“Am I a friend or foe – or a little of each? Are the important things black and white, or maybe a little gray?” – Svetlana Chmakova, Witch & Wizard: The Manga, Vol. 1
On September 11, 2001, I was 13 years old. I was sitting in my eighth grade English class when the first plane struck the World Trade Center in New York City. I know this, not because I saw the destruction and horror first hand on television like so many others did that terrible day. I know this because it was at that time our middle school principal came around to all of the classrooms and pulled the teachers out of class to tell them what was going on. They were under orders to discuss nothing with their students, but to know that all after school activities were being cancelled, and that parents may be picking up their kids early. I only know this because our algebra teacher felt we were “adult enough to discuss current events” and shared what happened. Since algebra was my last class of the day, the first time I heard about the events around the country was nearly six hours after they had begun.
In the aftermath of that day, I began to hear a pair of words I’d only in limited amounts prior to the day itself. Those words “Islam” and “Muslim” were said regularly, first as qualifiers to help explain what happened on September 11th, then as derogatory terms with connotations that anyone who followed the religion was a terrible human being.
I was torn on the subject. On one hand, what little I’d read about non-Christian/Jewish religions in my social studies textbooks seemed like followers of the Islamic faith were people just like me, only with a different, though similar, belief system. On the other hand, I had my mom preaching to me from infancy onward that anyone who wasn’t Christian needed God to come to them…and that it was my responsibility as a Christian to show them the way by any means necessary.
Looking back on my youth, I realize that allowing myself to struggle with whether or not someone practices Islam is inherently bad was more a product of the environment I lived in than anything else. My mom made every effort to shelter my bother and I from other cultures, races, religions, and belief systems. While my dad didn’t make the same sheltering efforts, he also didn’t exactly encourage us to go out and learn about the world. For me, it took going off to college and learning that the world wasn’t just WASPs. My opinions and beliefs have changed — in some cases rather drastically — from the opinions and beliefs that I was raised to have.
As I have become more educated, as I have become exposed to a greater diversity of cultures and religions, and as I have allowed myself to work to understand the political ideologies of a broader range of people, I’ve realized a great many things. Above all else, I have realized that no one group of people is perfect and blameless and that no one group of people is completely corrupt and evil.
We have our disagreements as human beings. We can hold differences of opinion. Those opinions can be over minor items. For example, I hold the opinion that Taylor Swift’s music isn’t very good. I personally don’t like her music or find it pleasing. That said, record sales and concert attendance show that many, many people disagree with me on this item. And you know what? That’s fine. They’re allowed to.
Likewise, disagreements can come on more important or politically sensitive items too. I support the ability for members of the LGBT community to marry someone of the same sex, if that is the person that they choose to marry. I recognize that many people in my family, as well as many others around the country, disagree with this opinion. While I would love it if those who hold contrary opinions to mine on this topic would change their mind and become more accepting of someone else’s love, I also realize that it is not my place to tell someone that they need to change their mind.
Living in Northeast Ohio means that I get to be front and center to the Republican National Convention this week, wherein the Republican Party is expected to name Donald Trump their nominee for president. While the GOP’s platform hasn’t fully been voted on at the time I’m writing this, the platform is set to include items like a border wall with Mexico, the declaration of pornography as a public health crisis, barring women from serving in the military, and going back to the “traditional” definition of marriage. Rhetoric used in the party platform plays on the fear of those who are already well entrenched in a similar set of belief systems. While the Democratic Party platform has not yet been released, don’t be shocked if whatever items they take a social stance on are given similar fear-inducing wording in the platform.
That fucking frightens me.
What politics is doing, particularly in America, but also around the world, is creating an Us vs. Them mentality. If your political viewpoint wins, the good guys have won. If your political viewpoint loses, the evil empire has triumphed. And though, yes, there is good and evil in the world to some extent, when politics are made the main driving force behind culture over compassion and altruism, we create our own divides where none previously existed.
There is not one group of people — not a single solitary one — in the entire world that is perfectly free of blame. Not Republicans. Not Democrats. Not whites. Not blacks. Not Latinos. Not Asians. Not men. Not women. Not heterosexuals. Not the LGBT community. Not Christians. Not Jews. Not Muslims. Not Taoists. Not Hindus. Not Americans. Not Mexicans. Not Germans. Not Russians. Not muggles. Not wizards. Not sports fans. Not bookworms. Not any group I’ve neglected to mention or even think of. Not you. Not me. Not anyone. Literally no one is perfect.
Everyone has skeletons in their closet. Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone has fucked up and everyone can work with those around us in an effort to create a better world.
The problem lies in actions that go on one of two extremes of the same mentality. The first I’ve discussed at lengthy already above — the use of fear to exclude, persecute, and hate others. When you ignore the opinions and beliefs of others because you do not wish to expose yourself, your family, and your world to them, you’re only harming the long-term growth of our society. This goes both ways. It’s why if I ever have children, they’ll still meet and interact with the members of my family whose political and religious views are vastly different than mine. By educating ourselves about others and doing so in a manner that is objective, rational, and open-minded, we allow our society to continue to move toward a more progressive society.
At the same time, we cannot assume that everyone whose opinions we agree with or whose beliefs are blameless or incapable of doing something wrong. I remember numerous people who hold Christian beliefs saying that there was no possible way that Robert Lewis Dear could have actually been a Christian when he killed numerous people in Colorado Springs. To say that any religion, political ideology, race, sexual orientation, or any other identifier you can think of lacks a single person capable of horrific crimes, excessive violence, sociopathic actions, or general hatred is a foolish assumption. It’s uncomfortable to think about and it might make you upset. But it’s reality.
You know what else is reality? You don’t have to be that person. You can be the change that brings the world together. Perhaps you can’t do it by yourself. But with enough compassionate, kind, and altruistic people in the world, those many shades of darkness we see all over the news every day will begin to fade away. We’ll likely never have a perfect world — but we can take actions to make our world a better place for everyone, even those we don’t agree with.