Loving Our Neighbor in the #MeToo Era.


I’ve never been very much into politics. 


As a kid, political discussion confused and bored me. As an adult, it can still be quite confusing, but it doesn’t bore me like it used to. It angers me. It makes me feel powerless. It often makes me feel hopeless. And so the name of my game has been low-level participation, the sort of participation provoked by news feeds, social media and overheard conversations between political conessuers in coffee shops that steal my attention from whatever I had planned to be working on (aka this article). My political actions are standard and fulfill the very basics of what I perceive to be my civic duty: Voting, discussing, and posting the occasional political comment on Facebook. As a lifelong liberal (which I might now call moderate given the current polarization of our parties), I do my best to put myself in situations where I’m confronted with different points of view--most of my family members consider themselves Republican, my philosophy teacher leans conservative, and I even occasionally seek out Fox news and other right-leaning sources to ensure that my viewpoints are balanced with what other people are thinking and feeling. But on the whole, politics is something I generally avoid, because I find when I get too invested in my idea of how I want things to be, I set myself up for disappointment and psychological suffering down the road. 


This is why I ended up surprising myself on Thursday morning by turning on Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s live testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee of her teenage sexual assault by Supreme Court nominee, Judge Brett Kavanaugh. Somehow I found myself glued to the screen for the next 8 hours, emotionally invested in the same way people seem to be during high-stakes sporting events. 


I have mostly kept to myself about the #MeToo movement, and not because I have no history to offer to the conversation. I, like most people, have been sexually assaulted in a variety of manners: By people who knew what they were doing and didn’t care, by people who didn’t know what they were doing and didn’t care once they became aware of their actions, and by people who didn’t know what they were doing and did care once they noticed. I have been touched, raped, harassed, bullied and cajoled. It is not my personal history that is now sparking me into the action of writing this article. I require no sympathy or condolences for these events. I have had a lot of time to process the impact of these events on my life, and while they certainly have not made my life easier, they have also not made my life less beautiful. As a benefit, these events have revealed new value systems to me, and have made me smarter and more discerning about my own behavior and the behavior of those I choose to keep close to me. My purpose of relaying my history here in this article is to simply remind us that we are all living in the aftermath of assault (sexual or otherwise), and to provide my personal context as legitimacy for the viewpoint I am about to espouse. 


I, like most people I know, stand with Dr. Ford in her testimony. Like all Americans in this moment, I also do not know the facts of what happened, and in light of that I am unwilling to call Kavanaugh--who vehemently denied Ford’s allegations--a liar. But what I saw from Ford made me instantly fall in love with her. She cut through the trope of the hysterical emotionally-out-of-control woman (which I have been called several times in response to my own assaults), and positioned herself as someone calm and in service of the American people and the committee. She became my hero, my role model, and a grand slam as she maintained composure, followed up to ensure she answered the questions that were asked of her, and took great care to refrain from hyperbole. This is what made her credible in my eyes. 


Kavanaugh, on the other hand, sparked an intense and opposite reaction in me. Whereas Dr. Ford stoked my optimism for the future, Kavanaugh depleted my energetic resources faster than a balloon can let out air. Midway through his testimony--which I found to be insulting, dismissive, filibustery (yes, that’s a word now), and self-serving--I found myself pacing around my home on the verge of panic, saying to myself, “Silly, Brentan--THIS is why you don’t get involved in politics!” By the end of his opening statement, I was no longer concerned with having someone with his allegations on the Supreme Court, I was concerned with having someone with his temperament. This was multiplied by the conduct of some of the Republican senators, who matched his intensity, language and self-serving demeanor as they used their questioning time to accuse the Democrats of conspiracy (another area where I don’t have the facts and so will refrain from commenting further). 


By the time we had come to the end of the hearing, I had amassed so many emotions and so many perspectives that I felt dizzy. I watched CNN analyze what happened. I watched Fox News analyze what happened. I watched my friends on social media respond to the events of the day, most of them in the same boat as me: Desperately loving Dr. Ford and the movement she represents, and deeply concerned with the demonstrated behavior of Judge Kavanaugh. 


The following day, Republican Senator Flake postponed his yes vote to confirm Judge Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court until after a new FBI investigation, limited by time and scope. I was thankful that he was willing to listen to what people on the other side of the political spectrum wanted to see in their leaders, even if he doesn’t represent them geographically. But I also knew this would create controversy amongst his own constituents and other conservatives across the country. And so what does one do when one wants to see how others are thinking? One goes to social media. I pulled up his Instagram page and looked through the comments on his most recent posts, and I saw exactly what I had suspected I’d see. Many people were coming forward in support of his position, but many others were coming forward with concern for the future of the conservative party and disappointment in the delay of the vote. Like so many of us, I found myself polarized between these two viewpoints: As I read the comments from people of my own mindset, I felt camaraderie and hope; as I read the comments from people whom I disagree with, I felt rage and despair. 


And this little moment of going through Senator Flake’s Instagram comments revealed something to me: I am part of the problem of polarization. My inability to see where the other point of view is coming from--however flawed I think it may be--is part of what is keeping me from seeing eye to eye across the political spectrum. It’s part of what generates the different versions of reality that we subscribe to across the political divide, and why we cannot reach an agreement about what has happened, what is true or what our country’s problems are. We are shouting across the border of our viewpoints for the other side to listen to us, and yet are unwilling to offer the listening the other side is asking in return. We have decided, without thoroughly investigating their point of view, that they are wrong and that they should be punished for being wrong, which makes it okay for us to shout, scream and behave in all sorts of unruly manners in order to revenge. When we believe that someone else deserves something, either as a punishment for behavior we don’t like, or as a reward for behavior we do like--we put ourselves at the disadvantage of not being able to see the situation clearly. We have diagnosed the situation without taking into account the entire spectrum of experiences. 


As this became obvious to me, it also became obvious that a lot of conservative viewpoints are coming from the same exact place that my liberal viewpoints come from: From the need to protect myself and my values, the need to belong to a community, the need for truth and justice. I may not agree on the facts that they present, the emphasis they place on certain aspects (and lack of emphasis placed on others), or the way they choose to present their point of view. But for me to use that as an excuse to not listen to them, to not be open to their experiences, to not try to see where they are coming from and how they draw their conclusions, doesn’t just do them a disservice, it does me a disservice! It creates an emotionally antagonistic atmosphere in my body, and provokes a sense of self-righteousness that I am right and someone else is wrong. 


We will not like every decision, every appointment or every election result. But we will like some decisions, some appointments and some election results. That’s just the way the cookies crumble. And so I can no longer put up the fight for only my side--I must put up the fight for the balance of all sides, which starts by my ability to take in a contrary point of view without contempt, but with an openness to discover what they are needing. Marshall Rosenberg, a very influential teacher in my life and the founder of Non-Violent Communication, has often said, Human beings are only ever saying two things: Please and Thank You. We say please when our needs are not being met, when we are experiencing pain. We say thank you when life has been made more wonderful by something, when we are in a moment of celebration. The people on the opposite side of the political spectrum are saying please (as am I), and I know that while I may not be sophisticated enough in my listening skills to fully understand what they are needing, it likely doesn’t have anything to do with the words that they are using or my diagnoses of them. Whatever it is that they are needing is likely similar--nay, identical--to my own needs, just wrapped in contrary viewpoints and emotional displays. 


I am not dismissing the pain that I feel and the pain of people who think similarly to me. But we are not the only ones who are in pain. We may not understand what the other side’s pain is all about, but we can assume that they probably want to be listened to in the same way that we want to be listened to. And we can assume that it’s very hard to listen to someone who isn’t listening to us, which is how we find ourselves shouting across the divide without absorbing anything that’s said to us. One of us has to break the spell. And not because the other side deserves our listening, but because we deserve the well-adjusted nature that comes from being able to hold space for multiple viewpoints. 


Listening to others and taking decisive action are not mutually exclusive. We can still be harbingers for our own beliefs by mobilizing and uniting people who share similar points of view, but we don’t need to do it by villainizing the other side. We can still imagine the values of the world that we want to live in without putting ourselves at the disadvantage of separating ourselves from people who want to live in other ways. 


Politics makes me feel hopeless and powerless because when I think about my options for taking action, what comes to mind is hopping on a plane to DC and standing on the steps of congress to make a mess of myself and delay a vote; or to organize/participate in a grassroots movement to show them just how pissed off I am; or write to representatives to try and persuade camaraderie. But I’m thinking that perhaps the most effective tactic of all might happen on the most micro of scales--in how I choose to interpret the events around me and how I choose to respond to them. And I see no greater service, to myself, to my fellow citizens, and to my country, than to tune up my ability to listen and embrace all people--regardless of their beliefs--as my brothers and sisters, and to listen to them when they are in pain, and to celebrate with them when they are not. 

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