At a ShopRite in New Jersey some men were huddled. When Heba Macksoud passed by, she heard one mention the word Bible, then add, obscenity mixed in, “not like the Quran those Muslims read.”
The man who deliberately taunted Ms. Macksoud deserves to be called out. So do countless ones of us, incited by ever more startlingly anti-anyone-not-like-us and especially anti-Muslim rhetoric, prepared to treat others as less than human.
At the same time, I was struck that Samuel G. Freedman’s New York Times “Parable on Bigotry and Citizenship Plays Out in a Supermarket” was released just a few days after Farhad Manjoo’s article on “The Internet’s Loop of Action and Reaction Is Worsening.” Manjoo observes that “There is little room for indulging nuance, complexity, or flirting with the middle ground. In every issue, you are either with one aggrieved group or the other, and the more stridently you can express your disdain . . . the better reaction you’ll get.”
Manjoo’s insights suggest that social media is adding considerable complexity to our navigating of this historical moment in which we say ever more horrifying things about those we see as not “us.” This makes me wonder to what extent we need to assess not only content but also form of our communications. Are there ways to speak nonviolently that bypass the up-the-ante battling frontal statements seem to be creating?
That takes me to Emily Dickinson on “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” I’m no expert in Dickinson, and depending on what she means to say, I might not quite embrace her every nuance. Some analysts of her poem wonder if she is urging the telling of white lies; shading the truth to be kind, as when she suggests not quite explaining to children the full meaning of lightning; or possibly pointing poetically to aspects of her own life, including sexuality, she was unwilling to speak of directly, perhaps for good reason given her times and circumstances.
Then there’s the fact that today to think of something as “slanted” is often to view it negatively. Merriam Webster’s range of meanings include “to maliciously or dishonestly distort or falsify.”
But whether I fully know how to understand or accept what Dickinson meant over a century ago by “tell it slant,” amid today’s raging and counter-raging her poem still seems worth attending to. There is something rich and deep going on in her probing of how we who are “infirm” might navigate the surprise and brightness of truth. Might telling it slant mean that instead of constantly beating each other with the clubs of our convictions we found ways to speak that the other could hear?
This seems congruent with data presented by Evan Soltas and Seth Stephens Davidowitz in “The Rise of Hate Search.” Drawing on Google search analysis, they conclude that
appealing to the better angels of an angry mob will most likely just backfire. Subtly provoking their curiosity, giving them new information, and offering them new images of the group that is stoking their rage: That may direct their thoughts in different, more positive directions.
Maybe it’s too much to hope, but I wonder if the parable of Heba Macksoud is an example of telling it slant with potential to open us to curiosity instead of rage. Because in her story we do see today’s usual clubbing of the other with words of hate and denigration. Yet what we get next is not more hate hurled back.
Instead we’re privileged to learn about Ms. Macksoud’s pain. We can see the human toll of what has been done to her, the shock, the wounding, the exclusion, the fear she expresses to “the store’s assistant manager, Mark Egan. ‘I’m not done shopping,’ Ms. Macksoud recently recalled telling him, ‘but I don’t feel safe here.’”
By the end of the parable what we have taken in is not simply another position statement but the living, breathing realities of human beings. We’re drawn back toward those primal human qualities, compassion and empathy catalyzing justice, in such short supply as we feed the raging floods of action, reaction, counter-reaction. Although it certainly has a slant, the article doesn’t major in the screaming about how bad and wrong we are that often makes us shut down or scream back. We’re mostly allowed to wrestle for ourselves with what insights to draw from Heba Macksoud’s story.
I dare to hope that Emily Dickinson might view this parable as a form of telling it slant. I hope she might see it as honoring the insight with which she closes her poem: “The Truth must dazzle gradually / Or every man [sic] be blind—.”
—Michael A. King is dean, Eastern Mennonite Seminary and vice-president, Eastern Mennonite University; blogger and editor, Kingsview & Co; and publisher, Cascadia Publishing House LLC.