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Another Voice: Divisive rhetoric dehumanizes our neighbors

By Satpal Singh

Five years ago, a neo-Nazi gunman with white supremacist ties walked into a Sikh place of worship (gurdwara) in Oak Creek, Wis., and murdered six. The rampage, which many have forgotten, remains one of the deadliest acts of violence in an American house of worship in our nation’s history.

I remember exactly where I was on that morning when I learned about the tragedy. I was at a gurdwara, in the middle of langar meal. As a Sikh American professor at the University at Buffalo, the question that immediately tormented me was: “How does one decide whom to hate?”

The Sikh faith teaches us that everyone has been created equal. My turban and beard, which are part of my articles of faith, represent my commitment to justice, tolerance and equality. Yet for a generation of Americans after 9/11, the turban and beard became synonymous with terrorism, and bigotry became part of everyday life for Sikhs in America. However, independent of whether it is someone’s appearance, skin color or religion, our hate for “the other” is tearing our society apart.

As I wrestled with this question in the immediate aftermath of Oak Creek, I watched two contrasting experiences unfold for me as the former chairman for the World Sikh Council. On one side, there was the outpouring of sympathy and solidarity from interfaith communities all across the country. On the other side, I was confronted by a former grand wizard of the KKK and the head of a national neo-Nazi party on Fox News, where both argued that Sikhs, and every other person of color, must leave this white nation.

The 2012 anti-Sikh massacre was certainly not the first expression of violent hate, and unfortunately there have been several more incidents since. We have seen Jewish Americans attacked at a community center in Kansas, black Americans murdered in Charleston, S.C., and LGBTQ Americans massacred in an Orlando nightclub. The universe of hate is becoming increasingly vicious as politicians have exploited divisions for their own political gains.

Over the past year, I have been watching how these divisive messages have helped rip apart the fabric of our nation. The divisive rhetoric we have all been hearing from our national leaders affects all of us and I’m more aware than ever before that when our political leaders dehumanize our neighbors, we implicitly learn how to hate.

We know that it is wrong to hate others simply because of their backgrounds or beliefs, and we must dispel the very concept of “the other” entrenched deeply in our psyche, and we must do it with purpose and urgency. This has to happen both in our schools and in our homes, as children start developing their world perspective, including prejudicial leanings, from a very young age.

Many of us are aware that hate incidents have spiked dramatically over the past year. We have learned that hate can strike anywhere, and we know without a doubt that we have to do whatever we can to ensure that hatred and bigotry do not infiltrate our neighborhoods.

Satpal Singh is a neuroscientist at the University at Buffalo and frequent participant in interfaith dialogues on diversity and peace.

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