In 2000, I viewed Without Sanctuary at the New-York Historical Society, and felt sickened. It was an exhibition of lynching postcards and photographs, souvenirs of violence against mainly black, mainly Southern men. In some images, a crowd—men, yes, but also women and children—are all smiles, dressed for a church picnic. No masked Klansmen. Seeing the bodies of black men hanging from trees—strange fruit—was horrific enough, but the cheerful greetings on the back of the postcards were equally disturbing. One person penned, “This is the barbecue we had last night” on a photo of a man burned alive. Other messages contained pleasant updates about loved ones. More than 3,000 lynchings occurred from 1890 to 1930—in the South, yes, but also in California, Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania. Here, in the Golden State, Mexican men were lynched, too.
Sights feed minds
When I opened Facebook and saw a viral video of another tragedy, this time in Texas, I thought of the lynching exhibit. Those postcards and photographs were sold door to door and mailed to relatives all over the United States. Haven’t we learned yet that images of black men being brutalized only serves to desensitize people to images of black men being brutalized? Even research proves that viewing violence in video games, films and the news can make us less sensitive to the pain and suffering of others, inspire us to be more fearful of the world around us and encourage us to behave more aggressively or harmfully toward others. Posting images of cruelty, terror and violence does connect us to trending news. But it does nothing to change how we treat one another. Expressing outrage on social media offers emotional release but doesn’t ensure a different future. And that brings me to Orlando.
Come out and take a stand
Change comes from within. We each need to confront our own prejudices and fears. Healing ourselves is the only way to change systems because systems are comprised of us and we sometimes act according to our lowest selves. Like this: If we are afraid to speak up for what’s right because we might lose our jobs or friends or risk public discomfort, we feed the hate. When we fail to confront ignorance in our workplaces, our families, our communities, we fail at our real work of becoming ethical, spiritual human beings. So if you deny that gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people are your family and deserve fully equal civil rights, do the inner work to wake yourself up so you can speak out in love when bigotry arises.
All or nothing
Some religious teachings, new age philosophies and political agendas are stuck in what psychologists call all-or-nothing thinking. Like this: There is only heaven or hell, only good or evil, only love or fear. All-or-nothing thinking is a pattern prevalent in depression and is part of the fight-flight-or-freeze response. When we call a mass murderer evil, or when news media does so, we reveal our ignorance of mental health issues. We also deny the complexity within all humans. The middle path is reality. It keeps us present, open-minded, honest and able to creatively solve problems. That’s where I’m trying to walk. Will you join me?