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A Life Saved by Tears

In late June, Convivium’s Peter Stockland engaged in public conversation with lawyer, teacher and community activist, and author Jamil Jivani, 30, about his new book Why Young Men: Rage, Race and the Crisis of Identity. In this second installment of three parts, Convivium will serialize an edited transcript of the discussion so readers who weren’t able to attend might experience Jivani’s remarkable story and wisdom

12 minute read
A Life Saved by Tears July 5, 2018  |  By Peter Stockland with Jamil Jivani
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This is the second part of three parts. For the first installment, click here.

Peter Stockland: We talk about the imperative need for conversations that break the silence, if I can use that phrase, in which many young men are trapped. But you also say, "Behind all the statistics about fatherless homes, are increasing numbers of young men experiencing the gift and curse of choosing who shows them how to be men." 

I guess the word jumped out at me was "choosing," because from what I see and from what I certainly experience, I would characterize it as less "choosing" than being chosen. That is, either lucking out that somebody’s going to have a positive influence on you, or alternately, falling into lockstep behind someone. You go into quite a few examples of a few cases where, in your experience, there was a falling into lockstep behind someone who was, if not a monster, at least leading you pretty close to the edge of a cliff. 

So, I wonder, when you talk about choosing who's going to show you how to be a man, in what sense do you use the word, "choice"? Do you have the capacity to make a choice? Or is it a matter of being lucky to be influenced by someone who is good for you? 

Jamil Jivani: I actually think that question gets to kind of the heart of a lot of what I write and talk about: the common ways of talking about how we overcome societal disadvantages as either kind of overemphasizing the importance of environmental circumstances that a young person grows up in, or overemphasizing their personal agency and responsibility in a kind of "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" way of thinking. 

It's really hard, when you are one of the lucky people who experiences a lot of society's disadvantages and then gets to look back on them and write a book about it, to avoid presenting yourself as someone who pulled yourself up, because you want to highlight how hard it is for a lot of people. But you also want to remind those who relate to your experiences that there is something they can do about it, right? 

I spend a lot of time speaking at high schools and at middle schools for instance, and I would hate to ever leave a school and have a young person hear my story and then think, "I guess hopefully life works out for me. Maybe I'll get lucky and I'll be like Jamil one day, but I don't know if there's anything I can do about it." So, in some ways there's almost a mythology to it that's important to recognize, right? Even if a small percentage of us can go through some of life's biggest challenges and wind up overcoming them, it's important, I think, for people in those positions to remember that there is some agency. There is some choice in it. You do get to decide who your friends are going to be to some extent. You do get to decide where you go after school to some extent. 

You might not get to make all the choices you wish you could, but there is some element of choice. Even just a little bit. You get to choose whether you do your homework or not, right? That said, there is still a whole bigger web that is around you as an individual, and we can't ignore the fact that a lot of that is not a choice at all. Many people are, as you put it, just falling into lockstep. 

I suppose one of the most helpful ways of thinking about inequality is that some people are allowed to fall into lockstep and their life turns out okay, and others if they fall into lockstep, they suffer for it. In an ideal world, no one would be born into a situation where just going with the flow or just accepting the cultural influences that come to you, or failing to exercise an optimal amount of agency and choice, would result in suffering. Right? Maybe I would make the distinction as this: if I go to a high school and I talk to a bunch of teachers, I'm going to emphasize the importance of [what results from] not choosing. Right? I’m going to say that teachers in that system have to treat children as if they're not going to make the best choices, and that the adults in their lives have a responsibility to help them do so. 

I do that, and I have had those conversations. But if I'm going to talk to those kids, I'm not going to tell them that, right? I'm going to remind them that there are choices they have to make, and that there are responsibilities that they can assume because I think that's what's necessary to survive in a world that might not change fast enough for you. By the time they graduate from high school, the world might not be a better place for them, and so they can't wait. I think that's probably the distinction I would make.

Peter Stockland: You talked when we began about the role of faith and yet you've delineated with a lot of skill, the way in which faith can be, in a sense, a double-edged sword. You talk about a friend of yours who was a Sikh, but a Sikh by identity rather than faith. You quote him as saying, "It's really not about religion for me. It's about identity." His faith-identity kept him successfully grounded.

In contrast, there were the people you encountered in the Nation of Islam for whom Islam was an identity and an invitation to some fairly dark places, at least as they understood it. How in the world does a kid in the dilemma that you were just describing, whether in the school system or elsewhere, navigate that difference and yet still be drawn to faith, still not just fall into lockstep with groups that go to those fairly dark places? How do kids navigate that? How do they choose?

Jamil Jivani: There's a number of people or young men in particular that I talk about for whom faith plays various roles in their lives. Someone like my Sikh friend in Brampton, for example, wound up in prison in his late teens. He recognized his failure of his to get the benefits from his faith community, and then credits [his faith] for his reform after prison. He's since become a father and quite the success story. He credits that with embracing his faith. 

What he's getting at is seeing the moral code that is tied to the identity that he holds close. 

For someone like my friend, Brandon, that I went to Humber College with – I talk about him as introducing me to the Nation of Islam because he was an active member at the time – faith was less about personal development at least on the surface. It was more about the politics that a group that identifies with a faith can bring into your life. In particular, I talk about the clash of civilizations idea that Samuel Huntington develops, which is this idea that the West and Islam are on this crash course. That's something that has become more, I guess, mainstream in how we talk about international politics and foreign affairs now, but it's in the Nation of Islam's work going all the way back to Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X in the mid-20th century. That idea of clashing civilizations was part of the appeal to Islam that many of their followers had.

For instance, when I would go to Nation of Islam Mosque in Toronto, they quoted the Bible far more frequently than the Koran because it was less about the actual Scripture and the fundamentals of religion, and more about the identity that Islam provided from their perspective. They could turn on CNN, see people like Hezbollah, see people like the leader of Iran and say, "I'm identifying with Islam in the political sense, in the anti-Western sense that those groups presented Islam as."

Then you look at an example such as in Belgium where there are many young people for whom the politics around immigration in Europe are a very touchy subject for a lot of people. You have a bunch of first and second-generation Muslim kids in Europe whose mosques are not preaching in a European language. Instead they are preaching in Arabic, in mosques are funded by Saudi Arabia and Turkey, and their literature is also funded by those governments. 

They're not being introduced to a form of Islam that comes with the depth of religious debate and religious understanding, but they're being introduced to a form of Islam much like my friend Brandon in Toronto with the Nation of Islam Mosque. It’s an Islam that becomes a stand-in for politics rather than a stand-in for morals and personal examination and struggling with what is right and wrong, which is how most Muslims, most people of faith generally, approach their faith: as a more of a personal enterprise. 

In my case, for example, as a person who didn't really discover faith until much later in my life, these become part of the external influences that you look to when you leave your mom's house every day hoping to find the kind of role models that don't exist in the home. You see these kind of strong men positioning themselves as authorities on masculinity. I'm 30 years old, I think people around my age, for many of us the Internet was part of that. Certainly, for people younger than us, the Internet has become an increasingly big part of that. Often their introductions to faith are coming from the Internet. 

That's where you have just a huge, broad diversity in the way is faith is represented, what it means to people, the kinds of role models you meet through those networks, the role those idea play in your life.

The alt-right, neo-Nazi, white supremacists online, for instance, often present themselves as the gatekeepers to a Christian world, to a Christian America, a Christian Europe. So, faith is being used in a very political sense in a lot of these ways but also in a way to build ties to young people. To say, "I'm going to give you this way to think about yourself and think about the world and through that will come a whole host of political ideas and in some cases violent impulses that I'm going to nurture and encourage in you." That is the extent to which I think faith is being introduced to lots of young people.

I talk in the book about the broad decline, and the influence, that faith has had in the West. I'm sure there are many causes, but one of the consequences of this is that it emboldens this presentation of faith. Many churches, many mosques, many synagogues and temples look to young people and I think see them as a lost cause, at least temporarily. They're not going to passionately reach out to them in hopes that they can shape their moral compass. Instead, they will look at them and say, "Well, the music you listen to and the movies you like, it all seems so out of step with the morals we advocate. We don't think you're even ready, so it's not worth it."

Yet the people who I'm describing who face, I think, a much more destructive presentation of faith and religion, their entire way of looking at the world is based on young people. They need young recruits. They treat young people and young men in particular as if they are necessary for a Hollywood-esque shift for our species that young men who commit to these ideas and this understanding of a faith can be the difference maker in where the world goes next. There is an enthusiasm for young people that many folks with good intentions and good ideas don't have. 

It's a commitment to young people. It's seeing them as necessary to further your worldview in a way that it's hard to compete with if you don't believe it the same way.

Peter Stockland: Yet you, particularly, drew a moral distinction. You listened to Nation of Islam’s leader Louis Farrakhan and you actually use the word "immoral" to describe him. You said that your response was that what he was saying was immoral. Even more than that, even more powerfully than making that philosophical or intellectual distinction, you write that when things were in a dark, dark spiral for you:

"I went to one of my closest friends and asked him to locate a gun for me. A few days later he confirmed he could get one, quoted me a price, and told me I'd need to make sure I was serious since it would take some work from his friends to get it. I told him that I'd get back to him. That day I went home from school and cried. I'm not sure why I cried." 

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say, I think you got into Yale Law School because you cried that day. And I think you know why you cried. Why did you cry?

Jamil Jivani: I certainly didn't know it at the time. That was difficult day because like many young men in particular I characterize my teenage years as playing a game of chicken with myself. I start grade nine wanting to be this tough guy and this gangster. I’d make friends with people who were very kind to me but were otherwise the wrong people to friends with. Then in grade 10, I’d get into fights, and I’d get suspended. In grade 11, which is the year where I almost bought the gun, it seemed like a natural next step in me trying to become something. It was weird to think about, but it felt like a career move. It felt like investing in the future because I thought that's what my future was going to hold.

When I finally got to the point, when I had the money for the gun and someone who was going to locate one for me, I think my breaking down and crying instead of rejoicing at the opportunity was a sign that I’d lost that game of chicken. Where I had to jump off the train tracks so to speak and recognize that wasn't right for me. I looked back on that day a lot and I thought about it a lot when I was writing that because my life changed so quickly in my 20s that I barely had a chance to reflect on anything.

When I had a chance to reflect on that day, there were kind of two things that crossed my mind. One was that all the years that I was acting like a knucklehead, my mom was the only person ever thought anything good about me, the only person who said anything good to me. She never seemed to never give up on me. I felt like if I bought that gun, I might cross a line, go too far, and she might give up at that point. The prospect of her giving up was scary to me.

The other thing that I think affected my decision making at that point was I was very upset about how police officers treated people in my community. I'd seen how they treated my father. I've been followed home many times from the bus stop myself and followed around at the mall and just the frustration I felt made me feel like if I got this gun I would be in some ways validating the way they had treated me. I'd be saying to them, "Well, you be treating me like I've been carrying a gun this whole time. Well, it turns out you were right." I didn't want to give them that satisfaction.

Both of those thoughts represented, I think, in my life at least, the first time I had felt like my decisions could affect other people, whether it was my mother or people in my community, my neighbours. I felt like, "Okay, I'm actually a person who is not the center of this victimization area.” That the unfairness I experienced, while real, didn’t warrant a moral relativism that I had fallen into. That, I think, started a gradual change in my life. Why could I go to the Nation of Islam Mosque at 18 and 19 years old, but make the decision that this was not the kind of morals and politics I wanted for myself? Why could I make the difficult decision to work hard and hope that I could get to a good school like Yale one day?

That change in my thought process, I think, does ultimately boil down to some commitment to advance morals when you can easily make excuses not to. To whatever extent you can affect the world in a positive way even if it's just a very little bit because you don't have a lot and you don't even think you're that smart and you're not capable of very much, you still will do it. That's just not a way of thinking that I had ever embraced in my life up until those years. Even then, it's not something I really knew was happening until later. I could look back and say, "Well, this was a shift in how I thought about myself and my relationship with the world. I'm not going to be just reacting to other people and what they do to me and the unfairness I experienced, but I'm going to try to break the mold, so to speak, in terms of what I put myself into."

Tomorrow: Mentors, Manipulators And Making It New


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