After a conversation with friends about the Confederate flag controversy, I sent them the following email, which I thought you might be interested in.
In our conversations, I have talked about the value of trying to see the world through others’ eyes. There are several reasons why I have found it valuable including moral, practical, and even mental health reasons – it helps me maintain whatever sanity I have left.
There’s a lot I want to say about this – more than fit well in our dinners. So I have written it out.
This came up recently in our conversation about President Obama’s eulogy after the shooting in the church in Charleston, SC and the controversy about the Confederate flag.
Obviously, to all of us, the Confederate flag represents a reprehensible part of our history including slavery, Jim Crow, lynchings, bombings, violent resistance to the Civil Rights movement, and humiliation, among other things.
It is maddening that slavery was written into the Constitution and that virulent (and sometimes subtle) racism has been a significant part of our society, which continues to this day, even though conditions have improved in recent decades.
I think that we all agree that it would have been much better if the Confederate flag didn’t carry so much meaning and if it never had been displayed.
While I am sure that some people glorify the Confederate flag as a symbol of racial hatred, I suspect that for some Southerners, it reflects a combination of experiences and perspectives, some of which are not particularly racial. I don’t really know, as I haven’t really lived in the South and immersed myself in that experience.
This is where trying to see the world through others’ eyes can help.
I start with the assumption that people generally are sincere and well-intentioned. Of course, this isn’t always true and I drop that assumption and make different judgments when I think that the situation warrants.
Let me explain how I came to this approach. At least as far back as my college days in the 1970s, I recognized that many people had very different perspectives than I did about politics, religion, and just about everything else. Indeed, I was keenly aware that most people in our society viewed many things quite differently than I did.
I hoped that people would respect me and my views even if they disagreed with me. I hoped that they would be interested to learn why I saw the world as I did.
Since I wanted this from others, it seemed only reasonable to offer the same to people with perspectives different from mine.
This is really hard when some views are so despicable as vicious racial hatred.
Of course, the world is not divided into just two groups: racists and good people.
As the Avenue Q song goes, I think we’re all (at least) a little bit racist (though some people have a lot more and worse racist attitudes than others).
More generally, I am aware of many of my faults and I hope that others will act kindly toward me nonetheless. Indeed, I am fortunate that people generally have treated me quite well despite my screwing up many times throughout my life.
There but for the grace of God go I. I have often said or thought those words when I see others tangled up for making the same mistakes that I have made as well.
In his eulogy, President Obama described God’s grace as a kind of absolution despite our faults. This idea helps me try to be more accepting of others despite what I see as their faults (though I am less successful at this than I would like to be).
As a practical matter, things generally work better for me when I try to understand and accept people. For one thing, I usually get less riled up.
I recognize that many people see the world differently than I do and so I routinely expect to disagree profoundly with lots of people. In our elections, a 60-40 victory is considered a landslide and so, even if my preferred candidate wins, I know that a large minority of the voting population disagrees with me. And, dagnabbit, sometimes my candidate loses and I am in the minority of voters.
Recognizing my own frailties, I know that sometimes I am mistaken. (I know that this realization rocks your world, but rest assured that it happens only once every decade or so.)
I also think that I actually do understand things better when I try to reserve judgment and imagine how others view a situation and why they do so. Understanding people’s views does not mean that I agree with them.
Maintaining this perspective is hard in our society, where it is so common for people in our media to confidently jump to harsh conclusions based on very limited information.
As you noted, my approach is part of a mediator’s mindset. It’s hard to help people when you jump to conclusions – especially when you are in the middle of a conflict where people have sharply different views. Often, after listening carefully, I reach a different conclusion than my initial impression.
We teach “perspective taking” (seeing the world through others’ eyes) to law students even when they are in the role of an advocate. Lawyers need to understand their clients’ goals, which doesn’t work if lawyers makes quick conclusions about what the clients want or what the “right” solution should be. It’s also important for lawyers to understand the other side’s perspective to negotiate successfully and to understand judges’ and jurors’ perspectives to try cases successfully.
Most of us are teachers. I think that the best teachers probably figure out how their students perceive things and plan their activities to reach students “where they are.” So this perspective-taking is important for us in that role as well.
I think that all this is doubly true for parents when we deal with our kids.
I’m sure that you all do so to some extent in your daily lives even if you aren’t conscious of it.
Ultimately, this approach just makes me feel better as a human being.