From now until at least the midterm elections in November, we’ll be featuring essays from powerful cultural voices alongside one simple thing, chosen by the author, that you can do to take action against the paralyzing apoplexy of the daily news. Maybe it’ll be an organization that deserves your donation; maybe it’ll be an issue that deserves greater awareness. Whatever it is, our aim is to remind you, and ourselves, of the big and small things we can do to work toward justice and change.
Kindness and Clarity
by Tanya Selvaratnam
As Americans, we tend to believe in saviors and demons, to revere the former and live in fear of the latter. But the notion that one man can save us or take us down is a fiction that allows us to avoid asking what we ourselves can do to create the world we want to live in.
One thing we can do that would have an immediate result is be kind.
Many writers I admire have written about this more eloquently than I ever could. James Baldwin: “Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.” Barbara Kingsolver: “What I want is so simple I almost can’t say it: elementary kindness.” George Saunders: “If we’re going to become kinder, that process has to include taking ourselves seriously—as doers, as accomplishers, as dreamers. We have to do that, to be our best selves.”
People are tired and on edge. They have their knives out at the slightest provocation. Not just in the news or on television, but in real life, on the street, around the corner. In May, when I was in line at Heathrow, returning to America after having gone off the radar for a few weeks, a man shouted at a woman, “Don’t stand so close to me.” She cowered and moved as far away as she could in the packed line. He was white; she was Chinese. Having lived in China myself, I thought: He doesn’t understand that the concept of personal space is very different for this woman. Would he have shouted at her so violently if she had been white?
Back in America, walking down Greenwich Avenue in Manhattan, I saw a young brown woman chasing after a young white woman carrying a yoga mat, cursing and yelling “white privilege” at her. I did not witness what had caused the hostility. All I saw was one young woman looking like she wanted the blood of another.
In late July, I was in the quiet car of a train going upstate. An old man was sitting next to a young man. The young man was talking loudly on his phone. The old man tried to get him to stop. The young man was defiant. My friend and I watched the hostility escalate until the old man pushed the young man. The young man responded by putting the old man in a chokehold, until a conductor came and broke them up with the threat of calling the police. The old man was white; the young man was black. If the police had come, what would have happened? Who was at fault? And how would each be treated by the justice system?
Sadly, the parties in these altercations had visible differences between them: Asian and white, brown and white, black and white. But we are all human. The majority of us believe in our shared humanity, and it’s up to us to reclaim it in defiance of those in power who seek to diminish it.
It’s time to resurrect kindness and civility. Many already have. When a man commented “Cunt” on a tweet by Sarah Silverman, she responded: “I believe in you. I read ur timeline & I see what ur doing & your rage is thinly veiled pain. But u know that. I know this feeling. Ps My back Fucking sux too. see what happens when u choose love. I see it in you.” She opened the door to a conversation in which the man revealed that he had been the victim of abuse. She encouraged him to seek help, and offered to pay his medical bills.
Janet McFetridge, who lives in Champlain, New York, has been helping refugees escape from America to Canada, where they are more likely to get a fair shot at asylum. “I was just horrified that people were leaving the United States, where we have this idea of being a beacon of hope, for another country,” she told the Washington Post. “At that point, I said, we can do something here, and I can at least give them a kind word, and recognize them as people by saying, ‘I am sorry you feel you have to do this.’”
In June, at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado, I spoke at a town hall on freedom of expression, at which a man loudly proclaimed his freedom to own as many guns as he wanted. One of the other speakers, Hank Willis Thomas, shared his story about a relative who died from gun violence. Rather than shut each other down, they listened to each other.
In Aspen I also saw a lecture by Harvard art historian Sarah Lewis where she showed images of Japanese Americans being taken away to internment camps. The pictures had been impounded by the U.S. government until 2006, even though it had commissioned Dorothea Lange to take them. By opening our eyes to these images anew, Lewis compelled us to draw a connection between what happened then and what is happening to Mexican families at the border right now. Us is them is us. We must remember.
This period in America will go down in history as a nightmarish time—a time in which hate begets coverage and it’s hard to break through the noise. But ultimately, kindness and our resolve to be our best selves, as Saunders puts it, might save the world.
This country has been built on suffering and injustice.
We have a painful legacy to reckon with.
We are far from done.
In the meantime, let’s strive to be kinder, to ourselves and to each other.
Incivility breeds uncertainty. Perhaps civility can lead us to clarity.
Take action today:
- Between now and November, participate in the 50 State Initiative, a project of For Freedoms to bring people together and spark civic discourse through town halls, exhibitions, and public art.
- Join The Federation coalition of artists, organizations, and allies keeping cultural borders open and showing how art unites us.
- Be kind.
Tanya Selvaratnam is a team member of the 50 State Initiative/For Freedoms, and, with Laurie Anderson and Laura Michalchyshyn, a co-founder of The Federation.