This one hit home with me. It reminded me of my own face-off with essentialism about 25 years ago. I was involved in a local initiative in Springfield called “The Values Project.” The goal was to ask our community what were the values we wanted to pass along to our progeny. It was a noble, if not naïve, initiative that went sideways quickly. We had thousands of suggestions and inputs from the community, thanks to a very cooperative outreach and spirit from local media.
The first few agreed-upon values were clear: Honesty, kindness, and maybe even work ethic was in there somewhere. Many suggested values that were related, but not definitive, such as “live and let live,” “welcoming to all,” etc. Our data folks lumped them under the broad term of “tolerance” … none of us realizing in the mid-’90s, that was a code word to many. The fuse was lit.
I worked at a local bank at the time, and spent several days answering angry calls, and having people drop by unannounced, asking why and how I could be involved in something that would attack our “traditional values.” One visitor suggested I was part of a vast conspiracy involving the Trilateral Commission and was being used as a pawn.
One older gentleman came in and was very, very upset with me. He was lecturing me on how harmful I was being to our community, and how tolerance was a synonym for sin, and how I was going to Hell. I had reached my own tolerance level, and was standing up to ask that he leave when he stopped, slumped in his chair, and tears welled in his eyes.
“My son died from AIDS,” he spoke through his anguish. This man went from an unreasonable bigot in my eyes, to a broken, despondent father. I sat next to him and did my best to comfort him. Essentialism.
Brooks goes on to share some antidotes to essentialism. One is acknowledging that all our stereotypes are wrong and hurtful to some degree. It also requires “social courage” to cross group lines to have conversations. “In conversation,” he writes, “people are not objects, but ongoing narrators of their own lives, navigating between their multiple identities, steering through certainties and doubts, and refining their categories through contact with others.”
Amen to that.
Brian Fogle is the President and CEO of the Community Foundation of the Ozarks.