From Cleveland: Let Go Of Your Stereotypes

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BY CHRIS KERRJuly 17, 2016

written by: Brenna Davis, Boston College ’10 & Former Jesuit Volunteer

At times like these, especially during an election year, it’s easy to think dualistically: good vs.  bad, right vs. wrong, and, quite literally, black vs. white. The issues our country faces are complex, and we too are complicated individuals. Unfortunately, the pace of our world is often too rushed  for us to think and consider answers that do not fit into sound bites or that are not easily divided along party lines. The media often reports in extremes and that language bleeds into our own conversations, especially since studies have shown that we seek out media sources with perspectives that support what we already believe. However, if we’re honest with ourselves, reality is much more nuanced than we often make it out to be.

I myself am guilty of speaking in extremes when talking about the “other” political party. It’s quite easy to say things like, “They’re all a bunch of idiots that want to destroy the country.” However, if I take a step back and allow my emotions to settle, I must admit that the reality is probably quite different, and that is an uncomfortable realization.

Whatever a person’s political beliefs, Republican, Democrat, or anything in between, we have those beliefs not because our ultimate goal is to destroy the country but rather because we think that particular set of beliefs will make things better than they are now. On the most basic level, we all want the same things. For example,  we all want a safer world. Some people would argue that more guns will make that happen while others would say that lessening the number of guns available would accomplish that goal. We may disagree on how to get there, but at the core, I repeat, we all want the same thing. However, we hear the word “gun” and immediately  slip into our me vs. you rhetoric so that we can “win” the argument. Yet while we’re yelling over one another, nothing is being accomplished. It’s easier to polarize ourselves than to listen and give each other the benefit of the doubt that we’re not secretly trying to destroy the United States. This is difficult because it leads us into a grey area where everything is not so easily divided by party lines.

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Tweets illustrate the range of opinions that people across the U.S. have about the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

The same idea is obviously true surrounding the most recent events in Baton Rouge, Minnesota, and Dallas. It’s so easy to take a side and draw the dividing lines. I’ve especially noticed this happening on social media  (“The police are all bad” vs. “Blame Obama and the Black Lives Matter movement”). This rhetoric makes it easy to dehumanize the “other side,” but neither statement contains the entire truth. We need to start listening to people from the opposition to try to hear what they’re saying underneath all of the buzzwords.

I recently tried to practice this by listening to a radio station that I normally ignore talk about what happened in Dallas. I definitely did not agree with everything said, but I made myself listen so that I could try to understand the base of where the host was coming from. I was surprised to find that while some of what he said made me angry and uncomfortable, everything he said was not unreasonable and idiotic, which was challenging in a way that I hadn’t anticipated. It’s easier to ignore, hate, and fear the other that we do not know. Although I still disagreed with him, I had come to understand a bit about this man’s world view, and I could no longer completely discount him and his concerns.

Let’s take a moment to practice this now without jumping onto the side we normally support. Take a moment to really think and let go of your stereotypes and biases as best as you can.

Let’s begin:

Do all cops want to kill black people? No, that’s obviously not true, though it might be the easy thing for some people to say or think. In fact, on the night of the shooting in Dallas, the police were working with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement to provide security and safety. When the shooting started, they were in charge of keeping the people at the event safe and did this to the best of their ability (no citizens were killed). While there are always exceptions to the rule, the vast majority of police officers got into police work because they want to keep our communities safe.  

Now on to the other “side.” Are all of the protesters and people who support the BLM movement extremists who are trying to incite violence against the police? Of course not, though for some it might be tempting to think yes immediately. This group was peacefully protesting during the tragedy in Dallas and all of the protests following the recent shootings in Baton Rouge and Minnesota have also been peaceful. Families, students, neighbors, taxpayers, and law-abiding citizens make up this group who are exercising their first amendment right to free speech to address systemic issues that they believe need to be fixed. Again, excluding exceptions to the rule, they want their communities to be safe.

Family members of police officers worry every day if their loved ones will come home safe. Family members of black and brown children worry every day if their loved ones will come home safe. At the end of the day, that’s what we all want, isn’t it?

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Cleveland Cavaliers guard J.R. Smith salutes the crowd as a Cleveland Police officer looks on. Police estimates put the crowd at 1.3 million people. [Source: First Energy Corp via Flickr]

For those of us here in Cleveland who attended the Cleveland Cavaliers’ championship parade in downtown Cleveland a few weeks ago, it was a sight to behold. Not to romanticize it too much because our city still has deep divisions, but for the day people from very different parts of our city came together to celebrate Cleveland.  Police officers were high-fiving citizens. People were generally cheerful and polite to one another.  The day passed peacefully, and while we didn’t wrap our arms around each other and chant “Hard work… Together” like in the commercial upon LeBron’s return to Cleveland (a missed opportunity, I think), we were able to find common ground by spending a day together celebrating the city that we live in and love.  

That image would be nice to remember when the Republican National Convention (RNC) arrives in town. Next week it will be especially important to try to give the “other side” the benefit of the doubt no matter where you are on the political spectrum. Some people are excited the RNC will be here while other people are preparing to protest. Police presence will be heightened, and tensions will probably be running high. People who think very differently will be in close proximity, and the temptation will be to demonize the “other.”

I implore everyone to refrain from “Us vs. Them” thinking that might incite violence and further divide us in any way. For those in Cleveland, be present at the events in the way you see fit (attending, protesting, observing, etc.), but when encountering a being with a different perspective, please try to listen for the most basic goals you share, like safety.

The issues that we face as a nation are pressing, and we won’t be able to adequately address them if we immediately disqualify the other side without first listening, underneath words that might make us uncomfortable, for shared values and goals.  We might be surprised to find we have more in common than we think, and that’s the place where we need to begin to rebuild what is so deeply broken in our country right now. I think we can all agree on that, at least, I hope we can.

Brenna Davis is a 2010 graduate of Boston College where she studied theology and Spanish. She moved to Cleveland as Jesuit Volunteer in 2010 and considers it home. She currently works at Saint Martin de Porres High School and is an active member of the Cleveland Environmental Action Network (CLEAN) and the Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus.

Christopher Kerr

Chris joined the Ignatian Solidarity Network (ISN) as executive director in 2011. He has over fifteen years of experience in social justice advocacy and leadership in Catholic education and ministry. Prior to ISN he served in multiple roles at John Carroll University, including coordinating international immersion experience and social justice education programming as an inaugural co-director of John Carroll’s Arrupe Scholars Program for Social Action. Prior to his time at John Carroll he served as a teacher and administrator at the elementary and secondary levels in Catholic Diocese of Cleveland. Chris speaks regularly at campuses and parishes about social justice education and advocacy, Jesuit mission, and a broad range of social justice issues. He currently serves on the board of directors for Christians for Peace in El Salvador (CRISPAZ). Chris earned a B.A. and M.A. from John Carroll University in University Heights, Ohio. He and his family reside in Shaker Heights, Ohio.

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