Mirror, mirror on the wall, who in the land is most ignorant of all?And for the mirror to respond:
You are the most ignorant of all! You think that just because you have traveled the world, you are a more tolerant, more open person than others who haven't. Well, think again ...Why am I being so hard on myself, you may wonder? Recent events — I refer to the shooting near Tucson, Arizona — have prompted me to eat an extra-large slice of humble pie.
As soon as the news started to break on my Twitter feed, I had the shooter pegged as an Angry White Male (AWM) who was trying to do in his congresswoman because she'd voted for health care. He'd really wanted to assassinate President Obama but targeted his congressional representative as the next best thing. When I learned that Gabrielle Giffords was Jewish, it made even more sense. As a Democrat, a woman, and a Jew, she made a good substitute for America's first African American president ("the other").
My narrative was further enhanced when I learned that those who helped to save the Congresswoman's life included her gay Latino intern and a Korean-born trauma surgeon. It figured the Good Guys would be the kind of people the Bad Guy doesn't approve of (homosexuals, immigrants).
What a script I had going! But there was just one problem. As everyone now knows, the perpetrator, Jared Loughner, doesn't fit the profile of an AWM. He is a loner with no clear political affiliation or agenda.
In other words, I'd leapt to the wrong conclusion, and my conscience has been niggling me ever since. Why didn't it occur to me right away that Loughner could simply be a paranoid schizophrenic? There are, of course, no boundaries — political, cultural, or racial — on mental illness. Seng-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter, was a Korean-born permanent U.S. resident.
The nation is still mulling over the lessons of the Tucson tragedy. While I have plenty of opinions on what those should be, mostly having to do with my experience of living in countries with more restrictive gun ownership laws, I will focus instead on what Tucson has taught me about myself, and the biases I possess towards other Americans.
|Grown-up male Komodo dragon|
w/ forked tongue, courtesy whl.travel
In a previous post, I called out my fellow Americans on their xenophobia, condemning those who are spreading dangerous lies about Muslims, Muslim Americans, and President Obama.
As it turns out, I, too, subscribe to negative stereotypes of other Americans. Mine are of those who identify themselves as politically conservative. Unless told otherwise, I tend to assume most of them are hard-core capitalists, flag-waving patriots, religious fundamentalists, white supremacists, birthers, libertarians, gay bashers, and NRA supporters, when perhaps that isn't the case.
What's more, I'm all too willing to believe that, if provoked, many right-wingers wouldn't hesitate to take out someone who struck them as being un-American in some way.
I'd love to be able to excuse myself by pleading that I've lived out of this country for so long that I can no longer negotiate its political landscape. (Notably, over on the Matador Network, a bunch of us have been debating whether expats can be cut some slack for becoming apathetic towards the politics of their homelands.)
But the fact is, I'm biased.
Of course, I encountered political conservatives during my days as a rex-pat: e.g., Britain's Little Englanders and Japan's right-wingers who drive around in sound trucks. But I tended to think of them as part of the experience of getting to know the elephant wrinkles and all.
But now that I'm back with my own people, I feel as though I've entered a a den of Komodo dragons: full of venom and capable of cold-blooded murder. And you know something else? They scare the living daylights out of me. It's not so much fear of "X" as terror of "X."
Let's see, I think it works like this. If I don't want other Americans to stereotype me as one of those crazies who gets caught up in living abroad and renounces all ties to the United States, I should avoid unfairly stereotyping them.
Apparently, I'm not alone in having lost the hang of the "do onto others..." maxim. Former-Roman-Catholic nun-turned-religious-historian Karen Armstrong says that most of us "moderns" are lacking in compassion: i.e., the moral imagination to place ourselves in the shoes of others. She feels so strongly about this that she has written a book outlining the 12 steps to a compassionate life. (That was after she won a TED prize to create a Compassion Charter.)
Armstrong distilled her advice into "12 steps" for its resonance with AA. She thinks that people of today are addicted to bludgeoning their opponents into accepting their point of view. We define ourselves by our hates: this person is everything I hope I'm not (but fear I might be).
Armstrong's admonitions have gotten through to me. I'm reminded of my expat adjustment process, first in England and later in Japan. I can remember in both countries reaching a stage where I told everyone: "You know, the more I learn about this place, the more I realize how little I know." Admitting my ignorance was a kind of turning point. From then on, I began to revise my initial impressions, e.g.:
- English people are reserved not because they are cold and unfeeling but because they live on a small, overcrowded island with a capricious climate.
- Japanese people are suspicious of foreigners not because they are all xenophobic but because they are still recovering from centuries of self-imposed isolation.
- America's political conservatives are full of anger not because they want to lash out with violence against people who aren't like them but because they feel threatened by a country that's changing in ways they don't understand or approve of, and threatening to leave them behind.
Question to other expats| rex-pats| repats: Have you, too, found that national tragedies like Tucson reveal uncomfortable truths about your relationship to the people and politics of your native land?