What If We Stopped to Ask Why?
If we got more curious about why others take the positions they do, we might find a way to better understand our neighbors and find common ground
In Embracing Curiosity, I step away from writing about travel to comment on the bigger journey of life, exploring my faith and politics with curiosity and nuance.
For years I heard people make claims about how voter ID laws were voter suppression. While I hesitated to challenge the claims because I couldn’t speak to the issue as an expert, it seemed like an odd proclamation. After all, I had possessed an ID since I turned 15 and I got my first driver’s permit. Getting my new license in Indiana after moving from Michigan wasn’t much of a challenge, didn’t take a long time, and we were able to afford the fee. I struggled to see how anyone could have a hard time getting an ID. Besides, didn’t every US citizen have a driver’s license?
Then we moved to Texas. We didn’t just move to Texas; we moved to the largest city in Texas and the fourth largest city in the United States.
My husband started the process of getting his new license before me. Since he was working from home, he had a little more flexibility and he started pulling together the necessary paperwork. Despite the fact that he had to make a couple appointments and wait in line for longer than he anticipated, he was able to get his license without major troubles. But even then, we started to see just how difficult it could be to apply for an ID in Harris County. Locations were limited, wait times long, and if you didn’t have access to your own transportation and the “free” time to make the necessary appointments, it might just be easier to give up and go without the ID.
Then I started to work on gathering my paperwork.
As a married woman, my job was a little harder. I needed more proof of identity (such as my marriage license) and then there was the little hiccup of a Social Security card. While some have told me in the years since that you can use other documentation to prove your Social Security number, that wasn’t clear to me at the time. I had lost my Social Security card years before when my wallet was stolen while I was working as a substitute teacher. Somehow, I had been able to deal with employment paperwork up to that point, but we were in a new state and rules had to be followed.
Options were limited. I had to drive 20 miles away with a four and six-year-old to a government building where I had to wait over an hour with an antsy security guard looking over my shoulder and constantly reminding me to keep my relatively well-behaved children quiet. The whole ordeal took over two hours and required the ability to transport myself where I needed to go. I had a job with hours that would allow me to make the trip. I couldn’t imagine what it would have been like if I hadn’t had my own car or time off of my job or more than just the two children.
Suddenly I understood why people say that voter ID laws are voter suppression; experiences and ability to get those IDs depend on so many different factors that we can’t just depend on our own experiences to determine the validity of those concerns.
It’s just one of many times when I’ve discovered that knowing the “why” of a person’s position changes and enriches our perspective, even if we still come out not agreeing with each other.
It is so easy to judge others when we don’t know why they do what they do or believe what they believe. Knowing “why” isn’t about finding excuses, because sometimes the “why” is inexcusable, but it gives us a starting point for necessary dialog.
One of my favorite films to demonstrate this is American History X. It is painful and violent and like every film that deals with the issue of race in America, it is imperfect, but it so clearly shows what happens when we start to break down the “why” in our lives.
In the film, Edward Norton’s character, a high-profile young neo-Nazi named Derek, starts to process the upbringing and events that eventually led to his arrest and imprisonment for the brutal murder of a young Black man who was trying to steal his truck. During the course of the movie we see the subtle racism that his father regularly preached at the dinner table and the family’s reaction to their father’s eventual death at the hands of gang members.
While inexcusable, the “why” behind Derek’s violent racism becomes clear. In order for him to change he has to unlearn everything that he has been taught by word and deed over the course of his whole life. And while he does make the changes necessary, his redemption is bittersweet because it still doesn’t protect his family from the violence that surrounds them.
Asking “why” isn’t about finding excuses or searching for the outlier narrative that helps us prove our inexcusable positions and ideas; it’s about better understanding our neighbors and learning how to relate to people with whom we disagree. It’s about understanding that as humans, we should always be learning and growing.
Asking people “why” is so difficult because it requires work. It requires that we take time to listen to what drives people and possibly ask follow-up questions. It requires dialog. And it can be incredibly humbling.
I’ve often told my students that we don’t know what we don’t know until we find out that we didn’t know. It’s ok to not know something. It’s ok to not understand something. It’s not ok to keep refusing to understand something once people have shown you what you didn’t know before.
Reading my grandmother’s memoir and the stories of not one, but two pregnancy losses helped me better understand her staunch pro-life position. Listening to my friends of color talk about their experiences as individuals and parents have helped me to better understand the difficulties facing those outside of my white, middle-class experience. Listening to my friends talk about the difficulties that they face dealing with health insurance companies in caring for their chronically-ill children has helped me better understand their overall position on health care. Listening to my sister-in-law talk about her struggles with her gender identity has helped me better understand the transgender experience and community. Listening to my non-Christian friends talk about their sometimes troubling experiences with the Church has helped me better understand the pain and healing that needs to be taking place in order for the Church to ever again have any kind of positive influence in the United States.
We aren’t all walking around with signs on us telling people what we are dealing with or revealing our pasts. Like many, I’m also guilty of sitting on my high horse from my social media dais making proclamations about issues that I know very little about without getting curious about why my opponents feel so different from me. I’m guilty of seeing myself as superior in my knowledge and understanding of the world around me. I’m guilty of looking down on those who do not see the world as I do.
But what if, instead of just attacking those who we disagree with, we just started by asking “why do you feel this way?” What if we committed to being more inquisitive? What if we started by having a conversation instead of just making assumptions?
We might be pleasantly surprised by the results.
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