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"What Makes You Better Than Others?"

A growing societal trend brings back memories of lessons taught to high school students about the importance of recognizing and honoring differences.

For many years I taught high school social studies and a major topic that we often discussed was how to examine various points of view, collect information from a wide range of sources, and make informed decisions based on what we've learned for ourselves. In other words, we explored how to become independent thinkers while at the same time respecting the ideas of others with whom we may disagree.

Of course, lessons such as these aren't always easy and are usually taught more through a process than they are a single event. During these discussions, or as part of just simply living life with a bunch of teenagers on a daily basis, I found myself having to address issues that arose from watching kids interact in negative ways with those whom they didn't agree or who simply were not like themselves. Sometimes they did so in the open. Often it was done behind someone else's back. So, as the situations arose, I took the time to speak about the importance of listening to opinions not like our own and accepting those who are not like us.

On more than one occasion I'd find myself asking students what it was that made them feel the need to mock those who didn't look like them, act like them, talk like them, dress like them, think like them, or believe like them. These were never heavy-handed conversations and usually began with a question such as, "Honest question: What makes you better than others? Do you feel that you're smarter? Do you feel you have more money? Are you in with the cool kids and they're not? What is it that this person (or group) has done to deserve your disdain?" If you remember middle school or high school at all, you may have experienced times such as this, either as the one handing out the attitude or the one receiving it. We've all been there.

I would then usually turn the conversation toward the period of history that we were studying at the time and point out an example of the dangers of one group of people feeling superior to another, and how those feelings, if allowed to grow throughout a culture, often resulted in oppression and conflict. I would then ask, "If it goes unchecked, how is your intolerant behavior towards those not like yourself any different from the people of this era whom history has deemed to be oppressors?"

And if this was a class in which I was teaching Star Wars (yes, that was a thing in my classes) I invariably brought in Yoda and the importance of seeking an understanding of others:

"If the old adage is true that, 'We fear that which we do not understand' and we couple that with Yoda's teaching that 'Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering', then could our lack of seeking an understanding of others directly result in suffering. What do you think folks, could this be true? If so, what do we do about it? How do we prevent that from happening."

This usually was an eye-opening conversation to many and almost always resulted in great discussions. It was easy, at this stage of their development, to slip into an unhealthy attitude toward others based on differences and a feeling of "I'm right, and you're wrong, and I'm better because of it." For those who took our conversations to heart and did a little reflection, they realized that their behavior was not only hurting others but hurting themselves as well.

It's all part of growing up. It's all part of working through adolescence. It's part of the maturation process in which we move beyond ourselves and begin to think of others. I got that then, and I get it now.

What I don't get is why I see so many adults acting the same way as my teenagers did toward those who hold opinions that are different from their own. What I don't get is why this behavior that mocks, ridicules, shames, and belittles others has became such an accepted part of our "adult" society.

"Yeah, but we're grown now. We know so much more than those others."

Are we? Do we?

Just some things to think about, for myself, and maybe for you as well.

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