Crossing the Right-Left Divide

Posted on 02 September 2015

I am someone who crossed over. I was born into a right-wing family with a strong religious allegiance. I have always been deeply sensitive and empathetic. Two teachers said almost word for word the same thing about me, “Sensitive and outspoken…ouch.” Yes, “ouch” but pretty much the primary ingredients for any significant artist who ever lived. That ability to recognise other’s feelings and then the desire to care meant from very early in my life I began to question my family’s outlook.

When I was five I would walk to kindergarten on my own. One little girl in the neighborhood took to ambushing me, knocking me down, and pulling my hair. I complained to my mother who took me with her to talk to the mother of this child. Their house was dirty and in disrepair, rubbish was strewn across the lawn. The woman who answered the door was in an equal state of disrepair. Her hair was matted and she had bruises. I was gobsmacked. I thought to myself that if I lived in similar circumstances, I might want to pull someone’s hair as well. I don’t remember what was said that day. I don’t even remember if the hair-pulling stopped. I just remember the feelings of horror and sorrow. No one should have to live that way.

So from early on my outlook and the outlook I was being taught by those closest to me started to diverge. When you are very young this isn’t noticeable because communication between the young and the old is particularly limited. As such my own awareness that I was heading a different direction wasn’t strong. I loved my family, I believed they loved me, and left things at that. It was when I became old enough to start articulating differences that the trouble began. Worse, in being able to articulate such things I was better able to question and keep questioning, and recognise where my family was falling short of the ideals I was forming. This is an awkward process. With no one there to help it was fraught with regretful errors and deep pain.

At university I finally had room to breathe and be myself. I was no longer in danger if I revealed my thoughts. Well mostly. I was fortunate to meet with some kind Buddhist intellectuals, atheist humanists, existentialists, and more. These were tolerant people who showed me acceptance and kindness. They did not judge me because of my religious or political background. They shared their knowledge, and upon occasion looked out for my physical and emotional welfare when things went wrong. This had me questioning how do we decide who the “good” people are and who are “bad”. I was taught many stereotypes that painted everyone who wasnt’ part of our particular brand of religion as unmitigatingly “bad”, but it wasn’t true. Given my experiences, it clearly wasn’t true.

I became angry about the lies, manipulations, and judgements I experienced within my family and their community. However, I still love many of the people there. Yes, I can see their dark side, and it is ugly. Yet, I can’t erase from my mind all the good moments. It can be so hard finding any joy, kindness, or love in the world. The last thing I want to do is obliterate even small moments of light. Rather, I want to carry them forward and leave the rest behind. If I wallow in the anger (and I do upon occasion still), if I direct all my thoughts and actions at punishing these people by simply being against what they are for or by transgressing their mores, I become their mirror image. I never get to be wholly and truly Katherine Phelps.

When you turn people into a symbol of evil in your mind, you not only dehumanise them, they also become superhuman. That’s what makes them so frightening. You can never defeat a symbol. If on the otherhand, you see people for who they are: products of their own environment, their own culture, their own fears and vanities—it’s as if you are looking at a naked child. They are vulnerable. That’s what terrifies them; that’s what motivates them. They individually may still be dangerous, but individually some may be coaxed into following a different direction as I did.

When I read about one of the grown children of the Westboro Baptist cult leaving her family and their way of life, I wrote to the journalist who reported on her story. I asked to write to her and show some support, since leaving an entire life behind can be hard. The article was being passed around in one of my Google circles. People were crowing over the event as a victory for the left. I couldn’t help feeling that really it was a failure of the right. The journalist wrote back to me and passed on my details to the woman. Why did he have time to do that? Instead of crowing about victory, more people should have been holding out a genuine hand of support to make sure this woman had all the help she needed both physically and emotionally in order to move on with her life, rather than being a poster child.

At this time in my life I am far “Gandhi left” (as opposed to “Che Guevara left”). I would like to see an end to hierarchies, corporations, and capitalism. I would like to see a rise of greater democracy, a universal unconditional basic income, more socialised services, more means to share, community building, greater environmental stewardship, and people capable of negotiating, cooperating, bonding, and caring about one another. Would I have made it to this point if I had been born twenty years later than I was? I have serious doubts. Why?

People are generally so frightened and so angry that they are drawing lines rather than reaching out hands. We feel the urgency for change and many are looking for fast simple solutions. As such people are looking for easy markers as to who is “bad” and who is “good”, so they can stamp the bad people out. Anyone of a different ethnicity is “bad”. Anyone of a different religion is “bad”. Anyone of a different political party is “bad”. Anyone of a different economic class is “bad”. Soon every one is a symbol and a stereotype and problems become insurmountable. I do not think I would feel the freedom to explore and learn in our current world, and thereby find the strength to cross over from a conservative position to a caring one. That’s the problem.

We are seeing such deep splits that I fear for another world war. Our current problems have so damaged the environment that the additional damage a major war would wreak would tip us mutually over the edge into extinction. Even without war our lack of cooperation will keep us from taking the action necessary to turn things around and again we face extinction, just at a slightly slower rate. Most people are born into their religions and politics. When the left takes the bait to march around in outrage expressing their hatred, they frighten off those who may be starting to see the sense in their position. The left should be looking for more people who are for their position, rather than simply against the right.

We need to start NOW building positive alternatives. So when the collapse of our civilisation becomes particularly acute, people will have life vessels in which to jump. We need to revive something of a flower-child movement. As toilet paper advertising tells us, it is possible to be both strong and gentle. We need to stand strong for our values of compassion and stewardship, and we need to so deeply and unconditionally care for humanity that people expect a warm welcome when they join the cause. This will tip the numbers. This will create lasting change. Breathe in peace and love, breathe out fear and outrage…let it go. What sort of life do you want to live? If it’s one where you experience human warmth within and without, then start modelling that.

Peace and kindness,


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