Podcast 041: I Learned There Are No Boxes

In This Episode: A 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.

Jump To…

Show Notes

  • The blog post John was commenting on is Orlando: What YOU Can Do. You can also jump directly to his comment.
  • The “writing” that Kit refers to that at least one reader says “changed them” refers to this blog post.
  • Randy said “John in Alabama” at one point. Oops: as the other references say, he’s in Arkansas.
  • If you usually read the transcript, I’ll suggest this is one to listen to instead.

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Welcome to Uncommon Sense, the Podcast companion to the ThisIsTrue.com newsletter with the mission to promote more thinking in the world. I’m Randy Cassingham.

Kit: I’m Kit Cassingham.

Randy: We’re going to try something new this week. You may have noticed in the newsletter Kit and I traveled to Indianapolis to speak at a conference — that’s why we missed a few episodes of the podcast. We both gave presentations: Kit’s was about her expertise, helping entrepreneurs break out of their ruts so they can focus on their mission and succeed better. And my speech was about — no surprise! — thinking.

Since we long ago tired of the way we were treated by our only real choice in air carrier, United Airlines, even though we were premier fliers, a few years ago we decided to drive anytime we were traveling a thousand miles or less. And we decided this even before the beatings started!

Kit: It’s been many years since I’ve been treated like a…

Randy: …Valued customer.

Kit: A customer! That’s the word I was looking for: somebody who matters.

Randy: We do three things while we drive long distance: we listen to podcasts, whoever isn’t driving will often use their laptop to get work done, and we talk. On this trip, one of the things we talked about was this podcast, and what we think listeners will find interesting. And Kit made a great suggestion.

Kit: Why thanks. I suggested we should be telling occasional stories about people who did think, as a contrast to the newsletter, which is typically about those who didn’t. To be sure, people can be smart and still not think, which was part of Randy’s point in his speech.

Randy: It immediately occurred to me that Kit was really on to something: the name of this podcast after all is “Uncommon Sense” — and that would be a great thing to feature: people demonstrating Uncommon Sense. We’ll still do discussion episodes, especially when there’s something in the newsletter that really needs more exploration, but I plan to also tell stories of people I see in the world exhibiting Uncommon Sense. Rather than being a drain on society as obliviots are wont to do, I want to feature examples of people demonstrating Uncommon Sense and how that makes the world a better place. And that is after all the Mission of This is True: to promote thinking in the world, because that makes the world a better place.

Kit: And I do think that when we think, and act, we can make the world a better place. And we need more of that.

Randy: Yeah, exactly: that’s the whole point of This is True’s mission.

Kit: And this podcast, too!

Randy: Indeed. So for my first featured example, I’m going to tell you about a This is True reader, John in Arkansas.

After the Pulse Nightclub mass shooting in Orlando, Florida, two years ago, I wrote a blog post. 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.

I’m going to excerpt from his comment something really important. Now, you probably 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.

Kit will be reading what John wrote.

Kit (reading):

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.

Randy: That’s the context for John’s comments — there’s more, which we’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.”

Kit: I have come to the defense of many a Muslim because of the anti-Muslim conversations: “All Muslims are bad and they’re all intent on killing us.” And I have defended them through personal connection with many around the world.

Randy: And we know they’re not like that.

Kit: They’re not. And the Koran is misinterpreted…

Randy: …just like the Bible is, very often…

Kit: Exactly — I was going to say that, yeah! And that’s important — to come to the defense of the “bashed” person or group.

Randy: Yeah. So back to John in Arkansas’s comment. He says:

Kit (reading):

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.

Randy: 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 clearly terribly afraid of being cut off from family and friends when he was a racist, so let’s go back to his comments. He continues:

Kit (reading):

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.

Randy: 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 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.”

John didn’t name those two men, but they certainly exhibited Uncommon Sense, and made the world a better place. I’d love to meet them sometime: what they did to reach out to John and help him heal, took a lot of courage, and work. And it was worth it.

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 often 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, John. And then he added, “And I am still learning. That’s another thing that I learned, education is never over.” Well, if you’re at all smart you 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.

Kit: But I will say that the person on his first call is necessary, because they’re the people who will be around for years to come, and learn. And the training these days is so good that even a medic on their first call is somebody I’d love to have around.

Randy: And part of the reason that it’s OK to have them is almost always, they’re being mentored by somebody that does have that experience.

Kit: Exactly. That’s a good point.

Randy: 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 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.

Kit: I’ll bet John also communicates effectively to other people—

Randy: In person.

Kit: …not just True readers, in person, those people in his life he encounters.

Randy: Great point.

Kit: I anticipate that he — I don’t know if he’s ever said this, but I he’s out to change the world to make it a better place.

Randy: You might be right; that’s very cool. And to finish the point, 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 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 demonstrates Uncommon Sense.

Kit: He truly does. Sharing his story with us was Uncommon Sense.

Randy: Yeah.

Kit: He didn’t have to, he could have stayed quiet.

Randy: And he didn’t have to take the time to compose a really superbly thoughtful comment, and type it all in so that we could read it.

Kit: Yeah, yeah. You’re lucky to have John as a reader, and an active reader at that.

Randy: 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 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. Really: “God hates America”? Is that what they really want to be about? Not if they think about it, and apply even just a little Uncommon Sense.

Kit: There’s too much hate going on in the world. I hope this podcast and stories you write about will deflect some of that. I’ve heard some of your readers in conversation tell you that your writing has changed them from being anti-gay, for example.

Randy: Yeah, I can think of one in particular who lives nearby.

Kit: That’s powerful.

Randy: Obviously This is True isn’t all about hate: that’s just one little example of some of the things that we cover. Think about it, and apply some Uncommon Sense. And 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/podcast41

If you’re not already a subscriber to This is True’s text newsletter, sign up for free at thisistrue.com, and see examples every week of what happens when your fellow humans do, or don’t, exhibit Uncommon Sense in a wide variety of situations. It truly is Thought-Provoking Entertainment.

I’m Randy Cassingham…

Kit: I’m Kit Cassingham.

Randy: And we’ll talk at you later.

[Easter Egg]

Originally posted 19 July 2018

3 thoughts on “Podcast 041: I Learned There Are No Boxes

  1. Pretty interesting podcast this week. It was a good change of focus. Looking forward to hearing more of that in the mix.

    Thanks, Chuck. -rc

  2. Very nice episode. I’ve come to the conclusion that the root of all evil is religion.

    Think about it.

    I recall in a 5th grade science class, we had a substitute teacher one day. He began lecturing and asked the question “How many of you believe in God?”

    Everyone’s hand went up except mine (I’m an Atheist). I asked “What does this have to do with science?” to which he could not provide an answer. I then stated that I believe in Nature. Nature will take its course. Needless to say, I was bullied and hated by everyone. Rumors went all over the school about how I’m going to Hell. That might be a problem if I believed in Hell (or Heaven for that matter).

    I “invented” the Get Out of Hell Free card when I was told I’d be going to hell. It really makes the accuser sputter, which is why I always have one on me — I want to be ready! 🙂 Of course, your (substitute) teacher was not only acting unethically, but probably also illegally. Sadly, it’s far from an isolated school-time incident. -rc

  3. Quoting you, Randy, “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.”

    Wow, just wow. And previous poster, Peter in Texas, “I’ve come to the conclusion that the root of all evil is religion.”

    Do you not see the hypocrisy inherent in those two statements. Both have blindly put religious “zealots” in a box of your own making. Am I zealous about my religion? Yes, I am. And so, by your own statement, I am a “burden on society.” Just out of curiosity, what is the basis for your deciding that someone who is zealous for their Lord must be a burden on society? Can you even define the phrase “burden on society” in such a way that it covers everyone who is passionate about their religion?

    And perhaps, before agreeing, and I can’t take your response to Peter in Texas as anything but agreement, you should think about the fact that religions have done a great deal of good in the world. Statements that equate religion with “all evil” certainly show just a bit of bias, wouldn’t you agree? There are both good, bad, and indifferent people on all sides of, well, just about anything including religion and atheism.

    Remember that calling people names is just a way of putting them in boxes. It’s a way to shut them out and shut them up.

    Something to think about.

    Despite your protestations, I think you clearly understand the type of person I was referring to, and that you know that this type doesn’t include you. -rc

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