Below was written for the Minnesota Humanities Center Blog by Minneapolis Criminal Defense Attorney Ryan Else, who received the inaugural Veterans Voices Award from the Humanities Center:
The greatest threat to our nation lies inside us all: the inability to see the humanity in those who are different from or in conflict with us. We are a strong nation of people who have proven a nearly absolute ability to defend against external threats, but, we are hurting ourselves at a greater rate than an enemy has ever been able. To illustrate that point, as most of us know, in 2001 we lost 2,977 Americans in the largest attack on American soil by an external threat in over a century. According to the Centers for Disease Control; however, for the most recent year with data, we killed each other 16,238 times in 2011 and another 38,285 Americans killed themselves that year.
Right or wrong, we have felt the need to militarize our police force, indicating that we now view ourselves as a danger matching the threats abroad. The problem goes beyond violence. Political divisiveness has peaked at a point where hatred and fear of each other dominate over working together to improve our physical infrastructure, schools, health care, or for any other constructive purpose. We are clearly failing to appreciate the humanity in each other, as this xenophobia leads to the dehumanization of each other necessary for such violence and hatred.
We need a reminder of our common humanity, the fact that despite our differences we all want the same thing out of the American experience—a safe place to live, raise families, express ourselves freely, and excel in our individual and collective pursuits of happiness. We need reminded reminder that we have more in common with each other than we have differences. We need to see that when we dehumanize a person different from ourselves we are extinguishing the same relationships and consciousness that we hold sacred in our own lives.
The humanities—defined as the study of human culture—force us to recognize these commonalities in one another. Whether it is a play that confronts the civilian population with the difficulties faced by returning combat Veterans or a children’s book that tells the story of a foreign community or culture, the stories are those that make us human. It is very difficult to hate those you recognize as human. They are stories that transcend any specific culture because they are the stories of family, trauma, pain, community, sport, faith, and other universal commonalities. The details change from culture to culture or experience to experience, but the themes are essential to us all.
Once we find common values, we face our differences not as threats but as diverse assets we all bring to the American experience. If we are to overcome the divisiveness we face, we must find common ground and unite around the unique diversity that makes up the United States. To do that, we must first get to know each other’s stories and the humanities can serve as our collective storyteller.