Friday, June 22, 2012

Can We All Get Along?

How ironic!  The week of Rodney King's untimely drowning death in California is also the week I witness quite the verbal altercation on a city bus.  Such fights are rare here in Minnesota, but they do occur.  I have yet to see a verbal fight escalate into anything physical.  It's still like watching a train wreck -- uncomfortable but fascinating.

Photo: MPR/Tim Nelson
As usual, I was reading a book on the bus and not paying much attention to anything else.  However, I half-listened to a rather loud conversation occurring a few feet away in the front between a young blonde woman and a young Muslim woman who was dressed traditionally.  After the blonde woman left the bus, the Muslim woman continued talking.  Her young son and husband sat to her right.  To her left and several feet away sat a young Black guy.  I sat behind him.

The Muslim woman apparently began talking about President Obama.  At one point I heard something about Hawaii and thought she must be expounding on his birth certificate.  You'd think that controversy would be over by now!  The young Black guy said something in a normal speaking voice.  The Muslim woman responded loudly.  And the fight began.  It began as a political disagreement about President Obama, to whose defense the Black guy had jumped.  I could not understand why the Muslim woman raised her voice -- it wasn't at all necessary.  Her husband must have been listening but he was preoccupied with their son.

The argument went from a heated political discussion to the Muslim woman verbally attacking the Black guy, accusing him of bringing race into the discussion when she had not, and then telling him pointedly that he was ignorant.  She said that the word "ignorant" had no color attached to it.  The Black guy never raised his voice.  From what I could see, he was astonished by the Muslim woman's reaction to his comments about Obama. 

I wish I'd written down what was said on both sides, but I didn't, and I actually don't think it is as important as  the fact that these two people were not communicating and how they weren't communicating.  The Muslim woman's husband finally stood and ordered his wife to change places with him.  He told both of them to be quiet.  Other than someone at the rear of the bus talking on a cell phone, no one else was talking on the bus.  The Muslim woman didn't want her husband to have the final word, and she continued to make comments about the Black guy but in a quieter voice. 

I wondered what the Muslim couple's little boy thought.  He looked to be five years old.  Might he not be frightened to hear his mother's voice raised in anger and attack?  She certainly wasn't setting much of an example for communication.  Her husband did a better job, trying to restore peace on the bus.  What could have been an interesting discussion about politics turned into one side personally attacking the other's words and intelligence.

So, is this really America?  Is this what America is on the ground far away from Washington, D.C. and state capitols?  As I left the bus at my stop, with relief by the way, I wondered what the emotional motivations were behind the words.  It certainly sounded like the Muslim woman felt threatened by the Black guy, and yet I don't recall him doing or saying anything threatening.  To the contrary.  He remained quiet and reasonable throughout.  He seemed to be more open to a real discussion and the surprise on his face revealed his response to her words.

He had tried to keep the discussion objective, about Obama, and she had made it subjective and personal, about the Black guy's race and intelligence.  I did not hear him once make a personal comment about her.  It was actually scary, her reaction.  I doubt she liked very much that her husband finally took over -- she continued to make comments and he continued to shush her. 

Rodney King (Photo: Getty/TMZ)
How do we have reasonable discussions with each other about politics?  Each of us brings our background and experience to the table, our insecurities and fears, our beliefs about other people.  But we need to rise above that and open our minds.  We need to listen and not talk so much.  We need to think carefully before opening our mouths.  We need a more civil culture.  As Rodney King famously said, "Can we all get along?"

No comments: