The world is convulsing with the debate about “identity politics” – so much so that it’s tearing the very fabric of our nation. It’s a complex issue so I’ll stick to a single aspect that impacts the greater culture: The desire to gravitate only to people identical to us. On many college campuses, people gather around their sexual or political identities. The micro-aggression crowd hangs with each other. The gender identity people all congregate around the same group. In fact the whole “safe space” movement is about students demanding that colleges protect them from actually encountering people who think differently from them.
I know people in Hollywood who never talk to conservatives. In the same way I know conservatives who lived their entire lives never engaging with someone on the Left. Worst of all, some Christians rarely have a conversation with a non-believer.
Today, far too many people live in their own echo chamber.
But when it comes to living with differences, one thing I’m incredibly grateful for is growing up in the American South. For all the criticism we receive, when it comes to accepting other people, my childhood was like a Flannery O’Connor short story. For instance, we had two old ladies in our church who chewed tobacco and had spittoons in every room of the house. (And they were incredibly accurate spitters I might add.) As a young kid I had a standing appointment every week to play chess with another boy who had severe cerebral palsy – and we had fantastic conversations. Economically, we ranged from successful airline pilots to people who still had outdoor plumbing. Our church was populated with people who loved guns, and others who hated them, but we loved them all.
We had a particularly eccentric old man in our city who woke up every morning, got dressed, and walked to one of the busiest intersections in town and directed traffic. In spite of the traffic lights, we learned to follow his directions, and you know what? The police let him do it, and we understood. And when he died, they erected a bronze statue in his honor.
Today he would have been arrested and medicated.
In those days, most people had a “crazy uncle Roy” somewhere in the family, and it was perfectly normal. I had to grow up before I realized the rest of the world was different. I’ve often said that when it comes to crazy people, the North institutionalizes them, the West is afraid of them, and the South celebrates them.
Spending our lives with people who think just like we do doesn’t make us smarter, stronger, or wiser. And it certainly doesn’t “protect” us. It only impoverishes us. Challenges make us better, whether that challenge is getting fired, losing a loved one, or living next door to a wacky neighbor.
This week, get out of the bubble. Talk to someone who thinks differently than you, and make a real effort to understand him or her. It just may change the way you look at people.
And one of these days I’ll tell you about the neighbor who was abducted by a UFO…..
Photos: Getty Images and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library