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Can Comedians Really Lead Us to Sanity and Civility?

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Perhaps it is time to supplant the Biblical statement that "a child shall lead them" (Isaiah 11:6) with something more contemporary. How about "two comedians shall lead them"? Here's a large dose of gratitude to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert for their inspiring civility lessons this weekend in Washington, D.C. Perhaps tapes of the event should be required viewing in civics classes these days?

If you have been following this column the past few weeks, you will know that I tempted fate by wandering into the possibility that someone like Condoleezza Rice could teach all of us something about dealing with circumstance. While no fan of her politics or her role in furthering conflict on the planet, she nonetheless served to remind some that you don't have to add self-victimization to the victimizing behavior or circumstances in which you might find yourself.

Many readers saw the wisdom and recognized that even our worst enemies might have something of value to teach us, while many more jumped on the hate bandwagon and attacked everything from her parents to me for writing about it. In many ways, the reactions to these columns served as a kind of backdrop to the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear.

My fear is that the fear side will still continue to take center stage for many, accompanied by unhealthy doses of animus. About the only aspect of the rally that I disagreed with was Stewart's comment that "we could have animus and not be enemies." Given that animus literally means "a usually prejudiced and often spiteful or malevolent ill will" and is the root word for animosity, it seems pretty much a given that harboring animus will provoke enemy-like reactions. However, it is also clear that Stewart and Colbert were there to promote something far loftier than animus.

When Colbert turned to Steward and said, "Your reasonableness is poisoning my fear," I thought, Now there's something we could do with a whole lot more of: reasoning rather than poisonous vitriol. Kid Rock and Cheryl Crow added even more "reasonableness" when one of their songs echoed a powerful reminder: "If I can't change the world to make it better, the least I can do is care."

Through these many columns over the past couple of years, my constant message is that even if you can't change the world, at least you can change yourself. If you can't change your circumstance, at least you can change how you respond. So, you can imagine how inspiring I found this rally to be: two comedians and some rock stars reminding us that life can be lived devoid of the nasty rhetoric that has become all too commonplace in what passes for discourse these days.

Several people wore t-shirts promoting a Stewart-Colbert ticket in 2012. Even though that seems unlikely, perhaps the two comedians could lead the effort to bring politics and campaigning into an atmosphere of disagreement without having to be disagreeable in the process.

In closing today's piece, I welcome the opportunity to share with you the following letter from a reader, who wrote last week about his own experience of dealing with racism.

I am a young Indian Democrat, but I share your admiration for Secretary Rice. I completely agree that her story is remarkable and an example of how someone can move from victim of circumstances to deciding his/her own fate.



I recently graduated from a large university in Boston, MA and I just wanted to share with you my experience of racism there and ask for your advice. I was born and raised in Blue state Boston and grew up unaware of my race, which is to say I thought that racism was just something that black people had to address, that it was just a spectator sport as far as I was concerned.



Then after September 11th that changed and, while I was still in a high school (a small Christian school) I was routinely called a "terrorist" and told to "go back to my country," even though my classmates at the time knew that I was born and raised here. After I graduated I thought it would get better, attending a liberal arts college in the northeast, but I was sorely mistaken.



I started taking the subway to school and I was constantly pulled aside for questioning, wanding, and other "routine security screenings." I became increasingly bitter and obsessed with race. I began believing that every insult or rude gesture directed at me was race-based. I completely withdrew and spend most of my free time alone, reading Edward Said and Toni Morrison in search for some answers as to why people with whom I had grown up, in a city where I was born and raised, would see me as an enemy. I graduated early and spent the next two years as a shut-in unable to go outside without feeling as if people only saw the color of my skin.



Then I read Dreams From my Father and everything changed. I realized that it is possible to become successful and escape the trappings of race without sacrificing your racial identity. Shortly after President Obama began his campaign for the presidency I began volunteering full time for his campaign in Massachusetts, and canvassing for him in NH on the weekends. His campaign helped me see that most if not all rational, thinking individuals were able to separate the content of one's character from the color of their skin.



I believe that I am now at the end of that long journey from victim to "decider." Although I still find it hard for me to accept that people see me for who I am and not merely for the color of my skin. I still feel bitter about racism and prejudice and I have a keener eye for it though I am able to sweep it under the rug far more easily now. I am applying to graduate schools and writing personal statements of character and purpose and I am finding a way to "write myself (my new self) into being," much the same way Ellison, Douglas, and Thoreau managed to do. I don't want to feel bitter anymore and I want to stop feeling as if my skin color determines who I am or can become.



Thank you so much,

Ayin

How's that for an amazing story of choosing your response to ugly circumstances? I would love to hear from you about your ideas, about what you have done to work around the challenges you are facing, or about what you have seen a friend or neighbor do that has been effective.

Please do leave a comment here or drop me an email and let me know your experience.

***

Russell Bishop is an educational psychologist, author, executive coach and management consultant based in Santa Barbara, California. Watch for his new book, "Workarounds That Work: How to Conquer Anything That Stands in Your Way at Work," to be released January 2011. You can find out more about Russell at www.lessonsinthekeyoflife.com. Contact Russell by email at Russell@lessonsinthekeyoflife.com.

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