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Jessie Opoien: Why do we still have to explain that we should care about other people?

Jessie Opoien: Why do we still have to explain that we should care about other people?

George Floyd Protest Cover 02-06012020153937 (copy)

A protester raises his fist during the May 30 Justice for George rally with the Wisconsin statue atop the Capitol in the background.

There’s a phrase that started making the rounds again sometime within the last few months.

“I don’t know how to explain to you that you should care about other people.”

To the best of my knowledge, it originated as a headline for a column written by Kayla Chadwick, published by HuffPost in 2017.

It needs no clarification, because, sadly, it transcends any particular period of time, news cycle or societal debate.

Chadwick, the author of the HuffPost piece, was writing about living wages, education funding and access to affordable health care. Let’s set aside the fact that we’re still debating the merits of all three of those things, and talk about why we’re hearing this phrase once again, three years later.

Our world is being ravaged by a global pandemic.

And yet, some of our friends, family and neighbors refuse to consider COVID-19 as a real threat, let alone take steps that public health experts have determined can limit the spread of the virus.

We see videos of people physically fighting employees for the noble cause of shopping at Walmart without a face covering. Conspiracy theories — the deep state is trying to control our minds! — run rampant.

The mental gymnastics some people are willing to do to avoid landing on the conclusion that — while all of us are grasping for answers, the best thing we can do is try our damndest to keep each other safe — are astounding.

How do we explain that we are supposed to care about other people?

It’s only gotten worse since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the nationwide uprising that has followed, shining a harsh light on the racism that has plagued the country since its founding and, really, even before that.

Even those of us white people who fancy ourselves to be somewhat enlightened have quickly realized we have a lot more to learn and a hell of a lot more to do before we come anywhere close to an equitable society.

And yet, some of our friends, family and neighbors refuse to consider systemic racism as a real threat, let alone take steps that could help eradicate it.

We hear people butting in with “All lives matter,” when they hear “Black lives matter.” We watch people sitting on the sidelines debating the best (read: least disruptive) ways to protest. Many won't see that such feet dragging and reluctance to change only furthers the racism and classism that have fueled the country for so long.

I’m left wondering if I should be more ashamed by the overt, unabashed racism of the Vilas County man walking his dog in a Klan robe or the noose left in NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace’s garage, or by the professedly pure of heart who get bent out of shape when a black man kneels to protest police brutality during “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Once again, so many of us are grasping for answers — and if we listen, many of them are there. Once again, the best thing we can do is try to keep each other safe. And once again, the mental gymnastics are on display.

How do we explain that we are supposed to care about other people?

As this question circles my mind, it’s impossible to ignore the heartache and cynicism that follow it. I don’t know how to explain that we should care about other people. It is heartbreaking to think that it requires explanation.

I don’t know the answer, but I’ve been making an effort lately to search — hard as it might be — for love and positivity where it seems lost. Funny thing is, while I was driving around thinking about all of this, one of my favorite songs from childhood came on the radio station I was listening to.

“I would whisper love so loudly /

Every heart could understand /

That love and only love /

Can join the tribes of man”

It reminded me of riding in the back seat as a toddler, singing along to The Judds’ albums with my mom behind the wheel. Somehow I still knew all the words.

Is it a little too on the nose? Sure. But it’s the best answer I’ve got right now.

“Love can build a bridge /

Between your heart and mine /

Love can build a bridge /

Don't you think it's time?”

I don’t know any more than anyone else does how to explain that we should care about other people. But we have to keep trying to build the bridge.

Jessie Opoien is opinion editor of The Capital Times. jopoien@madison.com and @jessieopie

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Jessie Opoien is the Capital Times' opinion editor. She joined the Cap Times in 2013, covering state government and politics for the bulk of her time as a reporter. She has also covered music, culture and education in Madison and Oshkosh.

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