for us to transform as a society, we have to allow ourselves to be transformed as individuals. And for us to be transformed as individuals, we have to allow for the incompleteness of any of our truths and a real forgiveness for the complexity of human beings and what we’re trapped inside of, so that we’re both able to respond to the oppression, the aggression that we’re confronted with, but we’re able to do that with a deep and abiding sense of “and there are people, human beings, that are at the other end of that baton, that stick, that policy, that are also trapped in something. They’re also trapped in a suffering.” And for sure, we can witness that there are ways in which they’re benefiting from it, but there’s also ways, if one trusts the human heart, that they must be suffering. And holding that at the core of who you are when responding to things, I think, is the way — the only way we really have forward; to not just replicate systems of oppression for the sake of our own cause.
.. And so even our sense of what pains us and what makes us feel shame, feel guilt, feel awkwardness, feel put-upon by people, feel disempowered, has to do with the external information and cues that we have received. And they’re moving at an incredible rate of speed. And, for the most part, we almost never get the opportunity to observe them and sort through them — kind of like that drawer that collects everything in your house.
MS. TIPPETT: I have a few of those.
REV. WILLIAMS: Yeah, where you say, “Oh, but wait a minute, someone lived in this house before me,” in essence. “And some of that stuff is not mine. Actually, this is not mine. That’s my mom’s. This is not mine; that’s the inheritance of white supremacy,” or, “That’s the inheritance of generations of oppression and marginalization that subjects me to habitually feeling less-than, even if the current situation has no intent to make me feel that way.” And we have no real way of being able to discern what is mine, what is yours, what are we holding collectively, what have I inherited, what have I taken on as a measure of protection, of a way to cope at some point in my life or past lives, that I no longer need?
.. because what we first are confronted with is just the assault of the amount of thoughts and the mixed messages that just inhabit our body and our mind and our experience on an ongoing basis — that when we sit, the first thing we’re met with is not quiet or calm or peace. The first thing we’re met with is, “Oh, my God. Who is in here, and why won’t they shut up? How do I get them to stop?” And not only is something and someone and everyone speaking to me, it’s mixed messages. Things don’t agree with each other. I don’t agree with my own truth. I’m having arguments in here that are not my arguments, they are someone else’s arguments. They’re my parents’ arguments.
Sitting lets us just, first of all, recognize that we are this massive collection of thoughts and experiences and sensations that are moving at the speed of light and that we never get a chance to just be still and pause and look at them, just for what they are, and then slowly to sort out our own voice from the rest of the thoughts, emotions, the interpretations, the habits, the momentums that are just trying to overwhelm us at any given moment.
And when I say “trying to overwhelm us,” that’s really a key thing to understand, because that means that there’s an “us.” There’s a core and deep and abiding “us” that is being overwhelmed by something that’s actually not us. And when we become aware of it, we’re like: “Oh, I actually have some choice here.”
.. I had to bring into the language of my perception of the world; and that love was not to be limited to my bedroom or my family and just people that I thought that I liked; that what I was doing in the past and what we often do and what our culture calls us to do is to use love to be a quantifier of “Do I have a preference for you?” [laughs]
MS. TIPPETT: That’s really well put.
REV. WILLIAMS: “Am I aligned and in agreement and affinity? Are you reflecting back at me what I want to be reflected back at me? And if you are, and if you are enhancing my idea of myself, [laughs] then I love you.” And bell opened up the idea that that was a very limited way of understanding — and she still does — that that’s a limited way of understanding love.
The way that I think of love most often, these days, is that love is space.
MS. TIPPETT: Say some more about that. What do you mean?
REV. WILLIAMS: It is developing our own capacity for spaciousness within ourselves to allow others to be as they are — that that is love. And that doesn’t mean that we don’t have hopes or wishes that things are changed or shifted, but that to come from a place of love is to be in acceptance of what is, even in the face of moving it towards something that is more whole, more just, more spacious for all of us. It’s bigness. It’s allowance. It’s flexibility. It’s saying the thing that we talked about earlier, of “Oh, those police officers are trapped inside of a system, as well. They are subject to an enormous amount of suffering, as well.”
I think that those things are missed when we shortcut talking about King, or we shortcut talking about Gandhi, or we shortcut talking about what Aung San Suu Kyi was doing at some point. We leave out the aspects of their underlying motivation for moving things, and we make it about policies and advocacy, when really it is about expanding our capacity for love, as a species.
MS. TIPPETT: That’s so interesting, to just focus on that word, “movement” — because again, if we just take a reality base, you don’t move people by hating them or criticizing them. And you don’t always move people by loving them, but you don’t have a chance of doing it with the other tools. But I’m also thinking so hard at the moment — you’re right, we haven’t even seen this aspect of that history, even the history that’s not so long ago. I sometimes have this feeling that we are only now growing into, for many reasons, the aspect of consciousness here, what you’re talking about — the real human work, without which those political changes are fragile.
.. REV. WILLIAMS: We’re at this unique time. I’m surprised, actually, that more people aren’t talking about it. I think I may have glimpsed an article that I disciplined myself to not read. But we are at a time, so incredibly unique in human history, where there is a meaningful number of us that are not driven by mere survival, and we are not defined by the work that we do or the place from which we come. We are able to be transient. We can move around places. We can create meaning out of things and ways of being and work that we choose to do. And we can recreate it, over and over again. We’re not defined by where we are or what we do. We can make meaning out of it, but we are not defined by it in a way that former cultures and societies that were limited in transportation and had a necessity to be able to put food on the table, and so we farmed, and so we did a whole bunch of things that were about fundamental necessities.
.. MS. TIPPETT: You just inherited identities from — all kinds of identities from your kin.
REV. WILLIAMS: And they’re inherited. That’s exactly right, which is part of our great conflict in this country right now. We are running into the conflict between people that inhabit an inherited identity with the place that they are — coal-mining country, and the work that they do as a result of the place that they are — up against people that have values and ways of perceiving the world that have shifted because they are not identified by their place and the work that they do in the same way that location and a fixed place tells you who you are and how you be in the world.
And that conflict, and the values that come from those two disparate locations, is the conflict that we are up against right now — in this country, in particular, but also in other places in the world.
MS. TIPPETT: All over, yeah. It’s global.
REV. WILLIAMS: We are in this amazing moment of evolving, where the values of some of us are evolving at rates that are faster than can be taken in and integrated for peoples that are oriented by place and the work that they’ve inherited as a result of where they are.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, and who are in survival mode.
REV. WILLIAMS: And who are in survival mode as a result of that, and so our values and what’s acceptable to us — enough of us — is shifting at a pace that is just outside of some of our ability to even take in. And the problem is — that’s always been true, but the problem is, now we have a meaningful number, a substantive number of people that have those rapidly evolving values in confrontation with people that are, understandably, still working with the location-, survival-based orientation. This means a lot of things for us. This means that, in terms of values, we can be more spacious. There are many of us that can afford, literally, to be OK with people that are really, really different. In fact, we can be curious about it, because our sense of threat is diminished, because our identity is not prescribed by sameness and being afforded belonging because of sameness.
Our own identities have evolved in such a way that, because we’re not merely trying to survive — I’m not saying we’re not trying to pay our rent and everything, but because we’re not identified with merely trying to survive, our sense of survival, our sense of thriving is embedded in a sense of movement and spaciousness and increasing allowance for more and more difference that is in direct conflict with people that are in a space-time continuum that is still place-based, survival-based, get-food-on-the-table-based. “If I don’t cut off the top of this mountain, where will I go? If those people are not beneath me, how will I know my own value?” Et cetera, et cetera.
.. It is part of it, to go through the fits and the denial. There’s a death happening. There is something dying in our society, in our culture, and there’s something dying in us individually. And what is dying, I think, is the willingness to be in denial. And that is extraordinary. The willingness to be in denial is dying in a meaningful number of us, the tipping point. It’s always been happening, and when it happens in enough of us, in a short enough period of time at the same time, then you have a tipping point, and the culture begins to shift. And then what I feel like people are at now is, “No, no, bring it on. I have to face it; we have to face it.” We have to face it; I also think, what people know is that, short of a nuclear war, we’ll survive it.
We’d heard Derek Black, the former white power heir apparent, interviewed before about his past. But never about the friendships, with other people in their twenties, that changed him. After his ideology was outed at college, one of the only orthodox Jews on campus invited Derek to Shabbat dinner. What happened over the next two years is like a roadmap for transforming some of the hardest territory of our time.
MR. STEVENSON: In fact, we — I remember, the first time that Derek was invited over, I was very explicit with people that this was not “ambush Derek” time. This was not some opportunity to yell at him for the wrongness of his beliefs, because I knew that he would — first of all, he’d spent his whole life defending this ideology. I hadn’t spent my whole life attacking the statistics and other things that they built their ideological convictions on. And as a consequence, I knew that shouting at him — or, at least, I felt that shouting at him at something like that, or having anybody else at the table do so, would just immediately put him on the defensive, and he’d never come back. So I was very explicit that people were not to discuss his background at the table, or the white nationalism, more generally.
MS. TIPPETT: But you say it in such a matter-of-fact way. I feel like right now, in our country, we forget that if we really want people to change, that <strong>it has never happened in human history that somebody changed because someone else told them how stupid they were.</strong> What was that experience like for you? You must have wondered, when you first went, are they going to grill me about this? Or, will I be put on the spot?
MR. BLACK: I think I was less worried about being grilled than what actually happened, where I wasn’t grilled…
…and had to spend, ultimately, years of really enjoyable time among people who — the fact that I was friends with them was contradictory to my worldview. And that was a lot more uncomfortable than had I been grilled, because I had a background doing media interviews since I was 12 years old, where people say, “How do you believe in hate?” And I had crime statistics and IQ statistics and a history of American white supremacist statements from the founding fathers, and other things like that that tend to confuse people when a 14-year-old explains to them why all the races should be separated.
And I was pretty comfortable with that position. I thought it was important, and I knew how to do it, and if it had been a big argument, I would’ve had statistics, I would have misused social science, and I would have not changed their mind and not changed my own mind, but I would’ve at least known what was going on. I think the real thing that happened, where I was just at a Shabbat dinner for two years, and I had to say, “Well, I think my ideology is very anti-Semitic.”
.. MR. STEVENSON: I think it’s also worth pointing out that over those two years, I was legitimately friends with Derek. It was not some sabotage project where I was going undercover or something. I was legitimately — felt like I was — especially, over time, counted him amongst my closest friends, even when I frankly didn’t know exactly where he stood.
MS. TIPPETT: And you weren’t asking.
MR. STEVENSON: At first, as I mentioned, I was afraid that if I were to ask that the defenses would go up, and that that would be the end of it. Later on — well, after two years, it’s a little awkward. We’d even play games, because he knew that I knew, and I knew that he knew. It was — so there would be awkward things. I screwed with him once, at this conference that he mentioned. I knew that he was doing it, he was organizing it. So I asked him, “What are you doing this weekend?”
He said, “I’m going to see some family.” I said, “Where?” I said, “What are you doing?” So it was a little cat-and-mouse game.
MR. BLACK: My answer was, “I’m going to a family reunion,” which was not untrue. My entire family was there.
MS. TIPPETT: What else was going on?
MR. BLACK: Well, it was a seminar that I had founded the year before in response to being outed at New College. I had been very uncomfortable with the fact that so many people at this college really detested what I was representing, even though I thought it was super-correct. So in response to that, the first year, I had organized this seminar up in the mountains of Tennessee, where people, where a small group would come together, and we would talk about the best ways to argue with anti-racists and to convince people that white nationalism is correct. And this was a year later, after that initial one, and I was a lot less certain of what I believed, and I was going back to it for…
MS. TIPPETT: Moral support?
.. MS. TIPPETT: So what happened is that you never made — the Shabbat dinners never became conversations about white nationalism. But then, gradually, over a period of time, in my understanding, Derek, individuals would bring something up with you, and you’d — I don’t know. I feel like you all — you handled this so well, and feels like the campus handled it well. So you would end up taking a walk with somebody, and they would say, “I really — I want to understand this,” and that started a different level of conversation.
MR. BLACK: People I met at the Shabbat dinners — in particular, one person who did the brunt of all this labor of listening to me explain this ideology and what-all is my evidence for it, and why am I so convinced this is true; and then doing the labor to say, <strong>“You are misusing crime statistics. Here’s how statistics works,”</strong> and having that sort of conversation happen sort of naturally. It was from meeting at the dinners but then being on a small campus and doing things like, “Let’s go down to the bay to watch the sunset and just spend time as people.” And eventually, it becomes sort of awkward that “We’ve never talked about that you believe in a reprehensible political ideology, and you’re advocating something terrible, and you seem kind of nice; how do you reconcile that?”
MS. TIPPETT: And you knew each other well enough that they could actually say it to you that way.
MR. BLACK: Yeah, because it was lower stakes than being on an interview for MSNBC or something. It was not that I had to make my points and try to get some converts; it was that I trusted this person. I liked this person. I respected this person. And I wanted to explain why I think this is correct, because “It’s clearly correct. If you don’t want to accept that it’s true, that’s a decision you can make. But it’s an uncomfortable truth.” And that was the position I was coming from.
.. you got to a point where — when you trotted out your arguments that you were so skilled in and so comfortable with, but it did actually become a conversation. You were actually able to listen to a different way of seeing even those arguments that felt so clear to you.
.. MR. BLACK: I wanted to be someone who used evidence and believed something because it was demonstrable, not because it was some gut feeling. And if the way we were using generalized IQ statistics from around the world was illegitimate because the IQ test is culturally normed, and you can’t go around the world giving it to people, and say, “Look, I’ve discovered the different intelligence of the races” — if that’s actually an illegitimate piece of evidence, I didn’t want to use it, which is why, at the time, I thought, “I’m becoming a better white nationalist. I’m becoming better at arguing this, because I now understand how these things are being misused.
And it’s only at the end, where piece after piece after piece is removed, and all I’m left with is the fact that I think that I can be friends with Jewish students and with people of color, but my belief system says that they should all be removed from the United States, and I don’t have any support for thinking that anyone is better off — all that is, is a hateful ideology.
.. you wrote this, “I would never have begun my own conversations without first experiencing clear and passionate outrage to what I believed from those I interacted with.” And yet, as we’ve been speaking, that process of you being able to interact with them and take in that outrage was the seed that got you to that point. So — but I would like to hear about how you are thinking, these days, about this line between civility and outrage and activism.
.. MR. BLACK: I worry that my story gets told as a piece of evidence that the only way that you change people’s minds is by having friendly conversations with them, when it’s clearly not true. It’s essential that you speak up loudly and condemn something that’s wrong. That’s what happened at college. It wasn’t just these conversations. The context for those conversations was that an entire community of people that I had gotten to know for a semester before they knew who I was, and who I respected, clearly had come to a very intelligent conclusion that what I was advocating was morally wrong, was factually wrong. And I found that very unpleasant, and I didn’t want to listen to it, and it initially drove me to organize a seminar to try to make white nationalists be more confident in what they were believing.
.. do you think you — without those quiet conversations, would the outrage alone have brought you around?
MR. BLACK: No; the outrage alone would have made me a more firm adherent to being a white nationalist. But the quiet conversations couldn’t have happened without the outrage.
.. And there is a difference between being aggressive and being strong. There’s a difference between being vociferously opposed, in this case, to the white nationalist ideology and other hateful ideologies, and taking steps to harm an individual who subscribes to those ideologies. Even an ideology which is as reprehensible as most of us, probably all of us in this room, believe white nationalism to be, once you cross the line to saying, “He’s forfeited his rights as a human being; he’s forfeited his right to human dignity by virtue of having those beliefs” — maybe the Nazis said that the Jews forfeited their rights to human dignity by virtue of being Jews. Where does it end? So to be strong, no question, is important. But there is a difference between being strong and violating the humanity of another person.
.. it was grounded in empathy; that the reason why I was not willing to listen to the argument that sounded very straightforward — that we should work towards inclusion, not separation — was because I didn’t empathize with people who weren’t part of my in-group. And I thought I wasn’t necessarily doing anything bad to them, but it was also, the priority was the people who were within my in-group.
And <strong>what changed was feeling that people who were not in my in-group were being negatively impacted by my actions and that I should care about that.</strong> And trying to reconcile that I should care about people who are negatively impacted by my actions, and I’m still doing the actions, became very difficult. And it really was empathizing with people who were not “supposed” to be part of my group and increasing the number of people who were in my group — that’s the universal thing that I think came out of what I learned from coming through that, because it can — everybody has in-groups.
.. what, right now, makes you despair, and where are you finding hope?
MR. STEVENSON: Sure. So I don’t think I would use the word “despair,” because I think the word “despair” makes it seem as though there is no hope. But there is certainly a tendency, I think, increasing trend to only associating with people who agree with you, who have the same worldview, have the same opinions as you. And that’s psychologically pleasing, and it’s maybe fun, but the terrible cost of that is that you run a very real risk of losing empathy for people who disagree with you. And that’s why I see people — people who are my friends, who I love dearly, think nothing to say, “I hate so-and-so.” “I hate Republicans,” or, “I hate Democrats.” Do they know what they’re saying?
As far as hope, I think that the underlying spark of goodness that’s within each and every one of us and within everybody in the world is ultimately gonna win out; that this empathy that people can generate and feel — you can’t stop it in the long run.
.. <strong>I spent a lot of time trying to be a good activist for a bad cause.</strong> And I spent a lot of time seeing the ways that my predecessors had been successful at that, whether it’s winning campaigns or building organizations in large numbers, and so, cultivated arguments that found fertile ground. And that led us to think that we were not only right, but that with time, everybody would see that we were right, and agree.
.. And now I think I’m back to being confident. <strong>People do want inclusion; they do want to make a fair society. I think just about everybody does, wants there to be a society where we are not limited, where we’re not oppressed because of our group. And it’s just very hard to do that.</strong>
If you walk around with hatred and prejudice in your heart and mind all day, morally you’re just as much a killer as the one who pulls out the gun. That seems to be what Jesus is saying. The evil and genocide of World War II was the final result of decades of negative and paranoid thinking among good German Christians, Catholic and Lutheran. The tragic fascism of Nazi Germany was fomenting in people’s hearts long before a political leader came to catalyze their hate and resentment. Now it seems we are seeing the same in the United States.
Jesus tells us to not harbor hateful anger or call people names even in our hearts like “fool” or “worthless person” (Matthew 5:22). If we’re walking around all day thinking, “What an idiot he is,” we are already in the state of sin. Sin is more a state of separation and superiority than any concrete action—which is only the symptom. How we live in our hearts is our real truth.
.. Jesus insists that we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44). For Jesus, prayer seems to be a matter of waiting in love, returning to love, trusting that love is the unceasing stream of reality. Prayer isn’t primarily words; it’s an attitude, a stance, a state that precedes “saying” any individual prayers. That’s why Paul could say, “Pray unceasingly” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). If we think of prayer as requiring words, it is surely impossible to pray always.
One of the hardest things to understand with the dualistic mind is Jesus’ command to love your enemy. I’m often asked, “How can we love Al-Qaeda or ISIS (Islamic State or Da’esh) or the Westboro Baptists from my own hometown?”
First, I want to point out that violent, fundamentalist religious groups use God-talk constantly: “God is great. This is for God. I’m a martyr for God. I’m on God’s good side, but you’re going to hell.” Their words and behavior are rooted in dualistic thinking where everything is clear-cut black and white, good and bad. This is religion at its worst, entirely lacking in inner experience. And so we can imagine how someone might say, “God is great!” and pull out a gun to shoot thirty people or shout hate speech, having not experienced God as infinite and inclusive love.
I want to be honest and up-front about this. We’re dealing with a lot of low-level, dualistic thinking—in Christianity, in Islam, and in every religion at its immature levels. People use religion to cover their own malevolence, hatefulness, fear, and anger. It’s not just Islam. Christianity has been doing this for centuries.