Carol Forsloff — There is a line in a movie called Steel Magnolias when Olivia Dukakis, who plays one of the characters in the play/film about life in a small southern town, says, “If you have something bad to say, please sit by me.” It is that statement that underlines an attraction we have to the negative, why bullies attract large groups, why the negative fills the news and why there is so much division in politics throughout not just the United States but the world.
The “Steel Magnolias” film takes place in a town called Natchitoches, Louisiana. It is one of the most picturesque towns in America, its beautiful streets lined throughout with trees and flowers. Churches are predominant in the town, with one on almost every corner. People say hello from their front porches to friends and strangers alike as they sit socializing in the quiet of the evening. It is a place one would equate with paradise, with its lush landscape, music and beauty all around. It is, however, like every other town in the South, with one foot in the 21st century and another dragging behind with a history filled with racial hurts and regional pride. It is not, however, the bell-weather of the negative, only the reflection of the times, when people reach not to their better selves, nor their faith, but their endogenous hurts, some unjustified as they are, and biases that arrive from a long history of distrust of anything foreign, different, that creates change. For change comes slowly to the small towns, even as the negative grows everywhere.
Scientists tell us that attraction to the negative is part of how we interact with one another and determines what we read and talk about. Religious leaders and prophets reminded people of that when the laws were written for people, to prevent them from falling into the traps that kept love from its divine place in the world community. Throughout the history of faith, there have been frequent reminders that loving one another is the primary commandment. The negative, however, whether that is stealing, lying, or even murder, are those places people find even more attractive when institutions fail.
It is in politics that the divisions seem most apparent, whether left or right, in almost every discussion. If the negative isn’t negative enough, then folks addicted to it often cast blame on those who provide the information about political news, which is the media, one of the institutions among many under fire during times of turmoil. Even those who are to provide a safe harbor with those valuable commandments that help prevent people from falling for the seduction of the negative, fall prey to that same seduction. So preachers become politicians or become spokespeople for political views, taking sides in arbitrary arguments that fit a political bias under the guise of a religious one. So the opponent becomes demonized as a result, even from the pulpit, so the safe harbor of religion often becomes unsafe from the consequences of negative behavior and conversation. It is often these religious disagreements and demonizing based upon social and political negatives, that brings violence.
How do we avoid the traps that bring down our discussions to the baser levels of discussion and behavior? One way, social psychologists tell us, is to focus on issues, to read widely, and to read ideas outside our biases and social-political comfort zones. But that is difficult, given the fact most people read only what they believe. It is, however, essential in a democracy for people to be educated specific to issues, and when they are associated with personal bias, the opportunity for serious debate is lost.
It is that loss that brings the national suffering, teachers of ethics tell us. And most importantly, they remind us that those who maintain the safety of faith’s harbor must ever be vigilant that all people have access to its peaceful shores.