A couple days after Hurricane Sandy, Halloween hit. I dressed up as a playboy bunny. My roommate was a ninja, and his roommate, Danielle, was herself. With the trains down, we three wandered around Union Hall in Brooklyn. We saw a band of Werewolves performing Hall & Oates covers and played bocce ball. In the middle of bocce ball, a skinny man who seemed to be Lebanese approached Danielle. Things didn’t get heated, but I did hear at one point “I detest Israel.”
The blatant anti-semitism shocked me, but what I most remember from the encounter is how Danielle handled. A recent Columbia grad and Jewish (probably why he approached her in the first place) she remained clam, her non-patronizing gaze held steady on him. He spoke for a minute about the state of Israel’s catalog of injustices toward Palestinians. Danielle nodded, then started asking him questions. She began almost every question with “So that I understand, why….” or “Tell me about…” What was most memorable for me about this was that Danielle was so clearly trying to understand this man’s reality. She was not judging him, but hearing him, accommodating her views into her own. They did not change her views, but they encouraged respectable behavior toward another. And without basic respect and understanding, no two people could work together.
This is the story I continually thought of while reading The Trouble with Reality: a Rumination on Moral Panic in Our Time by Brooke Gladstone, the co-host of On The Media.
While Gladstone’s main question is how to reach a public consensus of ‘reality’ when there are so many differing, politically motivated ‘facts,’ what stood out to me most was the call to genuinely comprehend an opposing viewpoint. Gladstone’s survey of authoritarian regimes, consensus building, and respect for a myriad of realities clarified for me why Danielle’s response back in 2012 was so powerful.
From countless stories and interviews, Gladstone concludes “I believe there is a path, probably not to agreement, but to comprehension.” This comprehension requires people to move out of their bubbles, to — with dignity and grace — take in opposing viewpoints. “You cannot march to a long-term solution to your reality problem with a cadre of like-minded allies. That is a solitary journey, and it never ends. You have to travel out of your universe into the universe of others, and leave your old map at home.”
In her view, comprehension of opposing views and the ability to convey their possible harm is the best way to resist authoritarians. Gladstone quotes an interview she had with Michael Siger during the 2016 campaign: “Actually taking a demagogue seriously in their claims and educating the audience about how….what they’re doing actually hurts the country…that’s what the history of successful confrontation with demagogues has shown.” It’s a common criticism of the media during the campaign (possibly because it’s spot on): too many reports were dictated by Trump. They did not take him seriously enough to critique his polices. They did, in sum, not report on the news; they reported on the person.
Gladstone’s final line seemed to be a shout out to Danielle: “We breed infinite realities and they never can reconciled. We cannot fully enter someone else’s. But if we really look, we might actually see that other reality reflected in that person’s eyes, and therein lies the beginning of the end of our reality problem.”
Going forward (and this is ideal) I hope to extend offers into my reality for people who think they already understand it. Much has been made about Donald Trump making no official announcement to celebrate Pride month. My question is did anyone make the suggestion that he should? While it’s obvious to me that he should, in his reality — it’s not so obvious. In his reality, the LGBT community is a little hostile too him, and an inadequate understanding of queer history makes him think that a mass shooting in a gay club wasn’t linked to homophobia. Perhaps we could make more of an effort to understand his reality, and give him ample opportunity to understand ours. Perhaps we could be more like Danielle.