If you’re going to be in a bad mood, it helps to take turns within one household. For example, I’m only allowed to get annoyed on days that end in “y.” The benefit of trading off is that one person can soothe another. A couple weeks ago, for about a minute, the public conversation over race seemed to include some taking of turns and reassurance. Now the usual rhetorical grenades are ending conversations rather allowing us to have them.
How can we do better?
Consider these words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that suggest an opportunity to start conversations even as they appear to be ending.
“The limitation of riots, moral questions aside, is that they cannot win and their participants know it. Hence, rioting is not revolutionary but reactionary because it invites defeat. It involves an emotional catharsis, but it must be followed by a sense of futility.”
As rioters try to affect a change of heart by tearing down symbols of the past, as the news cycle begins to shift, and as a sense of futility grows, there’s an opportunity to have a better conversation.
What’s NOT working…
1. Reactions: When the mob sets things on fire and promotes chaos, it may seem like we’re done with the conversation. People upset by all the bad behavior often feel compelled to use words to set people straight. But reacting to the reactors usually happens just as cooler heads are ready to come back to the table—as the futility of chaos sets in.
2. Information: During a conflict, facts are similar to punch lines: they require good timing. It’s a fact that 750,000 people died in a war that ended slavery. It’s a fact that millions of others have died for freedoms like public demonstrations. But people can tell when someone is using facts to end conversations rather than to have them. We need facts to provide bright and vital context—when the timing is right.
When is the timing right?
King’s quote above suggests a window of opportunity on the far side of futility. Francis of Assisi gives sound advice about how to start: “Seek first to understand and then to be understood.” We love this idea in theory and in needlepoint. The time may come when we need to trust it, practice it.
Paul says to the Corinthians, “If you have all knowledge but have not love, you are nothing.” Almost literally he’s saying “language minus love equals lightweight.”
We can’t expect the mob or media to set healthy boundaries and helpful categories to discuss race. And echoing your favorite political pugilists to score social media points will end conversations. An emotionally healthy response listens longer and speaks differently, even at risk of being misunderstood.
When an entire society stays focused on its symptoms of chronic anxiety—violence, drugs…unemployment, and so on— rather than on the emotional processes that promote those symptoms, it keeps them chronic. In that case, the society will continue to recycle its problems, no matter how much legislation it passes or how it redistributes its resources.” – Edwin Friedman