Editor’s Note: This guest essay from BA member Sienna Mae Heath is being published ahead of FreedomFest, where she will speak on a panel called “Creating Unity in a Divided World,” after a screening of her film ‘Real Unity,’ on July 24th. -LNP
I’m not sure I’m ready to unify with everyone right now. There are just some things I cannot reckon with.
A call to unite naturally shines light on division. As the divide grows, certain stories seem to be treated as more equal than others. We, human beings, are made of stories. This strike at the healing balm of storytelling is tearing our country apart, family by family, school by school, and beyond.
Through all this, I’m discovering the need to set boundaries so that I can give many of my relationships a chance. My intention is to express what I need to unify right now with the hope of inspiring you, dear reader, to express your needs for real unity.
To speak about unity, it is necessary to speak about division, as to speak about freedom it is necessary to speak about oppression. To speak about liberty, it might help to explore how uplifting the individual’s liberties can uplift the collective from the grassroots.
Unity, in my view, is only possible through radical acceptance of these paradoxes. By embracing the paradox of the United States of America, we can begin to embrace each other.
This is easier said than done. I accept that unity from left to right might not be possible for a while. But we can choose to talk about it. We can start by finding healing and unity within ourselves. Only then can unity be extended outward. Before we can listen to each other, let’s start by listening to our fullest selves, without shame, learning to communicate our boundaries around some very sensitive issues that challenge every individual’s limits and sovereignty in different ways.
Sovereignty stems from self-love. It comes from speaking one’s truth freely, beyond the shackles of the establishment. This is seen by some as so radical or perhaps “extreme.” But really, I think the call to release this external framework and to look within for guidance is quite reasonable. The resurgence of Common Sense can come from righteous truth within each of us.
And the Truth is: Unity grows from mutual respect and common values. I want to unify with unifiers, not bullies, and I don’t want to unify with a conversation or a person that brings out the bully in me. I want to learn to be my own advocate and gather with people who appreciate my values.
The Road to Real Unity is Rocky and Rooted in Denial
Unity requires something to be unified around–whether it is big or small. Politically and ideologically, I think the key to creating unity is raising awareness about where the power structures are in our country (big tech, big government, big pharma, big corporations, and corporate media) and creating a mutual understanding of that so we can “fight the power” as a unified front and harness our sovereign powers as individuals, together, for good.
This brings to mind wisdom attributed to Shera Starr:
“If you catch 100 red fire ants as well as 100 large black ants, and put them in a jar, at first, nothing will happen. However, if you violently shake the jar and dump them back on the ground the ants will fight until they eventually kill each other. The thing is, the red ants think the black ants are the enemy and vice versa, when in reality, the real enemy is the person who shook the jar. This is exactly what’s happening in society today. Liberal vs. Conservative. Black vs. White. Pro Mask vs. Anti-Mask. Vax vs. Anti-vax. Rich vs. poor. Man vs. woman. Cop vs. citizen. The real question we need to be asking ourselves is who’s shaking the jar… and why?”
Since leaving the left for liberty in 2020, I’ve reflected a lot on what many of my loved ones would call “The Bernie Days.” Back then, we agreed that corrupt power needed to be kept in check for the greater good of all Americans. Now, I’m wondering where all the hippies have gone. While a top-down approach to dispelling corruption no longer resonates with me, I think for unity to be possible, it would help for all of us to embrace the hippie or the renegade within, and to realize that the institutional powers seem centralized on the political left, plagued by agendas that do not serve any of us in the long-run. Any blindness to this reality is leaving many who are politically homeless, in the middle, or on the right feeling like there is injustice and imbalance in our relationships. That power imbalance needs to be addressed, for there to be real unity.
Personally and interpersonally, we are being presented with the challenge of uniting around this common reality. Building and rebuilding trust is key in determining truth. When we advocate for each individual’s opportunity to embark on an independent investigation of truth, that sets an example of how the individual can take their power back from the establishment. Taking the reins of your life and your mind can create a ripple effect, giving way for the nation to also be more free. Feeling confident in who you are and being able to communicate your values is what I call “unity within.” It is the unity of the individual.
As individuals in a diverse, tossed salad rather than groups drowning in a melting pot of ruthless fire and forced uniformity, I would hope each of us has some unique combination of red, white, and blue. That’s another way we can define ourselves, as individuals, to avoid tribalism.
This tension between individualism and collectivism, our external reality, is a reflection of what’s happening more intimately among We The People. There is a lot of anger in between. So, with malice toward none, I’m here today to remind myself and any who are listening: “When hate is loud, love must be louder.”
Still, I struggle to always speak with love when faced with mockery and estrangement, and with the erasure of truth by a ruthless mob. Truth cannot be accepted when it’s being erased. That’s why I’m so concerned about the non-consensual centralization of power on the left, and in turn, cancel culture and censorship. This is not a “talking point,” this is a grave concern that concerns all Americans. A culture of hate is being created from a place of great pain. Perhaps cancel culture is yet another symptom of yet another illness — division.
Yes, we are dangerously divided. But I try to be careful not to lose humanity while fighting for humanity itself.
While there is a slashing of questions and a cry of biased exclamations, the truth is made of all of us. The story of humanity is complicated, and we have a choice to lean into the beauty of it or demonize anyone who doesn’t fit the mold. The fights we are having in our families, schools, workplaces, and other spaces are bringing to light a difficult truth: It seems hardly any place is free from discourse.
On the search for truth through light and shadow, I have heard that the truth has already been revealed in the natural world if we open our eyes to behold it. And it cannot be seen if it’s being purposefully, recklessly erased. Call it canceling, call it out as censorship or de-platforming. However you define it, something just doesn’t add up.
My truth is this: We need love. It’s quite simple really. We all just want to belong, to be loved, to fly freely. Love is wide. Love is tough. Love is flowing.
As pressing issues find their way into so many facets of our lives, we’re being told too often that love is not enough, that compassion is somehow dangerous if it’s steered in what’s deemed as the wrong direction. I agree that ungrounded love is dangerous. True love is not all light. Love can be soft with liberty, love can be hardened by necessary boundaries, and love can even be dimmed at times. Such balance starts with self love and self compassion.
Along these lines, wise voices in the bridging community like John Wood Jr. remind me that such massive change starts with self-transformation. He acknowledges the thorny road we are on in his piece “The Painful Path to Unity.” He knows it’s not an easy path to take. I’m not saying it’s easy either.
Maybe that’s why unity is so controversial. Unity is not the easy way out. Unity calls each of us to do the work of unifying within—a process that is perhaps new for many of us.
This has been a hard year. We need healing. We need justice. And contrary to the loudest voices that seek to silence, we need freedom.
Navigating the Tension Between Freedom and Justice
Without justice, unity is tyranny. Without dialogue, unity is based in falsehood. So how can we reckon with a fractured nation? Is unity, even among friends, possible in my lifetime?
Motivated by “How America Fractured Into Four Parts” by George Packer, who was featured on America’s Public Forum, I’m pondering the notion of Four Americas: Free America (advocates for individual liberties), Smart America (academics and their students), Real America (working class nationalists), and Just America (social justice activists and allies). There is so much tension between the two paradigms of Free America (the one I most identify with) and Just America (the one I’m trying to leave behind.)
Since I left “the left” for liberty, I find myself navigating this tension a lot. I think it would be wise for those in Just America to define what “freedom” and “liberalism” means for them, and for Free America to define what “justice” and “equality” mean for us. “Freedom” has become such a dirty word on the left. Yet Just America seems to appreciate storytelling, and while this can be done to a point of denying objective truth, maybe we can build an ideological bridge that embraces the free and open exchange of ideas and the beauty of storytelling.
Now that I find my views more regularly embraced by the political right and the politically homeless, I feel called to redefine what justice and equality mean for me. Essentially, it is wanting to be treated with dignity and with good faith. Without mutual acknowledgment of where the institutional powers currently lie, there is a rising sentiment that anyone with heterodox views is somehow “deplorable” or “misguided.”
Unless we wish to live in such stark separation, let us courageously liberate ourselves from the shackles that seek to strip our individual rights. Do not let them divide us. Do not consent to tyranny. Let us, instead, reckon with our history and our present and move forward into a better, braver future.
As we come back together and revisit any uniting values, we can start by agreeing that every person has a right to privacy, consent, and safety. If you don’t want your child to be exposed to something, you should be free to say so. If you have certain concerns about a curriculum, you should be free to say so. If you have questions, you should be free to ask them without receiving unwarranted threats or being stripped of your livelihood. When women are being assaulted in the streets while peacefully protesting for their right to privacy and girls are being mocked for not wanting to change clothes in a locker room with a boy, I would hope that everyone would feel called to work for balance—for divine justice.
Think of the children, the seeds of the future. Navigating the tension between freedom and justice is urgent, or else, we might lose the ground we stand on. If we succumb to coercing top-down approaches, we might lose our country and forfeit our children’s future.
Our still somewhat free society is at stake. Our lives are at stake. My heart is so broken after a year of having my curiosity and my shifting views mocked, deleted, and deemed wrong or dangerous by family and friends who I used to trust. I feel lonely and betrayed. Now people could be coming to our doors. Where does it end?
While making posts on social media about bridging the gap, sharing countless Braver Angels events, co-creating a film about “real unity,” and writing articles with the intention of adding perspective and tenderness to a treacherous landscape for over a year, I have been met with immense support and for that I am grateful. And I have also been told from within my own family that my “ideology” is “repugnant.” For that, and all the other times when my boundaries have been crossed, I am disappointed, but mostly in myself for not voicing them sooner.
God knows I have tried, and I imagine God knows, too, that the road to real unity is rocky.
But it is still worth walking while striving for balance, discourse, and dignity. That’s all we can do as perfectly imperfect beings—try. Doing so is advocating for something much greater and I’m hopeful it will be worth it for our country and our world in the future. It is up to us, no matter how we identify, to walk this road with as much dignity as humanly possible. Our courage is being tested more than ever because, in the new world, all you have to do is be brave.
On the journey to this new chapter of our country, and to the new world, let’s co-create spaces where we do not mock our fellow human for having a different perspective, where we also honor the individual’s agency to walk away with grace from what does not serve them.
Navigating the tension between justice and freedom is rooted in the fabric of this country. I’m seeking to escape or perhaps embrace such a tangle. How can trust be rebuilt and respect strengthened? How might we create a framework that welcomes our common humanity from the grassroots?