I have a concern that I wanted to share regarding our future, how we view the world, and how we treat each other.
Thinking back to my Evangelical upbringing, this type of thing might be considered a ‘prophecy’ - something worth noting and taking seriously. That label usually conjures up images of skies darkened by clouds, high winds, and trouble ahead in my mind. Some folks, my younger self included, would drink it up like a beverage sweetened with chocolate powder…which may or may not lead to a worldview formed by fear.
Luckily, this isn’t that. It’s simply a hot take of mine informed by some life experiences -specifically those influenced by my sexuality. So whether you are just getting home from school, waking up, or about to get to bed, grab a glass and let’s get to sippin'!
At the time of writing this essay, the world is still very much in the thick of the COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic, and no amount of cutsie blog post intros can hide the fact that on a macro level at least, things are pretty dire.
To date, the United States has 1.2 million cases reported and has had roughly 74,000 deaths due to the disease. A common talking point I’ve been seeing in news articles and conversations is that we have now surpassed the total number of deaths the US sustained during the Vietnam war - 58,200 - which lasted two decades. We have already surpassed the originally predicted death count of 65K from the Trump Administration and are moving towards an updated prediction of 100,000 American lives lost. This would be more than the number of American lives lost in both the Korean and Vietnam wars combined, and bring us within sight of the World War I death count of 116,000 Americans.
Folks who originally took solace in the belief that this virus was no worse than the yearly flu have now had to face the hard truth that COVID-19 has become much deadlier than the most severe flu season on record - the 2017/2018 season with 61K deaths in roughly 8 months - since the CDC started using a new methodology to categorize flu seasons in 2003. On a global level, the current number of reported cases has topped 3.8 million with 266K reported deaths. While all these numbers are helpful to know it is important to call out that they are only as good as the amount of testing that has occurred which many members in the scientific community believe is lacking both on a national and global level.
Nevertheless, roughly half of the states within the US are looking into ways to relax social distancing and lockdown measures in order to “reopen” the economy again. Due to the lack of a cohesive and comprehensive national plan from the federal government, activity on this front has been more of a patchwork of differing recommendations and regulations that depend on where you live. This is where my concern lies:
I see a future where we increasingly begin to view this virus, and more specifically people’s actions in response to it, as a partisan political issue rather than what it truly is: a public health and safety issue.
I believe this is likely because we have a pretty bad track record of allowing someone’s beliefs (political, religious, or otherwise) to impact how we view them as a person in this country. More specifically, we let them inform how much worth we assign to that person and what they have to say…
I started living more openly on social media following the 2016 election. I was already out to my immediate family, friends, and community to various degrees, but I was absolutely still editing the image of myself I was allowing the world to see in areas, and social media was one of those places.
Up to that point, I had refrained from posting anything that might remotely pertain to my identity as a gay man. This was because my mind both consciously and subconsciously had been picking up data each day of my life based on direct and indirect messages from society on how to present myself in the most acceptable and palpable way. I had been living that way from the moment I first learned that being gay was unacceptable in my religion and small-town culture back in grade school. Much of the context and feelings around that determination will be explored in other writings, but the point for this topic is to know that I had become very calculated with what I presented to the world even after I was “out.”
We had just elected a president who spent a substantial part of his campaign vilifying groups of people - people of color, religions other than Christianity, members of the LGBTQ+ community - in order to garner support. There seemed to be a very clear idea of who mattered in America, and folks who fit that mold would get to stand inside a circle with very defined borders of what it meant to be American. For the first time in my life, I understood that I was outside of that circle based on my sexuality no matter how much I edited myself to try to be accepted in.
My decision to start living more openly and present my full self was partially (and unknowingly) based on the proximity effect - the idea that physical and psychological nearness to others tends to increase interpersonal liking. My thesis was that if more folks on my social media platforms started to see more of my full self, their attitudes towards LGBTQ+ people would change. I also hoped that if I started having open conversations about how elections negatively impacted my rights as an LGBTQ+ person, folks might rethink some of their views a bit.
In some ways, the proximity effect worked. Members of my community - both friends and family alike - we very supportive and it was awesome to start receiving validation for my authentic self vs a version of who I was. Sure, I lost some folks along the way as I started to discuss the unpleasant realities of being gay openly, but I knew that would most likely happen. The benefits of authenticity outshined all the negatives, and relationships were deepening as I opened up more of who I was.
In other ways, however, the proximity principle failed pretty spectacularly. Rather than create understanding and promote growth, it left me unguarded against bad faith attacks and stoked feelings of hate and resentment as I learned how truly oppressive our society can be. Folks flat out told me I didn’t understand my rights, that I was ‘playing a victim,’ and used words like ‘libtard, demonrat, and faggot’, and I didn’t like that.
I rarely backed down in these types of situations and have written about how I would hold my own advocating for myself and others like me with folks during conversations both virtually and in-person whether it be on religious or political grounds. I would clang my metaphorical weapons - a sharp tongue, dogged persistence in researching a topic to come to the RIGHT answer (lol), and ability to speak with rhetoric that gays weren’t supposed to converse in (Texan, Conservative, Christian, etc) - together and did battle with these hateful and bigoted folks. I cut deep. I drew blood. I proved my point.
Needless to say, these exchanges never left me feeling very good no matter the outcome. They didn’t leave me feeling too good about the tactics I had used, about the world we live in, or much less ‘those kinds of people,’ who I was engaging with. I slowly accepted a fact that I didn’t want to be true - folks don't just treat others as subhuman on social media, but that had also become the norm with what we call 'political discussions' in this country. I gradually realized that I was not achieving my goal of promoting understanding through these exchanges, and decided to ‘go back to the drawing board’ so to speak.
I knew that I wanted to continue working to live authentically and that a component of that is vocally advocating for my right to have a seat at the American table, to step into the circle that I spoke of before. I just didn’t believe it was necessary to rip others out of the circle, or away from the table, in order to do that. It certainly wasn’t sustainable.
Much of my personal work has been dedicated toward figuring out how to live with this problem, and the answer I have come to is indicative of the empath nature that I am beginning to fully claim. I thought back to those first experiences I had presenting myself authentically to close family and friends years ago even before 2016. What was different in those situations that we were able to have measured conversations while I was presenting information that was radically outside of what one side of the discussion thought to be acceptable?
The answer I landed on was empathy. The proximity effect wasn’t completely failing, it just doesn’t work in the absence of empathy. During each of those initial discussions, each party viewed the other with respect and trust but most importantly we empathized with one another. The more I thought through this, the more it made sense.
A recent phone call with my mother helped me fully come to this realization. Through the discussion, I realized that the conversations I was having following 2016 were not happening on the same checkerboard so to speak. I was motivated to have the discussion to point out the direct impact elections have on myself as an LGBTQ+ person, but the folks I was engaging who weren’t aware or sensitive to LGBTQ+ rights were simply “talking politics.”
My experience on “both sides” of the political divide in this country has helped me see that there are factors, and in some instances driving forces, that are actively pushing us to act this way. To begin, I know that many folks have grown up in environments where they were told not to “discuss politics” with others or in general which means they had little to no practice with these types of discussions, especially with folks who held a vastly conflicting belief, respectfully.
I also know that thinking of oneself as a “Republican” on the red team is commonly viewed more than just a choice due to small-town culture, and in most cases has been taken on by many individuals as part of their identity.
This helps explain why these conversations weren’t successful in achieving the goal of mutual understanding. Everything that the folks I was engaging with had been taught from a religious or cultural perspective was to think of someone like me as the enemy. I was no longer a fellow American worth listening to and had transformed into an ooky spookie liberal simply because of my identity as a gay man. I also know that when I did engage and operate in ways that belittled, judged, or dismissed others, I just reinforced the monstrous image these folks had in their minds of me based on what they heard from conservative media talking heads and leaders.
Based on these experiences it has become extremely evident to me that "political discussions" as we currently define and view them in America are simply void of empathy if they are across party lines. This is why I'm trying to minimize engaging in them. Not because I’m not “tough enough,” though at times that might be true, or that I no longer believe that I should have equal rights, but because I know that the conversations I want to have are too precious a subject matter for those dumpster fires.
To be clear, I haven't decided to sit on the sidelines, I have decided to play on a different field entirely. I'm still doing work to create space for myself and others to live authentically. I am just doing it on my own terms and that includes both parties being open to trying to understand each other's perspective.
Broadly, this understanding that a lack of empathy is what is further causing division in our country between folks who honestly have more in common than we are led to believe has certainly changed how I approach each day. This has definitely helped improve my mental health immensely on this journey toward living more authentically.
Coronavirus is creating sweeping discomfort across this nation and the world and while it is impacting folks to different levels in different ways, it is collectively threatening each of our ways of life in one way or another. We can either view others as victims in this situation just like we are or start singling out groups of people as the enemy in order to try to assign blame for a pandemic that no one wished for. My vote is to choose empathy over partisanship and 'othering' in this case because I know that each of those only leads to losing your voice and hurting others.
[If you've watched the video] So the next time your dad (aka your mind, religion, your media outlets of choice, political identify or affiliations, etc) asks if you want more Nestle Quik (judgment, blame, or hatred toward others who hold different beliefs than you) just let him know that is out of style and say:
More EMPATHY, please!
Empathy is better for you (a more sustainable way of living) because empathy has vitamins (understanding) and minerals (awareness to create healthy boundaries if needed without disparaging others) so we can all live authentically. And it tastes great too!