Tuesday, February 28, 2017

I Want to Understand

I want to understand people. I want to understand why people—all people—are who they are, why they think the way they think, why they believe what they believe, why they say what they say, and why they do what they do. What would such understanding require?

It would require that I be Muslim.
It would require that I be an immigrant.
It would require that I be a woman.
It would require that I be poor.
It would require that I be black.
It would require that I be Russian.
It would require that I be Jewish.
It would require that I be unemployed.
It would require that I be a high school dropout.
It would require that I be a factory worker.
It would require that I be an inner city resident.

I’m not any of those things. I’m a Christian, native-born, male, middle-class, white, American, educated, employed, white-collar worker who lives in the rural South. And I’m happy to be what I am. I don’t want to give those things up.

But if I am really to understand all people, it would require that I be everything I’m not, in addition to what I am.

And if I really want to understand everybody, I guess it would even require that I be a bigoted, racist, homophobic, xenophobic, jingoistic science-denier—you know, things I really, really, really don’t want to be.

I really do want to understand people. I want to understand them fully, completely, and totally. I want to understand them comprehensively.

When I started thinking about this, I thought about saying it would be helpful to be a Muslim for a day, an immigrant for a day, and so forth. But that wouldn’t go far enough. You know the old saying, “Walk a mile in my shoes”? A mile-long walk isn’t an adequate experience. I’d have to live someone’s entire life, have their entire background, and their entire experience if I’m really going to understand them.

And I couldn’t do it by groups or by categories. I’d have to do it person-by-person. I’d have to share the experience of every individual in the world. After all, every person’s experience is different. For example, there are different branches of Islam, one could be born a Muslim in a large number of differing contexts, and it matters what family you’re part of. And there are all sorts of genetic, developmental, cultural, and social factors that could influence you. Each Muslim, like each Christian or Buddhist or atheist, is different from each other one.

Everybody’s unique. So to truly understand humanity in its totality, I’d have to have the life experiences of every person in the world. Since there are about 7.4 billion people in the world, it would be hard to do. And since there are around 250 births per minute world-wide (or about 360,000 per day), it would also be pretty hard to keep up.

See, here’s the thing: experience produces perspectives and assumptions. Because of who I am, what I’ve done, where I’ve been, what I’ve studied, and who has influenced me, I have certain ways of looking at and thinking about things. Because of who I am, I tend to respond in particular ways to situations, issues, and people.

I wish I could have everybody else’s experiences, perspectives, and assumptions. But I can’t, so I will go through life being very limited in my ability to really understand other people. So what can I do?

I can do the next best things: I can learn all I can about what makes other people who they are. I can refuse to dismiss other people’s experience. I can study history. I can read literature from other cultures. I can view films made from other points of view. And I can get to know people other than those who share most of my defining characteristics.

If I can’t have everybody else’s experiences and see things from their point of view, at least I can try to move beyond my default setting that prompts me to value my experiences and perspectives above all others.

Our world, our nation, and our communities would be much better off if we’d all at least try …

Thursday, February 23, 2017

L. Q. C. Lamar

It was the late great Mr. C. E. Julian, esteemed teacher of history at Lamar County (GA) High School, who taught me that my home county was named for a man named L. Q. C. Lamar. I don’t think he told us that “L. Q. C.” stood for “Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus”—but it did.

(By the way, he was actually L.Q.C. II—yep, they actually named him after his father, who was already saddled with that name that sounded like a law firm in a gladiator movie. Also by the way, I once asked my father, the late great Champ Ruffin, why he didn’t name me after him. He said, “You must be kidding. Would you really want to go through life being called ‘Little Champ’?”)

I also don’t think Mr. Julian told us that John F. Kennedy devoted a chapter to L. Q. C. Lamar in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Profiles in Courage (1955)—but he did.

So who was Lucius (as his friends called him) Lamar?

Well, he was born in Putnam County in 1825 and educated at Emory College, then located in Oxford, Georgia. He married the daughter of Emory’s president. He practiced law and was elected to the Georgia legislature. When his father-in-law became president of the University of Mississippi, Lamar moved his family to Oxford (the one in Mississippi). He was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1857, but he resigned in 1860 in order to become a member of Mississippi’s secession convention. He wrote the state’s ordinance of secession. He was one of those leaders who were so enthusiastic about secession they were referred to as “fire-eaters.” He served as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Confederate army in the early years of the war and as a diplomat for the Confederacy during its later years.

Lamar again served as a Congressman from Mississippi from 1873 until 1877, when he was elected to the United States Senate. He later served as Secretary of the Interior. He wound up his career of public service as an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court from 1888 until his death in 1893.

President Kennedy considered Lamar a “profile in courage” because of his actions as a U.S. Senator. At least three times he acted in ways that were contrary to the clear wishes of his constituents. In those days, it was standard procedure for a state legislature to issue instructions to their national representatives on how they should vote on an issue. On one major issue, Lamar defied the instructions of the Mississippi legislature.

In 1878, while under tremendous pressure from the citizens of his home state, he said,

The liberty of this country and its great interests will never be secure if its public men become mere menials to do the biddings of their constituents instead of being representatives in the true sense of the word, looking to the lasting prosperity and future interests of the whole country.

Imagine—an elected national figure with so much courage and integrity, and with so much devotion to the welfare of the entire nation, that he did what his conscience told him was right, no matter the consequences to his career.

Lamar County should be very proud to carry the name of such a person.

Everybody figured Lamar’s political career was over, since his votes were condemned by almost all of Mississippi’s voters. But a funny thing happened on Lamar’s way to political oblivion. He traveled around the state, explaining why he did what he did. And people were so moved by his integrity and sincerity, they reelected him.

Imagine—voters who are willing to listen to a politician, willing to realize that, even if they don’t agree with him, he has the country’s best interests at heart, and willing to reelect him because of his integrity and courage.

Oh, and I have to say it one more time: imagine a national elected official being more interested in doing what is right and best than in protecting his or her place in office.

I mean, just imagine …