I was deeply moved by the memorial services honoring George Floyd in Minneapolis and Houston, with their riveting expressions of grief, love and hope. His family spoke of a son and brother who, although flawed, was loved and would be sorely missed. In a moment when politicians, pundits and protestors were attempting to seize my attention, a grieving family captured my heart. They made it clear that, for any of us to be part of meaningful change, we need to reflect on the familial ties we all share and internalize a spirit of genuine empathy as we properly direct our energies.
Or, as it is stated in the Bible, in Paul’s letter to the Romans, love in action requires us to “mourn with those who mourn.”
In the current social and political climate, there are two great obstacles to meaningful change, starting with an inability to empathize. Too often, advocates for a particular position or party work to essentially dehumanize an issue by overemphasizing statistics, reducing human lives to numbers or faceless demographics. We cannot move forward if we lose touch with people’s essential human value.
I’ll admit I’m not always the most empathetic person — layers of scar tissue from two decades of service in the Texas House of Representatives can be tough to penetrate — but the Floyd family got through to me. In the face of their heartrending story and personal insights offered by other Black Americans, I have challenged myself to be more empathetic, and I call on all my fellow Texans to do the same.
The second and possibly more insidious obstacle to progress is the prevailing tendency to willfully misdirect one’s energy. In a season when we could lock eyes in the search for understanding and link arms in pursuit of transformation, entirely too many people are directing their energy at tearing down anyone who doesn’t agree with them on every single point of their position. Having endured my share of tense negotiations over everything from bills in the House to what allowance my sons will earn, I know the all-or-nothing approach is destined to fail.
People typically adopt that approach for one of two reasons. Either they are blinded by anger, seeing their position as the only acceptable solution, or they know they can use the other party’s unwillingness to fully agree as a weapon in conversations. Whatever their motive, they ultimately stall meaningful negotiations, stop progress and remove themselves from the conversation completely, dooming their objective to failure.
That all-or-nothing approach is pretty much the cultural norm on social media. In the eyes of some of the “Twitterati” last week, I stepped over a line when I shared an illustration originally posted by the rapper, Diddy, in which the artist gave context to the expression “Black lives matter.” The illustration impacted me deeply, opening my eyes to nuances of the conversation I’d previously missed. Unfortunately, plenty of detractors wanted to attack my phrasing or lob rhetorical grenades, rather than acknowledge my admission of ignorance and willingness to learn. Their reaction didn’t exactly encourage me to continue, but that thick skin I mentioned earlier protected me a bit. Sadly, there are entirely too many well-meaning people who lack that protective covering and end up victims of the circular firing squads of social media, retreating under fire into silence.
I encountered a completely different spirit when I met with members of the House Criminal Justice Reform Caucus, diverse in both party and color, to contemplate changes in the way our state handles policing, sentencing and imprisonment. The shared goal is not to diminish public safety, but improve it by increasing the effectiveness of law enforcement and building engagement on the part of the policed. This conversation is going to take a long time, but it is imbued with a renewed urgency and we owe it to ourselves and future generations to move the ball in a positive direction.
As we celebrate Father’s Day and the men who strive to build families, let’s reflect on our membership in the family of mankind and pursue meaningful dialogue and lasting change. Let’s reject the cancel culture that infects social media. Let’s refuse to skirmish on the fringes of the conversation, inflamed with anger toward those mutually perceived as opponents. Instead, let’s take time to mourn with those who mourn and, thus connected, move humanity forward with meaningful changes that foster peace. Anything else is just angry noise.
Bonnen is the speaker of the Texas House of Representatives.