20 years ago. And yet based on what I read on Facebook and other social media platforms, others seem to view the world in increasingly stark perspective. In other words, what seems gray to me is apparently black-and-white to many.

Demographically - and geographically - I would seem to be supportive of our new President. I'm a white male approaching 50 years of age. I make part of my living in production agriculture. I find many governmental regulations associated with my ranching activities to be burdensome. I hunt and fish (and own several guns). I live in the West (if California counts as part of the West). I live in a semi-rural area that voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump. And yet....

And yet, I find President Trump's policies relative to immigrants deeply troubling. I find his lack of knowledge (and even respect) for the principles embodied in our Constitution (especially freedom of speech, assembly and religion - and the separation of powers) incredibly concerning. As a scientist, I find his dismissive attitude towards science frightening. And I find his complete lack of empathy for people who are less fortunate to be profoundly disturbing. I vacillate between incredulity about his administration's apparent incompetence, and fear - fear that his administration's early blunders are purposely leading our country down a very dark path.

Most of my social media "friends" are friends in fact - people who I know, like and respect. These issues, based on what some of my friends have posted in the last two weeks, are black-and-white to many of them. Based on what I've read, singling out a particular religion because of the violent actions of a few fundamentalist adherents is entirely justified. So, apparently, are the violent actions of fundamentalist adherents to Christianity - in other words, if "our" side commits violence, it's justified. People I know and respect - my friends - seem willing to excuse this President's bigotry, apparent ignorance, insensitivity and misogyny. Some of my friends dismiss those who are willing to take to the streets in protest as "rioters."

Examples of our collective insensitivity abound. In last Sunday's Sacramento Bee, Frances Kakugawa wrote a beautiful piece about her family's experience with bigotry and fear during World War II. I sent her a very brief email thanking her for sharing her experience and perspective. She responded that my email had stood out among the many negative comments she'd received. Friends who teach in public schools have reported that students of color are afraid of what might happen to them. A place of worship here in Placer County - and the Islamic Center in Davis - were vandalized since President Trump took office. What have we become? We seem to think that incivility is better than political correctness. If political correctness means having empathy for my fellow human beings, then I suppose I try to be politically correct. I guess for me, acknowledging the "grayness" of our world means accepting that others may have different perspectives (based on their own life experiences and values) - the fact that they might be different than my own perspective doesn't make them wrong.

Several weeks ago, as I was leaving one of our leased ranches, I saw a young woman with two young children walking along our rural road. She was wearing a head-scarf - she looked out of place in rural Placer County, and her children looked frightened. I turned around to see if I could help - as someone else stopped to help as well (which I found heartening). The woman (who was of Saudi descent) was lost - I helped her get where she needed to go. I think most (if not all) of my friends would have done the same thing. This week while I was working at UC Davis, I passed a young woman (who I assume was a student) who was wearing more traditional Muslim clothing - all I could see of her face was her eyes. As we walked passed each other, I couldn't help but wondering what our country looked like through her eyes at the moment. Interacting with real human beings makes the black-and-white vitriol on Facebook and Twitter seem foolish and immature.

I sincerely hope that we're not headed back down a path of dehumanizing others because of their color, language, religious beliefs, ethnic background, or other differences. I sincerely hope that my friends who support the current administration can accept the fact that at least one of their friends (me!) is genuinely afraid of where this President may be leading us. And I sincerely hope that I can begin to understand the perspectives of my friends with whom I disagree. In the world of social media, it's all too easy to click the "unfriend" button (something I've been tempted to do on many occasions in the last three weeks). I sincerely hope that actual (as opposed to virtual) friendship can be the basis for greater understanding.

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