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Who’d a thought that being caught on camera with former President George W. Bush at a Dallas Cowboys game would’ve landed Ellen Degeneres in such hot water. Cue the haters, tweeters, and social commentators (does that include me?). Here’s what Ellen said in her defence:

“I was aware that I would surrounded with people from very different views and beliefs, and I’m not talking about politics; I was routing for the Packers, and get this, everyone in the Cowboys suite was routing for the Cowboy…

I’m friends with George Bush. In fact, I’m friends with a lot of people who don’t share the same beliefs that I have. Just because I don’t agree with someone on everything doesn’t mean that I’m not going to be friends with them…

When I say, ‘Be kind to one another,’ I don’t mean only the people that think the same way that you do. I mean, ‘Be kind to everyone, it doesn’t matter.’”

Constance Grady is just one sample of those who mistake the call to “kindness” with “uncritical niceness” – accusing Degeneres as “betraying her legacy as a lesbian icon.” Degeneres rather affirms her legacy as a person rather than betrays it because she supports what we all want – better conversations with people – especially those with whom we disagree, in some cases, profoundly.

Imagine if George Bush had said the same things as Degeneres? He would’ve been howled down as a self-righteous hypocrite. Such are the days in which we live.

The difference between Kindness and Niceness

Since October is National Bullying Prevention Month, it would be good to learn the dynamics of “kindness” over impotent “niceness”; I direct you to #daretobekind.

Father Greg Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries speaks to the need for kindness in his work with ex gang members as he encourages us to become what child psychiatrist Alice Miller calls:

Enlightened witnesses: people who through their kindness, tenderness, and focused, attentive love return folk to themselves.

Niceness doesn’t have that power.

Kindness that return folk to themselves means the possibility exists that we come to understand there is something in us that is “exactly what God had in mind when He made us.”

When I say, ‘Be kind to one another,’ I don’t mean only the people that think the same way that you do. I mean, ‘Be kind to everyone, it doesn’t matter.’

Providentially I suspect that Degeneres doesn’t realize how she echoes the words of Jesus in Luke 14:

When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid.

But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind,  and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.

Sure, this doesn’t exactly fit does it? Degeneres is rich and was a guest of the rich owner of the Cowboys in the Cowboy suite surrounded by rich folk including President Bush. What I am getting at is being rich in kindness with people who may not share the same beliefs and values. Of course, the same should be attributed to the increasingly gracious George Bush.

(No reader should conclude that I am partisan to either Degeneres or Bush – but I know there is something good in this story despite itself, and despite the outcries from either the regressive left or the alt right).

Befriending Radical Disagreement

Recently I heard an interview by Krista Tippett with Derek Black and Matthew Stevenson on “Befriending Radical Disagreement“. They would be two unlikely friends:

“Derek was raised by white nationalists and hosted a radio show about white nationalism as a teenager. When his racist political beliefs were revealed at college, his classmate Matthew Stevenson, one of the only Orthodox Jews on campus, reached out to invite him to a Shabbat dinner. Over the course of the next two years (and many shared meals), Derek eventually came to denounce white nationalism and apologize. The friendships and conversations Matthew and other classmates worked to foster with Derek played an important — though not singular — role in Derek’s ideological transformation.”

Can you see the Good?

You have got to approach differences with this notion that there is good in the other. If both sides see the other as evil, there will be very little room for change.

One profound lesson by Frances Kissling who spent years working at the heart of the abortion debate.

Toward Better Conversations

Kristin Lin, editor of The On Being Project, makes this observation about “Befriending Radical Disagreement”,

“… seeing the humanity of other perspectives is often easier said than done — especially when the ideology in question is fundamentally violent or hateful. Is it possible to engage productively with someone who holds radically different or dangerous viewpoints? And what does it mean for those conversations to unfold in the context of friendship?

Philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah calls these encounters the “endless shared conversations” of friendship. And while Derek and Matthew’s story might be a case study for friendship across extreme divides, there’s room to think about the role of friendship across smaller differences, too. As Krista asks at the beginning of Better Conversations: A Starter Guide:

How do we speak the questions we don’t know how to ask each other? Can we find ways to cross gulfs between us about politics and the meaning of community itself?

For more on civil discussions see, “Civil discussions in an uncivil environment.”

For more on radical befriending see, “The Radical Gospel.

Out of further interest see Celeste Headlee’s TEDxCreativeCoast talk on “How to Have a Good Conversation“.