Immaculée Ilibagiza was born in Rwanda in 1972. As a teenager, she went to school one day and noticed that her teacher was taking attendance a bit differently than she had done in the past. Starting on this particular day, the teacher began adding a single word after each student’s name. Depending on the student’s ethnicity, that word was either “Hutu” or “Tutsi.”
Immaculée describes this as the moment when she first became aware that there was any such thing as a Hutu or a Tutsi. It was the first time she realized that she was a Tutsi, and that most of her classmates were Hutus. It was also the day she learned that Hutus and Tutsis are supposed to hate each other.
That Incident Did Not Happen by Accident
It was a very small element of a much larger campaign aimed at dividing the world into an “us” and a “them.” Tragically, that effort eventually achieved its intended purpose.
In 1993, the Hutu-led Rwandan government lent its support to a new broadcast service called RTLM (Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines). The content on RTLM was characterized by a sharply anti-Tutsi slant. Announcers frequently referred to Tutsis as “cockroaches” that needed to be exterminated. They used their platform to cast blame upon Tutsis for the country’s ills, fueling ethnic hatred, often with fabricated stories about Tutsi plots to undermine the Hutu population.
In April of 1994, Immaculée returned from college for the Easter holidays, completely unaware of the terror that was about to unfold.
On April 6th, a plane carrying Hutu President Juvénal Habyarimana was shot down during its landing approach to Kigali Airport. Everyone on board was killed. That incident served as the catalyst for the genocide that followed, but the foundation had already been laid.
In the ensuing weeks, Immaculée Ilibagiza witnessed unspeakable acts of cruelty. She watched as her own brother was hacked to death with a machete — his skull cut open by his attackers. Immaculée’s entire family was killed, with the sole exception of a brother who happened to be studying abroad at the time.
Immaculée herself took refuge in the tiny bathroom of a Hutu pastor. Hidden behind a bookshelf, that space measured just three feet deep by four feet wide. Picture a standard 2×4 foot ceiling tile. Lay two of those on the ground. Cut one in half and throw that half away. What’s left on the ground illustrates the size of that room. Immaculée spent three months in there, with seven other women.
All while she was praying for her persecutors.
Let that sink in. They killed her family. They were hunting her and anyone who looked like her. Raping. Torturing. Killing.
Despite all that, Immaculée Ilibagiza spent 91 days in that tiny bathroom projecting thoughts of peace, love, and forgiveness upon those people.
This is precisely the kind of radicalism the world needs right now.
Polarization is Power
Throughout history, unscrupulous people have used division to manipulate entire populations. The designers of the Rwandan genocide understood that very clearly. They knew that if they could isolate an identity group and characterize it as a vengeful, duplicitous enemy, they could consolidate their own power and motivate members of their target audience to do virtually anything for them. It worked.
Human beings are tribal by nature. We instinctively divide the world into an “us” and a “them.” It’s a mental shortcut. It relieves us of any responsibility to engage in deeper discernment. It protects us from risk. If we just stick with our own people, or so the argument goes, then we will be safe.
There is a very dark side to that tribalist inclination, though. At some point, we no longer see each other as flesh-and-blood human beings. We become caricatures. Enemies. Cockroaches.
The seduction goes even deeper: enemies give us a profound sense of purpose. New York Times war correspondent Chris Hedges captured that idea perfectly in the title of his brilliant 2002 book: War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning. Tragically, it’s true.
In today’s America (and to a great extent, throughout the rest of the world), people are clamoring for meaning. They are finding purpose in fomenting political conflict. In some cases, they’re fighting over life-and-death issues. In others, they’re championing causes that seem utterly ridiculous. Micro-aggressions. Mispronouning. Cultural appropriation. Those issues nevertheless have the power to hypnotize people and motivate them to hate their fellow human beings. No offense is too small.
People are so desperate to find purpose that they will grasp at anything that might remotely qualify as an injustice. They commit to that mission with a religious fervor. They’ll taunt, scream, and bully. They will chase people down and run them out of the public square. They’ll burn entire neighborhoods to the ground. A few of them will even kill. If we’re really honest about it, perhaps it’s more than just a few.
Do any of these causes justify giving up our humanity?
None of this is happening by accident, of course. Someone is priming this behavior. People in high places understand quite well that polarization is power, and they’re applying that principle to manipulate you, and me, with the aim of consolidating their power even further. They want us to hate each other.
The con goes like this: “I’ll help you. It’s those people that are causing all your problems. Give me your money, your vote, and enough control, and I’ll protect you. Stick with me, do what I say, and together we’ll defeat them.”
The perpetrators of this narrative will do everything they can to amp up the fear and loathing. In marketing, there is a name for this: it’s called “fear appeal advertising.” It can be very powerful, and unscrupulous people use it with scientific precision.
The problem is that sooner or later, everyone lands on the wrong side of the us/them line. When Joe Biden and mainstream media outlets launched their “pandemic of the unvaccinated” campaign, their aim was to polarize us. They sought to isolate, target, and cast blame on anyone who objected to being shot up with an experimental drug that had dubious benefits and potentially dangerous side-effects.
Unfortunately for the people peddling this narrative, a large portion of the targeted group were actually members of their own tribe, moderate independents and left-of-center Democrats. Suddenly, millions of Americans were confronted by cognitive dissonance. They unexpectedly found themselves in the designated “them” group. Virtually overnight, they became the outsiders who were to be blamed for ongoing disease, death, and mortal fear.
These people were faced with a choice: subordinate their deeply-felt beliefs and defer to the collective, or acknowledge that their own tribe was betraying them. Throughout their lives, they had seen the world through a predominantly collectivist lens. That impulse was still present, of course, — but now it came with a hefty price tag. Risk your life, your health, and your children, — or face the consequences.
For these refugees, the COVID mandates were a turning point. COVID exposed a gaping laceration in the establishment façade. Huge numbers of people were suddenly realizing that the self-declared champions of goodwill and tolerance might not actually be who they claimed to be.
This is an opportunity to bring people together. We really should do our best not to screw it up.
We cannot control what the elites are saying about us and our fellow Americans. We can, however, control how we respond. They want us to hate each other, but we don’t have to read from their script. We don’t have to behave the way they expect us to.
Members of the “us” group are expected to join in condemning the targeted “them” group. The latter are expected to return hate for hate. In fact, if the out-group can be spurred on to escalate the conflict, so much the better. It just validates the narrative and polarizes us even further.
How Can We Interrupt That Dynamic?
As long as we continue to fall back on the us/them paradigm, we will remain highly susceptible to manipulation. Labels are still useful, of course. We cannot (and should not) eliminate them, but we can recognize them for what they are. In the current political climate, we might consider looking beyond the labels and beginning to engage each other as flesh-and-blood human beings.
The people all around you have sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, mothers and fathers, husbands and wives. They have fears and aspirations. They have experienced trauma and loss. They appreciate beauty, friendship, and acts of kindness. And almost without exception, they love dogs.
The person you think of as a right-wing extremist or a left-wing loon undoubtedly has compelling life stories of their own. Meet them in that place, and you might discover something remarkable. Labels begin to lose their power over us. So too does the false promise of finding one’s life purpose in fanning the flames of conflict. War loses its seductive power.
Personally, I’ve been making those kinds of connections with a few people here in New Hampshire over the past year. Can a far-left progressive and a staunch conservative have a conversation about gun control or abortion without screaming at each other? Actually, yes. But they first need to be willing to look the other person in the eye and acknowledge that there’s an actual human being in there.
That is how we interrupt this dynamic. They want us to hate each other, but we don’t have to play by their rules. We need to start talking to each other again. We need to start treating each other like human beings.
So where do we go from here? For starters, I’ll suggest these four guidelines that might help us to move in the right direction:
1) Be aware of the polarization dynamic.
Simply by understanding and acknowledging that powerful people want us to hate each other, we can begin to break down our habitual ways of thinking, speaking, and interacting with the people who disagree with us. Whenever your gut reaction is to get angry, express indignation, put up walls, or call people names; hit the pause button. Is there another way to react? Can you interrupt the paradigm by refusing to read from the standard script?
2) Stop with the name calling.
Do you want to fight, or do you actually want to convert people to your point of view? When you preach to the choir, you’ll probably have the approval and esteem of your audience, but you’ll never actually win anyone over. Calling people moonbats, racists, libtards, or haters does not do a damn thing to convince them of your point of view. Understand the inherent limitations of labels and tailor your words and thoughts accordingly.
3) Look for the humanity in other people.
As you stand face-to-face with your so-called adversary, ask yourself what’s really going on behind those eyes. What are they afraid of? What motivates them? Is there anything about this person that connects you as human beings? Will they listen to you? Perhaps, but you also need to be willing to listen and at least try to understand them.
The principal of our local elementary school offered me this sage advice: In any conversation that involves disagreement, look for the positive intentions in others. This may seem impossible at times, but it’s worth trying. If you can find even a single grain of good intention, then you might have a starting point for understanding. If all else fails, remember that even delusional people are usually motivated by some positive intention, even if it’s misguided. Do your best not to condemn the person or their intention; instead, wish that they might eventually see the truth. It might feel like you’re engaging in mental gymnastics at times. Be prudent, but also be willing to push the envelope.
4) Be willing to risk failure.
Some people are simply not open to the idea of seeking common ground (yet). Not long ago, I tried to engage someone in conversation while standing outside the polls on election day. I pointed out that in today’s America, we seem to be operating from two entirely different sets of facts. I expressed a willingness to hear what he had to say, and invited him to a dialog. His response was to ask where I get my news and information. I told him, — and I added that I always try to gather facts from multiple sources and do my best to discern the truth. His answer was “Well then, you need to try harder.” Then he walked away. Accept that you won’t always get through, and don’t let it keep you from trying again.