Don’t look now, but there’s a war on. The lines have been drawn, and everyone is choosing a side. It’s good versus evil. It’s right versus wrong. It’s enlightened versus ignorant. It’s gay versus straight. It’s South versus North. It’s East versus West. It’s Coke versus Pepsi, and it’s time you figured out where you stand. Everyone has to be involved because that’s what I heard somewhere. You’re either on my side or you’re wrong. You’re with me or you’re with the terrorists. If you don’t like what I have to say, shut up or stop listening. If you have a different opinion, keep it to yourself if you know what’s good for you. And above all, don’t trust anyone who is different from you; believes something you don’t; doesn’t believe something you do; was raised on a different continent, in a different country, in a different state than you; votes differently than you do; has more money, or less, than you do; tries to engage you in dialogue and expand your point of view. Keep your eyes on your own paper and your friends and compatriots close. If you shut out the enemy they’ll give up the fight. In fact, maybe if you shut your eyes it will all be over.
You can’t see this war, though, so you might as well look after all. It’s an invisible war, and it’s a cold war. The skirmishes that we fight are just window dressing. The war is deeper and older. We’ve been waging it for a very long time, and it doesn’t look like either side is going to win. The reason for that is that there are no sides. There is no ultimate cause we’re fighting each other for. There is no prize at the end of the day. The fight is all that there is, and the only ones who benefit are the ones selling us the ammunition. Brother versus brother never looked so clean, never felt so right. Sister versus sister never crossed our minds. We hide behind our manifestos and our sacred texts, lobbing our cunning explosives and fuming when we are attacked. We twist their words and laugh when they fall on their faces, but when we stumble or make mistakes we are livid that no one will give us the benefit of the doubt. The war is on. It always has been. In fact, it’s all that’s ever on.
But don’t try to stop it. If we quit now, how will we know who wins? How will we ever know who was right? And how will we ever determine who was wrong? Just keep fighting. Keep distancing yourself from the ones who are different, from the ones who are so obviously evil. If you touch them, they could infect you. If you listen to them, they could invade your mind. Their lies are no match for your truth, so why even give them a chance? To do so would go against everything you stand for and weaken your resolve, just when we might be so close to the finish. If you negotiate now, we’ll lose all of the ground we’ve taken. Stand firm and fight.
Most importantly, don’t try to understand what it’s really about. If we did that, we might figure out why we’re fighting, and that wouldn’t do any of us any good.
Ladies and gentlemen, gays and straights, conservatives and liberals, religious extremists and rabid atheists, and everyone in between. I think that the time has come for us to put down our weapons and look each other in the eye. Not to size each other up, but to acknowledge that we all exist, that we each have the same rights to our beliefs, opinions and choices. It’s not easy, and maybe none of you want to do it. You probably think you have a good reason not to, and as it happens you probably do. There are lots of good reasons to relegate others to the sidelines every once in a while. There are lots of times when we’re so convinced that one side’s right and the other side’s wrong that finding the rationale behind your opponent’s argument seems impossible, maybe even downright naïve. Well, maybe that’s what I am, but I’m certainly tired of engaging in a back and forth that doesn’t get us anywhere. I’m tired of seeing a wedge driven between the citizens of my country, individuals who, for better or for worse, believe for the most part that they are right. So I’m letting go of the axe I’ve been grinding and I’m going to tell you a story.
I’m a Christian. That’s about the only legacy that I’ve maintained since I left Memphis for Germany 16 years ago. When I departed I was a staunch Republican, conservative as they come, and angry as all get-out that, due to bureaucratic technicalities, I wasn’t going to get to vote for Dole in the ’96 election. I had served as an office page for Senator Strom Thurmond earlier that year, believed that the devil was responsible for the climate change ‘hoax’, and was proud to tell people that my favourite US President was Andrew Jackson. About the only ‘liberal’ belief I espoused at the time was tolerance for homosexuals, and I owe that to my parents.
When I was around twelve, my dad and I were on a walk around the neighbourhood. Back then, as I still do now, I used my parents as sounding boards for my ideas, thoughts and opinions. My blathering knew no bounds, and neither did their patience. It’s quite likely that, before I turned to the subject of gays in the military, I had been discussing my views on time travel or demonstrating a ninja move that I had recently ‘perfected’. I was used to being listened to and encouraged, and I certainly rarely said anything that provoked a strong negative response, so I was in for a shock that day. Out of the blue I said to my father that I felt that having gays in the military was a bad idea. I felt this way because of the showers. I actually said, ‘What if you drop the soap?’ At twelve I already had a lot of ideas that were my own, and I’m proud of that. This one, however, along with many others, was recycled from TV, movies and friends, and it had gotten jumbled up and misconstrued along the way. If my father hadn’t said anything, I probably would have gone on to talk about what aliens must really look like, or something similar, but he literally stopped in his tracks.
‘Uh-uuuh,’ he said, shaking his head as if it were a wagging finger. His face had gone stern. Not angry, mind you, but serious. He was concerned about what I had just said, and little 12 year-old Peter Woods was in for a surprise. After a series of starts and stops in which I tried to explain why my off-hand comment must be inherently valid (mostly I thought this because I had said it), my dad explained what gay is and what gay isn’t. It isn’t rape or molestation. I wouldn’t attack a girl if I saw her naked, and a gay guy wouldn’t do that to another man, even if he found him attractive, which was also not necessarily the case. Gay men and women had tastes, too, I learned, and they were no less in control of their urges than straight people. So there was that.
I then learned that I actually knew some gay people. ‘Like who?’ I asked in disbelief. ‘Well,’ my dad replied, ‘Uncle Kenneth and Uncle Bobby, for example.’ Shit. How did I not see that Uncle Kenneth and Uncle Bobby were gay? Well, the reason is that they were totally awesome family friends whom I loved, and the idea that they were any different than I was was beyond me. And then there was Uncle Leon, and David, my hairdresser (who was another close friend and far more than just a barber, may he rest in peace), and many more after that. Huh. Who knew?
That day marked the beginning of a change in me. I saw, probably for the first time that I was consciously aware of, that people I loved and who loved me could be different. Not only different, but gay. That not everyone believed the same things I did had been clear long before. I’d learned that in church and in school, the same places I’d learned that being gay was absolutely horrible. It took my parents, born and raised in Arkansas, to show me otherwise. My mother is an interior designer, and at the risk of stereotyping people, there are a lot of gay men in that field. Maybe that’s how she had found out that gay people were cool, or maybe she’s just really smart. I know the answer to that one, and momma didn’t raise no fool. It wasn’t long before I realized that intolerance of other people was not what my family was about.
It took a long time for me to open up in other areas. It took traveling and meeting new people, sharing ideas, learning about the world and how things work. The last bastion of true conservatism to leave me was just after college, and it was my support of the death penalty. Oddly enough, it was the execution of Timothy McVeigh that did it. I went to bed the night of his execution thinking that he deserved to die, and when I went online the next morning and saw that the man had had two pints of mint chocolate chip ice cream for his last meal, I saw him as a human being for the first time. I will never forget what that man ate before he died because I thought I would probably have asked for the same thing. And that got me thinking about killing people. McVeigh was a nightmare of a person, but there were reasons for that, too. We can speculate about what made him into a monster all we want, but at the end of the day he was still human. And the government killed him because he killed people. Now that didn’t sit well with me. It still doesn’t.
You may agree or disagree with my politics. You may think I’m ridiculous or inspired for believing in God and an eternal soul. That doesn’t much matter though, does it? That’s not why I told that story. In the end, I’m just a man. Just a human being. I thought one way about some things, and now I think a different way about them. I changed my mind because I opened myself up to new information that I hadn’t seen or been willing to accept before. It happened to me when I was young, and in a large way I can thank my parents for getting that ball rolling. I say thank you and thank goodness that I didn’t have to wait until I was older and more set in my ways. But that’s really missing the point too, isn’t it? The point really is that we’re always growing and changing and that we always need to be open to new information, regardless of how ridiculous it might seem.
That is why I was rather perturbed yesterday to see so much division across the social networks. Yes, Amendment 1 was passed, and I think it’s a tragedy. I wrote as much yesterday right here. But another tragedy was illustrated in how many people reacted to it, including myself. We put up our defenses, drew our lines in the sand. Many lashed out against North Carolina, joked about the ignorant South or even urged people who supported such things to unfriend them so that they wouldn’t be exposed to such intolerance in the future. I understood perfectly how all of these people felt, and I did not begrudge them their reflexes. It’s natural to pull back when threatened. We all do it. And it hurts to see a friend or loved one being intolerant of us or others. There have been many times where I have also preferred to look away. The trouble is that when we seek out like-minded people to surround ourselves with, we cut out the other side. That’s great if we’re right, but we’ve got to know that the other side thinks they’re right, too. No one is safe in their ideological bunker. In fact, it’s that kind of inbreeding that gave us some of our best jokes about the South. The worst part is that it drives that wedge even deeper between us.
So who are we fighting against? Is it Christians? Most of the Christians that I know aren’t haters. They just aren’t. They aren’t necessarily the best lovers and acceptors all of the time either, but they’re not haters. Their biggest problem, and I speak from 33 years experience, is that they’re human. Dagnabbit, and every last stinkin’ one of ‘em, too! The funny thing is that Christians are quick to admit that we’re not perfect, that no one is, but we’ve got an ace up our sleeves. Christians feel that if we can get through our mortal lives on this crazy planet without offending God overmuch, then the reward in heaven will be immense. That makes for some deeply ingrained thinking that’s hard to uproot, no matter how sound an argument you’ve got. As long as Christians, or any other community of religious people, believe that it’s you against what their God tells them to do, they’re not going to listen. And this is where we get to one of the really big wedge drivers: fear.
People fear change. They fear what is different. They fear the future. They fear death. No, not every individual fears all of these things, but a certain universal of social creatures is that built into our brains is a tendency to view outsiders with suspicion and trust the ones that are like us. It’s biological and psychological, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t grow out of it. Trusting people is good. We wouldn’t be able to live in a society without trust. But just because you trust someone or something, it doesn’t mean that you turn off your brain. A lot of people turn off their brains and go on pure emotion when it comes to certain issues. At times it’s easier to pick a person you trust, like a pastor or a friend, and accept that person’s advice as law. Christians, I’m talking about us here. I believe in God’s Word, and I believe that He calls us to behave a certain way, but He also gave us brains to be used, and not only ‘in case of emergency’. God wants us to think about things, reason stuff out for ourselves, use His guidance and His gifts together to be good followers of Him. We can debate about whether Jesus did or didn’t say that homosexuality is a sin, but what’s not up for debate is that He said that we should love one another no matter what. That one was super clear. So when we’re confronted with something that scares us, we should think about it, pray about it and use our God-given brains to figure out the best way to honour the ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’ message. Fear drives the wedge, and we have to let it go.
Hatred drives the wedge as well, as does intolerance. Hatred and intolerance of those who don’t look, act, think or feel the same way we do. Everyone is guilty of this in some form. My friends who support a more inclusive nation that promotes peace, love and understanding, we have to remember that we can be guilty of intolerance and hatred as well. If a person thinks being gay is wrong, how are they any more intolerant than we are if we say that he is wrong for thinking that? In the end, I know that we all have our opinions about these things. I have made mine very clear. I don’t think being gay is wrong, and I don’t think it’s moral or right to deny gay people the right to marry. But how am I not being intolerant if I am unwilling to allow that a person might feel very differently about that?
I know, it seems like there’s a difference between being intolerant and not wanting to be exposed to someone’s bigotry, but in the end that person would say the same thing about you. What’s frustrating to me is that this is something that divides us so easily. It is self-righteous, and self-righteousness drives the wedge, too. Believing that we are inherently more right than someone else, possessed of the proper knowledge that anyone willing to listen to reason would understand, is something that makes us feel very good. We may feel awful when we think of the people who disagree and when we contemplate ‘the state of our country’, but it makes us feel good to know that we’re right, that we’re the good guys. But again, don’t we realize that they are just as strongly convinced that they’re the good guys? Do we honestly believe that most of these people are just plain evil and happy about it? No, they think they’re right, just like we do.
Finally, ignorance drives the wedge. Big time. And the sad thing about this is that it applies to everybody. We are unwilling to engage in open and honest dialogue with each other about issues that are near to our hearts. There are studies that show how unwilling conservatives are to listen to the arguments of liberals, whereas liberals can understand the arguments of conservatives, even if they disagree. And there are studies that show exactly the reverse. How do I know this? I have liberal and conservative friends. They post these things on facebook, they write about them in their blogs, they discuss them at the dinner table with family.
The greatest mistake we can make right now is to feed our ignorance. Whatever side of the fence you’re on, or think you’re on, if you’re not willing to hear what the other side has to say, you’re going to be ignorant. Now some of you will say, ‘That’s just fine with me!’ and guess what? A bunch of you who just said that are liberal, and a bunch of you who just said that are conservative. Ignorance is a disease, and I truly believe that most of us are trying to cure it. Sadly, you can’t cure ignorance one way. You can’t shove Intelligent Design down the throat of an atheist, and you can’t shove evolution down the throat of a religious fundamentalist. Believe me, I’ve tried, and I’ve tried from both sides. In the end, I believe that God created the universe and that evolution is part of his plan. I’ve felt rejection for this from both groups on many occasions, and that’s part of the problem. We have to start looking for ways to engage each other in dialogue because if we keep coming to the table with our minds made up, no one is going to get anywhere. Does this mean we should stop fighting injustice when we see it, stop calling attention to the problems that we see facing the world and our country? Never. We can never give up striving to do what’s right, but I think we should try to stop fighting each other in the process.
Am I preaching relativism here? Am I saying there’s no right or wrong answer? Of course not. I believe that there are right answers, and I believe in searching for them. Is it idealistic to say that I believe we can one day search for them together? Definitely. But I’m going to keep looking for a way. I’m going to try to keep an open mind, and I’m going to fail a lot. I’m going to get really angry at Christians who refuse to see the humanity of their doctrine, and I’m going to get really frustrated with liberals who hide behind their own holy books. But I’m sick of driving the wedge. I’m sick of the ‘us versus them’ mentality. In the end, it’s not us versus them, it’s us versus us. Maybe when we all truly realize that, myself included, we’ll begin to move forward instead of just going back and forth.