In This Episode: An unthinking This is True reader was shown Uncommon Sense — and adopted the practice for himself. A profoundly moving episode that shows how even terrible humans can change. John’s story is one of the most powerful ever told by a reader.
030: I Learned There Are No Boxes
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- The blog post John was commenting on is Orlando: What YOU Can Do. You can also jump directly to his comment.
- Another post that at least one reader says “changed them” refers to this blog post.
- If you usually read the transcript, I’ll suggest this is one to listen to instead.
An unthinking This is True reader was shown Uncommon Sense — and adopted the practice for himself. This is a profoundly moving episode that shows how even terrible humans can change. John’s story is one of the most powerful ever told by a reader.
Welcome to Uncommon Sense. I’m Randy Cassingham.
Last week’s episode reminded me that another of the first season episodes that listeners demanded I rescue somehow when I took them offline was this one about a This is True reader, John in Arkansas. I’m re-recording it in the new format and, in fact, it was this particular episode that made me stop the first series and refocus this podcast’s approach.
After the Pulse Nightclub mass shooting in Orlando, Florida, in 2016, I wrote a blog post that argued anyone could “do something” about mass killings. I’m not going to read that essay since that’s not the point; if you want to see it, you can find a link on the Show Page. No, what I want to highlight is a comment made there: John’s comment. It shows Uncommon Sense in a startling way, and I’ll be going through it in depth.
You surely remember that shooting: it was the deadliest violent attack against LGBT people in U.S. history, and the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 9/11. It was perpetrated by a Muslim man who swore allegiance to the terrorist group ISIL. A former co-worker of the shooter, at the security firm he worked at, said the shooter “had talked about killing people,” used slurs and “had a lot of hatred for people. Black people, women, he did not like Jews, he did not like Hispanics, nor did he like gay or lesbian people.” And in that so-called “gay nightclub” he killed 49 people, plus himself, and wounded 53 others.
Here’s what John wrote:
I know a bit about hate. For some years I was the most homophobic, anti-gay, asshole you could know. In that period of time, I was very much hurting. As you already know, and those here who have seen my previous posts might remember, I was a survivor of molestation in my youth. It led me to a dark dark place.
That’s the context for John’s comments — there’s more, which I’ll get to in a minute. What John was reacting to was from my essay, where I said anyone can “do something” about the type of hate that drove this shooter to kill and hurt so many truly good people. That something, I said, was “We all have to say stop — out loud. When you hear or see racism, you need to take a stand: (saying) ‘I see that as racist, and I don’t like it.’ If they don’t stop, break your connection with them and, if you can, tell them why. When you hear or see gay bashing, take a stand: (saying) ‘I have friends who are gay, and they’re good people. I don’t want to hear that again.’ If they don’t stop, break your connection with them and, if you can, tell them why. If you hear or see someone bashing a religion — or the lack of religion — take a stand: (saying) ‘I know atheists/Jews/Muslims/Christians who are not like that, and lumping them all together as evil is wrong. Stop it.’ If they don’t stop, break your connection with them and, if you can, tell them why.”
So back to John in Arkansas’s comment. He continues:
I fear if everyone or even just a few take your words to heart, and ostracize people who are in the first stage of hate, words, they will be left to commiserate with the like-minded and eventually move on to violence, whether it be with a gun or not.
Instead of cutting people off that are infected with hate, we should reach out to them. Show them how civilized humans behave. Invite them to gatherings of people different from them. Also, engage them about why they feel X is evil. Find out the root of why they feel that way. And then try to get them help.
Yes, there is risk here. So, your closeness to the person would have to be considered. Someone you met last week, yeah, cutting the tie might be the better idea. Someone you have known for 5, 10, 15 years? Family? Really I don’t think I can draw that line for you. You know them. And if they respect you, you might have a chance to change their thinking. Risk vs. reward. It’s a tough call.
End quote for the moment, because this is where John got it wrong. He actually started by saying he was angry, and had let his reply wait for several days before posting. His bottom line was that people shouldn’t ostracize the racists, the religious bigots, the homophobes, “except as the last resort.” But that’s exactly what I did say: “If they don’t stop, break your connection with them and, if you can, tell them why.” Deep down, John was terribly afraid of being cut off from family and friends when he was a gay basher. In fact, in the next segment, he talks about how he was alienated by friends and family: they indeed ostracized him for his behavior when he too over the top — yet that was a part of his healing, his transformation. Losing connection to friends and family hurts, and he did the work to fix himself and, by extension, his connection with them.
So let’s go back to his comments. He continues:
I am going to tell you a little about my decent into hate. During high school, after my abuse, I became very vocal(ly) anti-gay. Westboro (Baptist Church), if they existed then, probably would have found me too radical to fit in with them. Fortunately for the most part I was too much of a coward to actually go around gay-bashing or the like.
But as the years drew on, I graduated, went to college. Managed to flunk out of two different universities. Mostly because I self medicated with alcohol and other drugs. By this time, I had overcome some of my cowardice as I thought of it. I began going to places that gays hung out, and catching one alone and starting a fight. It actually seemed to ease my pain at the time. For the duration of the injuries I received, I could actually go without alcohol or drugs. So long as I felt I came out on top or won.
During the fights, I actually pictured my abuser being the one I was hitting. Transference I guess. It’s what one of my counselors years later would say. But, things escalated as my behavior began to alienate both my family and friends. Not the fights so much, as I managed to keep that secret from almost all. And, I met a few who had like-minded ideas about gays.
To make this a bit shorter, I am cutting the details of my final act of violence against gays over 2 decades ago. But, suffice to say, I ended up in the hospital. And to my surprise one of my potential victims and his significant other became my only support system. I went through a change during the months of my recovery and rehabilitation.
I am not saying it was an easy change, there were bumps. There were times I had to check myself. Times friends had to check me. But, eventually, I let go of hate and claimed my life back. I reconnected with family, friends. I made many new friends through the victim and his now-husband.
And mostly I learned there are no boxes. We try to put people into these convenient boxes to understand them: Gay, Straight, Muslim, Christian, Atheist, Jew, White, Black, Hispanic, etc. What I learned that night and the months that followed was the only time we fit into boxes are when we are dead and being buried. And I am still learning. That’s another thing that I learned, education is never over.
I still have flashes of anger. I still have effects from both the abuse inflicted on me, and the wound I received that night. Both physical and psychological. Indeed, now, over 20 years after this, I may lose my sight from the after effects of that night of gay-hate violence.
We bounce around this world. We affect one another in both positive and negative ways. A harsh word wounds. A kind word heals. Same for actions. Violent actions hurt and invite more of the same. Not just the one you strike at, but those who share their lives. Kind actions bring joy and invite more kind actions. Again, not just to the person you are kind to, but those in their lives now and into the future.
So, I hope you understand why I have to say, don’t ostracize except as the last resort. Because, what you are saying when you do this is, this person is not worth saving. And, that is a tragedy. But, I also realize you can’t help everyone. And, some aren’t ready to be helped. And, yes, some may be so damaged none will ever reach through their walls.
So what is my point here? Hate can be cured. But, it can’t be cured by condemnation without love. So what is the solution? I am not really sure. Love as many as you can? Love as many as will let you? I am not sure where we draw the line.
End of John’s comment. What hugely powerful stuff.
I want to summarize it a little bit. John was a self-avowed gay-basher. It wasn’t simply because he was from the deep south — that would be stereotyping him! Or, as he put it, putting people into a box in an attempt to understand him. He was molested as a child, presumably by a man, and John probably figured that was because the man was gay. Ironically, he probably wasn’t, but that still set John up to buy in to the hatred he saw against gays around him and around the world. But in his hatred, he was really responding to that specific man, descending into literal gay-bashing until he found a couple of men who turned out to be stronger and better fighters than he was, and by defending themselves from his outrageous behavior, they put John into the hospital.
Now, those two men had plenty of reason to hate John back, but they didn’t. Instead they did something beautiful: they reached out to John to show him that gay people don’t all fit into a box. That they’re not just people, but complex people who contribute to society, rather than be a burden on society — like the homophobes and racists and religious zealots are. They truly did, as John put it, respond not just to the one who struck at them, but demonstrated healing to, as John put it, “those who share their lives.”
Plus, because of John’s over-the-top hatred and disregarding some humans as unworthy, his friends and family wanted to get away from him. It really is ugly stuff and, as I suggested, they were breaking their connections with him, and that hurt John terribly. But it helped him become a better human being.
John didn’t name those two men that he attacked, but they certainly exhibited Uncommon Sense, and made the world a better place, by reaching out to John instead of hating him back. I’d love to meet them sometime: what they did to help John heal took a lot of courage, and work. And it was worth it: John is now helping to improve the world too.
But there’s more: while recovering in the hospital, John clearly had time to think, and he put that time to good use. As he put it, “I learned there are no boxes. We try to put people into these convenient boxes to understand them: Gay, Straight, Muslim, Christian, Atheist, Jew, White, Black, Hispanic.”
Yeah: we all do that, don’t we? But it’s truly lazy and thoughtless. We try to categorize people by what they look like, what we assume they must be like, but if you actually take the time to think about it, you know objectively that most of the time the assumptions we make with those snap judgements are very wrong.
As John put it, “What I learned that night and the months that followed was the only time we fit into boxes are when we are dead and being buried.” You bet. And then he added, “And I am still learning. That’s another thing that I learned, education is never over.” Well, if we have any sense we know that. That has guided my own life. I learned very early on as a medic that the education and certification I got just after high school weren’t an end point, but rather a mere beginning point — a platform on which to figure things out by experience. Really: if you were hurt or ill and called 911 for help, would you want a medic running his first call, or a medic who had years of experience under her utility belt? The answer shouldn’t take much thought.
I applied that lesson to my university education, realizing from the start that a degree is just platform on which to start building a career. It wasn’t until I spent ten full years at NASA before I knew I had enough to start over yet again with my next career. Because I was forging an entirely new path in online publishing, I made a lot of mistakes, but I didn’t sweat it too much: it was certainly a trial-and-error, feel-my-way-in-the-dark proposition, and I only succeeded because I not only had that platform of education and over a decade of publishing experience to build on, but I let my mind be open to learning more and more and more each year, because guess what? Things change online at absurd speeds, and it’s a real struggle to keep up.
But this isn’t about me, it’s about John and the amazing change he allowed himself to be open to. He was, to use his own words, “the most homophobic, anti-gay, asshole you could know.” Those are harsh words to use to describe himself, but he knows now what a horrible example of a human being he was, so he changed. And this particular comment is far from his only one on subjects he has hard-won knowledge about. He understands that by expressing clear information about difficult topics to other readers, he can help others grow, to learn from what he found out himself so as to make the world a better place. That takes a lot of effort: his comments tend to be long, but deeply thought-out and useful explorations of the topics This is True brings to its readers: John takes True’s concept of “Thought-Provoking Entertainment” very literally, and I don’t doubt that he does it in other places too.
All of this is what thinking, and Uncommon Sense, is all about, and just one example of why thinking is so, so important. Yes, it’s possible to change absolute haters, and turn them into decent people who contribute to the world by taking the time to explain how they changed, and setting an example for others to follow. It took him some time to come around, but John in Arkansas indeed now demonstrates Uncommon Sense.
And to respond to one other item John brought up: the Westboro “Baptist Church” — they use the words Baptist and Church, but they aren’t affiliated with any actual Baptist denomination and certainly don’t practice Christian values of, for instance, “love thy neighbor.” John wasn’t sure when they started spewing hate, so I looked it up: WBC started their public anti-gay campaign in 1991. They’re infamous for such provocative statements as “thank God for dead soldiers,” “God blew up the troops,” “thank God for 9/11,” and “God hates America,” though their preferred slogan is “God hates fags” — a phrase they used for their Internet domain. Any Christian who thinks God is about hate isn’t much of a Christian.
So let’s draw the obvious conclusion that most people don’t bother to really think about: anyone who buys into “God hating fags” are also aligning themselves with ideas like “thank God for dead soldiers” and “thank God for 9/11,” and that’s something for the gay-bashers to think about in addition to subscribing to the idea that some humans are better than others. Really: “God hates America”? Is that what they really want to be about? Not if they think about it, and they don’t even have to apply Uncommon Sense to that question.
Just a quick note that I’ll be on vacation for a few weeks, and there won’t be any new episodes during that time.
If you have a story to tell about overcoming your own bias after thinking about it, or just wish to comment, comments are open on the Show Page. That page includes a link to the essay John was responding to, and you can find it at thisistrue.com/podcast30
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I’m Randy Cassingham … and I’ll talk at you later.
Since this is a redo, comments start with those made on the original post — the dates are correct.
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