More than 30 years ago, I wrote an academic paper about the evolution of the Cherokee Indians’ criminal-justice system from a clan-based revenge system, or blood feud, to one of trial by jury. In a primitive, clan-based system, justice occurs when anyone of your clan is punished for a crime against one person in my clan. The identity of the perpetrator does not really matter as long as his clan is punished. Today, we can see the horrible consequences of tribalism in places like Rwanda, Afghanistan and Somalia.
Recent tragic events of last week seem to threaten a return to this kind of “justice,” even here in the United States. As Los Angeles police chief Charlie Beck said, “We have broken into tribes. All of a sudden it becomes more important who your parents are, what the color of your skin is, than whether you are an American.”
I see this attitude in those who trivialize the Black Lives Matter movement and also in those who vilify all police. Hearts harden as each side dehumanizes the other. Name-calling, stereotyping and labeling are running rampant and have been encouraged and modeled by a major presidential candidate. How do we make it stop?
As people harden into their own positions and perspectives, it becomes more and more difficult to break through conflict into empathy and understanding. But there is one method that has a power all its own: the power of a story.
In the Bible, the book of Samuel tells the story of King David, a man with hundreds of wives and concubines, who murdered one of his soldiers in order to cover up an affair with the soldier’s wife. The prophet Nathan did not confront David directly, but instead told a story about a man with hundreds of sheep who stole and slaughtered a poor family’s solitary lamb. The story enraged King David, until Nathan said to him, “You are the man!” David’s eyes were opened, and suddenly he repented and understood the perspective of the man he had murdered.
Another story that changed hearts is Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” published in 1852. The novel’s compelling portrayal of the human cost of slavery finally awoke the nation’s conscience in a way that speeches and rallies had failed to do. Regardless of the book’s flaws, its message of compassion broke through hardened hearts and created the motivation the country needed to end the scourge of slavery.
As I have struggled to process the horrible events across the country, I have been angered by the evil, foolishness and recklessness that have led to loss of life. Even more frightening, though, is the hardening of our hearts and the descent into tribalism. It can only lead to more violence.
I beg of you: Listen to the stories of those who aren’t in your tribe. Imagine what it’s like to be the parent of a black teenager like Trayvon Martin, who was shot while returning from a trip to 7-Eleven. Imagine what it’s like to be a police officer answering a domestic violence call where an armed man is threatening a woman and her children. Watch movies that show other people’s perspective, like Spike Lee’s award-winning “Do the Right Thing.” We have known for some time that reading literary fiction and watching movies can help people increase their empathy, so do it.
After what has happened this July, we should be shaken. This is an opportunity to break out of our tribalism, soften our hardened hearts and try to see another’s perspective.
Michelle Daniel Chadwick is a writer and an attorney living in Dallas, Texas.
©2016 The Dallas Morning News
Correction: A photograph in the July 15 Opinion page article about Todd Leininger, an American jailed in Venezuela, incorrectly identified a man in a photograph as Leininger. The man in the photograph is another American also jailed in Venezuela recently.