Mahatma Gandhi is supposed to have said, “The enemy is fear. We think it is hate; but it is really fear.” This is an unsourced quote and may not be legitimate; nonetheless, it speaks truth. I think it helps explains what happened in Charlottesville, what has happened so many times in the past, and what will undoubtedly transpire in the future.
I think it is clear that we need a new approach to this problem. First, though, it would be helpful to have a better understanding of the nature of the problem, an understanding rooted in compassion.
It is not hate, it’s fear. The Dalai Lama says,
“If we examine how anger or hateful thoughts arise in us, we will find that, generally speaking, they arise when we feel hurt, when we feel that we have been unfairly treated by someone against our expectations.”
Former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, a hater whose support Trump refused to reject during the campaign, was there in Charlottesville, tweeting that “our people were peacefully assembling” but were attacked by “radical leftists,” and “So, after decades of White Americans being targeted for discriminated & anti-White hatred, we come together as a people, and you attack us?”
After two hundred years of Black Americans being targeted for worse things than discrimination, all we’ve been saying is let’s give equality a chance. When one group achieves equality and freedom, everyone benefits in the end. The plight of white people in this country doesn’t quite stack up against the sufferings endured by the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people, either. Duke’s argument is just not reasonable, and yet behind it is palpable fear, emotion as solid as a stone statue of Robert E. Lee. Income inequality, job loss, old and familiar values giving way to new ones that seem threatening and foreign, a world moving ahead too swiftly – these are real concerns for many people. Not just in the South but all across America. When people are for whatever reason unable to adapt and change, it produces fear and, in some cases, leads them into hate.
Speaking of General Lee, I’ve always thought it interesting that very few in the South have ever thought about the fact that these statues, like the one I used to see at Lee Circle in my old hometown of New Orleans, are monuments to a traitor. Furthermore, Lee was a slave-owner, responsible for hundreds of thousands of war deaths, and a white supremacist.
I imagine that when black men or women pass by these statues of Lee it produces the same kind of emotion that Jewish men or women must experience when they see a swastika spray-painted on a schoolhouse wall. It’s taken a long time for us to recognize that. And it’s why General Lee has to go.
People in the grip of extreme fear cannot see this. Fear is blinding, making it impossible to see oneself as others.
Reacting to the events in Charlottesville, former President Obama tweeted, “People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love…”
No one is born a racist. It is an attitude that is acquired, learned around the dinner table, in school, in church, and nowadays, on social media. Very little has changed since Bob Dylan penned these words 54 years ago:
He’s taught in his school
From the start by the rule
That the laws are with him
To protect his white skin
To keep up his hate
So he never thinks straight
‘Bout the shape that he’s in…
But it ain’t them to blame… they’re only a pawn in a game, a game of fear.
At the time, civil rights activist and folklorist, Bernice Johnson Reagon told a journalist Only a Pawn in their Game was the first song that showed the poor white was as victimized by discrimination as the poor black. We must understand this. Not to the extreme that people like Duke take it, but to the extent where we aren’t demonizing anyone and we can see white supremacists as human beings whose liberation is our concern.
Offering up Nazi salutes is offensive. Yesterday, as I watched the news from Charlottesville, I was eager to jump on the labeling-them-Nazis bandwagon. But today, I’m not so sure… On one hand, a historical perspective is crucial; we should never forget the terror of Nazism. On the other hand, labels do little to promote understanding, which is the beginning point of compassion.
So, while we are right to denounce white supremacy, nationalism, hate and violence, unless condemnation is coupled with understanding of the fear that motivates their behavior and empathy with them as victims of fear, we won’t be moving forward anytime soon.
We can do it. A 2016 study by David Broockman at Stanford University and Joshua Kalla at the University of California Berkeley found “that a single 10-minute conversation with a stranger could reduce prejudice toward transgender people and increase support for nondiscrimination laws.” It’s conversation that involves what Thich Nhat Hanh calls ‘deep listening,’ the kind of listening that can help relieve the suffering of another person. Through all this festering hatred and deep division our country is in danger becoming irrevocably torn apart. We have tools, let’s use them and make this nation less brutal, less fearful, and a great country at last.
“May those whose hell it is to hate and hurt be turned into lovers bringing flowers.”
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Bob Dylan, at the historic 1963 March on Washington, is introduced by the late Ozzie Davis.