For those of us over the age of 50, in our lifetimes we have seen eruptions of hate around the world that resulted in the brutal murders of tens of thousands of people, mostly innocent. Notably, some of these occurred in places where the opposing groups seemed to get along reasonably well before the genocide started, and after it ended.
Conspicuous examples include the Bosnian-Serb-Croat massacres of the 90s (including in Sarajevo, which had hosted the Winter Olympics in 1984), and the Rwandan genocide of 1994. In the latter, once-friendly neighbors took up machetes and other crude weapons and butchered their fellow countrymen — men, women and children. These are only two examples drawn from a very long list of 20th century horrors.
In America, we are seeing increasingly militant expressions of grievance, and a rising sentiment among radical groups that talking doesn’t work and we need to get physical. It is not unreasonable to fear that violent eruptions are coming, unless Americans rise up and get serious about damming the flood of hate that is sweeping us away.
It takes time and patience to understand all of the causative forces that bring about these eruptions. But they share a common feature: in each case there is a gradual malignancy of hatred in one or more of the clashing groups, skillfully nurtured over time by very shrewd and persuasive demagogues. The hatred grows and becomes, over time, habitual. Thus was the case, of course, in pre-Nazi Germany, where Hitler’s rise to power took years, not months. The history books refer to the “Nazi storm troopers,” but in fact Hitler was hugging children and conducting a grass roots popularity campaign while firmly denying any connection with the murders and mayhem going on all over Germany, all while stoking and “understanding” them. The evolution was way more subtle than our compressed history books depict.
In the 1980s, a brand of “bare-knuckled” politics took hold in the United States that taught that disagreement alone was for sissies — you had to not only disagree, but actually demonize your opponent through name-calling, pointedly hostile rhetoric and overall debasement of their ideas and opinions as “un-American” or “unpatriotic.” Opponents became enemies. Differences of opinion became declarations of war. Never mind that your opponent might have bled on the sands of a foreign beach in a real war — he’s still your enemy right here. It was naively believed that all of it was “just politics,” that it wouldn’t portend broader social unrest or violence. That naïve view was wrong.
In the ensuing decades the trenches have deepened, the battlements thickened and the political techniques became more cynical, to the point of politicians embracing flagrant lying for “political purposes.” If the Leader says the earth is flat, and my constituents believe it, then by golly it’s flat as far as I am concerned (even though I know it is not). If you say it’s not flat, even though I know you are right, then I will brand you an unpatriotic elitist and a traitor.
History teaches us that societies at large (versus historians) are never sure when to hit the “tipping point” button. When have things gone “too far”?
They have gone too far when these co-conspiracies of ignorance are designed to foster hatred and inflame stupidity on matters of fundamental importance, which leads inevitably to violence. We are seeing that right now, in the flatly false assertion that the presidential election has been “stolen” because states adopted mail-in voting (which Oregon has had, as the sole method, for over 20 years). The states have to count the mailed ballots — no big surprise there. Is a valid ballot, postmarked on or before Election Day, reflecting the choice of an American voter, really a cause for civil war? Are they OK only in the states where your man is winning? When did the states stop having the right to control the conduct of their elections, oh ye originalists? Hearing mobs of Americans yell “Stop counting votes!” is the most chilling anti-American moment of my lifetime, and my palm slammed down on the “tipping point” button.
Similarly, I slam the button when I hear people screaming, “Do away with police departments” (Since, if you hold that position, you probably don’t own a gun, good luck negotiating with that midnight intruder).
We can step back from this abyss of absurdity and inevitable violence. It takes honesty, candor, courage, common sense and, above all, good will. The hard part is we cannot count on “leaders” to save us, because they are cowardly co-conspirators in a downward spiral of ignorance and hate. Instead, it is up to each of us to dam the tide of ignorance and hate, to stand up to it and call it out, calmly and objectively. We must be the adults in the room, the room being the (As Yet) United States of America.
How? Well, for starters, by listening to someone outside of our private echo chambers. Even that is rare in today’s America: people go lifetimes without listening to anyone who disagrees with them on a matter of policy, or who knows more than they do on a matter; accordingly, our mutual sympathy and respect are stunted, our intelligence and ability to reason are stunted, and false assumptions are relentlessly reinforced and hardened into diamonds. The colors of life and experience reduce to the choices in a Playskool doughnut tower.
We’re bigger than that. We can handle the truth. We’re not temperamental children. Step across that hedge and “shake hands” (Quotation marks courtesy of COVID-19).
One of the world’s foremost authorities on religion, the late Ninian Smart, took the Golden Rule one step further when he said, “Life is hard, and we have an obligation to be as kind to our fellow human beings as we possibly can.” Is “hard” a blue thing? A red thing? No, life is just plain hard all around. We are obligated to be kind; it is not optional.
Shut out the noise, turn off the TV and listen to your neighbor, especially a neighbor who thinks differently than you do, unless they’re criminally insane. In that case, call the professionals.
Nile Kinney is a California attorney. These views are his own and not necessarily those of his legal colleagues.