The Sun and The Wind …and Ideological Conflict

The events in Charlottesville, VA, over the weekend beginning August 11th, which included the death of one woman and the injury of dozens of others were tragic. My heart goes out to the family, the friends, and the community to which the slain woman, Heather Heyer, belonged, and to all those injured when a homicidal white supremacist drove his car into a crowd.

My hope is that James Fields, allegedly the man behind the wheel, will be found guilty and sentenced to death — a sentence that gets carried out in Virginia faster than any other state.

I no longer live in Charlottesville, though I did once. As a result, I’ve a great many contributors to my social news feeds from that wonderful city. All are saddened; most are broadcasting anger.

As a beginning Stoic, I ask: What do we want to accomplish? How best will we get there?

Many of those affected by that weekend’s events are clamoring for censure, some for the removal of freedoms that underlie our society. As an American, I understand their hurt, their rage, but believe that it’s not just the wrong answer, but a counter-productive one. It won’t solve the problem, it would exacerbate it and cause greater ones. (Full disclosure, I believe that to be true for most “solutions” that seek to apply the power of The State to force constraint, control, or the limit of freedoms, upon The People.)

Ramez Naam, a born Egyptian who rose to prominence in the US as a Partner and Director of Program Management at Microsoft, an award-winning author, a patent-holding entrepreneur, futurist, and technologist, posted this on his blog today:

Don’t let the terrorists win.

We said that a lot after 9/11, and have for the last 16 years. As air travel became absurdly cumbersome, as civil liberties were eroded, as people were arbitrarily blacklisted or detained without room for appeal – we said the terrorists were winning, causing us to undermine the underpinnings of our own society, to crack down on the freedoms that are central to the principles of the United States.

Now, I see friends calling for cracking down on freedom of speech, for restricting the First Amendment, taking away its protections from speech they (and I) consider loathsome. I even see friends advocating for physical violence against people because of their speech.

That, my friends, is letting the terrorists win.

I loathe the ideology of white supremacy. But to let fear or anger at it undermine our notions of civil liberties or civil society… that would be letting the terrorists win.

We’re bigger than that. We’re stronger than that. Don’t let the terrorists win.

In all the footage I’ve seen of those rally’s, without exception, “counter-protesters” are broadcasting hate, vitriol, and disgust at assemblies of white supremacists and neo-nazi’s, who are themselves there to trumpet their irrational hatreds and disgust toward anything “other.”

It’s an emotional, understandable reaction for even rational, tolerant humans, as deeply wired into us as our core values. Emotional responses often come from deeper places, stemming from shared heritage, cultural identity, or our own experiences with justice or lack thereof.

But nowhere among the thinking, the tolerant, does there seem to have been consideration of the question: What do we want to accomplish?

Because, sure as shit, answering hatred with hatred has never worked worth a damn. We know that! In fact, we as a civilization know pretty fucking well at this point that anger, loathing, denials — even the threat of (or actual!) violence — has never done a damn thing to knock a fundamentalist movement from its ideological perch.

When you apply force that will not be sufficient to break a belief, you only strengthen it. Knowing that, why would we choose to strengthen the voices of racists for them? You don’t kill ideologies by denouncing them any more than you do by making martyrs.

Denunciation didn’t work against the original Nazi’s. It doesn’t work with Islamic fundamentalists like Isis. And it won’t work with any other form of dogmatic, institutionalized, hatred like that paraded by supremacists. The most it can do is drive such movements underground where they fester like a cancer until achieving metastasis. Then there’s really hell to pay.

Answering hatred and intolerance with hatred and intolerance is like deciding it’s smart to put out a fire with gasoline. When you see someone doing that, you have to ask, “What exactly are you expecting to accomplish?”

Martin Luther King knew that. He knew that “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Mahatma Gandhi knew that. He knew “You must be the change you wish to see in the world. The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” Most importantly, he knew that “Anger is the enemy of non-violence and pride is a monster that swallows it up.”

Hell, even Aesop, the storyteller and slave in ancient Greece back around 600 BCE taught that lesson in his fable, “The Wind and the Sun.”

The Wind and the Sun were disputing which was the stronger. Suddenly they saw a traveller coming down the road, and the Sun said: “I see a way to decide our dispute. Whichever of us can cause that traveller to take off his cloak shall be regarded as the stronger. You begin.” So the Sun retired behind a cloud, and the Wind began to blow as hard as it could upon the traveller. But the harder he blew the more closely did the traveller wrap his cloak round him, till at last the Wind had to give up in despair. Then the Sun came out and shone in all his glory upon the traveller, who soon found it too hot to walk with his cloak on and took it off.”

The moral, of course, is: “KINDNESS EFFECTS MORE THAN SEVERITY.

These great men knew that meeting hatred with hatred was counter-productive. And in that knowing, they accomplished the seeming impossible. Why have we forgotten that?

As citizens in a complex society, filled with partial information and misinformation, we should know that often the intuitive, emotional response is the wrong one, the least productive one. And the more complex or deep-rooted the problem, the more counter-intuitive the solution will often be.

It’s one of the reasons why societies ruled by demagogues or tyrants inevitably collapse.

What do we want to accomplish? How best will we get there?

Well, we know for damn sure that you cannot bully people away from an ideology. You cannot soften a mob’s will by flipping it the bird, shouting epithets, or throwing stones. So if you’re not willing to employ lethal force to “change” someone’s mind, the only rational response is to embrace an approach that will work over time. Be cool. Be measured. Be smart. Because peoples’ minds change slowly, when they change at all.

When a little kid throws a tantrum, the fastest way to suck the energy out of it is to deprive it of an audience. That’s why timeout is so effective.

At the same time, when you want to kill a fire, you don’t spray water at it’s top. You take away its source of fuel. You wet what hasn’t yet burned.

When your war is one of ideology, the only way to win is over time.

  1. You undermine its recruitment. You make the beliefs so ridiculous that the cult’s target recruited demographic does not want to be associated with it. In short, you starve the movement of fuel.
  2. You educate whom you can. You remain human, and caring. You contribute to the society you believe in. You stop fanning emotional fires by attempting to put them out with facts — they don’t work. You look through those trumpeting irrationality and vitriol. You give no voice to those who would tyrannize or terrorize others. And you bide while waiting for intolerance to die. In the meantime, give racism, hatred, NO audience. Zero. Zilch. Nada.

Because mobs and fundamentalists are like two-year-olds. And you don’t raise a two-year-old into an adult by mirroring their own tactics back at them. That’s no more likely to accomplish anything meaningful than, well, showing up at a bigots’ rally about hatred with a bucketload of your own.

Much more effective, especially against adults, are leadership by example; gentle, consistent, persuasion; and pity. King knew it; Gandhi knew it; Marcus Aurelius knew it; and even the lowly Aesop knew it, more than 2500 years ago.

What would happen, I wonder, if counter-culture rallies proclaiming the embrace of ignorance, the spreading of barbarism or self-serving revisionism, went completely ignored? If nobody showed up? If nobody gave a damn that a bunch of crackpots chose to demonstrate their conviction that the world was flat, or (as in this current case) that others should be blamed for ones’ problems simply due to the color of their skin; their willingness to work smart or hard; or for their choice of beliefs?

What would happen if such rallies were completely ignored or, better, that those who witnessed such displays in passing, going about their peaceful, productive day, simply shook their heads, half-smiled with visible, sad pity, then went about their business?

What if no news broadcasters showed up to amplify delusional voices? Because people declaring sad, ludicrous beliefs are NOT NEWS?

If you cannot, will not, or should not, use force — especially deadly force — to change minds, you must use persuasion. You must find and use the leverages that are inherent in our being a social species to shape amoral or aberrant behaviors over time. You find the vulnerabilities, then apply pressure when and where it will be productive.

Many people like to embrace anger as their first response. It’s as natural as flight-or-fight in response to a perceived threat. But no one rational, no one who’s educated, no one who’s studied history’s errors and would avoid repeating them, jumps to anger as an answer when the questions they should be asking aren’t how do I feel right now, but:
What do we want to accomplish? And,
How best will we get there?

Obstacles are opportunities.

What happened in Charlottesville was tragic. And this is going to happen again, and again, there and elsewhere, if we as a society continue to take our responses from ideologues that are like carpenters whose only hammer is anger.

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