Well, I was all set to write a nice little First Column of 2021, about looking ahead and new beginnings and loving each other.
And then January 6 happened.
I turned on the radio for an update, and heard screaming callers. Then I turned to Facebook and found the same vitriol times ten. I saw a few respectful discussions. But for the most part, the keyboard warriors were in full battle mode. Friends were lashing out against friends. Emotions were high. Expletives were flying. Any semblance of respect was gone. I walked away, so as not to wind up having to unfriend and block all of the ugliness and vulgarity.
It’s not my intent here to delve into what happened at the U.S. Capitol that day. I wasn’t there, I didn’t see what happened, and I have no interest in speculating. I’m sure sufficient pixels have been spilled on that subject elsewhere, without me adding my two cents. I have only one thing to say in that regard: I absolutely, unequivocally denounce and condemn the actions of those who stormed the Capitol, just as I denounced and condemned the destruction and violence of last summer. I don’t care which side perpetuates it or why. It’s wrong. Last summer, some on the left seemed to be excusing the violence by saying “This is what happens when people don’t feel heard.” This week, I have heard some on the right parrot the same line. It may be true, and it may be interesting as a sociological observation, but in neither case does it pass muster as justification. We aren’t animals. We are human persons with free will, and we can — and must — do better.
Now I want to talk about what’s really on my heart — the civil war that I see brewing. Not a war that will be fought with muskets and cannons — although we may find ourselves in something resembling the modern equivalent soon enough. But it seems to me that, on the micro level, we are already engaged in a war that will divide brother and sister and family and friends just as surely as the muskets and cannons did. What I saw on Facebook on Jan. 6 was a heart-wrenching lack of civility and respect for the humanity of those on the other side. And worse, I saw what looked like the fracturing of a lot of relationships.
For those of us who profess the faith based in “love one another,” we need to look closely at our behavior in these difficult days.
I have friends and family across the political spectrum. People I love deeply. Of course, I am at times appalled at opinions they hold, or votes they cast. But here’s what has struck me: when I listen to them — really listen — I find that given the information they have received, and the worldview they have formed, their opinions make perfect sense. Of course, in many cases I think they have received flawed information, and that their worldview is skewed. But that doesn’t change their sincerity.
What’s more, I am also struck by the fact that so many people I know, on both sides, are also sincerely afraid of the other side, and what will happen as that side gains power. Now, I have my own opinions about which side poses the greater danger. But that’s not my point here. My point is that the fear on both sides is real. And when I express my fear to friends of other ideological persuasions, they are genuinely surprised. Of course, they don’t take my fear seriously. But then again, I find their fears pretty baseless as well. But at least we’re talking and listening to each other, and dispelling misconceptions that often further drive fear.
In this age of information overload, it has become easy for us to build little “information bubbles” for ourselves. And, subsequently, to build our own “realities.” I reject the idea that “there is no reality, only perception.” Objective reality exists. But that doesn’t change the fact that most people are reacting to their own perception of that reality. And in many cases, it is flawed.
It all boils down to this: I really do believe most people are doing the best they can. We need to cut them some slack, and to the extent it is possible, to treat those who disagree with us — especially those within our own circles — with respect and charity as we discuss these explosive issues.
I understand that we need to stand up against evil. But also remember that many of the people who may espouse that evil also sincerely believe that we are espousing some sort of evil. And if we believed what they think we believe, it would be evil. Without honest communication, each side just hardens in its own respective perceptions.
I also understand that some people aren’t open to such communication. You can’t get blood out of a rock, and you can’t get sincere communication out of someone who is unwilling. But you can control yourself. You can strive to be the person who listens, who asks, and who loves regardless of disagreement.
On that dark day on Facebook, I saw a lot of “if you believe x, unfriend me now.” And I get that, from where they sat, “x” seemed pretty appalling. But wouldn’t it be so much more constructive to say “If you believe x, talk to me. Tell me why. Am I missing something? Help me understand what is motivating that belief.”
A few months back, I wrote about the totalitarian tendency to de-humanize those who are considered enemies of the regime, and thus make their persecution palatable to the masses. I see us drifting dangerously in that direction. We need to resist the temptation, both collectively and individually.
There are a lot of forces in today’s world that threaten to damage or destroy us. Don’t let “entrenched mutual hostility” be one of them.
Featured image: The Peace Monument memorial is seen in front of the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, in Washington, DC. (Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP)