“Were any of you tear gassed at the airport?”
“Did you get back from the march ok?”
“Do you have your emergency numbers memorized?”
It’s strange, living in these times, exchanging the above phrases with my friends engaged in nonviolent activism. We text each other back and forth at the end of the day, across the country, activism comrades. We feel the urgency, we meditate on quotes like these:
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Bishop Desmond Tutu
Or that meme floating around:
Remember sitting in history, thinking “If I was alive then, I would’ve…” You’re alive now. Whatever you’re doing is what you would’ve done.
We swap ideas, affirm each other, urge one another to refuel for the long haul, and hold each other accountable. Yesterday one of my activism comrades across the country shared with me that he reached out to a Yemeni colleague, a fellow scientist in his research lab, to offer support and solidarity in light of the recent Muslim & refugee ban issued by the Trump Administration.
As is our activism comrade practice, I thanked him for his actions and wished him well before his next demonstration. As I turned away from my phone, I planned on offering the same support to Muslims in my life and those from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, the seven countries affected by the ban.
As I sat with my notebook, running through a mental list of colleagues, classmates, family friends, housemates, and other connections, I realized something pretty shocking: I have no close connections, that I know of, who are Muslim or are from the seven banned countries. Not one. I’ve never met for coffee with an Iranian, never worked side by side with a woman in a hijab, never shared meals with a neighbor born in Libya or Iran. Never.
Sure – I once had an elementary school classmate from a Muslim family. And I’ve been an audience member at interfaith dialogue events where I ate really good hummus with other white people at the end of a talk: I admit now, humbly, a paltry attempt at true solidarity or friendship. But no one in my present, daily life. I’m not proud of this, but it bears sharing because I suspect I’m not the only one.
In fact, my guess is that many of the people who support the Muslim ban and refugee block, and even the border wall, have never been close to a member of the groups affected by that discriminatory legislation. How could you know those affected, hear their cries, experience their kinship, and still be against them?
In her book Cultivating Humanity, philosophy & ethics scholar Dr. Martha Nussbaum writes of growing our capacity for what she calls “Narrative Imagination,” that is, entering into the stories of others by practicing (and it does take practice) a sort of radical empathy. Says Nussbaum, “This means the ability to think what it might be like to be in the shoes of a person different from oneself, to be an intelligent reader of that person’s story, and to understand the motions and wishes and desire that someone so placed might have.”
What would it be like if my family was being bombed in their homes and turned away from a chance at safety? What would it be like if my family had lived legally in the United States for years and was suddenly forbidden to return to their lives, loved ones, and jobs? Wouldn’t I desire safety, too?
Last night at a rally ”No Ban No Wall! March for Muslims and Allies,” I heard a Syrian woman speak in tears to a crowd about her brother, who, because of speaking out in favor of democracy, is no longer safe in Syria. He has courageously spoken out for democratic values we mutually held, but is barred from being with his family. Remarkably, his sister at the microphone still had faith in this country. She said over the booming PA system, beautifully, desperately, “I know, because you are here, that I did not make a mistake in coming to the United States. Thank you. Thank you for being here.”
It is an anemic understanding of the world to imagine that I can be free, while my neighbors are not.
It is my own failing, privilege, and circumstance that has led me, stunted, to this point of not knowing well a single Muslim, Iranian, Iraqi, Libyan, Somalian, Sudanese, Syrian, or Yemeni. It makes me sad. It’s embarrassing. But it’s a fiction to believe that my own story does not cross paths with that of a Muslim, a refugee, or an immigrant from one of the banned countries. It is an anemic understanding of the world to imagine that I can be free, while my neighbors are not.
In his Letter From Birmingham Jail, Rev. Martin Luther King wrote:
In a real sense all life is inter-related. All [people] are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be…This is the inter-related structure of reality.
Objectively, philosophically, I care for the families affected by the ban, but following the call of Nussbaum and King, it is my job to follow the thread of interrelatedness and understand how it connects to me and my own family. So I called my senator, who at the time had released no public statement about the ban (see the Tutu quote on neutrality, above). I thought, if this senator cannot connect to the suffering of these Muslim families, perhaps I need to take a different approach. Perhaps, like me, he has family in the military who will also be affected by this ban. Perhaps he understands that breaking relationships with these countries will likely mean more danger, more deployment, more violence as a whole. I made 10 calls that day, but for the final one, I took a different approach, trying to evoke radical empathy.
Brad, a staffer probably no more than 20, answered the phone in Washington, D.C.
“Hello. My name is Anna Czarnik-Neimeyer. I am a constituent and a voter in Wisconsin. I am calling to urge my senator to be brave and come out strongly against the Muslim ban and refugee block.”
Great. I had my lines down, I thought. I’m a level-headed strategic activist and I got this.
“Severing relationships with our neighbors in the Middle East is a national security issue for everyone. I have family members in the military who I love, and it puts my family at risk. Also, an irresponsible, hasty transfer of power putting Steve Bannon on the National Security Council affects my family. It puts them in danger. Please…”
My voice cracked. And then I, who I thought was a seasoned and rational activist, started sobbing on the phone to Brad. Brad probably has an internship with the Republican senator I was calling. Honestly, Brad probably looked similar to me, a white midwesterner who had already forgotten their own immigrant story only a few generations removed. Brad stayed on the other end.
“Please,” I creaked and gasped, embarrassed, apologizing in spite of myself.
“Please ask the Senator to be courageous and speak out against this irresponsible, unjust ban and to urge the President to reconsider Bannon. Please ask him…”
I swallowed, picturing my military relatives.
“Please ask him to protect my family.”
Our wishes and desires – for stability, for a family free from harm, for a country that will listen to our cries – are bound together.
Though I’m largely safe and enjoy unquestioned citizenship thanks to dumb luck of where I was born, my tears and those of the Syrian woman at the microphone are similar tears. As I thought of my own family at risk, I thought also of the hundreds of families torn apart by the ban, by refugee denial. As Nussbaum wrote above, our wishes and desires – for stability, for a family free from harm, for a country that will listen to our cries – are bound together.
I finished my plea. On the other end of the line, Brad paused and said his script quickly, quietly, to close the call. “I’ll pass it along to the Senator. You have a good day now.”
Did he feel anything?
If logic and reason about the justice imperatives of our Constitution are not enough to make my Congress listen, what can I do but share my basest self, my real fears, my understanding that these refugee and immigrant lives are indeed part of my own garment of destiny. Locked in with the fate of my own family.
It is my job to feel this fear and helplessness, and to cultivate my Narrative Imagination, a radical empathy for those Muslims, immigrants, refugees I have never met. To build relationships with them. To stand beside and behind them and amplify their voices.
I texted my activism buddy at the end of the day, as we do.
“Well. I sobbed on the phone with Brad at the senator’s D.C. office today.”
I had betrayed the level-headed, strategic, rational activist and scholar I thought I was trying to be, for the more human, fearful, more real and raw version of myself. The truth is I’m profoundly disturbed right now. I feel deep grief. I’m physically ill. And I’m convinced the world needs this emotion along with my action – marches, protests, boycotts, calls. This emotion may be an antidote to the dehumanizing political structures that privilege some (like me) and marginalize others (like the Syrian woman at the mic). Emotion helps shock us out of “legislative mode” and into “human mode” to build Narrative Imagination, radical empathy. It’s powerful, and we need it – both to hold tight to our mutual humanity, and to get liberatory work done in our government.
*Note: Some names and identifying details of those quoted have been slightly altered to protect safety and identity.