Be A Better Ally: The Art of Word-Based Bridge Building

Stuck In The Middle
By: Isabelle Mokotoff

Hanschke, Hannibal. “A Member of Halle’s Jewish Community Looks at Lit Candles Outside the Synagogue in Halle, Germany, on October 11, 2019.” Reuters, Oct. 2019, www.reuters.com/.

With “Stuck In The Middle”, my column in The Oracle, I’ve tried to tackle tough-to-talk-about topics and employ what I think of as “medicinal storytelling”. It’s always seemed to me that well-chosen words can combat ignorance, soothe wounds, create connections, and erase fears, including the very 21st century fear of “other”. I love using words as a centripetal force, creating opportunities for electric conversations that encourage balanced, informed perspectives among my classmates. 

And, following last year’s mass shooting at The Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, I tried to apply this bridge-building strategy within my own social circle after I discovered that only my Jewish friends seemed concerned about or even aware of the tragedy. So I tried to fill their knowledge gap the best way I knew how – by putting pen to paper. I wrote a piece entitled “The Pittsburgh Shooting: It’s Not Just Us”, explaining how everyone is hurt when mainstream society stays silent about tragedies not directly its own.  

But why did only my Jewish friends feel inclined to speak up about Jewish tragedy? The answer to this question can be chalked up to Circles of Empathy, a psychological concept which explains that people are naturally more empathetic to people similar to themselves. It’s in our DNA; this human trait derives from a time when humans had to prioritize their own tribes over others. However, in this increasingly interconnected day and age, this trait is no longer necessary for survival and it is not socially responsible to ONLY care for people like yourself. 

Luckily, this bias can be overpowered. When partaking in discussions that recognize, celebrate, and discuss culturally unique experiences, people can attain a more worldly and inclusive perspective. After I posted “The Pittsburgh Shooting: It’s Not Just Us”, lively discussions followed and many of my non-Jewish friends were transformed into allies. And, when the Jewish community again suffered hateful acts in Poway and Halle, I was comforted to see them choose to advocate and spread awareness about the issues. Words are powerfully healing. When we share our personal stories and talk about issues that divide us, we’re rewarded by discovering the common threads that can unite us.

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