A couple weeks ago, a social media firestorm erupted following Philadelphia Eagles player DeSean Jackson’s antisemitic Instagram posts. Former NBA player Stephen Jackson defended the posts as “speaking the truth.” The statements from both were condemned by many, defended by some, and ignored by others. Both men have since publicly apologized.
This pattern — insensitive, ignorant remarks that offend a particular race, religion, or community of people — is becoming all too common. Typically, those who utter the remarks apologize, oftentimes sincerely. Sometimes the offending person is “canceled,” despite taking responsibility and committing to doing better. Almost always, these incidents prompt a barrage of hateful tweets and posts between two opposing viewpoints, with each side certain of their rightness and uninterested in understanding each other or showing much, if any, compassion.
In large part, the events surrounding DeSean Jackson and Stephen Jackson were unexceptional. They followed the typical pattern described above. Yet, within days of this incident, Stephen Jackson did something remarkable. He agreed to meet with Los Angeles Rabbi David Wolpe and have a conversation. In a 20-minute live-streamed dialogue on Instagram, Jackson and Wolpe did the unthinkable. They met with a common desire to understand each other. It wasn’t a perfect conversation (as if there is such a thing), but it was a rare example of two people from separate communities coming together to bridge their differences and celebrate the many things they have in common.
Dialogue is the fundamental skill of our time. To heal what divides us and make progress as a global community, we must be willing to talk to each other. And we must learn to do so with the maturity and skill required to really understand the other’s point of view, no matter how wrong or reprehensible you believe it to be. To do so requires holding a belief that every human being, contains within him or her a seed of goodness, and that it is your responsibility to dig for it. If you think this is hard, you’re right. But I encourage you to take guidance from historical figures who were oppressed and found a way to do just this. For me, there is no better example than Nelson Mandela, a man who was imprisoned for twenty-seven years fighting a system that completely oppressed and subjugated his people. Here is how he described his fundamental belief.
I always knew that deep down in every human heart, there is mercy and generosity. No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite. Even in the grimmest times in prison, when my comrades and I were pushed to our limits, I would see a glimmer of humanity in one of the guards, perhaps just for a second, but it was enough to reassure me and keep me going. Man’s goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished.
Over the last few weeks, I have begun to more intentionally embrace the belief to which Mandela was so committed. His words are a constant reminder to me that I have no excuse to not seek out the goodness in everyone. Like him, I realize that to do so does not mean I have to be resigned or merely accept the actions of others I disagree with. Rather, I can still take a strong stand, but from a place of love, compassion, and understanding, particularly in those situations where I find myself disagreeing the most. More radically, I can refuse to be offended, knowing that I am the only person who can truly offend me.
What would it look like to embrace the words of Mandela? To start with conversations with those closest to you where you truly seek to understand? We each have a responsibility to role model the kind of conversation Stephen Jackson and Rabbi David Wolpe had. The world is demanding that of us right now. It’s time to step up and deliver.