A Counter-Cultural Idea for Peace and Justice
Updated: Aug 7
My Guest Column in The Los Angeles Free Press July, 2020
August, 1970. I was a white high schooler in my even-whiter southern California suburb. Thus far it had been a momentous year. With the launch of the Vietnam draft lottery, boys began disappearing in January, and Edwin Starr recorded “War, what is it good for?” The Kent State student shootings happened in May, and Neil Young sang ”…four dead in O-hi-o.” In June, on the one-year anniversary of the Stonewall riots, tens of thousands filled the streets of Hollywood in the 1st-ever Gay Pride Parade. Its anthem, YMCA would, over time, continue the announcement that, “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!”
The Women’s Liberation Movement had drawn nearly 1,000 marching women through the heart of LA in a Strike for Equality, and soon Helen Reddy would roar “I Am Woman” to put the entire nation on red alert. And in East LA, 30,000 had just marched in the Chicano Moratorium protesting the war’s diversion of much-needed resources away from embedded US social injustices declaring, “Viva La Raza!” As The Temptations summarized the landscape in “Ball of Confusion”, the black community rioted against white supremacy and the police killing of Charles Oatman in Augusta, GA.
Yes, it was a momentous year, as diversity demanded inclusivity. There could be no denying the power, the increasing momentum, or the political polarization of the peace and justice movements. While I did engage in related discussions at the time, there was little, if any, ability to look at the complexities of the issues from "Both Sides, Now" as Joni Mitchell put it. Fifty years later, with 30 years of work in non-profits and then a 2 year deep dive into the conditioning of my insular white culture, a book reflecting my uncomfortable discoveries has come to the surface. And I find, in each interview, city after city, the difficulty of frank conversations is something we, as a Nation, are all sharing. We have, again, arrived at the very same point, a tipping point, wherein our present culture could transform into its counter-culture version. One with significantly different community customs and conventions. Yet a wide chasm separates various identity groups, with ‘mask wars’ highlighting the seemingly unbridgeable philosophical divide. Can a bridge be built? Is there any reason to hope for conversations between people with completely different viewpoints?
According to The Difficult Conversations Laboratory at Columbia University Teachers College, the answer is “Yes.” In studying conversations, pairs who first read articles with the pros and cons of an issue, along with more complicated nuances, went on to have richer conversations, ask more questions, and propose higher quality ideas. They left the Lab more satisfied with their difficult discussions, and with a willingness to continue the conversations.
As I consider what it would take to engage in difficult conversations such as these, the requisite starting point has to be goodwill. It takes goodwill to read an evidence-based book or article concerning a complicated topic. It takes goodwill to engage in meaningful and regular interaction with races, ethnicities, ages, orientations, genders, abilities, political views, and faiths other than one’s own. Preparing, talking, and listening with the goal of greater understanding would definitely complicate the narrative. And according to the findings of the Lab, that’s a good thing.
As a baby boomer now in my late sixties, I am considering what shifts to make in these days of protest and reflection. As the process of complicating my pre-existing narrative involves not only goodwill but also humility, it is a good characteristic to cultivate. And then reading up on the issues. Then, through a shared desire for one-on-one conversations, having semi-guided discussions. Why bother to do this? Through inter-group communication such as this I might recognize more similarities than differences, both give and receive a surprisingly kind word or a helpful suggestion, and find something admirable in the other, something to be respected. And in this open-minded, even if uncomfortable, state long-held notions could be explored, expanded. And this would be an ongoing process.
Could these complexity-infused discussions be brought to scale, nationwide? If the concept of the ‘tipping point’ holds true, and current events surely demonstrate it does, then the answer to that question would also be “Yes.” In 1963, President Kennedy gave a speech referencing the Cuban Missile Crisis, when we were on the eve of destruction from an all-out nuclear war. He called for a strategy of peace to make the world safe for diversity saying, “For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”
Fast forward nearly sixty years, and diversity, equity, and inclusivity are more critical than ever to ensure our existence. We must come together with open minds, goodwill, and humility to embrace the ambiguity, contradiction, and nuance within the difficult conversations of the day. This new form of political debate is one in which we all must learn to participate.