My swirling thoughts have been swirly-er than usual lately. Traveling through the lands to the south of my lovely-yet-frigid homeland always puts me in the path of people with different—sometimes wildly different—perspectives and views than mine. For all our similarities, and they are numerous, Americans and Canadians are not twins separated only by an imaginary line and use of the superfluous U.
Because I am a writer, I try to keep an open mind. Not so open that my brain falls out, mind you, but open enough to allow that maybe my opinions and beliefs aren’t always right. A reader can sense—or at least this reader can—when a writer doesn’t really know or care about the characters in their story. If a writer doesn’t care about their characters, the reader won’t care about them either. But caring comes from knowing, understanding, and even empathizing.
The best villains aren’t two dimensional stereotypes, twisting black mustaches and laughing evil laughs. The best villains have convictions and beliefs that are as strong, or stronger, than that of the hero’s. Just as we enjoy our heroes with some flaws that make them as human as we are, we also appreciate villains that have a spark of honour to elevate them above the rank of common thug. In short, the best fiction reflects the truth that our world and the people in it are not black and white, and there are rarely easy answers.
In the fictional world Josh and I created for our Warpworld series, we have an entire race of people that are, in the big picture, detestable beings. Just about anyone could argue that it would be in the universe’s best interest to erase them from time and space, and I couldn’t disagree. Our job, then, is to ignore the big picture, to look closely at why this race became what they are, and to dig for some goodness, some reason to care about at least a few of them. This is where an open mind is an asset—when you bring it to the blank page.
Keeping that open mind gets complicated in the flesh and blood world. When the stakes are real, the ability to empathize can vaporize. Instead of digging for understanding, I want to make my case, I want my perspective to be heard and understood. Nowhere does this seem to manifest itself more enthusiastically than in the USA.
Geographically, Canada’s closest neighbour is the United States of American. Ideologically, we are more aligned with large swathes of Europe and parts of the world, such as New Zealand, with a strong British influence.
Discussions around the dinner table with our American friends and family often highlight the wide gap between our cultures. Health care, guns, immigration, LGBTQ rights, government regulation, abortion, religion, multiculturalism, education, military, taxes, etc, the list of issues on which we differ is long.
During these kinds of conversations, when there is always the danger of hurting or alienating someone I care about, I must constantly remind myself that no matter how similar we look and sound, we are two different cultures. Our perspectives were formed under different conditions. Most of what we—universal “we”—believe is not based in logic but in what we grew up in, what we know, what we see most often.
Most Canadians are puzzled by US gun culture and the fierce devotion to the second amendment because that’s not what we have been exposed to. I grew up in a household without any guns and so did most of my friends. I’ve shot guns, and have enjoyed the experience, but I don’t feel the need to own such a weapon. The majority of Canadians prefer a mostly-gunless society and feel safer knowing that the people around us are not armed. That’s our collective cultural experience.
Most Americans seem baffled by Canadian willingness to pay such high taxes and allow government control over much of our lives. They harbour a deep distrust of government (hence that second amendment) and a strong sense of independence. They like the idea of programs like universal healthcare but doubt that their government has the competence to run such a system fairly and efficiently, (and there’s plenty of history to back up this doubt). My guess is that they see Canadians as far too passive when it comes to our government. That’s their collective cultural experience.
Two examples. Both of these topics came up in conversation more than once during my recent time south. Both ended with each “side” walking away unchanged in their belief but still friends.
But every one of these discussions leaves me frustrated with my inability to change minds. Sometimes it is so clear to me that the other person is wrong, that their prejudices and ignorance are doing the talking. If only I had been more persuasive! If only I’d had some evidence close at hand to show how right I am! Mind…closed.
This is where the swirly thoughts begin.
I have asked myself, after these discussions, which is worse: To be right and not stand up more strongly for what I believe or to be wrong and not be open to new ideas and different ways of thinking?
I have asked myself if the things I believe are logical or merely the result of cultural conditioning?
I have asked myself if I am betraying one group of people I care about by respecting a different and opposing group of people I care about?
I have asked myself if it’s worth even trying to tackle the issues that separate our cultures.
I have asked myself (because I am Canadian), if it’s rude to speak honestly about my beliefs in the homes of gracious hosts with opposing beliefs?
No answers have come. The swirly thoughts continue to swirl. But I have a gut feeling, pure instinct, that it is better to talk, better to shine a light on our differences than to let our prejudices and enmity fester under the dark cloak of civility.
At the Peace Arch Border crossing between British Columbia and Washington state, there is a monument with an inscription above a set of symbolic iron gates. “May these gates never be closed”. I cannot say for certain but I believe that one of the means by which we keep them open is through dialogue between our nations—on the political stage and around the dinner table.
I am only one person but I am a writer. The story I choose to tell for my life is one of honest but respectful discourse. I want to care about the people in my story and so I choose to listen and strive to understand them all. Yes, even the villains. I struggle to come to the start of each day as I come to the blank page, with an open mind.
How will our story end? I guess that’s up to all of us.