The world has been swirling in its mad way since the Paris attacks last weekend. Yesterday I took to my Facebook page and issued a kind of primal scream for calm, begging folks to please think before they post. I might have taken my own advice.
My governor, meanwhile, joined many other governors in refusing to admit Syrian refugees because of a suggestion that one of the Paris attackers might have posed as such to gain entry into Europe. This morning, our local paper reported that a family of refugees, finally headed to Indiana after three years of vetting and waiting in Jordan, would be diverted to Connecticut instead – at great effort and expense. Add to that the statements by presidential candidates that not even five-year-old orphans should be admitted, or that only Christians should be admitted, and I was heartbroken by afternoon. As so often happens, sadness turned to anger. I stomped into my father’s office – he and I share mostly the same opinions on politics – and went on a rant about this country becoming a bunch of lily-livered, spineless, bigoted wimps.
I was furious. I stomped back to my own office.
But then came the humbling part: I began to listening to other voices.
A Facebook friend shared a long post by one of her friends, in which the author admitted that his reaction to these questions is uncertainty and confusion. He loathes the fear-mongering by politicians, and the bigotry on display in social media, but is genuinely scared of what would happen if one of those terrorists successfully posed as a refugee. I began to feel humbled as I read this gentleman’s sound and reasonable post.
It was then I remembered something my friend Tess, a Baltimore nurse, said during last year’s Ebola scare, when others were expressing frustration at the panic. “Try to have some compassion for the afraid,” she wrote gently. As a nurse, she understood the fears people had of that terrifying disease. I’ve never forgotten that, and it bubbled right back up as I was reading the Facebook post.
My balloon of righteous anger deflated, popped by the words of a friend and a stranger.
I revisited the refugee issue with a more open mind, and interrogated my own feelings on the subject. I remembered the horrifying photo of the drowned Syrian toddler that surfaced several weeks ago, and I felt a powerful urge to prevent that from ever happening again. But then I realized that people fear the specter of their own dead children, killed or maimed at the hands of terrorists. Should I not be equally motivated to prevent that kind of tragedy? I was sobered as I realized what the real question is: For what values am I willing to risk my children’s and my family’s lives, and how big is that risk?
Those are not easy questions, and they shouldn’t be. But they are the critical questions.
Unfortunately, instead of sitting down to really think about it, sometimes we just go with our gut and label those who disagree as either stupidly naïve or hopelessly bigoted. But it’s a calculation we make all the time, whether we think of it that way or not. We risk our children’s lives every time we strap them into a car and drive them anywhere. We risk them when we get on planes. We risk them when we make decisions about how much access the government should have to our private information in the name of national security. We risk our children’s lives for an unrestrained Second Amendment. It’s no use pretending that we don’t make those assessments. We may not do so consciously, but we do.
So I sat down to think about it, instead of just assuming everyone who reaches a different conclusion is wrong. For a variety of reasons, I came up with the same answer — that we should admit Syrian refugees after a scrupulous vetting process — but with less judgment for those who disagree with me. They may feel the risk is bigger than I do, they may not share my values, or they may feel there are better ways to assist refugees. And yes, some of them – but fewer than I thought before – may just be filled with ill-informed fear and bigotry.
We are often tempted to wall ourselves off from differing opinions, especially when they are expressed in provocative ways, with sneers, righteousness, or contempt for the “other side.” I’m not immune; I have little ability to empathize with the Kim Davises or Ted Cruzes of the world. But there are valid considerations behind different opinions on the refugee subject. Political fear-mongering aside, for most ordinary citizens, caution underlies the reluctance to accept the refugees. On the other hand, compassion and responsibility underlie the eagerness to do so. Ideally, each interest would temper the other, and produce an effective way forward.
But if we live in an echo chamber, that won’t happen.
I don’t really know what the answer is; our population is more polarized than ever, certainty is rampant (even my own), and political expression has become ever more barbed and contemptuous. Good faith discussion across the divide seems rare.
But what if we could make closer friends with the quieter feelings? What if we relied more on confusion, uncertainty, and curiosity, and less on strident confidence that we know why people think and act the way they do? What if we were curious about the interests that underlie the opinions of others, and attempted to acknowledge those interests? A politics of curiosity might look a great deal different than the politics of division we see every day.
I have no great hope that such a politics will come to the world any time soon. But today, in my small corner of the world, it helped a little.
(I hope I don’t need to say this, but I know we don’t actually live in the world I hoped for with this post: I don’t want to argue the refugee issue in the comments. I don’t want anyone called stupid or bigoted or any other epithet. I don’t want anyone picking out some tiny thread of what I said to argue against it. Even if you are someone I love, I’ll delete your comments if they are in the spirit of a politics of certainty, and that goes for both liberals like me and conservatives. Thanks.)