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by Jean McGuire in Society

The definition of the word “they,” is:

  1. used to refer to two or more people or things previously mentioned or easily identified.

“the two men could get life sentences if they are convicted”

  1. a group of people in authority regarded collectively.

“they cut my water off”

  1. used to refer to a person of unspecified sex.

“ask someone if they could help”

For the last 2 years, we have suffered through social upheaval and a “how low will they go” election campaign. We have seen police brutality and we have seen policemen murdered in cold blood. We watched a Presidential candidate urge his followers at rallies to “rough up” anyone who protested against his viewpoints. We have seen videos of men and women being killed by those who have sworn to serve and protect them. We are currently seeing daily videos of peaceful protesters being brutally attacked by police and security forces.

As a result of all of this upheaval, I have developed a strong dislike of the relatively benign word, “they.” All of the brutality in our current society seems to boil down to an “us against them” mentality. “They” seems to always be spoken with an accusatory inflection that makes being different mean being wrong:  “They don’t belong here;” “They are trying to take my job;” “They don’t believe the same thing I do;” “I don’t trust what they might do.”

We are using this word to separate ourselves from anyone, or any organization, that we disagree with or disapprove of. There are times I feel this word separates us as completely as a literal wall. The alienation has a solidity, a texture, you can almost reach your hand out and touch.

I am worried about the direction this mentality is leading us. I keep hearing that there is nothing to be afraid of with the changes that are occurring, and yet, I keep hearing stories of people being accosted with hateful attitudes and verbal abuse. I worry that we are in dangerous waters and that, if we don’t do something to correct the current course, the verbal hatred is going to become physical abuse. I worry that theoretical bigotry is going to become broad scale prejudice leaving some of our most vulnerable citizens at the mercy of uninhibited hate crimes.

I do not connect with the “difference of opinion” mentality when people are trying to rationalize bigotry, misogyny, or any other fancy name for being hateful. A wonderful meme on Facebook this week put it beautifully: “Can we please stop justifying ignorance by saying: ‘Everyone has a right to their opinion’. Opinions are like: ‘I prefer coffee over tea,’ not: ‘I think women/ the LBGT community/people of color are sub-human.’” It is way too easy to heap abuse on people who you believe are sub-human. The list of atrocities that have been rationalized by making the victims less-than is longer than I care to list here.

What I do connect with is the deep faith I have that all people are just that: people. There are differences in cultures and religions and those differences fascinate me. I love to talk to people whose life experiences are completely different than mine. Hearing their stories and seeing life from all of their different perspectives helps me to understand how similar we all are, despite our differences. It is hard for me to fathom how you can decide the differences are more important than the unifying similarities.

I work in many parts of the city and I interact regularly with people of all sorts of colors, faiths, sexual orientation, and country of origin. I am not going to let people with a “they” mentality change my behavior. I will continue to greet the friends and strangers in my world with smiles, and friendliness, regardless of any differences between us. I will continue to expect to receive the same treatment from all that I meet.

I have many times wondered if I would’ve been brave enough to have been a stop on the Underground Railroad during the days of slavery. I have wondered if I would’ve been daring enough to hide one or more Jewish person during the days of Hitler’s Germany. I have wondered if I would’ve had the courage to join the Freedom Riders during the civil unrest of the 60’s. Unfortunately, I think the day may soon come when I will have to quit wondering and actually step up when needed.

I hope that if I see one human being treating another human being as “less than,” that I have the courage to step up and defend the person being mistreated. It’s one thing to say that you won’t tolerate prejudice, it’s another thing to put yourself at risk by actually stepping up to make a difference. I hope that I am strong enough to take the next step if called upon. Mostly, I hope I’m wrong and that all of this is nothing more than a theoretical mind game.

What I wish everyone would understand when they try to separate themselves from another person or group of people is that “they” are your friends, neighbors and the person you stand next to in line at the store. Our differences should be celebrated, not denigrated. However, change cannot take place until we all acquire a “we” outlook, not a “they” outlook.

(This blog post, originally written in November of 2016, is even more pertinent today than it was three years ago. JSM)

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