I’ve been learning a lot about the American government lately. It’s one of the things I’m most grateful for since the current administration took office — it's forced me to research.
See, I went to American public school which means the extent of knowledge about the American government can be summarized by two events. I watched the “I’m Just A Bill” episode of Schoolhouse Rock sometime in elementary school and then in my final semester of high school I took a class called civics. I think that class taught us about the three branches of government, but at this point I can’t remember.
And that’s it.
I did learn about the history of the United States a few different times. But mostly that covered the Mayflower to the start of the Civil War. And rarely included comprehensive context.
So, in the long, rich, intricate story of my favorite country in the world — the country I’m from — I can tell you (roughly) about how we got here, the time we fought each other, how a bill becomes a law and the three branches of government. Also, maybe I could convince you I know a story about tea?
I don’t know.
But I should know. I should have been learning along the way. It’s my responsibility as a citizen to educate myself on the history, policies and people who affect my life and the country I live in. But I didn’t because I assumed that other people, especially those who are directly involved in our history and our government generally know what they’re doing.
That is no longer my position.
I don’t attribute my lack of confidence to to a single man. Sure, there is one man who is supremely unqualified for the position he holds. But the glaring mistakes he makes in the middle of a very intense spotlight also expose the inadequacies of the people around him.
The branches of our government are connected in almost every way, and have been for so many decades, so most things that are the president’s fault are also other people’s fault — both in the past and the present.
Basically, it’s complicated.
As these mistakes happen, we're to seeing a lot of reactions coming from our government officials. Some congressmen decide to double down on their allegiance and actions, despite any corruption or hidden agendas that might be revealed. They stand firm in their beliefs and the actions that result from them.
But a different, smaller group, are changing their position and alignment. For reasons that are complex and simple, a handful of government officials and public servants are speaking out against their party, president, or past positions. They're changing their minds about what they previously thought was true or acceptable.
What I remember from school is that this kind of turmoil leads to revolutions in our country. It causes wars. People die over dissenting opinions.
But that was the past. We’re more refined and civilized now, right? We know there's a grey area and we accept people have their own experiences of the same facts. History has taught us to be better.
Except it never actually does. We're still the same basic people who act the same way towards people who are different than us.
You can see it happen over and over. The brave few who are taking on the impossible task of changing their mind in the public space are usually met with one of two reactions.
One reaction is welcoming. These are people who believe the time it took you to show up doesn’t matter, only that you did. They may warn you now that you’re here you must do everything you can to be better but, essentially, they're just glad you're here.
This is the best case scenario. By that I mean, it will, most certainly, not result in a second civil war.
The other reaction is more guarded and accusatory. People in this camp say we’ve had almost two years of deal breaking behavior and you don’t get credit for changing your mind now that the bad behavior is affecting you directly. You will still be held accountable for not changing your mind sooner.
This is not our best case scenario. But I get it and have definitely felt it.
It's easy to see both sides, really. When your job is to represent and protect the people of this country, and you leave them feeling terrified and angry for over a year, objectively you’re doing a bad job. You should be held responsible for that.
On the other hand, how could you possibly make the right decisions for a group comprised of individuals with their own, very unique, list of priorities? That’s an impossible ask of someone in a system built on checks and balances. The fact that they’re making any change at all is impressive.
Again, it’s complicated.
So neither reaction by the public is wrong. Both are justified in their own way. But one is inherently more dangerous to all of us than the other. One leaves little, if any, room for discussion. Essentially, when any of us have the second reaction, we're continuing the bad habit that started in school where we focus on the final destination and erase the road that go us there.
The most obvious factor that has made it impossible to talk openly is the affinity for public shaming. The Internet as a collective unit can create someone in a day and ruin them even faster.
The public has done this kind of build-them-up-to-tear-them-down for centuries, but the Internet has made it easier, more intense and faster. Now, you can go from Target cashier to international heartthrob in weekend or lose your entire career in one flight.
The other, less obvious factor, is we aren’t conditioned to look for or understand context. We didn't learn it in school and the lifestyle we all have no doesn't encourage it.
How many times have you read a headline or looked at a screenshot and felt an intense emotion immediately?
It happens all the time. They're specifically designed to illicit a response and make you feel like you have the full story without forcing you to actually validate any of it. Instead of investigating further into the thing that spurred the reaction, we seek confirmation from what other people like us are saying about it. And then the mob starts to form.
It’s not anyone’s fault. There are infinite things to know and learn at any given moment. We have to decide what we care about enough to be educated on it. And most times, we have to teach ourselves how to be educated.
But it’s also not no one's fault.
Because we’re adults now and we know better. We know it’s our responsibility to seek to understand context and nuance even when it’s not presented to us. It’s our fault for forgetting that at some point, we are or will be on the other side of the mob. We will be the ignorant ones. We continue to think of ourselves in shades of grey, but imagine everyone else as either black or white.
It's our fault for forgetting how complicated things can get.
I get it, though. That kind of responsibility is uncomfortable. And acknowledging that a decision which seems so clear to you could be difficult for someone else is hard and infuriating. But it’s a responsibility we have to embrace wholeheartedly because it’s the only way we’re going to get better. It’s the only way we can make our country great.
Look, we know we don’t really have a complete picture of our own country’s history. And that’s annoying. But there's nothing to be done about that. There's no changing the past.
What we don't have to do, though, is accept the present as it's unfolding right now. We are complicit in creating a present from half-truths and sensationalized highlights. We are blinding ourselves from context.
But we have a chance to stop ourselves. To step back, reflect, and decide to be better. To allow people to grow without constantly being reminded of the time when they weren't as compassionate.
We owe it to each other to stop confining ourselves to a linear history. We owe it to our country to celebrate the beautiful and complicated texture it's made of. We owe it to our future to search for context. We deserve the chance to be as great as we were taught we could be.