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Clapping for the Wrong Reasons

We’re Divided. Now What?

To borrow the title from Donald Glover’s short film, we’re clapping for the wrong reasons.

We celebrate our struggles against the “Others” like it was the Yankees vs. the Red Sox.

We root for our side and villainize the other.

We barricade ourselves into safe zones of likeminded homogeneity.

But at what cost?

I want to make a case against the Other.

Not a case against my personal other, but against the concept of the Other. I want to make a case that the very concept of Other, of Us vs Them, is self defeating in the worst possible way.

It is, indeed, un-American and in-human in the sense that it kills the very thing that makes us as a species unique. It leaves barren the soil from which our dreams and creations spring.


Imagine this.

The One and the Other. But which is which? Courtesy: Wiki

Everyone knows what this is. Most would characterize it as a pair of opposites. Yin vs Yang. Black vs White. Us vs Them. Rich vs Poor. Republican vs Democrat. Main Street vs Wall Street. Religious vs. Secular.

But that’s missing the bigger picture.

Divergence of the Others.

The significance of the yinyang is not in its opposites. It’s the line in between.

Think about it. What is the value of a pair of opposites if there is no intersection between them?

Like the picture to the left shows, when separated, the yin yang becomes something else, something different, something divergent and unbalanced.

This is the deeper meaning within things like the Tao which speaks to the very origins of creativity:

Tao becomes one,
one becomes two,
two becomes three and
three becomes
ten thousand.

One becomes two. That’s the creation of opposites. Two becomes three. What is that? That is the most important step of all, it is the creation of the intersection between the opposites. The point of friction where opposites meet and generate creative energy. In scripture, it is when man is created between the Heaven and the Earth. Two becomes Three.

From the Three comes ten thousand because from the Three comes a fountain of creativity.

To bring this back to the real world, what makes America great? I would argue that it holds a unique place in our history as the greatest convergence ever of disparate beliefs, backgrounds and cultures. From a historical perspective, America, in many ways, is the Three. It is where prior opposites have come to meet to generate immense creative energy.

And now that’s at risk.

Think about your own moments of inspiration. How often do they come because you are in the presence of something new or unfamiliar? Whether this is a conversation with someone with a different perspective or you find yourself in a place that is distinct from the ones you have known?

Diversity and the intersections it engenders creates fertile soil for our imagination.

How boring would our world be if everyone who looked the same, thought the same, believed the same were independently siloed? How much would we struggle if we defined ourselves in terms of our aversion to the Other?

That’s what’s happening now. Citizens vs. Public Servants. Educators vs. Students. East vs West.

And believe me I understand why this is so. It is so hard to cross a psychological chasm that has been created. It requires courage, it requires openness. Perhaps most of all, it requires a fundamental change in philosophy for some of us.

But it can be done.

As highlighted by Malcolm Gladwell’s phenomenal podcast, Revisionist History, see the efforts of a retired lawyer in Los Angeles who for 20 years has brought some of the most exceptional minds in our country out of the toughest schools and neighborhoods in America.

From This American Life, see how challenging it is on the most personal, even mundane of levels when two long estranged brothers in their 80’s finally reconnect after 20 years of silence.

And note the Wall Street Journal’s article about a rezoning in New York’s Upper West Side which will promote integration of a badly segregated neighborhood but only if the community embraces it. A community, which to this point, is doing everything in its power to fight it to preserve their access to a high-performing (and mostly white) school.

The examples are all around us. Opportunities abound to bridge divides and yet it is one of the hardest things to do.

Why is this so?

I believe it’s because we have a fundamental misalignment in our philosophies which runs across religion, creed, color, culture.

It is also a misalignment that is uniquely American in nature. And that is an overemphasis on consumption.

What indices do we track? Consumer confidence. Who do we hold up as role models? The wealthy. What do we look to to appease our own discomforts? Goods and services.

Barring any better alternative, it’s a logical perspective.

But it’s also logical that this feeds into our aversion to the Other. Anything that threatens our ability to consume in the way we want becomes an existential risk. We will fight it tooth and claw. Our backs are pushed against the hypothetical wall.

But what if that wall was only in our minds? What if, instead of resorting to wealth as a cure-all, we looked to another source of fulfillment?

What if we looked to the pleasure of creating something from the ground up? Day by day. The joy of building.

Like Theo Epstein building a championship team after a decades long drought and then signing up to do it all over again.

There is something else we could look up to rather than an accumulation of assets. We could look to an accumulation of character, which by the way, is largely independent of one’s beliefs, wealth, ethnicity or class.

Character is that quality of man or woman that can bridge the gap. It is something we can all look towards beyond the cloud of superficial definitions. I look past that you are a Republican or poor or a Yankees fan. I want to see what you are as a person. And then I will decide whether to connect, and not a moment before.

The rewards to this are not immediate. They don’t satisfy like a chocolate bar or a night of binge drinking or some other form of self-indulgence. But the benefits are much longer lasting.

What you build stays. In your heart. In other’s hearts. In the world.

Donald Glover’s film speaks to this. It shows an eerily drama-free day of young, urban creatives living in what seems like a modern-day Utopia. Living in a beautiful mansion high above Los Angeles, they drop beats, hang out by the pool, have meaningful conversations.

It all seems great, but there is an unsettling suspense within the lack of friction. Even the undeniable creativity that comes forth in the form of freestyle rap seems to speak more to the absence of raw material than to the presence of genius.

In a final moment of the film, you realize what makes this scenario so unsettling. That even if we get everything we strive for and are doomed/blessed to live it the rest of our lives, once there, if there is no struggle, if there is no intersection of opposites, then we are truly, truly, truly…

…Clapping for the Wrong Reasons.