There’s no doubt that the events of 2016 have once again exposed the deep differences that make us uniquely American. Looking back through the historical events that have made the United States the country it is today, I can’t help but wonder when we will learn from our mistakes.
History doesn’t exactly repeat itself, but it sort of rhymes. The rhetoric of 2016 rhymes with those of our ancestors; stirring the racial, economic, religious, cultural, and nationalistic differences between us in an iambic pentameter that no human being can possibly avoid.
Four score and seven years ago, America was struggling with the same problems in a different flavor of economic depression, growing tensions of race, and bitter partisan politics. But as these issues have been brought to the surface time and time again, the conflicts become more complex and the stakes all the higher. Forces of globalization, technology, and digital interconnectivity have simultaneously made our quality of life better and our social and political issues more complicated.
As a minority in this country, 2016 has forced me to ask hard questions about my upbringing, identity, and place in this country, because it would be naive to assume that my achievements or lack thereof are not in some way related to how I look, how I talk, or other factors outside of my control.
Many people wake up every morning to a confrontation that they are at a disadvantage. And while the streets that raised me provided me a shelter from fatiguing cycles of discrimination, growing up is showing me that I am different enough to prompt a specific label, neighborhood, and TV shows. And while I may have a dream just like Martin Luther King Jr, I’m learning that a change of heart takes much more than merely a change of policy.
Politics are essential, and not something to ignore simply because it often is messy, nasty, and potentially violent. But politics is also insufficient. Politics groups people into predefined categories, whether that be male, female, white, black, lesbian, gay, young, or old. But it’s never been that simple and it never will be.
As a kid I wondered I always checked the box on my standardized tests for “other” and filled in “Taiwanese”. My parents always told me about their childhood growing up in Taiwan, meaning that the official label of “Asian American Pacific Islander” meant nothing to me. Surely this construction of politics couldn’t actually be that valuable of an insight into who I was as a person or what I believed.
But if we have to follow the semantics, I’m lucky to be Asian American. There’s no doubt that being Asian American has granted me a set of circumstances that would have yielded very different results otherwise. The streets of California were an amazing place for a person with my background to grow up. I grew up with a community that cherished me and protected me from the deep injustices I would witness later. And as I look back, I can’t help but be extremely proud of my hometown, and all the progress that California has made towards welcoming Asian Americans that has not been the case for all groups everywhere.
But of course, we aren’t all Californian. And even if we were, California still has it’s own set of injustices to address.
In 2008, before I was old enough to vote, my parents erected on our front lawn a “Yes on Prop 8” sign: a public statement to our community that marriage was between a man and a woman. Not too long after, our front window was smashed to pieces. I remember sitting on the couch, staring at the broken pieces of glass and wondering why a mere sign would prompted such a violent response. Was it “us” versus “them”? But who were they?
A few months into my freshman year of high school, I walked into the library the day of Barack Obama’s inauguration. I still remember the day vividly, and even though my parents were ardent supporters of John McCain, I recognized that this was a historic moment. A moment that would forever shatter the boundaries of what our country could do, even if my understanding of politics couldn’t explain the divisions of the 2008 election at the time. And as the goosebumps faded, I turned to see hundreds of fellow students looking at the same screen in anticipation of the leadership to come.
It’s tempting to reduce the world into the simplest possible explanations: Using Occam’s razor as a heuristic to construct our own narratives of the world. But as Tolstoy asserts in his analogy of hedgehogs and foxes, being more like a fox means paying attention to the details and nuances in construction of a more complex and objective worldview is in opposition to the hedgehog that simplifies the world into a small handful of strongly held beliefs.
It’d be easy to take the events of Brexit, Trump, FARC, ISIS, Brazil, China, and explain them in broad brushstrokes directly into our history books, but unless we pay attention to nuances and details, we’re bound to repeat our mistakes yet again. We’ve turned the world into a checkerboard, reducing everything we think we know down to the black squares that appear to us as valid moves for our policies and strategies in the world. But in our haste to understand and explain the world, we miss the white squares: the perspectives that are neither progressive nor conservative, religious nor secular, capitalist nor socialist.
Even people like myself who consider themselves technologists are not exempt. Many technologists will attempt to take problems that are inherently social problems and blindly throw technology at it, resulting in change that appears to be revolutionary, but not actually solving the problems that challenge us the most.
The only way forward is to understand nuance with an open mind, because if learning history doesn’t make you more hesitant to paint thick brushstrokes and blanket statements, you’re doing something wrong.