Hate or Peace? A Message Written Ten Years Ago

"Children are the living message we send to a time we will not see." (Neil Postman, 1982) What message do we want to send: hate or peace?

The Chancellor of The New York State University System published my essay 10 years ago. Here it is, edited to fit my commitment to keep my posts “short.”

I write this essay about the terrorist assault on September 11, 2001 not as a sociologist trained in objectively examining causes and consequences of human behavior, but from the heart of a human whose sense of comfort has been unraveled, whose complacency has been shattered.  While my discipline informs me, my heart leads me.

 Terrorism is an act of hatred, at the bottom of which is fear.  Certainly terrorism is not the only evidence of hatred or fear in humankind.  Hate crimes, domestic violence, and substance abuse are all examples of hatred in our world, our country, our families, and, indeed, ourselves. 

What causes this hatred, this fear?  My answer is neither complex nor profound, but the implications of acting upon it are both exceedingly complex and immeasurably profound. 

At the root of heinous acts of violence like the terrorist attack, I believe, is the propensity to focus on the differences between us, thus obscuring the commonalities among us. 

By focusing on our differences, we see ourselves as separate from others.  If the differences were only just that—differences—then little harm would come of it.  The variety of human form and expression makes life interesting and exciting.  Our differences are not always, however, seen as positive; they can be (and are) used against us.  We see the “other” as “lesser.”  Terrorists vilify their victims–they are no more than expendable “targets” rather than thinking, feeling people.

If we choose to focus on our differences in gender, race, age, religion, sexual preference, social class, weight, or other characteristics, we can rationalize hate or fear.  Yet if we choose to see the common needs and struggles for all humans, it is harder to hate. Empathy replaces fear.  If you are like me, then how can I hurt you?  It would be like hurting myself. 

The next logical question is: why do humans tend to focus on differences rather than similarities?  My sociological training points me to culture.  We learn to think of ourselves as separate from others by being taught about differences rather than similarities.  Of course, the alternative explanation is that focusing on differences is in our genetics—that nature created us this way.  Perhaps it is a survival instinct.

Whether the answer is “my culture made me do it” or “I can’t help it because it is instinctual,” we run the danger of giving up because we believe that “forces beyond our control” are at work.  Yet, humans defy their “natural instincts” by eating too much or too little food and purposefully engaging in life-threatening behavior. As for culture, who creates culture?  People do, of course.  Because human create culture, humans can change culture.

The terrorist attack on September 11, 2001 changed me.  I thought about life and choices in a way I had never imagined.  Rather than feeling different from the rest of the world, I felt for the first time that, as a U.S. citizen, I was no different than anyone else in the world.  We are all vulnerable; our suffering and our fears are shared. In this attack, the human carnage was enormous in such a short span of time, but no more painful to the victims than other more isolated, yet ongoing, atrocities inside and outside of our nation.  Our world is filled with hatred and fear because humans harbor hatred and fear. Why? Because, at least in some part, we see “others” rather than “humans.”

Where does this leave us?  Whether we speak of changing our nature or changing our culture, it all comes down to individual choice. I can choose to react in anger against “them” who hurt “us.”  Or I can choose to work toward creating a cultural shift toward peace, starting with me.  In my professional and personal life I can look beneath the differences I have been trained to see and search for the common bonds that link all humans with each other. 

I realize that this is risky business.  This means changing the rules with which everyone is so comfortable.  It means being patient and vigilant.  While I am promoting the common human experience, there will still be those seeking revenge against the “evil others” and I may become a target for their hatred.  But is it any less risky to march ahead on this very familiar path of “us vs. them” and the fear and hatred that results? 

In my mind, we are all victims when we choose hatred over peace. When fear of our differences hardens us, we fail to recognize our unity and deny our rich, wondrous diversity.

~ by Lorna's Voice on September 11, 2011.

39 Responses to “Hate or Peace? A Message Written Ten Years Ago”

  1. […] read 3 recent posts: the meatloaf fiasco, the 9/11 essay, and my alcoholic “bottom” story. While he thought they were effective and well-done, […]

  2. Aw, thanks. Love you, too!

  3. You truly have a gift of words. Beautiful piece that I never read 10 years ago. I am very proud of you.
    Love ya cyber-sis. 🙂

  4. I, too, have hope in future generations–my son’s generation seems to get it on so many levels that count (but they have to work on a few issues like entitlement and disregard for at least some of the more important rules)–but that’s a generalization.

  5. Sad that overall as humans we have not learned anything in 10 years. But at least there is some hope when I see the welcoming and embracing of diversity by younger generations. Maybe in another 10 years we will see the start of mending. Thank you for such an insightful post, then and now.

  6. You are very welcome. It was long and not my usual style (all text and serious), so thanks for reading screen-fulls of text.

  7. I will never forget what prompted that day and work in my own little ways to spread kindness. What else can I do?

  8. I just wish we could figure out a way to stop having tragic days and start celebrating peace. But if wishes were horses, we all would ride…;)

    Thanks for the accolades. I know it’s a very different kind of a post for me.

  9. The world needs idealists and pragmatists–diversity of thought, just like diversity of all other kinds. I understand your point of view and respect it. Yes, my own experience tells me that common ground is difficult to achieve. I have lived a life of compromise in order to find it and still haven’t succeeded. Oh well, I am grateful to live in a time and place where I am able to freely share my views.

  10. Thanks so much. That’s when I wasn’t a dizzy blonde and still coherent…;)

  11. What a well written essay! Even 10 years later. So inspiring and captivating.

  12. Your Buddhist beliefs are in evidence here. Nothing frustrates me more than thinking how correct your reflections are and how far away we are from ever seeing it come to pass.

    I wish I could be one of the naive ones myself. But my pragmatism forces me to see the world as it really is – that evil exists and that evil will win out as long as good people do nothing. Multiculturalism is a noble objective, but those who believe in it are already partaking. Those that don’t will always be working against it. We modern humans didn’t invent conflict. It has been with us since the first caveman tried to take a “kill” from another. Given the human condition, I don’t see that changing for another 40,000 years (if we last that long).

    Your experiences within your own life and family should tell you that “common ground” with everyone is virtually unachievable even within the same close culture. Some will see this as warped thinking, but just as physical pain makes us appreciate the absence of it, so conflict serves to make us strive to see it’s extinction. At least it is an honorable goal.

    How far we have come is a worthy subject for discussion, but for me, the 10th anniversary is all about honoring and memorializing what thousands of people went through (and still do) and what a brave few sacrificed.

    My apologies for turning this into an essay unto itself. Your thoughts back then and now are to be lauded as is your distinctive writing style. You know I love all your posts!

  13. Your post is smart and emotional. I remember the attacks and although I don’t have children my first thought was what kind of world would my nieces and nephews grow up in? Your words expressed every thought and emotion I have about that tragic day.

  14. Well thought out and thought provoking. I will never forget that day

  15. That waS Simply lovely…thank you so much for sharing that! 😉

  16. I really appreciate your kind words. If only the words could become action…

  17. A beautifully written piece that is so relevant today. Thank you for sharing hugely important words to reflect on and visions to aspire to.

  18. This was written while I was still a college professor and before I got dizzy and creative with my writing. As you can see, my style has changed!

  19. You are very welcome. I wish we no longer needed essays like that…

  20. Thanks so much. I thought so too. That’s why I decided to put it up, even though it’s quite different than my normal posts.

  21. An excellent essay that resonates even more today.

  22. Thank you for sharing a well said article that seems timeless.
    Peace,
    Isadora

  23. Wise reflections, Lorna. I stopped by to browse your blog for questions for our interview. So glad I caught this.

  24. Thanks. I will!

  25. Thanks so much. I was surprised at how much of the message still applies. Surprised and a bit discouraged. A wish we as a people had come a bit closer to peace over hatred. Oh well, change takes time.

  26. Yes, this was a different kind of post. I just wanted to focus on how we could end all of this violence rather than have to continue to commemorate terrible events.

    Love back!

  27. Molly, I edited out a paragraph that speaks of all life being precious, and that the propensity for humans to feel they are above nature is an example of the notion of “other.”

    Thanks for your comments.

  28. Lorna, this piece strikes at one of the fundamentals of survival of the species -tribalism (the ‘us and them’ syndrome, feeding on zenophobia) the quasi haven birthing fear, hate, terrorism – you’re right, culture is not hard-wired into our DNA, we can impact the landscape, each of us can make a difference – for me 9/11 was a clarion call to the human race – and your essay aptly clarifies the message, thanks – cheers catchul8r molly

  29. Timely wisdom, Lorna, so glad you shared. Your posts always make me think but this one in a different way, or should I say a way familiar to me that I wish I could explain to others as eloquently as you do in your essay here. Thank you for sharing this timeless work that serves as a reminder of all our “humanness” and the power we each hold to shape or destroy our connections. Much love.

  30. I agree that we must find the commonalities among us A very profound post–for then and now. Maybe more so now.

  31. Lorna if you look on my calendar on the left of my Space and click your
    mouse on the 04th September it will take you straight to the Monster posting 🙂

    I hope that you like it 🙂

    Androgoth

  32. Words like mine and efforts like yours–change happens one person at a time!

    It’s nice to know that there are like-hearted souls out there carrying the same torch. 🙂

  33. If the worst thing anyone ever says about me is that I’m naive, then I’m a lucky lady!

    Thanks for dropping by and letting me know what you think, Andorgoth.

  34. Thanks, Phil. As I re-read the essay today amidst the flood (oh, bad word in your case) of media and local commemorative events, interviews, etc., I asked myself, “How far have we come as a nation in 10 years?” I understand the need to grieve the loss of individual lives and of our national sense of security, but what have we learned? That’s why I ressurrected this essay. I have this eternal (infernal) optimism when it comes to people finding the good in each other. Maybe that’s why I consider myself a bad judge of character–I think everyone is nice (something my family thinks is going to get me in trouble someday)!

    Anywho, thanks for the kind words about my writing. That’s when I was still a college professor and could think straight (not dizzy and wonky like now)! 😉

  35. I think about all the stife in our world (lage and small) today and realize that things are not so different now than then (or, for that matter for all of human history). I have always lived with an optimism of peace, seeing myself in all living things. All I can do is live by the example of peace and maybe shift a few people’s perspective. Kindness does matter, even as we grieve…

  36. “…Or I can choose to work toward creating a cultural shift toward peace, starting with me. In my professional and personal life I can look beneath the differences I have been trained to see and search for the common bonds that link all humans with each other…”

    Truly beautiful words. Thank you for sharing them today.

  37. Beautifully written Lorna. With ten years of perspective, your words hit upon so much that is true. That you wrote these words ten years ago, in the midst of all the emotional angst, is simply sublime. I truly admire you.

  38. A very well written posting my friend, however peace over hate seems a long way off into the future in my estimation, but it would be so refreshing to be wrong on this hypothesis.

    Androgoth

  39. Wonderful words to read on a day like this. Still true after ten years. I have never had the urge to hate or to see other cultures as threatening, but then I lost no one close to me, so perhaps it’s easier. Unfortunately we are dealing with a culture that not only sees “us” as threateningly “other” but also has been raised from infancy to see the lack of their own brand of hate as a weakness. And not only a weakness but an active invitation to continue their aggression. We can’t force them to change; we can only seek to change ourselves. So for ten years I have tried to find a way to balance the need to show “vigilance” and outrage with patience that will show that we are not a threat to their culture but an active brother to it. After ten years, it’s hard to believe that we’ve come any closer to that, but I try. Words like yours will help.

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