Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Avoid This Dangerous Article!

I have been struggling with a thought for quite a while now as I have watched the social media response to many things going on in the world. I am not sure I can articulate it clearly and, because of this, I have been hesitant to add my own noise to the mix.  However, I can no longer bear to have it roll around in my mind without some sort of sounding board. I am talking about a very dangerous article.  Not an article as in a publication, but an article as in parts of speech.  That article is the word, "the."

Every day, I am overwhelmed by posts online or opinion pieces cloaked as reporting that use this article to generalize things that simply cannot be understood through generalizations.  My mental wrestling began with the events in Ferguson, Missouri and all of the things that have come after them.  I cannot begin to list the number of reports and opinions I read that started with a generalized "the" that effectively minimized whole groups of people in order to make a point.  The black people, the white people. the police, the poor, the rich, the Democrats, the Republicans, the social activists, the right-wingers: Each of these thrown out with a scathing (or glowing) analysis of the role of that group in the activities of the day.  Every time I read one of these pieces, I wanted to ask, "Have you REALLY talked to those involved?" There is no way that we can truly understand what is happening until we look through the eyes of those who are in the midst of the events at hand.

This past Sunday, Pastor Samuel Dzobo gave the message at our church.  We had a joint service with our church and the members of three of our local African American churches.  One of the stories he told was truly the motivation for me putting these words on the screen.  He is from Zimbabwe.  Now he pastors a church in rural East Tennessee.  Culture shock for sure! He said he was amazed at some of the questions he had been asked about Zimbabwe: "Do they have houses there?"; "Did you wear clothes?"; "How did you get here? Did you drive?" His response was amazement.  How could they not know more about the world than that?  Then he told us this: "The only answer to ignorance is conversation. If you want to know me, ask me!"  I walked away knowing that this truth is one we need to embrace if we are to survive as a nation.  We need to get to know each other. We need to get away from lumping people into faceless "the" groups.  We need to sit down and dialogue.  At the end of the day, we may still disagree about many things but, hopefully, we'll at least be able to see more clearly from other perspectives.

When I heard about the response to the situation in Ferguson, I was taken back to an incident in my own life:
I spent 3+ years at Scott AFB in Illinois a short distance from St. Louis.  While there, I spent most of my off time with a group of guys who called themselves the "Blacksheep" a group of black guys with a couple of random white guys along for the ride.  I'll preface by saying that I was not living for much of anything but myself at that time. I'm not proud of many of my actions, but God has certainly used that time to shape my worldview.  I grew up in rural Missouri in a town that literally had to import minorities to work at the company there in order to meet affirmative action goals.  I had never been around anyone from an urban, black background until I joined the Air Force.  On my first day at Scott, the shift leader asked me what they called me.  I told him I'd answer to anything.  His response, "OK, I think I'll call you Rahiem."  For the next three years, my name was Rahiem.  I quickly discovered that running with a bunch of black guys took me to a very different place.  In East St. Louis, (East Boogie, according to my friend, Al) I was welcomed, somewhat skeptically but welcomed nonetheless, into a world that was almost exclusively African American.  When we crossed the river, my friends were watched closely and often harassed by reveled at Laclede's Landing and also by the police. This came to a head, when my friend Al was tackled, handcuffed, and thrown in a police car after he hollered back at some white girls who yelled at us from the sunroof of a limousine.  He was held for hours before the police would even acknowledge that they had him.  He wasn't intoxicated and was eventually let go with the strong encouragement to stay away from the Landing. In short, he was arrested for being black.
I realize that the specific circumstances of the case in Ferguson were very different but, I also know that the historical distrust going both ways in St. Louis shaped every response from that point forward. I think it's important to note that the vast majority of those protesting never expressed a violent thought or participated in any rioting.  If we're honest, we'll acknowledge that there is a small number of people who will use any excuse to wreak havoc: Won the championship? Let's burn something and steal some stuff.  Lost? What the heck, let's destroy some things & get a tv.  Pumpkin Festival? Let's tear this thing down! (Yes, that did happen- Keene, NH this fall). However, it's much easier to just say "the protesters" and lump everyone in the anarchist group.  I have family in St. Louis and know that there has been positive dialogue taking place as people from all over the City have come together to highlight changes that need to take place.  Mutual respect can change the face of a city. That can only occur through honest dialogue.

Another area that I see the article "the" cause problems is in a seemingly benign usage.  This problem has been highlighted by the release of "American Sniper" this weekend. We Americans spend a lot of time talking about "the troops."  Pray for the troops.  Remember the troops. Support the troops.  All, certainly, positive sentiments.  Unfortunately, it seems that oftentimes the faces and stories of the individual soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen get lost on the generic, "the troops." Most people I've talked to who left the theater after seeing the movie said they were left speechless as they processed the events portrayed. Most had never, really, thought about how intense war really is!  I fear that most of us, unless we have firsthand experience with someone who has been at war, fail to understand the psychological impact on those called to serve and their families at home.  Nothing is ever the same. We need to stop throwing out generic slogans and begin to identify specific ways we can pray for, remember, and support the individuals who are put in harm's way as well as their families at home. We need to demand appropriate mental health services and make ourselves available as a support system.

There are countless other examples from my life, of late, that point to the potentially false images that come from a generic "the." The nursing home. The elderly. The schools. The church. The gays. The muslims. Preconceived notions often prove to be flawed at best upon personal involvement with any topic.  I pray that, before I form an opinion about anyone, or any circumstance, I make the time to get to know the details and the individuals involved and know their story. We may still disagree, but I will at least be operating from a position of love and respect rather than a position of ignorance and/or arrogance.  I hope there are other who will join me as we shift the article from "the"
to "a" and as we learn more about the individuals with whom we share this earth!

P.s. I wrote this whole piece only to learn that, apparently, "the" is now considered just an adjective. Avoid it anyway if it's being used to vaguely describe a group of people!

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