Within the past few weeks, a woman I know was having her car serviced at a local dealership.
As she was walking through a line of vehicles to pick up her own, she happened to walk behind a large pickup truck and noticed the bumper sticker advocating one of the presumptive party nominees for President. Involuntarily, she grimaced, as it happened not to be her candidate.
Unnoticed by her, the man who owned the vehicle was standing beside it, and when he spied the look on her face, he stepped around the back of the truck, thrust his fist within a few inches of her face and, as we say in the vernacular, flipped her a bird. The gesture was angry, even aggressive, and she staggered backwards before scurrying away. The entire event happened in silent pantomime, both parties assuming they knew what the other was thinking—and perhaps they did.
To me, this brief lantern slide glimpse into our public discourse is not about which candidate’s name was on the bumper sticker or whether facial expressions are protected by the First Amendment. It’s not about gender differences or geographical stereotypes.
This event is about the anger and even the hatred that has seeped like a blood-borne infection into our public discourse. Candidates, along with their partisans, spend more time talking about their opponent’s flaws than their own strengths and appeal directly to one another’s basest instincts. We are no longer about the free exchange of ideas but rather the sarcastic exchange of insults—name calling that invokes the worst of our individual and collective emotions.
Exactly 150 years ago this summer, our nation was striving to overcome the ravages of a civil conflict that burst into outright war between what was loosely termed the “North and the South.”
The Civil War was horribly uncivil; it killed over 620,000 men, and wrecked entire sections of the country.
I recently published a novel set in Western North Carolina, the same locale as the bumper sticker/obscene gesture skirmish. The research for this book, titled That Bright Land, led me deep into the psychology of anger and the pathology of hatred. Because the novel itself is set in the summer of 1866, a year after the formal end to hostilities, it ultimately concerns itself with healing—the sort of personal, familial, and communal healing that I think we are badly in need of today—150 years later.
We have forgotten that some of the most determined fighters in that great bloodletting very quickly turned that same determination into peace making. In his second inaugural, Abraham Lincoln famously called on us as citizens “to bind up the nation's wounds… and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves.” Robert E. Lee orchestrated the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia while carefully instructing his own officers and men to go home and wage peace. Even so controversial a figure as Nathan Bedford Forrest was adamant that his soldiers return home and pour their energies into successful civilian life.
In other words, we should be as passionate in healing and community building as we sometimes are in anger and name calling. For we forget that anarchy lurks not far behind the shouted slur and the obscene gesture. And we forget Jefferson’s plea (in his own inaugural address) that we “restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things.”
In That Bright Land, I explore how one wounded veteran returns to his birthplace to help end the violence that still wracks an isolated mountain community a year after Appomattox.
That former soldier and spy, Jacob Ballard, suffers from what was then known as the “soldier’s heart” (the acronym PTSD wouldn’t be invented for 100 years). He battles his own internal demons as he tries to find and nurture healing in himself and those around him.
Although our circumstances 150 years later are not so dramatic, we should heed the lessons of our own past—when we were ripped to shreds by racial, cultural, and geographical conflict. Let us now spend more time listening than shouting, more time smiling than gesturing, more time exchanging thoughts than flinging insults.
Let us learn to seek our common ground, which often is and should be the high ground.
For history teaches us that we have within us the ability to wound if not destroy ourselves. Civil hatreds can lead to civil war.