Politics · Racism

Stop the Hate? Responding to Charlottesville

The verdict is in: Americans won’t tolerate hate. This slogan, or some version of it, is all over social media as individuals and organizations respond publicly to this past weekend’s tragedy in Charlottesville, VA. Like the overwhelming majority of Americans, I was sickened by the cruel attack on pedestrians that resulted in an unnecessary and senseless death. To turn a vehicle into a weapon is a crime, and the Justice Dept has every right to pursue terrorism charges. But are we really so devoid of a moral vocabulary that the only way to unify ourselves as Americans is to “stand up to hate”?

Hating hate is hateful, isn’t it? Refusing to tolerate racists undermines the tolerance that so many Americans claim to embrace. The “love trumps hate” mantra is an excellent one, but holding up a sign is not an act of love; neither is showing up to a protest looking for a fight. The footage of the white nationalist protest on Saturday showed no one behaving in a morally upright manner. It was obvious that the people there as protesters and counter-protesters hated one another and wanted to physically harm each other. Violence in the name of love is not love, and violent protest loses the moral high ground every time.

Like it or not, racists have First Amendment protections (the ACLU has even defended racist organizations in court on First Amendment grounds). Unless I’m mistaken, they had permits for the Friday night and Saturday afternoon events that received so much media attention. Counter-protesters reacted in a predictable manner by deciding to march against the racist rally. Depending on your perspective, they either held their own by responding to a challenge, or they fell into a trap set by the organizers of the initial protest. I am inclined to think the latter—one thing I learned the hard way from my dad, a man who loves to get a rise out of people, is that you should never give your enemy the satisfaction of taking the bait.

Imagine a world where mainstream Americans treated racists and neo-Nazis as the pathetic fringe that they are. Imagine that their rallies received no coverage in the media and were met locally with pity rather than protest. The several hundred protesters in Charlottesville would have stood alone in a deserted park, in the summer’s afternoon heat chanting to no one but themselves. How powerful would it have been for a racially diverse group of people to give them cold water and ice cream? There is a truism about arguing with an idiot—when you do that, no one can tell one from the other. But a single act of love bestowed upon the undeserving is always understood, always powerful, and always stirs hearts.

The truth is that pretty much all Americans dislike, detest, or otherwise disagree with white supremacists, racists, neo-Nazis, and their ilk. I’m white and I dislike them. I would even go so far as to say that I hate everything they stand for. Does that make me a hater, no better than them? Of course not! They hate people for superficial reasons, and hating people is wrong. The Christian faith requires us to love other people, even our enemies. According to Oxford, hate is “a feeling of intense dislike or aversion,” so we should hate things like injustice and evil. If some things deserve our hatred, then perhaps a reevaluation of terminology is in order.

Healing our national divisions will not come about by tweeting and posting about “standing up to hate.” In fact, it demonstrates a disturbing linguistic poverty that we are incapable of articulating a moral thought other than our opposition to some nebulous “hate.” If we are going to stand up for something, let’s stand up for treating all people with dignity and kindness. Let’s stand up to the injustice of allowing a fringe minority to dominate our national discourse and further divide our already embattled families and communities. Let’s stand up against the idea that vengeance is morally acceptable and worth celebrating.

The best way to carry out these lofty goals is in our own daily actions, not on our social media accounts. Go ahead, post all day about standing up to hate—but only if you are pledging to respond to your political foe with courtesy, empathy, and humility next time he/she makes you angry. Go ahead, get a lump in your throat as you scroll through all the messages of love on your feed—but only if you resolve to translate feelings of love into loving actions toward others, including your enemies. Go ahead, follow on social media a group that organizes rallies or counter-protests against racism—but only if you plan to practice the love you preach.