On Offense [Rebecca Hannigan]

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Newton/google/our middle school physics teacher tells us that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

(yes, we’re starting simple here, but stick with me)

When you swing your arm and snap your wrist down to serve a volleyball, your shoulder arches up and your arm follows through. When the player on the other side passes it, if the serve is anything as intense as men’s Olympic teams, the sort of serve and serve-receive you see in the first few seconds of this video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zbkAF93qW5k), the player ends up on the floor, three feet from where he stood when he made contact with the ball.

To get the ball up, a body has to go down.  

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Not just volleyball, but in every physical activity/ interaction: jump on a trampoline, push your foot on a bike pedal, wrestle a Jenga piece out of the stack and watch the stack wobble.

Physical relationships are apparent and easy to understand. What is not so easily understood, however, is the ways in which this principle applies to social actions/reactions.

Well, maybe it is easy, actually, if we continue considering athletics. When a team is not on offense, it is on defense. In soccer, basketball, volleyball, football, and so on, you and your team are either intentionally moving in the direction of your own goal, or you are intentionally opposed to the team that is working toward its goal. You are not standing aside passively, you are actively opposing.

This active opposition is entirely logical in the framework established by athletics/ competitions, which are structurally designed to do such a thing: to prove your own superiority and ability, talent, athleticism, etc. But why does this same logic manifest itself in social groups playing on the same field, in the same country, with one group pitting itself up against another, with only one able to be happy, satisfied, justified in its actions as it moves toward its own goal, while the other seems to be actively working against it?

This defense-turned-offense is evident in battles of equal rights for different groups: men and women, black and white, rich and poor.

We seem to operate under the idea that everything is a competition, that if the needs of one social group are being met, then other needs are being ignored. This idea inherently assumes a certain amount of scarcity, as if there is not enough fairness to go around. Why does justice seem to be a limited resource that only some enjoy, while others watch enviously?

I know many men who are instinctively opposed to feminists, based on an assumption that feminists want to put women before men, rather than bringing them to the same level.

In the same way, I know many women who assume that men who are not actively campaigning for women’s rights are opposed to women having equal rights, which is an equally erroneous assumption. If/when these men say or do something that seems the slightest bit offensive to women, some feminists are easily inflamed, puffing up and biting back with such sharp teeth that then, the men feel justified to defend themselves, which then becomes offensive to women again, continuing the cycle.

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Most of us are quick to assume an attitude of antagonism, which exacerbates the disagreement, making the original comment (and subsequent comments) more acerbic than it was (they are) most likely intended to be.

The bipartisan framework endemic to our political system feeds into our offense/defense mentality, encoding opposition into our interactions with people whose political priorities differ from our own. Instead of listening to opinions that differ, we are quick to defend ourselves by offending the opposing party.

Staring down at the street from the 7th floor balcony, I heard two guys walking toward each other on the sidewalk, with one chanting “Donald Trump” (preceded by a four-letter word starting with an ‘f’),  which encouraged the other to chant and curse the same thing. Opposition is contagious. It’s easy. It takes little to no effort to react equally and oppositely and angrily.

But what if we do not jump on offense when we see that we are on defense? What if we do not react with anger? Anger is a self-sustaining cycle, one that feeds on itself, like yeast in a sourdough starter that continues to both break down and grow its own bacteria. We are only creating more problems for ourselves and stirring up more dissension when we react by lashing out, because every swing has a follow-through, and every gun shot has a recoil that can potentially harm you just as much as the shot itself.

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What would happen if we responded to different opinions by listening, acknowledging discrepancies, and articulating the ways in which your viewpoint diverges from the other, without immediately pointing a finger or pushing against the other? The offensive mentality is like a gag reflex, but what if we breathe deeply and calm it down?

I want to be clear that I’m not, by any means, suggesting that anyone passively sits by while something harmful/oppressive/unjust happens. Rather, I’m encouraging us to quiet the instant-hate instinct that boils up as soon as disagreements get heated, because raising the temperature of the water also raises the temperature of its container, of the air around, of the room itself.

Feminists cannot effectively advocate for women’s rights when they  jump down men’s throats, and men cannot understand what feminists believe in when they are blinded by the assumption that women are intending to jump down their throats. These misunderstandings are the result of the tug-of-war nature of the argument that is not otherwise an argument. It becomes an argument when we defend ourselves by offending, and when the hate-instinct kicks in.

How can we respond any other way, then?

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We should not necessarily be passive, but perceptive. We should understand the situation, and the fact that what might seem like an attack is the result of endemic antagonism, layers of assumption and hatred built up from assumption and hatred that came before.

A clear example of this comes from a story in Bryan Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy (one of the books we read as a foundational text for the beginning of our program). The entire book examines and emphasizes the need for our judicial system to be what it was designed to be, which is just. Justice dissolves when heated by prejudice and biases which feed and are fed by the cycle of hatred and attitude of antagonism that we all-too-easily assume. But Stevenson, a defense attorney for inmates on death row, sets a different example. He writes about a time when he visited a client in prison, an African American male imprisoned in a southern state. Stevenson himself is an African American male, and on this particular visit, he was affronted and abased by the guard who greeted him at the door, greeting by demanding to strip-search Stevenson, talking to him as if he were a piece of trash the blew in from the highway. The way Stevenson describes this interaction is upsetting in a stomach-sick way that makes you want to wrap your hands around the throat of the guard and shake some sense into him. But what’s even more gut-wrenching is the way in which Stevenson responds, which is not by shaking sense into the guard, but by showing kindness and ease. During this initial interaction and the ones that follow, he talks to the guard respectfully and calmly, recognizing and identifying the guard’s proclivity to act on prejudice, based on Stevenson’s observation of the Confederate-flag flying truck in the parking lot, and other indicators of an attitude that comes from the guard’s inherited racist attitudes. Rather than defending himself by offending the guard, as Stevenson very easily could, he reacted in a way which effectively ended the cycle of antagonism. He recognized and respected the guard as a human who deserves just as much recognition and respect as every other human, regardless of the way the guard insulted and offended him. And this intentional attitude of grace and mercy does effectively end the cycle, as evidenced by one of the most surprising and wonderful moments in the book, when the guard approaches Stevenson later, sincerely apologetic and sorrowful about his earlier expressed attitude. The guard saw how Stevenson embodied the ideals that he expressed, by giving fair treatment to every individual, despite the fact that Stevenson himself was not treated fairly, and the guard saw how redemptive and restorative the embodiment of that ideal was, and he wanted to embody it as well.

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Stevenson’s story shows the way to enact effective change: we must recognize and respect every human for his/her ideas and attitudes, even when they offend or oppose our own ideas. If you do not feed hatred with hatred, it will stop growing.

Of course, as with most feel-good, love-your-neighbor sentiments, this is easier said than done (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xykuu_pVZak). However, we should be reminded, now more than ever, that we do not need to react violently or angrily to defend ourselves, or else the offenders will continue to offend. We should save the two clearly opposing sides for sports.  

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