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‘Jerk’ sees the other side

Karim Creary with his sister Camille at their home in St George's (Photograph by Jonathan Bell)

Karim Creary did not always find it easy to see things from the perspective of other people.

It was the realisation that he was “kind of being a jerk” during family arguments that led him to spread his message of empathy on the stage at St Lawrence University in New York. Mr Creary, 21, a senior at the university, was one of the first speakers at its first TEDx seminar with his talk titled: “Ask yourself: Am I jerk?”

TEDx talks are devoted to “ideas worth sharing”, and Bermuda will host its own annual instalment in March.

Mr Creary told The Royal Gazette his impulsive decision to apply for his 8½ minutes sprang in part from his relationship with his sister and mother, Camille and Gwendolyn — and the spirited family conversations, otherwise known as arguments.

“We’d argue about the way I was living life with my friends,” he said. “I’ll just say it; a lot of the time it looked like I was betraying my black roots.

“I had to sit back and realise I can’t just dismiss their feelings, but think about where they’re coming from, where my mother’s history is coming from.”

His conclusion: “I was like, wow, Karim — you’re kind of being a jerk.”

Reflecting on a tough year for tolerance, Mr Creary said an “us-versus-them mindset” holds sway as “the most common paradigm in the world right now”.

“And that makes me sad and uncomfortable,” he said.

The senior said he watched 2016 bring fascist rallies in Spain’s capital, France’s heavy -handed anti-burkini laws, Donald Trump’s nationalist bombast, and the simmering of Bermuda’s own political and racial divide.

Over the summer in New York City, during a Times Square stroll as he took a break from class, Mr Creary — a black Bermudian — was accosted by an incensed white Trump supporter who told him: “If you don’t like it, get out.”

His response was to laugh, but he also laughed because he was “bewildered and a little afraid”.

Mr Creary has a proposal: close your eyes and imagine somebody you loathe.

Don’t imagine looking like them, but “truly and fully assume their identity”, and relive an interaction from their perspective.

The chasm between white and black Bermudians that opened in March over the proposed immigration legislation known as Pathways to Status, with the days of demonstrations that it sparked, illustrated the need for empathy.

Mr Creary said he wished that opponents of the demonstrations could understand the depth to which black Bermudians felt disenfranchised and fundamentally suspicious of the proposals.

“I also wanted my friends to understand that Bermuda needs money,” he said.

“In the first world we have the privilege of having these arguments, about how we can make Bermuda progressive but also give people opportunities.”

The goal of his TEDx talk last month was “not to calm, not to give some kind of tranquilliser.”

“We need argument and we need conflict. But it needs to come from a space where we genuinely understand the other side.”

There could be no agreeing with the enraged Trump adherent who saw Mr Creary’s skin colour as a threat to his employment.

“Would I do the same if I was in his shoes?” Mr Creary asked the audience. “Not at all. But I could understand where he was coming from.”

Mr Creary readily credits “hippy schools” with informing his views: the Montessori philosophy of Somersfield Academy in Bermuda, followed by the idealism of United World College, where he studied in Costa Rica. Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor who founded the stoicism, was another influence, along with philosophical schools such as utilitarianism, where the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

“The one way I try to live my life is through empathy,” he said.

His sister, who joined him for the interview on the family porch in St George’s, said it had been “exciting and nerve wracking” to see Karim take the stage.

The video, now on YouTube, is also titled “Am I a Jerk?”

“As an older sister, I’m always more worried about what he’s feeling than what’s coming out of his mouth,” she told The Royal Gazette.

“It was a very proud moment, knowing that someone you watched growing up has blossomed into someone who wasn’t coaxed into thinking about others, but genuinely cared about bridging the gaps.”