Yesterday, I lost my temper with an elderly lady. This woman walked with a limp and appeared to have trouble breathing. In the middle of a Dallas park, on a warm and sunny morning, I screamed at a complete stranger over the age of 80."What am I becoming?" I asked myself as I walked home afterward, staring at the ground.
Several hours prior to that unsettling outburst, I woke up determined to get some exercise. Thoughts from last weekend swirled through my mind; I couldn't figure out how to wrap my head around the horrific Neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville. More importantly, I didn't know what I could do to make any difference. I don't have a law degree or a position of power. I'm not currently involved in activist or social justice groups.
I do consider myself a fairly decent writer...yet I couldn’t rely on that skill yesterday morning. See, in the wake of perhaps the most alarming display of hatred among those belonging to my own generation, I had no words. Typically articulate, I found myself unable to express my disgust for the extremists I could've gone to high school or college with.The same questions replayed in my mind: how does this kind of hatred still exist today, has the past taught us nothing about equality/respect for others, who showed these people how to hate minorities so deeply and so violently?
I was appalled, and also heartbroken, that members of my own race felt threatened because their skin color no longer provided them with a guaranteed seat of power, the way it had in past centuries.So I decided to jog away my wordless anger. The goal was to lose myself in the sunny Texas outdoors and somehow, hopefully, find some kind of peace. Even just for a moment or two.
En route to the Katy Trail, I passed a tree-lined park which contains a statue of a man riding a horse. A small crowd had gathered in front of the monument.Curiosity got the best of me, luring me toward the crowd. As I got closer, I realized this statue which I'd passed dozens of times was actually a tribute to Robert E. Lee.
The monument shows General Lee riding a horse beside an unnamed soldier. Below, a plaque explains that this soldier represents the valiant Confederate youth who fought in America's Civil War.I read this plaque for the first time yesterday. Immediately, I discovered that the monument was constructed in the 1930s...more than half a century after the Confederacy had lost to the Union, thereby abolishing slavery and redirecting America's path.
The date of the statue seemed to prove that its donors cherished--and reminisced over--an earlier time.
Furthermore, as I inspected the statue closely, I concluded that Robert E. Lee was posed in the most heroic stance possible. Not only was this man the focal point of the park, he was depicted proudly leading another soldier. His cape even fluttered behind him, giving him the appearance of a divinely-ordained being.
The message was unmistakable: this statue was more than a portrayal of an historic event. It was a way to glorify a man leading the South’s quest to preserve slavery. It was, and is, a public tribute to one the ugliest moments in our nation’s past.
Swallowing, I backed away from the statue. I tried to view this scenario objectively, instead of filtering it through my (admittedly) liberal lens.
It didn’t seem like a partisan issue, though. I just couldn't understand how someone could possibly justify this Confederate symbol without acknowledging everything it represented.My conclusion was that there is simply no way a person could support this clear abomination unless, 1) he/she denied historical facts or 2) he/she secretly appreciated the statue’s message, and agreed with the inequality it praised.
I moved toward the side of the monument, where a frail old woman stood, explaining to the growing crowd that Robert E. Lee hadn't owned slaves (which is historically inaccurate). She went on to claim that he served as not only a hero, but also a dedicated educator.Suddenly, after days of quiet contemplation, I found my voice. In the midst of one stranger's fictitious tirade, I remembered all the words I'd forgotten during my period of confusion and mourning.
And I used those words to verbally attack a human I considered, in that precise moment, my enemy.I condescendingly asked the lady what economic system Robert E. Lee's army was fighting to preserve, and what type of labor that economic system depended on. I jeered at her, demanding to know which side had won the Civil War. My tone of voice alternated between elitist and derisive.
"Which other war can you recall where the generals of the losing side have statues erected in their honor?" I taunted her. “Do you think there’s a reason we've chosen to put these specific men on display, even though technically they are treasonous criminals?”I told her there's a difference between rewriting history (as those in favor or removing Confederate landmarks are often accused of) and refusing to heap admiration onto historical figures touting oppression, racism, inequality, and ignorance. At one point, I think I compared Southern generals to Hitler. It all unfolded pretty quickly.
I proposed that if we'd like to pay tribute to the South's founding fathers, maybe we should replace this Robert E. Lee statue with a statue of a slave, bound in chains.Except I didn't exactly say any of these things.
Instead, I shouted them, channeling the same terrifying anger I had seen in footage of the alt-right this weekend. My face was red, my fists clenched. I spoke to this woman as though she were sub-human. Maybe I even believed that, in the moment.
I had become no better than my opponent. In an instant, I embodied the same hatred of those I sought to prove wrong.
The lady immediately spewed venom at me. She wrote me off as a left-wing extremist, a self-obsessed liberal on some phony crusade. She screamed that I was wallowing in ignorance and needed to brush up on my history. Without hesitation, she looked me in the eye and asserted that my narrow-mindedness is the reason this country is on a downward spiral.
At that point, I walked away, realizing the fury behind my outburst had allowed a stranger to label me. My raw aggression had given her justification and resolve.
Hatred breeds more hatred. This isn’t a new concept, but it became especially clear to me when I found myself drowning in animosity...and unleashing that rage on a total stranger.
I'd approached a somewhat rational discussion with the intent to viciously decimate my enemy. In doing so, I had embraced the belief system I sought to dissemble.Yesterday, my desire for widespread acceptance morphed into antipathy toward those condoning inequality. Basically, I "combated" blind rage with even more blind, unfiltered, elitist rage.
I have no idea how to open bigots' eyes to the fact that stereotypes and oppression are inherently wrong. But what I do know is that hatred hinders progress and education. Hatred is the root of narcissism, not the precursor to justice. I can't defend equality and the intrinsic value of human life by devaluing the human lives on the other side of the spectrum.
There has to be a way to shun prejudice and violence without resorting to its proponents' proudest tactics. There has to be a better way.
Michelle Obama famously stated, "When they go low, we go high."
We have reached a critical moment in history. White supremacy (which has felt somewhat distant in my lifetime) has resurfaced. It's reared its ugly head, and seems to be gaining momentum. This insidious movement has been met with, at best, tepid disagreement from the president of the U.S.Those of us in favor of freedom and equality can let hatred dictate our actions...or we can go higher, as Michelle Obama advised. It’s possible to oppose a belief system while remaining rational and collected. We can fight racism, genocide and oppression without using the same tactics as its most outspoken leaders.
Neo-Nazis are a new wave of American-bred terrorism. The rage I expressed toward anything/everything they represent was my own coping mechanism for the fear they invoked within me. I can’t let that fear (or the anger it spawns) control my actions. Instead, I need to follow the sage advice of our former First Lady, and rise above that which I view as reprehensible.Yesterday I went low, which was a mistake.
They have already gone very, very low...and now, while vehemently opposing those hate-fueled beliefs and actions, it is our turn to go high.