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Tied Up in "Nots"

October 4, 2018

 

The day before Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavenaugh went before the Senate Judicial Committee, I went to meet a friend for coffee. On the way into the diner I saw a bumper sticker in the parking lot that said, “Not a Liberal.”

 

I’d wager that bumper sticker had been on that truck for a while. Its message has certainly stayed with me.

 

My first impulse on seeing it was to magically summon a new bumper sticker out of thin air to paste over this one. Mine would say “Not a Label.”

 

What were my hopes for that imaginary bumper sticker? Well, that it would encourage people to be curious, engage their brain, sort through things and just generally be multifaceted in their views, able to manage contradictions and appreciate differences.

 

But you just can't say all that on a bumper sticker.

 

And I am sadly persuaded that those prone to bumper-sticker politics would never understand that. Because understanding something takes time, effort, sincerity, vulnerability and an open mind. It also actually takes discipline. Discipline, yep.

 

Sorry if I sound like an old-fashioned preacher man here (obviously, I am not) or a drill sergeant (I could probably use one), but I think the trend we see in our broader and popular culture is that we have become flaccid in the thinking department.

 

We have abdicated intelligence for received data. We’ve let memes speak for us rather than moderate or modify our beliefs, or engage in a thoughtful assessment of what patriotism really is and really can be.

 

To slap on a label and drive it around town is what often passes for conviction these days. To slaver left-or-right-wing, clever-or-not vitriol over Facebook page is too frequently a substitute for discourse.

 

Far more troubling, though, is to try and be clever by defining ourselves by what we are not. Because claiming to be “Not a fill in the blank” is the surest sign of the gravest ignorance of what we are defining ourselves as not being. Our society cannot afford to sell that schlock on the free market of cheap and flammable ideas.

 

After all:

What does Not a feminist mean?

What does Not a racist mean?

What does Not a socialist mean?

 

For that matter, what does Not a liberal even mean?

 

I’d wager it means that something about women, people of color, poor people and those who think differently seem threatening to the person claiming that negative self-identity. This line of reasoning—if it can be called that—leads to the conclusion that it is better to be what I am rather than to have the humility to recognize that we are all parts of one another. But we are and because of that we are also given the opportunity to find a way--hard and odd though it may be--to speak across the divide and attempt a connecting bridge.

 

This task is not so-called “snowflake” territory. This is the task to undertake as a corporate body of citizens, of humanity.

 

So these seem to me a few needful points to make:

Defining ourselves as “not” the thing we fear is not patriotism.

It is not clear thinking.

It is not good work. It is not respect for our heritage. It is not homage to those who

came before us.

 

And those of any religious or ethical faith know well that defining ourselves by what we are “not” robs joy from what we can say we are.

 

We still have time to be humble enough to discover new ways to be who we are. Though time is never to be wasted.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I'm a writer, yoga teacher, Lutheran pastor, and music nerd living in New York. I find a feast in daily living - most days, anyway - and write about it here. 

Finalist for the 2017 Chautauqua Prize!
The frank and funny story of a church-geek girl who spent twenty years in the ecclesiastical trenches as a Lutheran pastor, preaching weekly words of hope she wasn’t sure she even believed.