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Local View: With empathy, build bridges; avoid creating barriers

On London Road, a homeowner had a sign up during and after the recent election urging voters to make Minnesota red, meaning Republican. Following the Nov. 6 vote, someone defaced the sign by throwing blue paint on it. The paint also splattered a lamppost, garden plants, decorative stones, the driveway, and the public sidewalk.

Dale BergeronThis made me sad on many levels. As citizens and an electorate, what are we becoming? Are we thinking through our actions and words to understand the barriers and negativity being created and reinforced when we default to oversimplification and aggression? I would have been equally disappointed had the vandalism been red on blue rather than blue on red.

We can't hate a symbol without hating the people it represents. Do we even know who those people are? Have we reached out to understand them as individuals?

Martin Luther King Jr. said, "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."

Fear and ignorance often are acknowledged as drivers of hate, prejudice, and intolerance. Yet scientists believe fear has an adaptive quality as well. That is why it is with us. We are all going to experience it.

However, as rational thinkers, humans don't have to blindly run away or fight every time fear or anger (a variant of fear) shoots us full of adrenaline. It is this rational characteristic that makes us human and allows us to create communities.

Self-awareness can allow us to rise above (or at least check) our baser instincts and achieve enlightened civil societies. The most successful societies are formed on the principles of inclusion, tolerance, and respect (empathy for others).

Empathy toward those who don't think like us is hard. There is evidence to suggest that each of us has our own unique sense of truth, and that is where frictions can begin.

Without empathy and humility, contempt can appear. Contempt is hard to define, but it is easily felt and forces people apart.

Diversity, equity, civility, and freedom of speech often are recognized as hallmarks of a civil society, and they cannot be arbitrary or situational. However, these characteristics present a challenge to our inherited biological tendencies as humans. We all like to think of ourselves as rational beings, but none of us are immune to being carried away by intellectual bias, emotions, and endorphins. When we feel pressure, we naturally push back, and this traps us in conflict and only increases the negative energy in the system.

There are ways forward. How do we break the cycle? Where do we begin?

It is easy to listen to people with whom we identify. But can we listen to people whose views are different or seem confusing? Can we refrain from feeling contempt and taking aggressive postures, remembering we are all fragile? Can we have tolerance for diverse opinions and really listen? Can we have empathy for others who feel fear and suffer? Can we doubt a little of our own infallibility and engage others with respect? These are questions I grapple with and maybe you do, too.

We don't need to agree on everything to still move forward and to improve the status quo.

We live in a dazzlingly complex world of intertwined issues, competing opportunities, and potential impacts. We each have differing views and values based on different experiences and personal realities. But we can only optimize our potential if we recognize our own fallibility and humanity and then foster empathy for others who ultimately are much more like us than different. We need to look both inside and out and start with shared values that can lead to dialog and that can let us capitalize on our diversity.

Personally, I felt a metaphorical slap and hug for all the parties involved in the unfortunate incident on London Road. Emotions can drive us to strange places. Perhaps I can help create a more peaceful and law-abiding world by not needlessly presenting emotional targets (even when well within my rights) or by letting self-righteous contempt drive me to knee-jerk aggression and a violation of not only legal statutes but also civilized behavior.

Let's build bridges of opportunity, not barriers.

Dale Bergeron of Duluth has taught Aikido, a non-violent form of physical conflict resolution, for more than 30 years. He also worked with the Minnesota Sea Grant program for more than 10 years, helping to balance social, economic, and environmental awareness through collaboration and dialogue. He left in June to work as a private consultant.