This is a column about politics, and my role as the columnist is to promote an agenda that readers will either agree with or oppose. But I don’t want it to be a political column. I want to set a different stage.
Imagine that we’re in a bar — not to get drunk, but because of how useful the setting has been in literature (James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” Conor McPherson’s “The Weir,” Ernest Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast”) and cinema (“The Big Lebowski,” “Goodfellas”) as a place for people to relax, socialize and loosen, if not let go of, their convictions.
Last month, Heineken released an ad on YouTube in which three pairings of two people holding opposing views on climate change, transgender equality and feminism were given a task: construct a bar out of large building blocks, describe themselves to each other and either discuss their differences over a beer or walk away from each other. All of the participants chose the former.
In 1950, philosopher and logician Bertrand Russell wrote an essay called “Ideas that Have Harmed Mankind.” At the time, the glory Americans felt after World War II was beginning to fade, communism was raging in Russia and paranoia was spreading like a plague. Russell advocated for skepticism as a means of uniting opposing sides. He argued that we must break away from the tunnel vision through which we see the world so we can support our neighbors and, perhaps, discuss our differences over a beer.
That is our most important tool right now.
“In order to be happy we require all kinds of supports to our self-esteem,” Russell wrote. “We are human beings, therefore human beings are the purpose of creation. We are Americans, therefore America is God’s own country. We are white, and therefore God cursed Ham and his descendants who were black. We are Protestant or Catholic, as the case may be, therefore Catholics or Protestants, as the case may be, are an abomination.”
I am a homosexual man who was raised in an interfaith household against the backdrop of a predominantly conservative Long Island suburb. You may be a Catholic man who has been taught that God would not accept me, or a Protestant man who has been struggling with his own sexual identity his entire life. You may be a white mother of a police officer who fears for her child each day when he puts on his uniform and badge, or a black mother who doesn’t want to lose her child because of the perceived prejudice of a police officer. You may be an immigrant who feels he worked hard to earn his citizenship, or one who feels she is not being afforded the same opportunities as others because she came from a different country.
To Russell, the most harmful idea was excessive pride. We only hurt others when we lift ourselves above them, he argued, instead of realizing that we are equals, working together toward common goal. In the Heineken ad, participants had to work together to build a bar before they even began to reveal personal information to each other.
“We are all one family…,” Russell wrote, “and the happiness of no one branch of this family can be built securely upon the ruin of another.”
When we read a news story, its content refracts off our individual outlooks like light off a prism — only we don’t get the rainbow, we get black and white. We immediately choose a hero and a villain and, albeit unconsciously, reinforce the way in which we interact with one another. The most powerful thing we can do when we process the news is to ask questions, doubt what we read before we confirm it through other sources, talk about it with those with whom we disagree, demand to have our voices heard and listen to those with different voices. We need to stop looking for heroes and villains in the news and instead look for people.
This may appear idealistic or naïve, coming from a 22-year-old with a background of relative privilege. But the will to communicate is antithetical to naivety, as it promotes growth, and arguing can be productive when both sides are honestly listening. These are just ideas, but, as Russell would argue, ideas can greatly impact humankind.
Brian Stieglitz is the reporter for the Bellmore and Merrick Herald Life. Comments about this column? Bstieglitz@liherald.com.