When I first started working in publishing as an acquiring editor, one of my lists was political psychology — a subject I knew only a little bit about, only the aspects that crossed with social psychology, my own discipline. So I attended conferences, talked with scholars, read related books (including those I signed), listened to academic talks, and tried to learn enough to speak intelligently to authors I wanted to sign.
And in the years since, I seem to have forgotten most of it.
But I do remember that for many people, their political beliefs stem from their values. (I wish I could remember the other source — economics, maybe? Now it would be fear, that’s surely a source.) It occurs to me, though, that even if we share values as a starting point, our beliefs stemming from that value could diverge.
I’m torn right now. The political discourse is filling me with such despair and agitation. All that hate, all the snarling and contempt, and all the blind followers salivating behind the one who is being contemptuous of them! I don’t understand any of this, it makes no sense. Keep out all the Muslims but everyone including terrorists and those on the watch lists should be allowed to buy guns. What? It makes no sense. It feels like our world is upside down, and I can’t understand it.
And the parts I do understand are heartbreaking and tragic and adding to my despair. Poor people running for their lives, having lost everything, running from the very people we see as our enemy, and we slam doors in their faces. Who are we? Really, who are we? We are an ignorant country, a cruel country, a greedy country, an arrogant country. As a country that’s who we are, though most of my friends (not all) and all of my family are not like that at all. Our reputation in the world is horrible, as I know from traveling around the world. Terrified people who have lost everything want to come here, yes, but I feel for them because I know how they will be treated if they get here. They just don’t know it, it’s unimaginable to them.
And so, these are my values, and how my beliefs evolve from them:
We have an obligation to help each other. Even though Jesus encouraged people to give everything they had, we don’t have to do that, it needn’t be that extreme. I have an obligation to people I know and to people I don’t, because we’re all interconnected. And I have so much, even though I have no assets and a dusty bank account. But I have so much, including the things I don’t have, like rockets tearing through my home. I have been in great need so many times in my life and people helped me in ways large and small. This is one of my deepest values. My most complete obligation is to my children and their families, but it doesn’t end there, even if it begins there.
So what does that look like, given that I have no power to effect legislative change, nor millions or billions to donate? It means I can offer whatever support I can to agencies and groups that help others. It means I can offer practical help whenever possible. It means I speak up when I see someone who needs help. Someone I know on Facebook said come on, those Muslim women who were verbally assaulted in public should’ve just spoken up for themselves, get over it. Should they have? In a great world, sure — but it’s easy to imagine that they were quite scared. Simply being a woman who is being shouted at by a threatening man is difficult enough, and when everyone standing around is not doing anything, I can imagine that might be silencing. My value, then, leads me to speak to her, with her, for her, to help her as I can. Since this is our world, now, I can prepare myself and not be caught off guard. My value leads me to help wherever I can, in whatever way I can — not in martyrdom, but we are connected.
This value means that I support spending some of my government’s money—taxes I paid, as a matter of fact—to help those in need. People with another value are quick to snarl that “those” people just take advantage and “those” people just want to use the system. I wonder if they’ve ever known any of “those” people. I doubt it. The ones I can quickly call to mind are quite privileged in a lot of ways and while loudly proclaiming themselves to be Christian, holding hands and praying, it’s hard to see any Christian values in action. So this value means that any vote I cast includes a concern about social welfare.
The world is not fair, but we should do what we can to make a difference. I think it’s a terrible situation that so few people own the bulk of the resources — money and power. I think it’s a terrible situation that our policies seem to operate from a position that hey, I got mine, you get yours, without any acknowledgement of our different starting places.
When I came out of graduate school, I had $50K in student loan debt. I’ll die with that debt. My daughters came out with student loan debt. My stepdaughter had everything paid for her and came out with zero debt, and a lot of resources given to her, in addition to that. They are not beginning on a level playing field. My daughters didn’t grow up in poverty, but they did not grow up with much. We always had a home and food, but they didn’t go away to fancy summer camps (my stepdaughter did), they couldn’t take advantage of programs offered by the school if they cost any money (my stepdaughter could and did), and they did not have parents with a college education. I got my education as they grew up, but even so their lives were difficult because of that — so it was less a benefit and more a difficulty. My stepdaughter had two parents with PhDs (and one stepfather most of her life with a PhD, and a stepmother from the age of 14 with a PhD…though all four are psychologists, so that’s perhaps a strike against her 🙂 ) and families on both sides with pretty great wealth. I’m not saying that my daughters should therefore be given something, but I am saying that it’s not a level playing field. And we are all white! When you add race (and gender, for that matter), the field gets rockier.
What this means is that I care about working toward seeing that disadvantaged people get help. This means I do not see them with contempt, and if there is a way I can help, I should. It’s a moral value. I should.
What this means is that I speak against the “I got mine, you get yours” position whenever I encounter it. I probably don’t have any power here, but it’s my value and I must do what I can when I can.
Really, all my political beliefs stem from that first value, and maybe everything stems from that first value, not just political beliefs. We are interconnected and are here to help each other when we can.
But I started this post with a dilemma, with a comment about being torn right now. The political discourse really is keeping me in a pretty bad place. I’m constantly agitated by it, and I easily slip into despair. So do I withdraw from it? (This would mainly mean stepping away from Facebook.) Is that hiding my head in the sand? It’s not like saying or doing anything on that platform makes one. bit. of. difference.
And then yesterday, in my despair, I read something by bell hooks:
And it occurred to me that I can think each morning, “What does Mister Rogers want me to do today?” And then I can decide what he would want me to do, and go into the world and in every way, small and large, build that community.
Thank you, Mister Rogers, for once again helping me live my life. For continuing to guide me as I try to figure out how to be a human being. This time the struggle is not with myself, it’s with the world, but it’s still a mighty struggle. Gentleness, kindness, saying the truth and living according to my values, helping when and where I can. Be one of the helpers instead of one of those setting fire.