To fight or not to fight – that is the question.
A diverse variety of responses have been offered to the horrifying events in Charlottesville this past weekend. We are a diverse nation, and while certain truths are deemed to be self-evident by the vast majority of us, even amongst those who hold fast to the principles of liberty, equality, and tolerance, there are still variances in belief on how to assure and protect those virtues.
But before we discuss the issues on which we disagree, it is worthwhile to begin with the things that the majority of Americans can commonly accept and admit about Charlottesville.
1) The perpetrator of the car ramming is a murderer and a domestic terrorist and should be prosecuted to the full measure of the law.
2) The victims deserve our prayers.
3) White supremacy is a racist ideology.
4) It is important to identify hate groups and to make clear that their beliefs and tactics are unAmerican.
5) There is far too much hatred and violence in our country today, and we need to do something to de-escalate the current situation.
From this foundation of common sentiment, we can now identify some areas where we are less in sync. First, there is a clear partisan divide when it comes to the roots and causes of the quagmire in which we find ourselves.
The left will assign blame to Trump's own feelings of white supremacy, or at the very least to his failure to distance himself from the alt right. The right will point to Obama's promotion of identity politics and his stoking of the flames of antipathy between people of color and caucasians.
These are matters of opinion, and though each side will insist on its facts and obvious truths, it is futile to try to convince one another. People are entitled to their perspectives, and the goal of productive dialogue is not to convert the other, but to hear the other and to consider our beliefs and opinions in the context of the new information that the other brings to our attention. Perhaps that information will strengthen our convictions, or it is possible that it will challenge us to reevaluate and reformulate our position.
What is absolutely unhelpful is blaming and shaming those who have no affiliation to violent extremist groups but who have voted differently from ourselves. Blame forces the other into defensiveness and a further entrenchment in his/her position. If we are genuinely looking to affect change, then blame is the last thing we should be offering to one another.
A more productive question than who is to blame is how we should address the situation now in order to de-escalate the current tensions. What, quite simply, is the most effective response to hate?
Unfortunately, this is not so easy to agree upon either.
The most natural and instinctive response to hate is reciprocal hate. Biologically, we are programmed to respond to aggression with defensive force. It makes sense. But it does not necessarily make progress.
Nevertheless, there are many at the moment who insist that we must fight back. We must raise our voices to drown out the chants of those who scream and shout and threaten. We must display the strength of our will and the extent of our conviction. We must declare the inherent evil of those who declare us inherently evil. Let them come, we’ll be ready for them!
Yet others warn that this is precisely what hate groups want from us. Such a response, they will argue, is evidence that the incitement of the extremists is working like a charm. They’re calling for a fight, and we’re responding with a hearty acceptance of their offer.
But what else are we to do? Shall we stand down and allow them to trample us in our cowed submission? Shall we let them march forward and bolster their ranks while we pyrrhically refuse to sink to their level? Does it benefit us to be more evolved if we will soon be overrun?
What are we to do if fighting feeds their bloodlust and passivity enables their incursion?
There is a third alternative that negotiates the fine line between violence and inaction. "Peace,” wrote psychologist and famed global practitioner of conflict resolution Marshall Rosenberg, “requires something far more difficult than revenge or merely turning the other cheek; it requires empathizing with the fears and unmet needs that provide the impetus for people to attack each other.”
Our task, Rosenberg challenges us, is to actively engage those who hate, but not with brute force similar to that with which they engage and provoke us. While they present us with fists and aggression, we receive them with ears and compassion.
It sounds almost ludicrous doesn’t it? It certainly sounds dangerous and dubious. How can we possibly respond to hate with patience and empathy? How is that any less weak and passive than ignoring their provocation and/or turning the other cheek? Aside of the risks involved, why should we believe for a moment that this type of response is any more effective than those we have already considered?
Perhaps we can accept the testimony of Arno Michaelis, a former Neo-Nazi who founded one of the most violent white supremacist gangs in the midwest before he left his former life behind to seek a new path and rescue others from violent extremism:
“My life changed because people demonstrated the courage and inner peace necessary to defy my hostility rather than reflect it,” Michaelis writes. “People who I had claimed to hate - a Jewish boss, a Lesbian supervisor, black and Latino co-workers - refused to lower themselves to my level, instead choosing to model the way that we human beings should treat each other. Examples of kindness, compassion and forgiveness changed the course of my life.”
Those who hate are mired in pain, Michaelis attests. They are subjects of their upbringing and their difficult life experiences. As hard as it is to admit in this moment of shock and outrage, these are people like the rest of us. They are not animals any more than we, who they accuse of being subhuman, are animals.
While we are justified in our rage, anger and violence do not benefit us or make our society more safe. On the contrary, as Michaelis asserts about his life as a white supremacist, “we lived for violent opposition. We thrived on it. Violence of any sort, no matter how it may be rationalized, is the bread of hatred.” On the other hand, “human warmth and compassion,” he writes, “has the capability to crush everything the 'alt-right' is about.”
Within the past days there has been an effort to identify the people who marched with the alt-right in Charlottesville, to post their names and make them accountable to their friends, families and employers. It seems to be a reasonable action – after all, those who assembled did not hide their identities and should not mind being identified. Furthermore, they should know that there are consequences to their actions.
But Michaelis responded to this initiative with a rare sensibility that reflects both his empathy and his pragmatism:
“Be mindful that people with nothing to lose are the most dangerous. Someone getting fired and publicly humiliated can easily become the next Dylann Roof or Wade Page. I'd be all for this if it led people to dialogue, learning, growth, and ultimately, love. If this just leads to punishment it will only make things worse. You can't punish the suffering out of people.”
We all suffer. We all have our biases and our imperfections. Some of us are more damaged and wounded than others, and some of us inflict more damage and pain than others. Our goal at this time of crisis must be to mend the rifts that are threatening to tear us apart. The anger and hatred that is mounting throughout the country may be countered by more of the same, but it will only be diminished and resolved by something quite different.
It is difficult to transcend our innate emotions, particularly in the heat of passion and a moment of great tension and trepidation. But it is time to hold ourselves to a higher standard and call forth our higher potential.
As Abraham Lincoln famously said at a time in our history when the very existence of our union was at stake, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
All of this is not to say that our duty at this moment is to seek out our nearest KKK klavern and go embrace a Klansman. While we have spoken here primarily of the response to the type of hatred that is perpetrated by violent extremists, and while Lincoln was speaking in context of a war that literally pitted Americans against one another on the battlefield, the “better angels of our nature” that he alludes to will be more commonly applied today to daily interactions with those who are not nearly as threatening to our physical well-being.
Unfortunately, the rage that is spreading throughout the country at this moment is often directed at those whose sole offense is the possession of beliefs and perspectives different from our own. Our scorn and antipathy is being stoked by those who would have us subscribe to an ‘us vs. them’ mentality that pits us not against extremists, but against our fellow citizens who differ with us not in their general morality or basic decency, but in their political persuasion and their opinions on how liberty, security, and stability are best manintained.
The hatred that we must address and counter is not simply the explicit racism and exclusionism that is manifest by fringe radicals, but even more commonly and importantly the subtle divisiveness and blamefulness that is creeping into our daily discourse and driving a wedge into the heart of our social cohesion.
While it is difficult to imagine empathic engagement with those who marched for the alt-right in Charlottesville, at least we can, and must endeavor to, practice the type of compassionate communication that Rosenberg, Michaelis, and Lincoln advocate in the context of our quotidian relationships.
Whether it is our family members, our friends, our co-workers, or casual acquaintances that we encounter in the course of our daily routine, we can all benefit from a more patient and generous attention to the commonality that binds us as citizens of our country and our world. With such a consciousness we will greet aggression with restraint and respond with the composure that will enable us to transform tension into communion and productive collaboration.
In response to the tragedy of Charlottesville, there are those calling for revenge, there are those calling for impeachment, there are those casting blame, shame, and ire in every direction they are able. They point to our failings and exacerbate and exaggerate our differences.
But there are also those calling for forbearance and reconciliation, who recognize this moment as an urgent cry for a return from the brink and an opportunity to celebrate both our diversity and our commonality. Now is the moment to enhance the bonds of humanity that transcend race, creed, and class.
The most appropriate response to Charlottesville is to exploit every chance we have to display the generosity and magnanimity of our best selves, to seek opportunities for collaboration and cross-communal outreach, and to demonstrate to those who are mired in anger and hate that there is an inherent and inevitable kinship that we all share which no amount of incitement or antagonism can ever eradicate or overrun.
Join the movement for commonality and reconciliation at www.thecommonparty.com
Check out Arno Michaelis' book My Life After Hate here.
Check out Marshall Rosenberg’s classic Nonviolent Communication here.