What Have We Done?

Los Alamos

Lynn Hanrahan’s recent letter re: “the corrosive nature of silence” highlights the thing most on my mind after reading Olivia Hamilton’s letter concerning increasing discriminatory behaviors in the community: Both letters raise issues of peer pressure and the need to belong/“survive,” especially in a small community where one’s social “success” depends on fitting in.

Both letters suggest that it’s not just these topics of racism, sexism, ableism, etc. that we need to continue discussing with our kids and each other, but also the concepts of group-think, mob-mentality, peer pressure, and the fragility and illusion of social acceptance. We’ve all seen that it is hard enough for an adult to intervene when a conversation goes wayward, let alone for a kid who is in a position where they have very little choice as to where and with whom they spend 90% of their time, and where the need to “survive” can often be stronger than the ability and desire to do the right thing. It starts with instilling (or developing within ourselves) basic values of respect and worth and honoring the complexity of the human experience in whatever form it takes, then continues with uncovering the primitive instincts of trying to survive within a group and not become a target yourself. Instead of just saying “this is wrong!” We need to continue having conversations about what it means to belong – and how tenuous that status can be – and how we can discuss complicated thoughts and feelings without having our own value called into question. We know that bullying the bullies isn’t the answer, but can we be brave enough to look beyond the surface of the words and behaviors to the fear and sadness and uncertainty beneath and allow space for those conversations?

We all know the desire to put someone else down to temporarily make ourselves feel better. Or the momentary thrill of shocking others with a word even when, in any other occasion or under any other circumstance, we would never have said it. Olivia’s letter highlights that it’s not just the words themselves that are harmful but the entire context in which they’re said, and the way we feed off of others in these constant power plays, fighting for some nebulous (but feeling very real) social position. Unless we can sit with these complex feelings ourselves, and talk with our kids about how to sit with them and handle them, we will keep fighting this same fight. 

While Olivia’s letter was about comments from other students, and Lynn’s letter was about silence, they beg these questions of all of us – what have WE said or done to assert our superiority over others? What have WE said or done to deflect our own discomfort at the expense of another’s? When have WE failed to act or say something because we were more concerned about our own reputation or social status? When have WE said something or done something (we maybe later regretted) in an effort to preserve our own social status, or at least not jeopardize it? What biases and secret judgments are WE harboring in our hearts and minds about the worth and value of others? And, perhaps most important, can we look honestly at all our responses with curiosity, compassion, and courage, instead of judgment, disgust, fear, or shame? (or pride?!) Can we acknowledge that instinct of self-preservation within all of us and learn to recognize and release it, instead of allowing it to become a weapon against others?

It takes a lot of inner work and courage to sit with our fears of being “cast out” or found lacking in ways meaningful and important to our social group. It’s not an easy thing to do. But with discrimination, bullying, and hate most often being motivated by fear (or sadness), we need to take these conversations deeper and help each other understand, without judgment, the other very-human elements that are at play.