NOTE: This is the text of a speech I will be delivering to my Toastmasters Club this evening, but I wrote it with all of you in mind. (SPOILER ALERT for those who would rather hear it first this evening.)
The thoughts expressed below are my own and should be not be seen as representing the thoughts of the Alternative Book Club or its members.
Pain, Fear and Bile
Fellow Toastmasters. I have honestly struggled with what to say in this this evening. Never in my adult lifetime have I seen such a need for people to know how to make peace. This has been a rough week for us all, but I’ve been tortured what I have seen erupt between people I care for over the course of the past seven days. This week has laid bare the deep emotional wounds of people all across this nation. From the streets of Baltimore to the hills of West Virginia, from the maelstrom of the college campus in Oregon to the dark and deserted factory floor in Michigan, people are hurting. The pain out there is palpable. Fear is all over my Facebook feed. There is bile between my best of friends.
If there is anything that Toastmasters has taught me, it’s that, words are powerful. And few things are more powerful than the words that bring about healing and reconciliation.
Healing and Reconciliation
One of the things my chapter talks about is the concept of unfinished business—those raw emotional wounds that we have yet to heal with our brothers. Sadly, I think much of the unfinished business in our nation cannot achieve closure, because the truly evil perpetrators of American atrocities have long since passed away. Whether it is the abomination of slavery, the brutality of manifest destiny, the waging of war upon our own citizens, the United States, like every nation, has dark elements of its history.
There simply is no way for the villains of the past to apologize for the crimes perpetrated against others. There will be no closure, no healing, no reconciliation. That chance for redemption is past. But, another item I talk about in my chapter is the concept of apologizing on behalf of who you represent and apologize to the extent of your responsibility. So I ask that you allow me to do that. To black Americans, on behalf of my country, which once gave legitimacy of holding people in bondage and subsequently treated them brutally, I’m sorry. To my native American brothers, I’m sorry for the lack of trustworthiness and brutality that my government has shown you over more than two centuries. To my friends in the LGBTQ community, I’m sorry for the centuries of shame and silence that you have had to endure. To my lady friends, on behalf of the line of men going back millennia, I’m sorry it took so long to fully integrate you in public life.
Monsters of Today and Yesteryear
As I’ve said, I teach in my chapter that it is important to apologize up to the extent of your responsibility, but no further. I acknowledge the sins of my ancestors, but I do not accept the guilt of their crimes. Their sins are not my sins. People who pretend that they are will invite backlash, as we have seen. Today’s monsters should be rightfully condemned and I join with you in their condemnation. However, it’s sometimes easy to forget that the reason we recognize monsters for what they are is because they are so rare, and that’s a very comforting thought.
Our politicians and our pundits like to talk about issues—women’s issues, minority issues, class issues. In this petty bickering about who’s issues need to be addressed and in what order, it’s easy to forget that we all have challenges and that we will continue to fail to come together to face those challenges if we don’t take the time to listen to each other or pretend that “their problems” aren’t really problems. I admit that I have not been subjected to frequent harassment from neighbors, but I have been in places that had me looking over my shoulder and I have been physically attacked on neighborhood streets. I admit that I’ve never been pulled over for “driving while black”, but I have been pulled over for “driving while young and male,” which is also a thing. I admit that I haven’t been the victim of systemic racial inequality or sexism, but I have been in interviews, where it was clear that my race and sex were a dis-qualifier for the position I was seeking. Twenty years ago, in a world history class, a large majority of students chose to give oral reports on the patriarchy and systemic misogyny. No one seemed concerned when I said I was dropping the class “because of the irony”. The environment for people who look like me on many college campuses is more hostile than 20 years ago. I’ve been victim of a layoff 4 times. I’ve had to deal with times of personal trial. I’ve had to deal with personal loss that no decent person in the world should ever have to. Yet, the message from many out there is that the problems of people who look like me aren’t real. And that is unfortunate.
I share these stories, not because I want to gain sympathy points with you, but rather to engage with you, to show that I can empathize with you, and to perhaps break bread with you as we discover ways to tackle the challenges that plague us both. The sooner we discover that our interests are much closer than many of us expect or others want us to believe, the better.
A Better Future
I’ll close with a bit of foreshadowing. In our next collaboration, a key part of my chapter will be centered on the topic of optimism. No matter if you liked or disliked the outcome of last Tuesday’s election, we all should be happy that we live in the times that we do. Despite hysterical claims to the contrary, we don’t live in the 1860s, 1930s, or the 1960s, we are blessed to be living in the 20-teens. Not that we don’t still have some deep problems that need to be addressed, but we should look back and see how far we have come. Look at the faces in this room! Just in the past few months, we’ve been able to collaborate on things in ways that would have been unthinkable 100 years ago. So long as we can continue to do that—to work together despite our differences, physical, philosophical, and ideological, we can still be proud of our nation.
For those of you who are scared or hurting out there, I’m sorry. But the sun comes out. Never forget that the good people in this world far outnumber the bad.
For those out there who feel they have been silenced or made to think their problems aren’t real, I’m sorry. I will continue to do what I can to help you to find your voice and make sure it’s heard.
And for the haters out there who think America’s best days are behind her, I’m sorry, but this nation will continue to surprise and inspire the world, even if the world doesn’t understand the meaning of events in the short term.
This nation is a wonder and I’m happy to be in it. No apologies.
If you are interested in hearing more about The Art of the Apology, you’ll find more in Spotlight on the Art of Grace.