As we all try to come to terms with what has happened in Charlottesville and its aftermath, I am heartened by the outpouring of sentiment from many places condemning violence and extremism. Yet I am not quite at ease with the amount of attention that has been focused on signs and symbols. Both are real and potent of course, but they’re not the whole story.
I feel like we’re looking for emotional shortcuts. If we say the right things, and get others to say the right things, we’ll solve the problem. If symbols of hatred are gone, the hatred will go with it. It’s like skimming the surface of a very deep pool.
While I’m getting my mind around the importance of not having public spaces dominated by statues that glorify the Confederacy, I also think those of us who are not from the South are looking for shortcuts around our past. I may be wrong, but I was taught that Robert E. Lee was an honorable man of his time, caught in the coils of history. Was he that different from slaveholders Washington or Jefferson in that respect? Frankly, I feel more affinity for him than for the Union Generals Philip Sheridan and William Tecumsah Sherman who pursued scorched earth tactics in the Shenandoah Valley and Georgia, starving civilians without compunction. Somehow I doubt that Lee, were he here today, would choose the side of the violent and hate-filled young men who came to Charlottesville. I’m not so sure about those two Union generals.
I see an unsettling tendency here to fall into the easy habit of blaming the South. Can we really be so glib about the Civil War in assigning good guy and bad guy roles? After all, Northern industrialists were the ones who ran the slave trade, and the ones who profited most from the plantation-based cotton industry. While the racism in the North was—and still may be—more hidden, I don’t see any place for moral superiority. With the South as a convenient target, supporting the removal of symbols of the Confederacy seems like another easy out for those in the North.
It’s like we’re glad for other people to be so much more racist that we can feel good about ourselves. We can point a finger out and away, toward those others who are the “real problem”. But I don’t think this is a time when any white folks can afford self-righteousness. After all, overt acts of racism are only the tip of the iceberg.
And while silence would be complicity, condemning is a pretty easy thing to do. It’s harder to understand the roots of extremism, to see those perpetrators in a continuum of humanity that includes us, to be not just offended but curious about such people. Even harder is to help create the contexts in which those who are consumed by hatred can be changed. There is some public conversation about who has set the political tone that encourages the flaunting of such hatred. But what about these other hard questions?
Clearly there’s a fundamental difference in moral authority between those who would intimidate and those who would stand up to intimidation. But if our response to such people—whose platform centers on excising those whom they hate from their midst—is to call for excising them from our midst, then I have to wonder.
Are we secretly glad for their anger, since it gives us permission to feel and air our own? I think it would be more productive to pay attention to our grief and our fears, which often lie beneath the anger. What breaks our hearts here? What are we scared of losing? What are those young white extremists grieving? What are they scared of losing? What would need to happen to make us whole, to make them whole again? It’s the difference between trying to get the words, signs and symbols right and trying to get our hearts right.