You, Me, Talk on this Page

| October 2, 2014 | 1 Comment

Howard Thurman writes that:

“…meaningful and creative shared experiences between people can be more compelling than all of the faiths, fears, concepts and ideologies that separate them. And, if these experiences can be multiplied and sustained over a sufficient duration of time, then any barrier that separates one person from another can be undermined and eliminated.”

It has been argued that finding “meaningful and creative experiences between people” whitewashes the distinguishing traits of those people. In the movement toward pluralism, marginalized voices fall silent next to the belief that in our differences lie the root of our divisions. Destruction and conformity point from the same hilt.

Whitewashing is not the problem with pluralism, nor is it the idea’s harmful side effect. A well-intentioned idealist and a closed-minded bigot think similarly concerning the object of their interest or ire. In both, an idea tries to mold the subject, and not the subject the idea. “I am an invisible man,” begins the titular, anonymous speaker in Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man.” Invisible “because people refuse to see me.” An idea ill formed molds the misperception: if the man speaks timidly, he must be naïve; if assertively, a rebel. Only through reading the book—his story, thoughts, experiences—do we approach a greater understanding.

“Finding common ground” is a misnomer. The phrase has led to a subtle confusion. “Finding” implies the ground is unknown but exists, like an undiscovered island. I tell you it rained and I felt cold.  You tell me you felt cold too. But you think about your boots that squeak indoors, or a leafy puddle by your front door. I think about my wet socks, or about swimming in a lake during a thunderstorm. In the moment we share none of these thoughts, but in our mutual ignorance we agree to a feeling of coldness, and commiserate with each other. Understanding is provisional, and serves us until we talk about umbrellas.

Common ground has been built, rather than found. We may continue to share our sensory experiences and parse them until we discover we never meant the same thing at all, and there is nothing between us but air. Carried to its extreme, language itself breaks down. Be thankful this does not happen regularly.

When the stakes are higher, it is tempting to retreat into the comfort of difference. Insults from friends push us back into ourselves. Discrimination and war demand entrenchment. We draw our borders and guard them. We fear incursions and territorial loss, and will stay where we are. I will fly my flag, and you yours. But greater difference must compel greater individual sacrifice. What is so dear to each of us that we would defy building a more perfect understanding? Too many things, unfortunately. I do not know if I will affect you, or be understood. But I do not believe I have lost anything from myself in the effort to build our common ground.

Featured Image photo credit: kohlmann.sascha via photopin cc

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Category: Philosophy and Religion, Politics, Social Activism, Thurman Thoughts

Nicholas Amadeo

About the Author ()

Nicholas Amadeo is a senior English major and Spanish minor. Find him wherever books are sold.

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  1. The last paragraph of this is amazing, Nick. And the title makes me a happy Hughes fan. Can’t wait to read more of your writing :)

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