The problem with a great many political, social, and cultural revolutions is basic: Convincing people to reject the status quo requires the condemnation and dehumanization of those who currently hold the power. After all, why should you risk your daily existence (however miserable you feel it to be) for that which is unknown unless you believe your current leaders are truly horrible human beings who must be driven out by any means necessary?
Hence, successful revolutions inevitably demand hatred that justifies deadly violence. The bullet, the noose, and the guillotine become the tools of choice because impassioned defenses of brutal words and actions become the norm. This is true whether one is looking at revolutions fomented by the left or the right (political descriptors that themselves date back to the French Revolution), and those who counsel moderation are quickly overrun by the mob howling for the blood of their oppressors.
The storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6th, 2021 should serve as a cautionary tale for us all—but I fear that it will not.
Hatreds seem too often the norm in America today, which should worry us far more than it seems to at the present time. Because hate allows you to dismiss both the basic humanity and ideas of those with whom you disagree, violence becomes an inevitable outcome. Unfortunately, before the fists and bullets start to fly, the insults will lay the necessary groundwork by destroying and dividing us with the vilest possible characterizations of those whom we are told to hate.
It sometimes seems amazing that so many well-informed people are brimming with hate, but perhaps this is not that surprising. Hatred is, after all, a learned behavior that springs from fear, distrust, and misunderstandings that are twisted into excuses to defile a fellow human—and it closes minds while simultaneously hardening hearts. One can be well-informed (and even well-educated) yet still be victimized by those who teach that hatred is an appropriate or desirable response to the injustices of our nation and world.
Sadly, it too often seems that those who should know better are leading the parade when it comes to showering those who think differently with invective. Whether this is because they are blinkered by their own ideological biases or a fear being cast aside by their followers if they are not sufficiently inflammatory, the outcome is the same: the continuing normalization of hatreds by leaders who should be showing far more restraint in modeling both language and behavior.
Some of our clear dissatisfaction with those who presume to lead our nation through either their political offices or their social influence is due to the content of their ideas; however, much of our frustration—perhaps disgust is a better description—is due to their speech and conduct. We naturally expect our leaders to be exemplars of the types of behaviors we admire, so flinging mud at your opponents might be effective at garnering attention in the short term, but this course of action will eventually erode your credibility. We hope for more elevated discourse and behavior so that we can both bask in its reflected glory and reassure ourselves that a leader is deserving of our trust.
Although whipping up partisan passions is a necessary adjunct of the job, politicians must always remember that exciting a mob is not the same as leading a nation. In fact, to empower a mob mentality is the surest path to political destruction because it results in overreaching and overreacting that eventually destroys those whom it claims to protect. Extremism is entertainingly loud, which enables it to draw an audience, but it is ultimately devoid of meaning—and doomed to failure.
The core issue we face after the sad events of January 6th, 2021 in Washington, DC is that those on both sides of the political divide—who should now be working assiduously to reduce tensions—are instead now rushing to the ramparts to declare their opponents the epitome of evil while encouraging their followers to treat differing ideas and opinions with dripping derision and contempt.
Therefore, we now have Democrats exhorting their followers to employ the brute force of social media to extra-legally identify, shame, and punish those who traveled to Washington because they believe fraud resulted the election of Joe Biden (an opinion apparently shared by roughly 40% of Americans) while pressing for new and expansive censorship of ideas and individuals they deem deplorable. Meanwhile, Republicans are infuriated that their legitimate concerns about the conduct of the 2020 election—and the efficacy of many Democratic policies they believe catastrophically damaging to the economy, public safety, and families—are now routinely dismissed as the rantings of monsters who want to destroy America and Americans, despite the plain fact that many are decorated military veterans who were willing to put their lives on the line to defend the nation they love. Right out in front we now find elected officials and influencers on both sides who are encouraging division, dehumanizing those whom they deem “enemies” rather than fellow Americans, and fast creating the conditions that will likely lead to more violence.
This isn’t going to end well if we continue along this path, one where we are prodded along by leaders who see political and career benefits in demonizing those with other ideas, judgments, and values.
Nations thrive only when there is a sense of shared sacrifice and purpose; we are now on the brink of what looks almost like a religious war, each side armed with both their implacable faith in their own righteousness and an unshakable belief in the clear evil of their opponents. Given that conversations with the unconverted are impossible when engaged in an apocalyptic battle of good versus evil, we are now staring into a grim abyss of mutual incomprehension and distrust that will encourage the worst impulses of many.
The incoming Biden administration may be able to buy some temporary peace by passing out the pork and doling out the dollars, which will win the favor of the fortunate insiders who will sing the praises of his policies. However, this fatally myopic vision of governing as merely a process of purchasing loyalty with government money will fail because borrowing and spending is a short-term solution that does not address longer term questions about the shape and direction of our nation—and loyalties that are bought will evaporate as soon as the cash runs out.
Perhaps sooner than we might imagine the localized civil unrest we saw on January 6th could become a daily occurrence throughout our nation. Once the norms of peaceful opposition are discarded because one side or the other feels empowered by the “obvious” inhumanity of their opponents, almost any action seems both plausible and justified. It is well worth remembering that revolt always encourages extremist ideas because these seem to offer solutions to problems that seem otherwise insurmountable. Therefore, we should all stop and think before we rush to follow the demagogues who are sure to step forward in the difficult days ahead.
The author George Eliot wrote in the novel Adam Bede that “What destroys us most effectively is not a malign fate but our own capacity for self-deception and for degrading our own best self.” It would be well for all of us to carefully consider both these words and their implications for our nation at this time. Rather than reacting with reflexive fury and a frightening desire to punish and degrade, we should be contemplating how best to meet the challenges facing all of us with grace, humility, and understanding—if only because the alternative is far too terrible to contemplate.