On the night of the college football championship game, I talked to Russ. He is an avid (and loud) Bama fan, the more so due to being fairly toasted already even before the coin toss. He is a blue-collar Trump supporter; he talked a lot about "handouts"; about how Hillary lies but Trump speaks only truth; about how Democrats need to support their president, just like Republicans did with Obama. He talked about how, although he believes the Bible (we didn't unpack what that means), he views all religion as simple brainwashing and indoctrination.
He spouted a lot of nonsense, but in my estimation, it was largely just casual bluster. There were also some really enjoyable parts of the conversation: I learned that he played linebacker at the University of Kansas in the mid-80s, and that just weeks after he lost his scholarship for academic reasons, he was drafted by the Oakland Interceptors of the USFL, but never played because the league went belly-up before the season started. He also asked about me, and was sort of charmingly baffled that someone who teaches Hebrew could be a Lutheran instead of a Jew. Alas, I get that more often than you might expect.
For the past few months, in the wake of the direction our country is taking, I have really been striving to take up the challenge to respect all of my fellow humans, to be a good listener, and to celebrate a plurality of diverse viewpoints. I view these behaviors as no more than being a decent person, and I have always taken this task very seriously--all the more so lately. With Russ, I really worked hard to find common ground as a fellow human being, and I felt we succeeded at this to a fairly gratifying degree. I was very open with him that while we didn't see eye to eye--in fact, as a progressive Democrat, I am one of the people he insulted freely and often--I really appreciated the conversation and enjoyed getting to know him. He warmly reciprocated the sentiment.
Over time, however--we talked off and on for most of the game--an accumulation of truly abhorrent ideas slowly began to build. Most were regurgitated falsehoods, like how Obama is a lying Muslim born in Kenya, or how the Clintons have actually murdered people; but they were no less awful (or ridiculous) for that. He asked me if I taught "Muslimism" in my Hebrew Studies courses; and then he informed me that the removal of "In God We Trust" from our schools and currency is the result of insidious Muslim incursion into our society (my words, not his), because they don't believe in God and they hate Jesus. He told me that if I don't believe this, I am crazy and ignorant.
As such ideas arose, I confronted each directly, saying explicitly that they were patently false and that he had accepted simple lies as facts. But by the end of the game, my patience and energy for conciliation had worn extremely thin. I flatly told him to shut his mouth about Muslims, for good, until he was ready to learn and accept basic reality. At this point, he insulted me for my education, and accused me of condescension for trying to correct him.
Suffice it to say that the conversation did not end well, and we parted on less than good terms. I told him that I was disappointed to discover that he held such banal hate in his heart, and that for someone who talks about indoctrination he sure had swallowed a massive load of utter bullshit. Then I left, unable to tolerate any more.
I tried, I really tried. I know that Russ is a worst-case scenario; but I am left wondering how to understand what happened. Did I fail in my effort to extend generosity? What does generosity look like in the face of such an interaction? I fully understand that such questions can be answered in a very straightforward way: by standing up to his despicable falsehoods and hate, I was being generous to others by being an advocate; generosity does not require one to tolerate the intolerable, which would just be enabling; and so on and so forth. I know all that. But the really challenging aspect, as I see it, is being put in a position where we must not only be generous, but also constantly be on the alert for when that generosity should legitimately be cut short. Being generous is often difficult enough (at least for me); realizing that being generous doesn't always mean being nice just adds a new level of unsettledness to the whole process. This seems all the more salient when I consider that if I had not been making an effort to be open and welcoming in the first place, I never would have found myself in the position of having to withdraw that warmth.
This is important to me because I'm fairly certain I'm in for a whole lot more of these kinds of conversations in the months and years to come. Frankly, the prospect is exhausting and depressing; and yet, as ever, I really feel it's important for us all to learn once again how to respect and talk with each other. I'm under no illusion that everyone's just supposed to get along swimmingly, but I really feel driven (in some circles, one might say "called") to build new bridges and pursue new lines of communication. I genuinely believe in the importance of this work, in a broad social sense but also specifically for me as a person. While I feel overall I acquitted myself just fine in this interaction, nevertheless I acknowledge that it was difficult--and that in the end I did not walk away feeling especially fulfilled, or even unequivocally "good." Again, not totally surprising; but the challenge of generosity has certainly taken on new dimensions after this encounter.
Hence the processing. I don't have any specific need or question; I'm just putting this out for contemplation in the hope of finding some strength in relatively like-minded community. So if you've made it this far, thanks...it means a lot, truly. I appreciate your entertainment of my need to articulate all of this.