The other day, I came across this video of KRS-One on Fox News duking it out with Sean Hannity about, amongst other things, people “celebrating” after 9/11. As the country celebrates another 4th of July, I was thinking about why so many communities have a hard time “celebrating” the history of this country and how we often times have mixed feelings about it’s tragedies. It’s a good clip, and definitely worth watching. If you have 9 minutes to spare, go take a look at it then come back to this.
Good? In case you didn’t watch it, the two of them kept going back and forth and KRS made some pretty good points, points that completely flew by Hannity’s thick skull. Hannity could not hear what KRS was saying, and KRS said at one point that the two of them were speaking in different languages.
And he was right. They were using the same words, but using a completely different language. They were putting very different meanings behind the same words, and because Hannity could not understand the perspective and the context that KRS was speaking from, he could not understand the message.
In Japanese, we have a word called “kotodama.” Literally translated, it means “word spirit.” I like to think about it this way: Words are just sounds we make with our vocal chords. A bird can make human noises. It’s the meaning and the context that we put into the word that gives it its true meaning, it’s spirit, it’s kotodama.
Understanding language is not about understanding what’s written in the dictionary as much as about understanding culture, perspective and context.
9/11 was a complicated time for everyone. I, like most people, remember the exact moment I heard the news. I was in a cafe having coffee when someone ran in and yelled, “Someone just flew a plane into the World Trade Center!” I rushed home where my housemate was already watching the news, and I was glued to that TV for days.
And I remember vividly the mixed emotions that were going around in my head. Of course my heart was going out to all of the people in those buildings and their families. My girlfriend at the time’s father was actually in the second tower and they couldn’t get in touch with him until late that evening, so it definitely hit close (he got covered in dust and debris but was fine). Anytime you see that many people suffering, it feels like your heart not only skips a beat but just stops beating all together and you realize where the term a “heavy heart” came from.
And at the same time, I had a sense of ….. celebration? It was covered in layers of guilt and shame, but it was definitely there. Completely separate from my reaction to seeing innocent people being killed, I felt that there was a sense of justice being served. The United States has caused untold suffering all over the world, and the US was “just getting what was coming.”
I felt guilty thinking that way, but I also knew that I was far from alone. And in that video, I think KRS did a great job of breaking down what so many people across the US and across the world were feeling on that day (Hannity just did a terrible job of listening).
When people talk about celebrating when the towers came down, they were not celebrating the fact that innocent people were killed, nor were they celebrating in the streets like it was some sort of party. Like KRS said, people of all cultures will killed on that day. But from the perspective of people who have been oppressed for so long, it’s a complicated issue.
In addition to the innocent people getting killed, people also saw the power structures and the establishments that have oppressed them for so long being attacked and weakened. And that’s what people were celebrating.
KRS talked about having “lived” in the World Trade Center when he was homeless in NYC for 5 years. He talked about the police violence he experienced there, and that so many black men around this country continue to experience. And from the perspective of a young black homeless man in New York City, the United States government and the “powers that be” represent broken public school systems, impoverished communities in third world conditions and a corrupt and violent police force who do nothing but abuse their powers. A government that allowed years of red lining to create ghettos, a government that instituted Jim Crow, a government that enslaved their people, and a government that continues to lock up and kill innocent people.
Is that all the US government is? Of course not. But from that young man’s perspective, that’s all he’s seen of the US government. And from that perspective, wouldn’t it make sense for people to celebrate? Without even passing judgment on whether that’s “right” or “wrong,” isn’t it understandable to at least have mixed feelings.
The Global Community’s Perspective
And it’s not just young black men in the US that “celebrated.” People all over the world had those same mixed emotions, and in some cases the emotions weren’t that mixed.
Communities in, say the Middle East also have a very different perspective of what the words “United States” represents. It represents decades of imperialism, war, assassinations and covert government takeovers. It is a government that has waged war on their countries, a government that has taken over their lands, a government that supports violent regimes and a government that continues to lock up and kill innocent people. Sound familiar?
Again, that is not all of what the United States government is. And again, that is still their perspective, based on their experience. It’s not right or wrong, but it makes sense.
Sean Hannity’s Perspective
From the perspective of someone who had been oppressed by the US for so long, “celebrating” doesn’t mean finding joy in the murder of innocent people. It means finding some sense of justice being served in watching the system that oppressed you for so long coming down.
But let’s try to take a look at this from Hannity’s perspective. We gotta be Hegelian.
From Hannity’s perspective, the words “United States” represent freedom and prosperity. The United States has treated him well, helped him achieve his dreams and has rewarded him financially. He’s a star, and in general everyone he sees around him are doing OK.
From where he sits, he could not put himself into the shoes of someone for whom the words “United States” represent nothing but violence. His experience has been far too different.
And so from his perspective, he simply could not grasp why anyone would “celebrate” in any way after 9/11 because for him, the word “celebrate” could only equate to the celebration of the deaths of thousands of people. There was no context for him to understand anyone feeling of a sense of justice being served because the words “United States” don’t associate with injustice for him.
His perspective is limited, but right or wrong, it is still how he sees things, and how many people see things. And that is why we need to continue to educate, and to continue to share and understand other people’s perspectives.
In Kingian Nonviolence, we talk about something called Aggression Conciliation. It is a model of where to target our anger.
Too often, we target our aggression at the individual, while having conciliatory attitudes towards the conditions (awwww, it’s so sad that those people are dying in Africa. Shucks….). Our goal is to target all of our aggression at the condition, and be able to reconcile with the individuals.
Until people like Hannity understand that people like KRS have built up a strong resentment towards this government and everything it seemingly represents, we will not be able to make progress because we will be speaking in a different language. And that’s the problem.
That is why we need to be aggressive at educating people, and expanding their perspective. People who can’t understand why people would have mixed feelings over 9/11 need to see the violence that happens every day in so many communities. The violence that occurred on that one day was only a highly concentrated version of what many of our people go through every day.
We have to attack that ignorance with all our might, so that we can at least be speaking the same language.
Early on in my life, I spent time with a Japanese Buddhist order called Nipponzan Myohoji. The ordained ministers of this order would chant a mantra, “Na Mu Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo” over and over and over again for hours and hours at a time. At some point, usually after hours of chanting along, someone always asks them what it means.
I’ve heard different people explain it differently, but my favorite one was when one monk simply said that he won’t tell us. “We are taught not to tell people the literal meaning of the chant,” he explained, “because when we let people know what the chant means, they focus on the literal meaning of the word and stop putting their own prayer into it.
And that’s the Kotodama. We all put our own kotodama, our own “spirit,” our own meaning into the words we use based on our own experience and perspective. We so often get into arguments because we all assume we mean the same thing just because we’re using the same sounds.
As we celebrate the birth of the United States of America on this 4th of July, let’s all take a breath, suspend our first judgment as Jonathan always says, and begin to do a better job at understanding each other’s perspectives so that in the future if something as horrific as 9/11 ever happens again, none of us will have to have any mixed emotions.