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remembering while forgetting

I think part of the reason that the events of recent days have caused so much anguish is that they call to mind a few very basic problems that are part of the human condition. How we make room in our lives for each other. Why we hurt each other, and how we recover from pain, and how it changes us. How we, as people, voluntarily create intolerable conditions, and what it means to know that those who do this are still our brothers and sisters, that any of this could have happened to - or been done by - any of us.

While there's clearly an immediate issue to address re: the refugee ban, if we want to keep moving forward as a society, there's another thing we can't forget: arriving is just the beginning. To a certain degree, I think, you never stop being a refugee. And dealing with the consequences of that, the trauma and the pain that gets passed down, isn't something we're very good at yet.

A few days ago I found this poem by one of my favorites, Li-Young Lee. He says all this better than I can.

Self-Help for Fellow Refugees

- Li-Young Lee

If your name
suggests a country where bells
might have been used for entertainment,
or to announce
the entrances and exits of the seasons
and the birthdays of gods and demons,
it's probably best to dress in plain clothes
when you arrive in the United States. 
And try not to talk too loud.

If you happen to have watched armed men
beat and drag your father
out the front door of your house
and into the back of an idling truck,
before your mother jerked you from the threshold
and buried your face in her skirt folds,
try not to judge your mother
too harshly. Don't ask her
what she thought she was doing,
turning a child's eyes away
from history
and toward that place all human aching starts.

And if, one day, you meet someone
in your adopted country and believe
you see in the other's face an open sky,
some promise of a new beginning,
it probably means
you're standing too far away.

Or if you think you read
in the other, as in a book
whose first and last pages are missing,
the story of your own birthplace, a country twice erased,
once by fire, once by forgetfulness,
it probably means you're standing too close.

In any case, try
not to let another carry
the burden of your own nostalgia or hope.

And if you're one of those
whose left side of the face doesn't match
the right, it might be a clue
looking the other way was a habit
your predecessors found useful for survival. 
Don't lament
not being beautiful. 
Get used to seeing while not seeing.
Get busy remembering
while forgetting. Dying to live
while not wanting to go on. 

Very likely, your ancestors decorated their bells
of every shape and size
with elaborate calendars and diagrams
of distant star systems,
but no maps
for scattered descendants.

And I bet you can't say
what language your father spoke
when he shouted to your mother
from the back of the truck, "Let the boy see!"

Maybe it wasn't the language you used at home. 
Maybe it was a forbidden language. 
Or maybe there was too much screaming
and weeping
and the noise of guns in the streets.

It doesn't matter. 
What matters is this:
The kingdom of heaven is good. 
But heaven on earth is better.

Thinking is good. 
But living is better.

Alone
in your favorite chair
with a book you enjoy
is fine. But spooning
is even better.

 

No maps for scattered descendants. Maybe those are what we need to write.

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how to use Facebook (etc.) slightly more productively, or: facts plz

If you don't have the patience to read this blog post, here's what I want you to take away from it: you can't win an argument without a) making sure you have reputable facts and b) understanding where the other person is coming from. So stop sharing random stuff on Facebook without checking it first if you want to get anywhere. /tl;dr


Okay! So. A bit more on those two ideas.

Somewhat paradoxically, the two biggest influences on my thought and reasoning processes are my career as a HS debater and my mediation training. And man alive, they have never seemed more relevant than today.

Re: the first one: I was a Lincoln-Douglas debater in high school. I strongly recommend doing this, at least for a year or two, for anyone who has the stamina, because it is GRUELING. But what it does is teach you, quite literally, how to argue; you can't win a debate without proving the "value" that you're arguing for to be superior, and you can't do that without having both facts that stand up to scrutiny and counter-arguments that anticipate and address your opponent's claims. That's not a strategic recommendation - that's a requirement. (If you don't successfully address your opponent's claims, no matter how ridiculous they are, they officially stand, which is a point against you.) As a result, you learn quickly to check your sources for bias and to ensure that the facts you offer aren't limited to one or two instances. Or you're hosed. That's just how it works.

Which is why it pains me so to see people in the current political climate repeating claims without having bothered to check their sources or the nuances of an issue. It's true on both sides of the aisle, and it bugs me mostly because it is the FASTEST WAY TO LOSE AN ARGUMENT, full stop. Even if you're correct, nothing undermines your credibility more than revealing that the same source that you're citing on healthcare policy also claimed that you could cure your cancer with magnets and a glass of milk.

One would think that this stands to reason, but all one has to do is spend some time on one's social media platform to realize that hysteria - and the sharing of questionably sourced articles - is easier to give in to than one might think. Even the best of us will rely sometimes on a heartrending story, but that story isn't very useful unless it's representative of a larger argument. (Repeat after me: THE PLURAL OF ANECDOTE IS NOT DATA.)

And I get that this is annoying and exhausting and stressful, particularly when you're dealing with people who don't feel the need to do the same (again, both sides).  It doesn't seem like it should be necessary. But hell, it doesn't seem like it should be necessary for me to be telling you to check your facts, and here I am, writing this instead of doing something else, so.

However: there's a larger question about whether "winning an argument" is the framework we should be using at all for this. Which is where the mediation training comes in. (Don't worry, you're still going to need reliably-sourced facts for this.)

When I was in grad school, I took a training in order to become a court mediator. It's not an exaggeration to say that this training completely changed my way of thinking. The point of mediation is not to "win" per se; it's to come up with a mutually satisfying outcome for both parties. What that means, in practice, is that you have to understand what the other person wants, but more importantly, you have to understand why they want it and where that overlaps with what you want and why you want it.

There are probably a few people in the world who can see a completely different set of facts and say "Okay, you're right, I was wrong," but I don't know them. Most people, when they take a political stance, have a deeper driver that needs acknowledgment: I feel unsafe. I feel ignored. I feel overlooked or disrespected. Which is why just getting up and saying "Here are the facts, asshole" doesn't tend to work super well. It works in debate, of course, because there are judges there and pre-existing rules that everyone has agreed to abide by. But in life, and on Facebook, there's no one there to keep score and declare a winner.

So if you decide that you want to undertake the exhausting endeavor of getting someone else to agree with you, or at least disagree with you less, it's vital to acknowledge their concerns, EVEN IF YOU DON'T SHARE THEM. You don't have to share them to say "I understand that you feel that way." "I understand that you're concerned about safety." "I understand that you're worried about healthcare." And - I know this is crazy - TRY TO UNDERSTAND THEM. You're probably not going to agree! That's okay! You can at least use this as a metric to assess the arguments they present. And if you can find some common ground that way - "I am also concerned about safety, and can agree at least on X" - then the tenor of the argument has already gotten less vitriolic. 

And this is where the debate training comes back in. Your facts still need to be credible. You'll be much better prepared to understand where they're coming from if you've anticipated the counter-argument, and who knows, you might even have found some facts to address their concerns. But - thanks to the mediation approach - you won't be dealing with someone anymore who finds it actively painful and humiliating to agree with you. You don't want to put people in that position. It doesn't work.

Of course, I'm something of a hypocrite in this regard, because I try to stay out of social media-based arguments; as noted, they're exhausting, and I find it more effective for me personally to direct my energy in this area elsewhere. And I should also note that you may still not win, because emotions and power make people unreasonable. You're not going to be able to come to a civil agreement with everybody.

But - call me naive - I believe that people can change, and that more people than not can be at least spoken with. Nonetheless, you can't engage at all if all your "facts" are yelled and come from some rando's Twitter feed. This is an annoying baseline to begin with, but we've got to start somewhere.

I will leave you with this graphic, which I think is hugely important. You may disagree with a few of the placements (particular apologies to my friends who work at and/or read USAToday and CNN - I don't think that's fair), but the overall idea, I think, stands up pretty well.

MW-FC101_news_20161215131112_NS.jpg

A few important caveats:

1) If you use social media to vent to your friends and family and not to try to engage people, this does not apply to you. Yell all you want. I'm not judging you.

2) Yes, there is a useful debate to be had about who defines "credibility" and why some sources are viewed as more official than others. Unfortunately, in the current climate, I think you need to provide that context if that's going to be the basis of your argument. Fair? Nope. Exhausting? Yep. But, again, this is what we're dealing with.

 

beside the golden door

Dear refugees: We are sorry. I am sorry.

I just want you to know that. This America, the one you're seeing, the hateful one, the mean one, that's not us. At least, it's not us all the time. It's us at our worst and weakest. We're a mess right now, and we're not handling it very well.

And I am horrified that this could become your vision of our beautiful country: of ignorant policies driven by fear, that fly in the face of both facts and logic. I would understand where you might think that this is what all Americans believe, that we don't care about you. But I promise you that this is not the case.

Look, I'm not going to kid myself that you or anyone else is sitting around wondering what I have to say about this. But I am the daughter of a refugee, and I can't go to sleep tonight without joining my voice to the chorus of protest. I can't live with myself without trying to amplify in some way the message that we have not forgotten you, that you are not alone. There are millions of us, refugees and allies, followers of Jesus and Allah and the Buddha and nobody at all, and we love you and welcome you and believe that our world is better with you in it.

And for those of us lucky enough to have gotten here already, I am here to tell you that we will not pull up the ladder behind us. We will fight for you. Not just for better policies, because that's not enough; rightly or wrongly, people here are acting out of fear and ignorance, and those of us on the other side haven't always been very good at addressing that. We will do everything we can to advocate for you, our brothers and sisters, to understand why this has happened, to try and change that and build this country again into a place that welcomes you. It's not going to be easy. Changing hearts and minds never is. But that doesn't make it less necessary.

It may look like our lamp has fallen and our door has closed. It hasn't. Even in the dark, there are some of us still here, trying to start a fire that will lead you home.

Yours,

Hillary

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not for all my little words

Growing up in Florida, I think I always took the existence of palm trees for granted.

If you've never seen one, if you've only ever grown up with maple and pine and birch trees, a palm tree could be difficult to imagine, because it probably challenges all your notions of what a tree should be. There are no real branches, and its leaves only appear at the top of the tree. Its bark often grows in layers, like a series of stacked funnels, and it usually lists a little to the side, as though it's responding to a wind that isn't there. 

But even if you've never seen one, believing that they exist isn't that hard. There are photographs. You have my testimony, but even if you don't trust me, there is probably someone in your life whom you do trust who has seen one and can vouch for the plant's existence. In all likelihood, you have eaten a coconut. (At the very least, coconut is available at your grocery store.)

If you've never seen one, you can, of course, insist that they're not real, because no one can stop you. I can say that I am actually a dragon if I want to. But just because I say it doesn't make it true. I know that palm trees exist, and even if I hadn't seen them myself, there's enough evidence out there for me to believe in them.

This is how I feel about privilege, and racism, and inequality in America. Telling me they don't exist is like telling me that palm trees aren't real. You can say whatever you want, but it doesn't change the facts.


When I was six or seven years old, my father and I went to the customer service kiosk in DeSoto Square Mall to get a gift certificate for my friend's birthday present. While we were there, the people working the desk tried to give us a toddler. 

She had gotten lost, or been abandoned, or something, and aside from the color of her skin, she looked nothing like us. Also, she was speaking Spanish. This did not change the mall staff's conviction that the baby was ours. 

"That's not my kid," my father said. "I came to buy a gift certificate."

"Sir," they said, "we found your baby. You can't just leave your child."

"But it's not my baby," he said. "That baby is Mexican. I don't even speak Spanish. I'm Asian."

Believe it or not, this went on for quite a bit longer, despite the complete illogic of the situation: why would a baby abandoner return to the scene of the crime? Why would a baby loser not just take their baby back? What didn't they understand about the words "I came to buy a gift certificate"? 

And what I think has stuck with me, even more than the weird mix-up, is the mall staff's complete refusal to believe my father, despite all the evidence to the contrary. He fit their mental model of the child's father (man with brown skin), so it didn't matter to them what he said. It was like he hadn't said anything. That was how much weight they gave it. 

This refusal to validate or take seriously a person's opinion is something I keep thinking about as I read about Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner. Because I can sit here and tell you about my experience with white/non-black privilege all day long, as though it would do anything - not stories from the "liberal media," but my own stories, which are rough and challenging and don't always make me look good. I can tell you about the years I've spent working in economically depressed African-American neighborhoods and compare and contrast it with the poor white kids I've known in Appalachia or the poor Asian kids I've dealt with in other parts of DC. I can tell you about the casual racism in my high school, or all the petty crimes I've seen my white peers get away with, or the fact that no one has ever had to sit my little brother down and warn him how to deal with being harassed by the cops. I can tell you about the areas of Anacostia I've seen that are basically cut off from the rest of the city, devoid of any public transportation in or out, or talk about the old Georgetown leases that explicitly forbade renting houses to black people. I can introduce you to one of my very best friends, someone I will be friends with until I die, who is a brilliant psychologist who happens to be black, and who has put up with more racist bullshit in her life than the day is long. If it's testimony you want, I've got it in spades.

But I don't think it matters if I tell you or not, because proof is not the issue.

Sure, yes, you shouldn't need to hear this from me, because BLACK PEOPLE HAVE BEEN SAYING THIS FOR CENTURIES. Me being white, or Vietnamese, or having a master's degree, or being someone you know personally does not make me more credible. But let's say that for whatever reason, none of these accounts satisfy you, because their authors don't have whatever credential you're looking for. What else do you want? Are you looking for a direct comparison, like, for instance, if a white man and his black friend are arrested at the same time? Here you go. Would you prefer that your witness be both wealthy and an Ivy League alum? Try this. Really only trust the opinions of white women? Yup. Do you need to hear it from Republicans? Got you covered. What if there was, I don't know, video documentation of completely unnecessary police brutality? Unlike Eric Garner, today is your lucky day. (You probably know this, but that video is very difficult to watch. Just a warning.)

This is your evidence that palm trees exist, even though you have never personally seen one.  

I am usually a believer in nuance. I'm opinionated, but there are very few subjects on which I take a completely hard line. This is not one of them. You cannot tell me that it's possible that the palm tree I see could just be an oak with a growth disorder. The proof is there. It's been there. It doesn't matter if you've experienced it firsthand or not. You either have the moral imagination to accept the evidence in front of you, or you don't. And if you don't - if you still somehow believe that we live in a post-racial world, that everyone in America has an equal shot at the top - it doesn't matter who's talking anymore, or what they say. Because you've already made up your mind.


(ETA: I want to clarify that I am not saying that police are bad, or that white people are bad, or anything like that. I am acknowledging that palm trees exist. I am not saying that all trees are palm trees.)

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to venture into the New World, alone

To follow that last post:  I may not be able to express how I feel about the Tsarnaev brothers, but Andrew Lam can do it for me. I cannot recommend highly enough that you read this essay.

As part of it, here is the most resonant description of inherited trauma that I have ever read. This is a topic I want to explore in my own writing, but honestly, Lam kind of has it covered. (I mean, did he know my grandmother personally?)

Here is what I know: it is inevitable that children born into war inherit trauma, even if they didn’t experience that war first hand. The inheritance is deep rooted, and it seeps in below the surface: the way the adults talk of the past, the way fragments of their history replay on TV, the way sadness hangs in the refugee home like heavy air, like smoke; a lost home, a shattered people, the humiliation, the overwhelming nostalgia; it seeps into dreams. And when they are vulnerable, when their lives in America unravel and their access to America’s grandeur is blocked and denied, the old memories and unshaped desires have a way of reaching out to take hold.

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the best that we can do

I have roughly fifteen half-finished posts in my draft folder about the Boston Marathon bombing, starting with one the day after it happened and ending with a paragraph or two I wrote a few months ago. I keep trying to figure out how to talk about it, trying to clarify what it is I feel and what I want to say to myself and to the world. I don't know how. I still don't know.

And I will tell you now that this is not that piece. But, like those aborted posts, it is still an open-ended expression of failure. 

Today I had the following conversation with one of my friends:

me:  goddammit

one of my [summer program] kids is going to jail

Friend:  ugh

i'm sorry

me:  it's okay

he's the friend of the Boston bomber

I don't know if I'm sadder he's going to jail or that he apparently got high like eight times that day

Friend: ohhhhhhh

lead, buried

me:  I mean I guess?

but for me the story happens in that order

 

So. This is how it is. I remember Robel - he wasn't my student, but we all knew everyone. He was small then. This is not a thing I could have imagined, then.

For context: this program where I taught, during the summer of 2006 - I'm not going to name it here, because I don't want anyone to use this against them - was, and is, designed to keep kids on the path to college by making learning an enjoyable part of life. We lived and breathed it. My roommate then and I used to sit in our sweltering apartment, listening to Sufjan Stevens' The Avalanche, and talk about head versus heart - whether or not our performance should be judged on how much blood and tears we put into our work. And the kids lived and breathed it, too; we used to see them on the weekends, to call them at home. I still talk to a few of them sometimes. Which is probably why this hurts me, whether or not I deserve to feel it.

I'm afraid to even talk about this situation, because I want so badly to establish that I know that:

  • it's not about me
  • one program or person cannot be expected to alter another person's fate
  • this bombing was a horrible, horrible tragedy and no one should have aided or abetted it in any way

I know. I KNOW I KNOW I KNOW. It's not even my business to be sad, not when so many people related to this event experienced real tragedy. But I'm writing this now, this howl of frustration, because I want it acknowledged that we tried to build this beloved community, and I want us to try harder. I don't know how. I don't know what went wrong, and I don't know where he - or we - went wrong. But something could be better. And I think saying this out loud, how far we are from that community of our dreams, is probably the first step. Even if it takes the form of an incomprehensible half-apologia like this one.

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fashionably sensitive, but too cool to care

(Back, momentarily, from hiatus. How many half-finished draft posts lurk in my archives? YOU'LL NEVER KNOW.)

I just want to say how much I love this take on Lena Dunham and her book Not That Kind of Girl (which, full disclosure, I have not read, for reasons you will understand in a moment). 

Two aspects in particular that resonated with me:

1) The recognition, or lack thereof, of the need to hustle. Yes, if you know who Lena Dunham is, you also probably know that she comes from both wealth and education. But what Saraiya also points out is that the casual way her accomplishments are treated totally belie the actual truth, which is that no one could get this much done without both an insane work ethic and extra-strength ambition. (As Soraiya says: "Whatever the reason, the result is a portrait of a woman who doesn’t seem to try very hard to be successful—when in fact, based on everything we know about the television and film industries, the opposite must be true.")

For me, this is an issue of privilege (I mean, what isn't), but it's also an issue of gender, part of the same dysfunctional mindset that lets assertive women be called abrasive and idealizes the "cool girl." When a woman's primary purpose is to be "nice" and "fun," striving doesn't really play into the equation. Because striving requires seriousness (boring), dedication (selfish), and - in particular - a willingness to acknowledge one's own desires, and therefore also a willingness to be vulnerable. And vulnerability, because it asks for support from others, is the least cool thing of all.

Let me be clear here: I have NO problem with the idea of being nice, or fun. In fact, I try to be both of those things - but on my own terms. The problem is that they are often presented as excluding all the stuff I just talked about, as opposed to being a behavioral option that can and should coexist with ambition.

2) Soraiya's discussion of the relationship the reader has with the text. Or, as she puts it:

"It is impossible to navigate Lena Dunham’s work without being forced to contend with her complicated, contradictory, difficult-to-reconcile self, and doing so forces readers to contend with themselves. Where does her ego stop and her work begin? Where does my ego stop and my critique begin? It’s hard to see Not That Kind Of Girl for just what it is, because it isn’t just anything—it’s a process of moving through my sense of self and her own, to reach an uneasy understanding."

So this is why I have not read her book. I watched some of Girls, and I liked it, but - predictably - I was also annoyed. Partly because I am not Lena Dunham, but would like to be that accomplished; partly because of my own experiences in communities devoid of privilege, which make me highly skeptical of its claims towards reality. (I love Friends, but maybe that's because no one ever described it as cinéma vérité.) 

Would I feel this way if there were more voices out there - more young women, with clear perspectives, being highlighted? I don't know. Maybe not. If we offered more pathways for this sort of thing, I might not feel like Lena has the only seat at the table, while the rest of us watch from the kitchen.

Which brings us to the crux of the problem: most of this is not really Lena Dunham's fault. Honestly, if we met, I would probably like her. But so much of how I feel about her is related to the societal constructs we've built for women that I can't acknowledge her on her own terms. I mean, look at the title. Not That Kind of Girl? This is the question I'm left with: what kind of girl? When, I wonder, will we each get to be our own girl, imperfect but perfect exactly as we are?

 

 

ETA: I can't believe I had that lyric wrong. So embarrassed. 

 

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Sunday night links

More articles I'd like to devote a whole post to - but can't due to time constraints. It appears that the theme this week is "Hillary's childhood."

THINGS I RECOMMEND, AUGUST 24th EDITION

  • I endorse any and all coverage of Kenan Thompson. In fact, I'm just glad he's on SNL, which is probably the best possible career outcome for any child comic actor. Is Rembert Browne harsh? Maybe a little. But his summation of the Jean K. Jean skit is spot-on, and I could not stop laughing even though it's clearly not even that funny. (Full disclosure: RB is a friend of a friend, but we've never met.)
  • Actually, all of Grantland's SNL coverage is worth a look. And if you, like me, spent a lot of your high school weekends watching SNL reruns on Comedy Central with your best friend, you might also like Splitsider's series "Saturday Night's Children."
  • Related: Browne links to an early-'90s Bernie Mac routine in that article. Here is a Bernie Mac outfit from that era. 
You're welcome.

You're welcome.

  • "Kids deserve the right to think that they can change the world": an interview with the astonishing Lois Lowry.

  • Speaking of authors who changed my life, I recently came across the New Yorker's tribute to E.L. Konigsburg, who died last year. I LOVE their description of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler:

    Konigsburg granted Claudia a perfect answer to the great childhood what-if—what if I leave behind my family, which is all that I know? The answer is that Claudia will learn to tell her own story.


May we all learn to do the same.

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the culture of encounter

(In which I give in and write more about SketchFactor.)

How supremely perfect it is that the SketchFactor app debuted at the same time as the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. On the SketchFactor scale of 1-5, where 1 is "kind of quirky" and 5 is "could be dangerous," Ferguson probably ranks at about a 30 right now, what with the rioting and the wooden bullets and all. According to these metrics, at least, it's a place to be avoided.

But is it, really? Because avoidance, at least of the mental kind, might be how we got here in the first place.

My man Pope Francis has been on a tear lately talking about the "culture of encounter," the idea that we learn and grow when we interact with people different from ourselves. In one letter of which I'm particularly fond, he talks about the role that communications and technology can play in fostering greater human dignity:

In a world like this, media can help us to feel closer to one another, creating a sense of the unity of the human family which can in turn inspire solidarity and serious efforts to ensure a more dignified life for all.  Good communication helps us to grow closer, to know one another better, and ultimately, to grow in unity.  The walls which divide us can be broken down only if we are prepared to listen and learn from one another. 

The essential problem with apps like SketchFactor is that they don't break down these walls. They build them by specifying where we shouldn't walk, literally dividing us and our environs into safe and unsafe, worthy and unworthy. In its own way, this discourse is violent and destructive - not just to those it victimizes, but to our connections to each other as well.

Walls like these are what allow those of us who are not regularly harassed for our race or class to turn a blind eye to the killing, by police, of young, unarmed persons of color; they block out the protests, the riots, the sound of sirens. They let us believe it doesn't happen that often. Walls like these give us an excuse to make assumptions, because we've never learned that a "gang sign" is actually a symbol of peace. Walls like these prevent the large-scale catalyzing of public opinion against procedures that are fundamentally unjust. And walls like these allow us to avoid imagining ourselves, as individuals, in the same situation.

Elsewhere in that letter, the Pope invokes the parable of the Good Samaritan and its call for us to view ourselves as "neighbors" to all of humanity:

Those who communicate, in effect, become neighbours.  The Good Samaritan not only draws nearer to the man he finds half dead on the side of the road; he takes responsibility for him.  ...(I)t is not just about seeing the other as someone like myself, but of the ability to make myself like the other.  Communication is really about realizing that we are all human beings, children of God... 

Whenever communication is primarily aimed at promoting consumption or manipulating others, we are dealing with a form of violent aggression like that suffered by the man in the parable, who was beaten by robbers and left abandoned on the road.  The Levite and the priest do not regard him as a neighbour, but as a stranger to be kept at a distance.  

It's hard to be someone's neighbor, though, if you won't even go near their neighborhood. Is this the world we want? Full of strangers, kept at a distance? 

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