Demarcation: the action of fixing the boundary or limits of something.
When I worked on a college campus, I was responsible for addressing problematic student behaviors. Often, a student’s behavior violated generally accepted community standards while not directly violating a rule (for example, we didn’t technically have a rule against turning your residence hall floor into an indoor slip-n-slide, but we did consider it to be non-compliant with community standards). When this happened, there were always people quick to suggest writing a new policy or adding the specific behavior to an existing policy. I learned quickly that giving in to the pressure to spell everything out in this way would have meant having the longest and most convoluted code of student conduct ever. Not only that, though. It would have meant attempting to box students in with rules, to prevent them from freely experiencing choices and their consequences. Every interaction we had, then, would have been about rules, about proof of guilt or innocence – rather than about what it means to be a community, about the common good, and how members of a community are expected to regulate their own behaviors toward that good. As an educator, I tried to make the judicial process about the life of the community.
I tried to do that in the microcosm of the residence halls on one small college campus because I believe that is how we are called to live as citizens of our civil communities and as members of the wider human community.
I look around me these days and see so much that is troubling…
…In this election season, candidates are freely applying the most heinous comparisons, to Nazi Germany for example, to actions or decisions with which they disagree. They liberally pepper their speeches with made-up “facts”. Donald Trump, whose rhetoric consists mostly of calling other people names (stupid, boring, ugly, loser) and making self-aggrandizing statements (“I have one of the highest IQs”, “I’m rich”) is hailed as a straight-talking response to political correctness.
…In today’s climate, if I speak out against police brutality and racial profiling, I am told I am contributing to lawlessness and anarchy, to police deaths. If I speak out against the negative rhetoric and tactics of protesters or those who use the protests as a cover for illegal activity, I am called a racist.
…Refugees from conflict and war seek peace and safety while many of our countries cower in fear of terrorists or erect razor-wire to stave-off perceived scarcity, using dehumanizing tactics to make these choices appear reasonable.
…Don’t even get me started on what happens if one speaks compassionately about either side in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Or abortion. Or any one of a host of other divisive issues.
We are so busy making up ways to demarcate who is with us and who is against us that there is no room left for the voices of those who believe that both #blacklivesmatter and #policelivesmatter – for those who believe that all lives matter but who respect the truth that at this point in our history hash tagging that is disrespectful to those whose life experiences have been discrimination and marginalization.
I personally don’t use the term “political correctness” because it is most often used as a bludgeon to attack people on the left who stand for sensitivity to others. But while there is no one-size-fits-all term for the left to use, they still manage to find a variety of harsh and hurtful words to bludgeon those on the right whose views differ from theirs. And because of all this bludgeoning in our rhetoric, no real dialogue takes place. One political candidate went so far as to suggest last week that his party’s candidates should not be expected to participate in debates moderated by persons who had never been members of that political party. So, rather than seeking dialogue, we are going to lay down another line of demarcation – in politics, we only speak to those who already agree with us?
Where in all of this, I wonder, is the common good? Once we’ve marked our territories, outlined our many divisions and subdivisions, where is there ground identified as neutral territory? Where is the ground on which people of good will but differing perspectives can meet?
Again, I find myself thinking about the situations I worked with in university student life. One of the biggest challenges was mediating roommate disputes. Here’s how it typically went down: one student would come to see me, sharing the atrocious, cruel, thoughtless things their roommate had done to them. The student would often cry, hands shaking, telling me of how deeply hurt they were. My heart would go out to that student, my sense of justice would be engaged, I would want to take on the role of advocate for him or her. Then I would bring in the roommate and hear a different story, varying in particulars, yet resulting in another deeply hurt individual. When I brought these two hurting souls together, each firmly entrenched in the belief that their roommate was an evil, horrible, thoughtless person, my first effort was to get them to share their feelings. Often, once they opened up about feeling hurt or disregarded or disrespected, tears, hugs and apologies followed. The two would then want to leave my office, feeling better and assuming that we were done. But what followed next was the more difficult part – actually going back to the root causes of their differences and looking for new ways to address them in the future. Looking for ways to get both of them thinking about the common good in terms of their room, their interpersonal relationship, and within the larger context of their residential community. Without that second piece, the two would soon be back, crying over the same issues as before – often after having turned their residential floor into a Civil War re-enactment, sides enlisted, battle flags planted.
I was thinking of all of this the other day, as I walked the land at Prairiewoods. When I saw the tree, photographed above, I noted how it stands in a place of demarcation between the prairie and the woods. The tree appears to have its own leanings, its branches clearly reaching towards the woods, with only one or two stunted arms stretching toward the prairie. Yet, while I couldn’t get it all in one photograph on my cell phone, the trees roots were visible as well – and they were strong and vital, reaching in all directions. Woodlands and prairies are quite visually different from one another, yet each is a vital ecosystem with equally good characteristics to recommend it. I couldn’t imagine declaring, “The woods must suffer so the prairie can thrive” or “I stand with the woods against the prairie.” I couldn’t imagine choosing one and turning my back forever on the other – no matter whether one “agreed” more directly with my heart.
The wisdom of creation is the wisdom of communion. It is the wisdom of interconnection, interplay, collaboration and cooperation. It is the wisdom of the common good. In my life, I need to strive to be more like that tree: I have my leanings, of course – my values, beliefs, ethics, my politics. But I also have roots that push outward, that explore the territory beyond all demarcations. I have the gift of a voice that can be raised in dialogue and questioning, of ears that can do greater things than hear – they can actually listen.
I have a heart whose natural state is open.
What’s more, I believe we are each endowed with these gifts. I believe that we are entrusted by the Universe to make the most of these gifts in service to the common good. They say desperate times call for desperate measures – so I’m calling us all to these measures:
- talk to people you don’t have to;
- attend another party’s political forum and meet the human beings there;
- read a book with a title you disagree with or a magazine that you feel has idealogical leanings away from yours;
- step into new territories and discomfort zones.
Let’s act as if we haven’t been infected by our current cultural need to demarcate every line and label one side “us” and the other side “them”. Let’s use our voices to ask questions and express compassion; use our ears to hear AND to listen. Let’s allow our hearts to stay open. And, as may be likely, if our hearts are closed, let’s allow them to break open again – for our common good.