Enlightened or brainwashed? Depends on your perspective

Posted 2/28/20

“Well, I guess the brain-washing class is over now.”

It was a throw-away comment, but more than a week later I’m still mulling it.

It was uttered on a gorgeous, sunny Saturday as a group …

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Enlightened or brainwashed? Depends on your perspective

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“Well, I guess the brain-washing class is over now.”

It was a throw-away comment, but more than a week later I’m still mulling it.

It was uttered on a gorgeous, sunny Saturday as a group of us walked out of Pittsboro’s Ag Center. We were part of a crowd of more than 200 who’d just listened to a two-hour panel discussion about the Civil War which featured three history professors and a sweeping look at narratives that elucidated the war and its aftermath — a presentation featuring documented facts and perspectives which, I have to say, changed a few of the long-held notions I had about the war and how we collectively remember it.

I’d attended “The Civil War Today” discussion, which was sponsored by Chatham For All and Abundance NC, because I was curious. I have more than a passing interest in the Civil War (a fact to which shelves of Civil War-related books in my library will attest), plus I’m endlessly curious about history. Besides, the session was originally billed as “A House Divided,” and that highly piqued my curiosity — a “house divided” is the notion that was always the foundational basis of my interest in that great conflict. Division. Brother vs. brother. Familial fragmentation. A united nation torn asunder.

The warring Twitter accounts of its time, only with bullets.

Some things haven’t changed, obviously, as anyone who’s spent any Saturday in Pittsboro lately can attest. I didn’t see who made the “brain-washing class” comment, but it came from one the small handful of Confederate flag-wavers gathered near the entrance to the Ag Center who were there to put on a show and, as one of them told me, “exercise my First Amendment rights.”

I’m all about the First Amendment, but freedom of speech works best when proclaimed without a mocking, caustic tone.

What bothered me most was that I was quite certain the disdainful man who made the “brain-washing” remark wouldn’t have said or believed that — had he only taken a couple of hours out of his day to listen in on the discussion we’d just heard. To condemn something without examining it is pretty short-sighted, and the sincere nature of the presentations — and the listeners —told me we were all taking it pretty seriously.

Of course, I realize he was probably thinking something along the same lines as he watched us file out of the Ag Center: “If these elitist idiots would only get educated,” I envisioned him reflecting about us, “they’d be standing out here with us, bearing their own flags.”

So which of us were brain-washed? And which of us were enlightened and self-aware?

I read a blog post this week that made an interesting claim: there’s so much hate and unhappiness in the world, author Brene Brown says, because people lack self-awareness. The post went on to claim:

• We all experience pains and traumas of one kind or another as children, leaving us vulnerable and afraid.

• To protect ourselves, we develop “emotional armor” in the form of psychological defense mechanisms. We use sarcasm, for example, to avoid being vulnerable.

• Even though these defense mechanisms may have been useful at a young age, by the time we reach adulthood, their side effects are seriously sabotaging our lives in the form of broken relationships, addictions, narcissism and even violence.

• These unhelpful behaviors persist and grow because we don’t see them. And so we plod along in a daze of unhappy denial, continuing to make ourselves and the people around us miserable.

“Fundamentally,” Nick Wignall wrote in the post, “self-awareness isn’t a trait you’re born with; it’s a set of habits you can learn to cultivate.”

Or learn not to.

The key? Simple, says Wignall. To grow self-awareness, you must:

• Listen more than you talk

• Be curious about your own mind

• Look for your emotional blind spots

• Ask for feedback frequently (and take it well)

• Take time to reflect on your values

My friend Bob Pearson reminds us, “It’s not possible to lecture someone into a different understanding.” The “Today” panel discussion — aside from being far from a lecture — was partly about thinking about how we think, about examining how we examine. The flag-waver needed that, but so did I.


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