Space & Grace

They aren't all crazy

I recently wrote a newsletter about cults that got an intense negative reaction from a friend of mine. If you missed the original newsletter, the link is here.

A conservative long-time friend of mine who subscribes to my newsletter saw the headline I put on it when I promoted it on LinkedIn and stewed privately for days until she finally decided to email me. In her email to me, she thought I’d said that there was a conservative cult. She was mad! She told me I couldn’t come up with the solution until I had the problem right. Now, she knows what I’m writing about and has been very supportive of my work. So, I was baffled until I realized that she was probably reacting to my Linked In headline. She thought I was accusing her of being in a Trump cult.

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But that isn’t what I’d said in the article itself. I asked the question whether there was a Trump cult and looked at part of the definition of a cult to conclude that (and I quote myself):

“Those most devoted Trump supporters fit the definition of having a common interest in a person.” But I shorthanded it in the headline (as headlines often do) and she misread the headline to read it as “all Trump supporters”. And yes, she is a Trump supporter.

The reason she didn’t read the details is because so many people she knows accuse her of being in a Trump cult. Because she did vote for Trump, she gets lumped in with everyone else, including the crazies and the true cult members. And because so many other people do that, she thought I was too.

But when I explained to her that when I said, “Trump cult,” I was talking about those who stormed the Capitol, those who say that people who voted for Biden are going to hell, and those who continue to believe that Biden is an illegitimate president, she calmed down. Actually, we both went “Whew!” Literally.

I value my friendship with her and her support. She’s been in my life for over a decade, and she’s one of the sweetest people I know. She’s provided help to so many people, including myself. Beyond that, she acts as a touchstone for me.

But over and over again, as she said, she gets lumped in with the crazies. Why? Because that’s all we give space to. The news is the news because it stands out. The normal stuff never gets paid attention to. That’s both on the media and on our humanness. You see, we humans are programmed to pay attention to the unusual and the extreme. That’s how our species survived. We learned to pay attention to subtle cues and were able to get out of the way of the lion. But the news and social media thrive by hijacking that normal response, continually hijacking that belief that the rustle in the grass is a lion stalking us, so that we pay attention to them. That means that we pay attention to a threat that isn’t there, and we live in a heightened sense of fear and alarm.

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And people like my friend have become the victims of that human impulse. The rustle in the grass that actually was a graceful gazelle gets the same treatment as the lion that would eat us. We lump the extremes together with the middle because we don’t know each other.

But actually, we’re all the victims. We live in anxiety, a heightened sense of danger.

How do we undo this? The first step to change is to become aware of our reactions. Second, is to deliberately give people space and grace. To learn more about the people we disagree with. As the Guardian article I quoted in an earlier newsletter said, more conflicts arise because social media is a low-context medium. We need to deliberately counter that effect in our life by cultivating relationships with people who aren’t like us.

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I ended up resolving the potential conflict with my friend because I already had a relationship with her. We both gave each other space and grace to talk. She had tensed up, I had tensed up, but we continued the conversation because we both persevered. Then we could relax.

But because of social sorting, because we only rarely associate with people who disagree with us, we often don’t have that base of knowledge to fall back on. Or if we have it, we ignore it. We see the other side as the enemy and not as people we know and love who have a different point of view. 

That makes the work I’m called to do so hard. I’m asking people to change how they react to the rustle in the grass, to not assume it is a lion. It’s not a lion, just another gazelle, trying to make sense of the world. Let’s give each other grace and space. Please.