Hate Crimes seem to be on the increase. It is hard to really define these kinds of attacks because the media picks which ones to report, those in the legal system choose how to define the crimes and every statistician has their biases to support their claims. Many crimes involve some kind of hate. I view hate crimes much like the way I view polarization. There are not “more hate crimes now than ever” and we are not “more polarized than we have ever been.” A simple look back at the history of this country provides plenty of evidence to support my belief. I do agree that it feels as bad as it has ever been, because we simply choose to fear the unknown rather than embrace it. We choose to call someone names from the comfort of our phone sitting thousands of miles away from them.
Hate is almost always a product of fear. Almost every group of people or community has been the object of this fear driven hate at some point in history. Likewise, almost every community feels they have had it the worst. I don’t know how to keep score on that front. As human beings, we like certainty and order. A community of people that look like us, talk like us and think like us provides that certainty. The problem is that very few communities ever stay homogeneous for an extended period of time, especially today where technological advances have made almost every area of the earth reachable and provided information about the world to almost every one of the seven and a half billion people on the planet. When those communities come into contact with each other there is either conflict or cooperation or usually conflict than cooperation. Social Media amplifies this effect because we can wall ourselves off quite easily into us vs. them. Never mind that oftentimes we don’t know whom the hell “us” or “them” is at any moment.
I want to share a story about how fear led me to hate, but information and stepping outside my comfort zone have led to less fear and therefore less hate. My personal life experience is that of a white American secular Jewish male. I have spent most of my life in environments where, with the exception of the occasional Anti-Semitic comment (usually heard out on the ice), I rarely felt persecuted or was in fear. Before the summer of 2018, my only experience with Islam was through the lens of an American Jew in Tribeca on 9/11. After that day, I hated Muslims. All Muslims. It didn’t matter what sect or branch or what you looked like, you were evil. It was engrained in me from a very young age that as a Jew, Muslims were the enemy. 9/11 confirmed that initial assessment.
In my entire life, had I ever spent more than ten minutes knowingly talking to a Muslim? No. Had I ever taken any time to learn about Islam? No. My only prism to view this religion of millions of people was the one I saw firsthand on 9/11, what I saw on television, the articles I read in the newspaper, or what I heard throughout my community. Even secular Jews like myself were taught from a very young age that Muslims want to erase Israel off the map and in doing so create the possibility of another Holocaust. Therefore they were never to be trusted.
In the fall of 2018, my wife and I volunteered in northern Indonesia and Malaysia. Both countries are 90% Muslim. We did work on Simeulue, which is a small island off the coast of Indonesia that is under “Sharia Law.” When I saw the burkas and hijabs and heard sharia law, I had a visceral reaction. I was scared. What would they think about Americans? What if they found out I was Jewish? I had the belief that this whole system was barbaric. It is not fair that the women have to wear burkas or hijabs in the oppressive heat, but the men can wear whatever they want. Then I started to do the work in Sumatra and Simeulue and taught Muslim women computers. They all seemed happy and were joking the entire time. The women who wore the burkas almost all wore fluorescent Nike sneakers. Every person could not have been nicer and more interested in America. Not many Americans go up to that area, so we were a novelty as well. I got to thinking: Who am I to tell these people what is “right” for them? The more time I spent there, the less I even noticed the hijabs and the burkas and unsurprisingly I felt more comfortable and less afraid.
Simply, by actually exposing myself to something I feared, I learned that it is not the group that I should judge as enemies. I learned that my fears were unfounded. I understood that many of my beliefs about Islam were wrong.
So how does this apply to today in the United States? I live in Los Angeles. I spent most of my life in the “Tri-State” area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. I have spent almost no time outside of those communities. As I look at the rest of the country and the hundreds of millions of people in other areas, I can either choose to accept my initial judgments based on what I have heard or read or I can go see for myself before I consider myself judge and jury. What I universally find is that the more I expose myself to the unknown, the more I learn and the more full is life. I also realize I know next to nothing about most people.
My solution is a simple one in theory and clearly a difficult one in execution, but NOT insurmountable.
We have a problem in this country with infrastructure. We have a problem with education levels. We have problems with drug and alcohol addiction. We have a lot of problems.
What if we had a one-year mandatory service program for everyone eighteen years old?
What if we took people from all different socio-economic levels, different races, different religions, different sexual orientations, different areas of the country and randomly put groups together to tackle some of those problems? We could put these groups to task in all different “problem” areas. Some could serve in the military and therefore change the way we think about war and how quickly we want to fight one. Every parent in America will have skin in the game. Others could pave roads. Others could work as teachers. Others could help older people. All the while they would be paid an equal salary for that one-year and the entire country would benefit from their work. They would also work as a team to accomplish different tasks: A team that consists of every “type” of person.
Logistical headaches? Absolutely. Arguments and disagreements and fights with each other? Of Course. But that is how a true community works. People coexist and accept the differences amongst them for the greater good.
Why not a bi-partisan plan to stop the hate we see and polarization we feel?
We can either sit on Twitter and Facebook and beat the shit out of each other all day or we can accept that we know almost nothing about “them” and that maybe, just maybe some of “them” can wind up being our closest connections.
I don’t have a plan for everything, but this is one I think can work especially when many of the headlines contain the word hate.
Let me know your thoughts.