Would You Open the Door?

who is a hero?

Image: CC by 2.0 flickr Tom Roeleveld

Like many adjunct professors, Jessamine Irwin spends a lot of time commuting. The other day she way on her way to New York University after teaching a class at Fordham. She got on a New York subway and sat in a seat at the back of the train, near the door leading to the next car. She settled into the commuter’s lull, relaxed and half awake, when she was startled into awareness by a loud noise against the back door of the train car.

She was shocked to see two people between the cars. One, a large man, was shaking the other, as if trying to throw that person onto the tracks.

Horrified, she called out to her fellow passengers, “What’s happening!”

No one seemed to react. At the same time, the aggressor shoved his victim to the other side, and then slammed him with his back to the door of Ms. Irwin’s car.

Almost without thinking, she opened the door and grabbed the victim.

He half fell as she pulled him to safety, away from an aggressor she describes as muscular and over six feet tall. The aggressor, thankfully, did not pursue his victim into the car although that was the risk Ms. Irwin took.

Only after she got the victim into the car did she realize he was an 11-year-old boy.

His t-shirt revealed the name of his school but he was so traumatized by his ordeal that he could barely talk. She used his phone, trying to call his mother, but lost reception.

His arms were bruised from the assault and he’d hit his head against the subway car. He held her hand as, at the next stop, she led him off the train to the transit police. He explained to the police that he’d been play-fighting with a friend and his friend accidentally bumped into the man.  When the boy denied witnessing this,  the man grabbed him and dragged him between the cars.

Some say there’s a difference between those who ignore suffering and those who are moved to alleviate it. We know too little about how to develop that capacity in ourselves and our children. Instead we’re surrounded by news outlets, pundits, and advertisers who spew greed and misery, giving us all a sense of helplessness.

The issues of our time are serious indeed. But unnoticed acts of kindness are what allow life to flourish as we nurture the youngest and tend to the oldest, share with those in need, and weave the web of mutuality that holds us together. Most of these acts are not as dramatic as Ms. Irwin’s. But she, like so many perfectly ordinary people, show us what humanity is capable of doing.

If faced with a similar crisis, I’d like to think that you and I would open the door too.

Playground Insurrection, National Divisiveness

National divisiveness like a playground rebellion.

Image by taffmeister

I was a good elementary school student. I wrote neatly and did my work on time. Year after year, teachers seated me next to badly behaving students to be an insufferably good example (although one of them then and still today inspires me). I went to school with kids very much like myself — safe, nurtured, suburban kids who had every reason to believe “work hard and you can be anything” was true.  We were also, as schoolkids tend to be, crazily bored and itching to play.

One day, something erupted as recess ended. Although disenchanted with our oh-so-tedious blacktop playground, no one wanted to go back inside when the playground monitor’s whistle blew. Somehow an insurrection was stirring.

I’m not entirely sure how it happened. I’d been waiting in line for a turn on the swings with my equally bored friends. As we reluctantly gave up to go inside, we saw some kids closest to the building  milling around instead of lining up. More and more kids began to do the same thing. A strange muttering seemed to rise in the air with dangerously enticing energy. Just breathing made it spread. I worked my way slightly closer to the front to see the teacher, whose yelling could barely be heard, abruptly turn and go inside.

This was unheard of. We’d never been left alone on the playground, not ever. The strange energy around us gained force. It felt like power, the sort of power kids never get. Then the principal, Mr. Page, stepped out. He was new to our school and didn’t know our names. He issued a stern command. I couldn’t make it out. He tried again. I still didn’t hear him, but even to a rule-follower like me it didn’t matter. A sense of our own power had fermented into intoxication.

Someone behind me pushed. Someone next to me pushed. Soon everyone, at least near me, started to push. It might be argued that kids were pushing each other to line up as we’d surely been ordered to do. But oh, oh my oh my, it was heady. And yes, I pushed too. It felt ancient and tidal, this pushing, as if we were caught up in something larger than ourselves. I got a glimpse of Mr. Page backed up to the brick wall, kids in front pushed against him by kids in back. His expression was one of utter surprise.

I usually write about moments of aliveness in an entirely positive sense, but this was aliveness too. The playground insurrection lasted no more than a few minutes. Everyone ended up marching indoors in abject chagrin. Every single child was punished by no recess for at least a week.  I’ve forgotten if the revolt’s instigators were identified and got more serious punishments. What I remember is utterly abandoning myself to the sheer thrill of pushing. Stuck in routines, little control over what was expected of us, we may have been expressing  a  form of play that’s been called ilinx.

Sociologist Roger Caillois defined it as a category of games

“…based on the pursuit of vertigo and which consist of an attempt to momentarily destroy the stability of perception and inflict a kind of voluptuous panic upon an otherwise lucid mind. In all cases, it is a question of surrendering to a kind of spasm, seizure, or shock which destroys reality with sovereign brusqueness.”

Melissa Dahl explains in the New York Magazine that ilinx is a “French word for ‘the ‘strange excitement’ of wanton destruction.'”  She likens it to the way cats seem drawn to knock things over. Ilinx can be the mild thrill of intentionally slapping an empty water bottle off your desk or the rapturous state brought on by whirling, as mystics do in the Sema ritual (inspired by the poet Rumi).

Our playground insurrection might also have been a taste of mob mentality. Psychologist Tamara Avant defines it this way.

“When people are part of a group, they often experience deindividuation, or a loss of self-awareness. When people deindividuate, they are less likely to follow normal restraints and inhibitions and more likely to lose their sense of individual identity. Groups can generate a sense of emotional excitement, which can lead to the provocation of behaviors that a person would not typically engage in if alone.”

Mob mentality doesn’t have to be a negative thing. People participate in it when they stand up and yell at a sporting event. It’s also found in peace rallies and sit-ins, and has quite a bit to do with what’s called wisdom of the crowd.

Whether ilinx or mob mentality, on that long-ago playground my fellow students and I were just tired of being told we had to stop playing. We didn’t hate our teachers. We didn’t hate art class or gym or each other. We just wanted to express our frustration. We were, for the moment, having fun with opposition.

This may not be the best analogy, but I’m coming to think that the nomination of a man completely unsuited to become president of the United States is evidence of something similar.  I’m not for a moment dismissing how dangerous a Trump presidency would be to the peaceful functioning of our still young, still not always morally upstanding democracy.  Nor am I dismissing the obvious frustration of his supporters. I’m simply saying we need to stop pushing each other. We’re got more in common than we think we do.

A University of Maryland study compared Republican and Democratic congressional districts. In ten separate polls, people were asked 388 questions on what are considered highly partisan topics including abortion, gun control, and taxation. No statistical differences were found between red and blue areas.

For example, the Democratic party staunchly opposes cuts to the safety net and the GOP staunchly opposes revenue increases. However, the study reports, “when respondents were asked to make up their own federal budget, there were only slight differences between respondents in red and blue districts.”

There was also no polarization found in topics such as immigration, climate change, health care reform, marijuana laws, and globalized trade. In an article titled, “Hopelessly Divided? Think Again,”  Bill Moyers points out major areas of agreement found in the study.

  • Climate change. Americans’ concern about global warming is at an eight-year high, with a record 65 percent of us now blaming human activity for rising temperatures.
  • Gun control. Eighty-five percent of Americans — including large majorities of both Republicans and Democrats — favor closing gun-sale loopholes by enforcing background checks for private gun sales and at gun shows.
  • Our federal tax system. Six in 10 of us believe that upper-income Americans do not pay enough in taxes, while 82 percent are bothered — either “some” or “a lot” — that corporations are not paying their fair tax share.
  • The influence of big business. More than three-quarters of Americans believe that large corporations and a few rich people wield excessive and unfair power in this country. A whopping 71 percent of Americans across the political spectrum believe that the economy is rigged in favor of a few special interests.
  • Special interests’ influence in our political institutions. Eighty-four percent of Americans think that money has too much influence in elections. Nearly 8 in 10 favor limits on both raising and spending money in congressional campaigns. Meanwhile, 78 percent of Americans, including 80 percent of Republicans, want to overturn the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision that further opened the floodgates to corporate campaign spending, including spending from undisclosed sources.

Yes there are real divides on pivotal issues but let’s not forget we are in this together. Enough with the pushing already.

 

 

 

Mr. Trump: Hate Speech Escalates Violence

I spent years teaching nonviolence to teachers, church congregations, incarcerated people, and others. Most knew very little about the long and powerful history of nonviolence.

Nonviolence doesn’t mean living without anger or conflict. Strong emotions like anger can be a positive catalyst for change; fueling us to become more aware, to take action, or to seek help. Conflict is an inevitable part of human interaction. Dealing with conflict constructively, creatively, and with mutual regard allows conflict to serve a useful purpose.

alt to vio

Here’s a comparison of violent versus nonviolent responses, developed by the late John Looney, founder of the Peace Grows course, Alternatives to Violence.

What’s the first nonviolence principle we should know? De-escalation. A major characteristic of violence, verbal as well as physical, is that it tends to escalate.  It is most easily reversed at the beginning and becomes progressively more difficult to stop as it spirals into more intense violence.

Those who study the effects of intervention in violent situations have found when others object or actively intervene, their efforts tend to slow or stop the violence.  Dr. Ervin Staub, who survived under Nazi rule, reports in The Roots of Evil: The Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence, that the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the Nazis in Germany began their campaigns of genocide with small persecutions which citizens allowed to continue.  He reports that action by “bystanders” (those who are not victim or perpetrator) empowers the victim and diminishes the power of the aggressor. But ignoring the suffering of others allows the violence to escalate.

Mass violence tends to start with hate speech. Large-scale atrocities like the Armenian massacre, the Holocaust, the Bosnian war, and the Rwandan genocide can be traced back to hate speech.

Broadly defined, hate speech is any speech, gesture, or conduct which may incite violence or prejudicial action against an individual or group on the basis of ethnic origin, religion, gender, race, sexual orientation, or disability.

Hate speech inflames and escalates violence. It’s often stirred up by those who seek to hide their own power-seeking machinations. They use it to distract and create conflict between the very groups most likely to suffer from their actions.

Hate speech must be stopped. If not, it escalates, causing increasing repression and violence — sometimes to horrific levels. And yet we’re living at a time in history when hate speech attracts media attention and political adulation. It may seem incomprehensible, but it’s happening. Yes, I’m referring to Mr. Trump’s utterances. Here’s a sample.

Slurs and dangerous accusations against people based on ethnic origin.

a

 

Slurs and prejudicial actions based on religion.

 

Violent and demeaning untruths based on religion.

To which the Council on American-Islamic Relations responded, saying Mr. Trump’s “rhetoric has crossed the line from spreading hatred to inciting violence… By directly stating that the only way to stop terrorism is to murder Muslims in graphic and religiously-offensive ways, he places the millions of innocent, law-abiding citizens in the American Muslim community at risk from rogue vigilantes. He further implies that our nation should adopt a strategy of systematized violence in its engagement with the global Muslim community, a chilling message from a potential leader. We pray that no one who hears this message follows his gospel of hate.”

 

Advocating gross violations of the Geneva Conventions. “…and if it [torture] doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway for what they do to us”.

 

Advocating even more gross violations of the Geneva Conventions. 

a

 

Advocating and applauding violence against protesters.

Mr. Trump fondly reminisces about the days when protesters were viciously beaten, saying, “people like that would be carried out on a stretcher.”

When an African-American protester from Black Lives Matter was punched and possibly choked, Mr. Trump later said in an interview, “Maybe he should have been roughed up.”

Some Trump supporters are inspired to commit hate crimes based on Mr. Trump’s views. For example, Boston brothers Scott and Steve Leader were charged for beating a homeless Mexican man, punching as well as hitting him with a metal pole. One of the men justified the assault, telling police, “Donald Trump was right — all these illegals need to be deported.”  When asked for his reaction, Trump said,

“I will say that people who are following me are very passionate. They love this country and they want this country to be great again. They are passionate. I will say that, and everybody here has reported it.” Donald Trump

At a North Carolina rally, Trump supporter John McGraw punched a protester in the face. Mr. McGraw later said in an interview,  “Next time we see him, we might have to kill him.” and “We don’t know who he is,” he said. “He might be with a terrorist organization.”

 

Spitting, punching, elbowing, shoving, name-calling, and death threats have become increasingly common at Trump rallies with particularly ugly vehemence directed at African-Americans. Rally-goers have threatened reporters, flashed Hitler salutes, and screamed “light the motherfu**** up.”

According to the World Policy Institute, it can get worse. Much worse. “The power and influence of the figure addressing the speech to a particular audience, along with the contextual factors of that speaker and that audience (i.e. creating false scenarios of self-defense, in which the targeted group are accused of undue murderous acts), are substantial factors in distinguishing hate speech from incitement to genocide.

Remember, the principle of de-escalation. When bystanders (those who are not victim or perpetrator) don’t intervene, hate speech and its consequences escalate.

We’re all bystanders.

Get involved. Speak up. Vote. Protest. Don’t let this happen.

 

Sprouting Plant Advocates

Every growing season our four children choose which crop will be theirs to plant and tend in our vegetable garden. It doesn’t make my work easier. But this tradition helps them understand how intrinsically connected we all are to sunlight, soil, and the lives of growing things.

Claire always insists on sugar snap peas. They grow quickly enough to gratify her restless nature and besides, they’re fun to eat fresh from the vine. Her three brothers aren’t as opinionated. They choose something different each year. Last year Benjamin had a great crop of sweet corn, buzzing with honeybees and taller than his pre-teen shoulders. Little Samuel’s green peppers struggled—perhaps too close to the shadowing tomato plants, but still they produced a gratifying harvest, heavy and large in his preschooler’s hands. Only Kirby’s chosen crop, watermelons, disappointed. He’d picked them out of the seed catalog based on claims of huge size and juicy red flesh. He took personal pride in the resulting vines stretching vigorously across the garden. Yet the flowers never fruited. Instead they turned brown and curled up.

This winter, before we’ve even ordered our spring seeds, Kirby’s second-grade class begins a unit on botany. He comes home and tells us that everyone got to write his or her name on a Styrofoam cup. Then they filled the cups with potting soil and each planted one white bean. Although he’s seen this miracle happen over and over at home he’s excited about the project at school. Daily he supplies progress reports while unloading his book bag containing carefully drawn worksheets with terms like root, stem, leaves, pistol, and stamen.

For nearly a week the cups show only dirt. Then one day Kirby eagerly hurries from the bus with wonderful news. A bean has sprouted! Emily’s cup is the first to show life. “It’s like a little bent green rubber band,” he exclaims.

Every day he reports whose cups are bursting with growth. It has become a competition. Emily’s plant, at first the class wonder, is now no longer the tallest. For a few days Jason’s plant is the tallest, then Kerri’s, then Christoper’s plant takes the lead. Only a few cups show no visible progress. Kirby’s cup is one of those. His enthusiasm is not diminished. He’s seen what happens when a seed awakens, splits its shell, pushes through the dirt, and stands upright. He trusts in the life force of each seed.

That Friday there’s a teacher study day. A three-day weekend with no one at school to water those little cups. I find myself wondering about the tender green beans lined up in the cold window, dry and struggling to live. I’m almost afraid to send my trusting son off to school on Monday.

But Kirby returns home with a shy grin, as if he can hardly believe a long-awaited hope has come true. “It’s this big!” he says, stretching his thumb and forefinger apart. Apparently his little plant mustered up some courage during the long weekend alone. Not only has it burst through the soil, it’s already competing with older seedlings in height.

A few days later I volunteer in the classroom and notice the progress of the seedlings. Standing up from cups – children’s names scrawled proudly across the front – they appear to have identities of their own. But they’re getting gangly, leaning on the window or neighboring plants. They need to be put into bigger pots or, if only they’d been planted at the right time, into a garden. It seems an ill-timed project.

The next day, coming in from errands, I’m disconcerted by a terse phone message from Kirby’s teacher. Something about non-compliance. The teacher wants me to call back to help her determine an appropriate punishment. I can’t imagine what might have gone wrong. I start to call her back, but then I hear the school bus rounding the corner. I’ll wait to hear what Kirby has to say first.

There’s a look children get that’s hard to describe. They appear so full they may burst, but they don’t know if they can let out what has them so overwhelmed. The adult world has them confounded. That’s the look Kirby wears. Misery, anger, guilt, petulance, and defiance as well.  There’s so much emotion on his face that I can only give him a big hug and ask him to tell me.

He can’t sit. He paces as he starts to explain. Today in class his teacher had each pupil take his or her plant, sit at their desks and…. for a minute he can’t go on. He tries again. Finally I understand. The ultimate purpose of the seedling is to serve as an example of plant anatomy. “She wanted me to kill it Mom!” he said, wide-eyed at the injustice of it.

It seems Kirby took the plastic knife he was given but just sat there. He wouldn’t take his plant out of the dirt, he wouldn’t cut it apart. While the other children followed instructions on their worksheets the teacher scolded Kirby.  Then took his plant and put it back on the windowsill where it sat alone, nearly tipping over without other seedlings to lean on. My son waited, knowing he’d done something wrong.

It’s too soon to plant the bean plant in the garden. Repotting might not give it a strong chance either. I have to tell him the truth about his plant’s chances. But I explain that I’m proud of him for doing what he thought was right. The world needs more people who listen to their hearts.

I call his teacher. I try to explain that my kindhearted son felt he was sticking up for a friend of his, that sometimes following the rules doesn’t always serve the higher good. The teacher doesn’t agree. The next day Kirby is punished. He is learning that rules, even the ones we feel are wrong, bear consequences.

Although his bright green plant isn’t likely to survive, I suspect that, this year, Kirby will decide to plant green beans in our garden. He’ll grow them in memory of his friend and of the fallen green comrades who gave their lives for second-grade science.

First published in Green Prints, a loooong time ago!

Hijab Games & Pink Shirt Days

bystander effect, stand up for others, hijab soccer, pink shirt day, anti-bullying,

“Whenever one person stands up and says, “Wait a minute, this is wrong,” it helps other people do the same.”  Gloria Steinem

A high school soccer referee barred Samah Aidah from her March 12th game because she wore a hijab, even though the association that governs soccer internationally had already lifted rules preventing players from wearing head covers.

Samah’s teammates responded. At their next game, every single girl wore a hijab in playful solidarity with her.

bystander effect,

Samah Aidah and her teammates smiling together at Overland High School in Denver, Colorado
(aquila-style.com)

These girls took action rather than letting oppression go without comment. Whether they knew it or not, they followed a basic principle of nonviolence— that problems are most easily reversed at the early stages. If ignored, issues can become progressively more difficult to stop as they spiral to ever more intense levels. That’s the case whether we’re talking about so-called non-physical forms of violence such as humiliation, harassment, and prejudice. It’s also the case with physical forms of violence, from domestic abuse to war.

When people don’t intervene, assuming others will step in, they become bystanders who “permit” violence to happen. Studies show if an emergency unfolds before a group of people they’re less likely to take action, basing their decisions on the behavior of those around them. This is called “diffusion of responsibility.” If that same emergency presents itself in front of one person, that person is more likely to take action. We’ve all heard of these situations precisely because they’re so heinous.

Social scientists who study intervention in violent situations know that when others object or actively get involved their efforts tend to slow or stop the violence. Dr. Ervin Staub, who survived under Nazi rule, reports in The Roots of Evil that genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the Nazis in Germany started with prejudicial statement and small acts of repression. Oppressors test the response, only escalating to greater atrocities once they determine that bystanders will allow to them continue. It requires the willingness of uninvolved people to step in, advocating for the victim or victims, in order to halt the escalation of violence and to uphold the common good. Such actions empower the victim and reduce the power of the aggressor.

We tend to believe that we’ll have the moral courage to speak up and help when someone is suffering. But when something happens we usually have only an instant to respond, either we listen to our doubts and turn away or step outside our comfort zone to intervene. What makes it more likely that we will help?

1. A sense of commonality with people who are unlike us is important, letting us see beyond “us versus them” and prompting us to act with empathy.

2. Past experience reacting positively in a crisis leads people to do so in the future. In that case, the girls wearing the hijab to support their teammate not only made the current situation better but also primed themselves to act compassionately next time it’s necessary.

3. People who feel freer to defy the norms and who are able to think for themselves are more likely to help. Pluralistic ignorance (going along with the crowd) dampens a person’s compassionate response.

That’s why learning about nonviolence is so important, because it gives us a background on which to base our actions.  For examples of individual bystanders who stepped up to make a difference, check out the heartening real-life examples in this piece:

How To Get Involved When It’s None of Your Business

And let’s enjoy another example of young people choosing to go beyond being bystanders.

A few years ago a new freshman arrived at a Nova Scotia high school on the first day back to class. He was wearing a pink shirt. Several students mocked him and threatened to beat him up.  No one intervened. But two senior boys heard about it and decided to respond. They bought dozens of pink shirts at a discount store, emailing their friends to let them know they’d be handing them out the next day. The news spread and hundreds of students showed up the next morning already wearing pink shirts.  The bullying stopped and now Pink Shirt Days are held yearly in many schools to spread awareness about bullying.

 

Resources

books

Above All, Be Kind: Raising a Humane Child in Challenging Times by Zoe Weil

Keeping the Peace: Practicing Cooperation and Conflict Resolution with Preschoolers by Susanne Wichert 

The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander: From Preschool to HighSchool–How Parents and Teachers Can Help Break the Cycle by Barbara Coloroso

Why Good Kids Act Cruel: The Hidden Truth about the Pre-Teen Years by Carl Pickhardt

Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life by Dacher Keltner

Calm and Compassionate Children: A Handbook by Susan Dermond

books for kids

Bystander Power: Now with Anti-Bullying Action  by Phyllis Kaufman Goodstein

Just Kidding by Trudy Ludwig

My Secret Bully by Trudy Ludwig

Stand in My Shoes: Kids Learning About Empathy by Bob Sornson

Speak Up and Get Along!: Learn the Mighty Might, Thought Chop, and More Tools to Make Friends, Stop Teasing, and Feel Good About Yourself by Scott Cooper

other resources

Erase Bullying videos

Stop Bullying site

 

 

Lale Labuko: Cultural Superhero

Omo children, Lale Labuko, infanticide,

Images: omochild.org

An ancient tribal practice has killed tens of thousands of children over the centuries. I’m working to make sure my generation brings an end to it forever. —Lale Labuko

Lale Labuko was the first person from the Omo Valley to attend school. Each time he left his village for boarding school he walked 65 miles through desert wilderness, leaving a culture without written language in order to fulfill his father’s wish that he learn to read and write.

When Labuko was 15 years old, on a visit home, he witnessed an elder grab a two-year-old girl from her weeping mother’s arms. The elder hurried away toward the river and returned alone. Labuko asked his mother to explain. It was the first time he heard the word mingi. It was also the first time he learned that he had two sisters, both deemed mingi, who were killed before he was born.

Mingi is a term used by many tribes of the Omo River Valley in southwestern Ethiopia. It labels certain young children carriers of a curse. Babies can be deemed mingi for one of several reasons: they’re born out of wedlock, their married parents have not received the necessary three blessings by elders, or their top teeth come in before their bottom teeth.

Ancient traditions dictate that grievous harm will come to the village unless the mingi dies.

Labuko pledged to end this tradition. He’s doing so with respect for tribal culture while also changing ingrained fears. Several years ago he convinced elders to “Let me be the bush” as an alternative to leaving little ones in the bush, where they die of starvation and exposure.

Although a number of tribes continue to carry out the practice, Labuko’s tribe, the Kara, officially banned mingi in a 2012 ceremony. It’s said that if rains fall after any ceremony, the gods have bestowed their blessings. After this ceremony the rains were bountiful. And when the sun came out a rainbow appeared over the Kara village.

Labuko is now co-founder of Omo Child which works to end the horrific practice of mingi. His organization also rescues and cares for mingi children. So far they have saved 37 babies from death.  These children are being raised in a safe home and receiving an education.

National Geographic bio of Lale Labuko

Images of Omo children by photographer Steve McCurry

Get involved in the work of Omo Child