“The right wing and the left wing are both part of the same bird.”
I don’t know where that quote came from, but I’ve seen several people post it unattributed on social media, and after a very rough divisive week I think it’s our mantra for moving ahead or should be.
I don’t do politics a lot and I definitely don’t do it on this blog because it tends to be way too divisive and this blog is not about that. People who read this blog care about my writing knowledge and my work but not my opinions on foreign policy and politics and I get it because that’s exactly how I feel about my favorite authors too. So this post isn’t going to be political. This post is still about writing. Read on and see.
I think it’s important to remember that there’s more than one valid point of view and way of looking at the world, because people are different. No two people see things exactly 100% alike. I learned this through my travels to Mexico and Ghana and Brazil. And I’ve learned it from living in places where I was white but minority like El Paso as well as in places like Los Angeles, Kansas City, and St. Louis where the culture is very diverse.
To me, the best thing about having friends with different backgrounds, points of view, and world experiences is it gives you a lot of fodder for writing and character development. You can’t write well what you don’t know or are completely unfamiliar with. People try it all the time and fail miserably but the best writers write from knowledge and experience. They are good listeners, good observers of human nature, and tend to surround themselves with a variety of friends who don’t always agree with them on everything including politics. These writers learn to study the world around them for different points of view. It doesn’t hurt anything. It doesn’t necessarily even change your mind. But it does illuminate for other ways of looking at the same issue and reasoning about it that can sometimes provide insight, even if that insight serves only to bolster your existing point of view.
In the end, we’re all part of the solution and part of the problem, see? Regardless of how we see things. You can argue ‘til you’re blue in the face about who’s right and who’s wrong, throwing around polarizing, condescending terms like “on the right side of history” and accomplish nothing but raising your blood pressure. In the end, if we don’t find a way to work together toward common goals and common ends, we won’t go anywhere. All we’ll do is maintain stress and unhappiness. Who wants to do that?
So as we move forward after a difficult election into more difficult times —as Covid continues and so forth—I would urge us all to remember we’re all part of the same body of man, we’re all fellow humans, and that really we all have a lot more in common than we have different, and we would do well to spend more time celebrating that and less time focusing on what divides us as we move forward. I certainly think it would make for a happier world and a happier society. If you ask me, given what we’re dealing with right now, that would be a very useful and pleasant start. For what it’s worth…
I love interacting with people from other cultures. Discovering the world through their eyes, looking through that other lens, exploring it, seeing where it leaves, discovering new questions, new answers, new approaches. It’s why I got hooked on traveling to foreign places like Ghana, Brazil, Mexico and more, interacting with natives and trying to understand their lives, their world, etc. for over a decade. Those times enriched me and expanded my own box in so many ways. So it’s ironic to find myself a bit flummoxed by my own culture these days.
I grew up being mostly an optimist. While, as Christians, we believed in the depravity of man and doctrine of sin, my basic assumption was that most people are good people or trying to be. Every once in a while you’d run into someone who tested your faith in that theory, but mostly it panned out. A lot of people were doing good things to make a better world, a better life, a better community, sometimes with great sacrifice. And most people I met, it seemed, had a sense of fairness and politeness that dominated them.
But these days I run into more and more people who seem to believe the opposite: all people are evil and trying to be evil. They seem to automatically assume the worst in every case from actions to words to events, etc. Everything someone says is analyzed, and dissected with the assumption it’s meant to insult, offend, or malign. They jump right onto it too, accusing, blaming, critiquing and riling up their allies about it, all the while impugning motives that may or may not be the truth. Intent no longer matters. Who can be bothered to try reading intent in the modern technoage anyway, right? Intent can’t be discerned well via the web, so why bother?
Yet, I come from a belief that intent matters, and more than that, you can choose be insulted or upset, or you can choose to assume the person means well until they prove you wrong. Not so this new breed. (Or maybe they’re an old breed I just hadn’t encountered much before.)
Although we definitely are a more cynical and nihilistic culture now than we were then, it’s flummoxing for me because you really can’t argue or respond to that kind of flawed reasoning. It’s emotionally based, which is irrational by its nature, and it’s fed by deep seated hurts and insecurities that no words can ever heal. It’s a rather unfortunate way to go through life, if you ask me. I certainly don’t enjoy wallowing in misery or past hurts and pains. I’ve tried it, believe me. Moving on is always better.
After all, there’s plenty more to come. And plenty to be genuinely upset about without looking for opportunities. They will find you no matter what. No need to seek them out.
But for some reason there are people who operate this way. It continues to puzzle and sadden me. The results are often false assumptions, broken relationships and destructive behavior patterns, all of which seem to feed on themselves.
In a nation already polarized over politics, religion and more, that just adds to existing problems, I think. And it’s unfortunate, because, again, trouble will find you all by itself without asking or going looking for it. That’s the world we live in. Regardless, I hope that this way of thinking remains the minority. I certainly have no desire to culturally adapt. It offers no appeal whatsoever, just a whole lotta unneeded drama, and who needs that? I’ve had enough, thank you very much.
Unfortunately, it’s become more and more the kind of trouble that will find you whether you look for it or no. As has happened to me and several others of late. So be it. If it happens to you, my advice is be nice, don’t waste time trying to argue or engage, just let your life speak for itself. And know that, in the end, that will speak louder than any rumors and last far longer. You’ll be happier, too.
You can be the hero of your own story, despite the flaws. And I’m talking about the kind of hero others might look at and identify as heroic, not the kind that makes people wonder are there any heroes left these days? You don’t have to put on tights and a cape and be perfect. We’re all flawed, that’s not the point, but you can choose to rise above your flaws and work harder to be a better person and positive contributor, or you can live for “me first.” That choice is yours.
Not that I have that all figured out, mind you. I’m still flummoxed. But that’s the dynamic of cultures for you. There are always things we struggle to understand about each other; things/ideas/concepts/behaviors/traditions that challenge us to accept or reject them but refuse to allow us to deny they exist.
When you’re a guest in someone’s country, the polite thing to do is to make those reactions internal while maintaining a respectful interior — something not always easy, I admit but which all too many American tourists get wrong to our country’s detriment. But when it’s in your own country, it’s harder. You start seeing it around you more and more, and there’s no escape. You can’t go home and remove yourself, because it’ll still be there tomorrow, waiting, lurking in the shadows, so to speak.
So you carry on and find a way to live with it, I guess. For me, that involves learning how to identify it and also how to avoid adapting it myself. That might not solve the issues it creates, but it sure makes for an easier walk, if you ask me.
I make it a habit not to comment on politics and such here very often. And I shall again try to do so with this post. But given recent events, I do want to share some thoughts on the Boston Marathon attack, terrorists, etc. Because these issues have faced our country boldface since September 11, 2001, and we continue to wrestle with how to react.
It’s always interesting to me how some people want to apply Western reasoning to people whose minds don’t operate like ours. Muslim extremists, Chechnian extremists, sociopaths — you can’t say if I was ignored, I’d stop crying for attention, so ignore them and they’ll go away. Because they don’t operate on the same system of logic we do. For all we know, ignoring them will make them more determined. After all, these are patient people who spend years planning their attacks. They don’t tend to just fly off the handle and strike spontaneously. Meticulous planning is a part of their process. These are calculating people with specific goals, however warped those might seem to us. So when I hear people say: “Want to end fear of terrorism? Shut off the TV” or “keep on living,” it doesn’t compute to me.
Now, I am not in favor of brutality. I am not in favor of a country that has always valued life and held high ideals about morality and honor in how we treat others abandoning that tradition entirely. However, I am reminded of what a friend, a former U.S. intelligence officer, once told me decades ago. This was before September 11, 2001 by almost 10 years, in fact.
He said: “You can’t fight these kinds of people by being nice. You can’t treat them as operating under the same logic as everyone else. That’s just not who they are.” He went on to explain how the Russians dealt with terrorists when their people were attacked in the 80s. “The Russians found the terrorists, decapitated them, cut off their balls and sent the heads with balls stuffed in their mouths back to their families. Terrorists left the Russians alone.”
Brutal, yes. Horrifying even. I’m not suggesting it.
But his point was that when you deal with people who don’t think as you do, you have to approach them differently than people who do. You have to change tactics, take risks, and sometimes up the scale of response, as unpleasant as it may be.
I have spent a lot of time working cross culturally–in Ghana, Brazil, Mexico and other places–both living and working with people and working hard to understand who they are, how they think, how they view the world. My goals was never to impose my values or perspective but to understand theirs and offer tools they could apply in context to solve problems. I believe we had a great deal of success. Certainly we never heard the kinds of complaints so many other foreign groups get about trying to make them like us. I took pride in that. Still, do.
As a result of that time, I learned how to listen and study more, different questions to ask, and became aware of a much bigger box than the one in which I typically live. And it broadened my world in ways I can’t escape and don’t want to. The lens through which I view the world is a different one now, and it is through that lens that I view anyone I encounter whose actions, attitudes, culture, etc. are different from my own. And that’s the case with these terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center, airlines and the Pentagon. I feel certain it’s the case with those who attacked Boston as well. And I know it’s different with those overseas who continue to terrorize or plot terror and attacks on others around the world.
When I worked with African or Brazilians, I very quickly learned I couldn’t assume they think as I do. That was a direct route to conflict. I found myself surprised at times by the differences in our perspectives, how our minds worked. Not that they were necessarily wrong. I was not there to make judgement calls. But they saw it differently, so to understand them and relate and work with them, I had to make an effort to understand their perspective. It was the only way we could find satisfactory solutions.
I believe the same is going to be true in dealing with terrorism and the many problems we face in the world today. As I watch our country grow more and more divided by ideologies, I am more and more certain that’s going to be required here as well. In a country founded on compromise, at least in government and media, we seem to have forgotten that history, the art of compromise. It’s us v. them. Every ideology must be right and the others wrong. We’ve seen the results of that already–failure of the government to solve problems, angry citizens, and an increased sense of disunity amongst Americans. Sometimes, I wonder what America is anymore? I don’t recognize it many times.
Whenever a different kind of logic is at work, such misunderstandings are a risk, but they are also a danger.
And that’s what we face with these sociopaths who plant bombs or shoot up schools or attack us in other ways–a different kind of logic.
I’m not proposing particular answers, per se, but I am suggesting that to continue looking at it through our cultural eyes and understandings, through our mores and beliefs, is never going to provide a solution that ends the problem. It may prolong it. It may ignore it. It may make it worse. It won’t bring peace or a conclusion.
That’s scary stuff when you think about it. I was reading author Dan Simmons’ 2006 essay imagining a message from a Time Traveler today and it demonstrates that very much, in so many ways. Until more of us realize this and act accordingly, I fear the heartache will continue. I fear the struggle will not be resolved, and I fear the harm will be caused as much by our ignorance as that of our attackers. And, if you ask me, we’ve suffered enough harm.
True story. In college, I said “I’m never going to use Algebra and Calculus and you all know it. Give me a math class I can use.” They shook their heads, smiled at me like I was daft, and put me in basic math. We learned how to balance checkbooks, calculate interest, budget, etc. Best math class I ever took and I was the one laughing in the end.
What does this have to do with anything? Well, today’s post is me wondering why a country which was once, deservedly perhaps, known as the greatest country in the world, and which still clings to its sole superpower status, is so behind in adapting certain realities. For example, the whole world uses the metric system. It’s easier than our system, for one, and it’s not based on associations with body parts and such, like feet, etc., which can vary from person to person. (Ever try and measure feet with 13.5 inch shoes like me and compare to someone with 7 inch shoes? Ridiculous.) We insist kids learn Algebra and Calculus and Geometry, when, in truth, while some basics of reasoning which come from those are essential to life, they could be taught in other ways and the subject matter made more relevant to the realities kids and adults actually face in the real world (like my example above). Why aren’t we teaching kids things that matter? Calculating the distance between two trains running on the same tracks at different speeds and when they will collide is not vital. If some idiot allows two trains going opposite directions on the same track with no plan to get them off, it’s probably because of his bad education and not being taught the things he or she really needed to know, isn’t it?
How much help would it be to teach our kids how to evaluate themselves by various factors rather than still over emphasizing sports as coolness? Later in life, how many people can rely on sports abilities for their friendships and popularity? Just as my uncle, Dave Hale, who once played for the Chicago Bears and had to retire with a knee injury. He’ll tell you how long that all lasts.
How about teaching our kids how to load dishwashers? Sew buttons? Mend clothes? Wash clothes? Basic maintenance and home repair? Oh wait, sorry, those are the parents’ responsibility, right? The same parents whom statistics show annually spend less and less time with their kids as a family because of dual jobs, divorce, and other realities of multitasking modern life.
Why do we insist on forcing kids to read the same classic books their grandparents read in school over and over despite the fact that some, while well written, are so dated and out of touch with contemporary kids that they find them boring and totally unrelatable? Is it any wonder reading has faded in popularity? What if we actually encouraged them to read for fun just to get them reading? Do we really believe they wouldn’t learn anything? Do we really believe they might not actually one day read classics on their own because they want to? Would that be such a bad thing?
And what about teaching people practical science too? I made it through life without ever taking a single class in chemistry. The -ologies I have used the most are Psychology, Astronomy and Sociology. I think basic science is important. But sometimes I wonder if we’re teaching the right subjects. It depends a child’s goals, of course. And exposure to a variety of things is important. I am all for encouraging the sense of wonder which leads to scientific exploration but I do sometimes wonder if we choose subjects because they’re relevant or just because they’re tradition.
Oh science is important, don’t get me wrong. So are culture and socioeconomics. In our diverse world, if we don’t teach this things, we are just leading to the destruction of our unity which is already occurring. People should learn respect for each other and gain some understanding of socioeconomic realities and the differences which result as well as the cultural differences which separate us and how to respect and overcome them. Those are real, needed skills. Why not teach those?
I recently encountered a man in his 30s with terrible spelling who told me his school didn’t teach spelling and grammar. They were deemed less important than other subjects. WHAT?! How in the world could anyone determine that? I hear from teachers all the time about how much of a problem online speak has become in classrooms. Students employ it in situations totally inappropriately and it has really caused issues with spelling and grammar practices. Have we given up then and stopped teaching it all together? Yes, let’s be the greatest illiterate national on Earth, shall we? That’s a way to maintain our status for sure.
Another issue is the bias in classrooms. The fact that the educational establishment tends toward one side of the political spectrum over the other and teaches accordingly is a real problem. How can students learn to think through issues fairly and form their own opinions if they’re taught biased perspectives and never given a fair chance to hear both sides? How can the generations which are our future be counted on for new and innovative ideas to change our world for the better if they can’t think for themselves? It’s indicated in the ideological warfare tearing our country apart at present. With each side declaring the other stupid and itself superior, no wonder we have a country so divided. Teaching children one side over another is just adding to this problem. And private schools with the opposite political bent are just as much of a problem. Like it or not, your children will have to learn to think for themselves to succeed in life and have great futures. The skills needed to do so must be taught in a classroom. Biased teaching cannot provide them with the needed skills training.
Last but not least, we undervalue education. Is it any wonder the development of new methodologies and materials moves often at turtle crawl when we are so quick to cut education budgets in favor of other things? I can’t think of anything more important in life than solid education. Yet our country continues to pay teachers low wages, slash school budgets, and act as if education is a minor concern. All of the issues I posit above are unlikely to be addressed as long as education is a low priority for spending.
Don’t get me wrong. I love my country, despite my disgust with a lot of the problems mentioned. I respect education. I respect teachers. And I am not really suggesting we just dump all the subjects I use as examples. But as I look back on my life and how much my educational background has mattered to me, and as I reflect on the situations encountered in travelling to multiple countries and continents over the past twenty years, I definitely think we need to reexamine our priorities. We need to consider new ideas and be willing to admit we don’t always get it right. How can we make the subjects we teach and the way we teach them relevant to students and their lives? Times change and we must change with them. If we don’t, we are in denial of reality. And living in denial is no way to run a country successfully. The present actions of government ought to be testimony enough of that.
For what it’s worth…
Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novelThe Worker Prince, the collection The North Star Serial, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chatevery Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. He can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog. His second novel, The Returning, sequel to The Worker Prince, is forthcoming in Summer 2012.