Good, Nice, and Kind
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address
It’s like one of those games they used to play on Sesame Street. You know, the one where they show you two red things and one blue thing, and ask, which of these things is not like the others? Except sometimes they’d screw up, and show a red triangle, a blue triangle, and a red square. And when six-year-old me goes “The square,” Grover (who they had running things before that punk Elmo took over) would say “The Red Triangle, very good!” And I’d get upset, start shouting at the TV, because it was OBVIOUS that those were two triangles. I mean, duh. I’m not saying this to indicate that at such a young age I was already ignoring color over substance, but to point out that even the best of intentions can be misread.
I like words. I hold the English language and its use in almost totemic awe, and I believe with Mark Twain that the difference between the right word and almost the right word is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning. And yesterday, I tried to use the right words.
I don’t like directly addressing the comments. It is too easy for otherwise good blogs to become echo chambers for arguments between the commentator and the metacommentators. Slacktivist, who is very much my blogging idol, doesn’t often do this, and I don’t want to do it that much either. But in this case, I think its appropriate.
A lot of the comments (even from those who otherwise agree with me) seem to think that I am calling for us to be the nice guys. That I am issuing a call for civility and calm public discourse. This is profoundly not the case. And the confusion, I think, comes from my use of these two words, good and kind. And from the perception of those two words together to mean nice.
Hitler, by all accounts, was a pretty nice guy. He was friendly, warm, seems to have been interested in the doings and lives of his underlings. He was very polite, and loved kissing babies. He was a nice guy. He was also so profoundly evil that he has become a metaevil-a gold standard for measuring the evil of lesser madmen.
And in contrast, I’d like to turn your attention to two items. Lincoln’s Second Inaugural and the “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” You’ve seen them before, seen them analyzed, but look at them again. Lincoln calls for “malice towards none, charity for all,” without for a moment backing down on the fundamental rightness of his actions. In the same speech in which he calls for mercy to those had perpetuated a war for the continuation of slavery, he says: “To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it.” That is not a nice thing to say. That is not a conciliatory, compromising, “Oh, lets all just get along” thing to say. That is the hard truth. But at the same time, then man of all men who could have called for his enemies to be driven before him, and done it to thunderous applause, chooses to ask for, “Malice towards none, and charity towards all.” This is a man being good. Being very, very good, as it so happens. And he is being kind.
Or let us turn our attention to the “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” To those who would ask him to sit down and shut up for the sake of peace and quiet, he writes “But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.” That is being kind. Even generous.
But King is not being nice. King is calling for a transformation, a complete overthrow of the current system. King is saying that he will continue to cause a goddamned ruckus, and he won’t feel bad about it. King is saying to those clergymen “You are wrong. You are fundamentally and damagingly wrong.” Or look at this line: “You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations.”
Where I come from, that’s called calling someone out. It is not, by people who are focused on “nice,” considered a very nice thing to do. But it is a good thing to do, and in this case, it is done kindly. Because I think that being good and being kind walk hand in hand. Being kind does not mean never shouting. As King so neatly demonstrates, it does not mean never saying that the other person is horribly, terribly, and destructively wrong. It does not mean being mild mannered and gentle. King never was. King could let go with a blast of words that shook the foundations of the world. But he was always kind.
What it does mean is that you don’t judge them as people. What it does mean is that you don’t call them evil. You may call their actions and their beliefs evil, you may call the effects of those actions evil. (as I did. Multiple times.) But you do not call them, the person, evil. Because good men and women do not stand in judgment of others, save for transgressions so severe that the evil in their souls becomes apparent to all. When the charge of evil becomes not a judgment call, but an observation. And good people, the really good people, they know that there is a fundamental core of goodness in the human heart. They know that not as you know that 2 + 2=4, but the way you know the really important things, the way that you know your mother loves you. They know this because to not know this, to believe instead that people, even some people, are fundamentally bad, that they have crossed the line from good into evil not just in some of their actions but in their souls, is to admit that they have become monsters. And monsters cannot be argued with. Monsters must be fought, tooth and nail, lest they destroy us all.
So what I’m calling for isn’t for you to roll over and go, “Oh, ok Glenn Beck, you just go bebopping along your merry way.” I’m not calling for you to engage in some sort of extreme hippy-dippy bullshit, where everyone is right and no one is wrong. I’m telling you to get out there and fight. I’m telling you to go out there and lay some mushroom clouds like Martin did, and like Mandela did, and like all the other big guns did. And I’m telling you that you should do it the way they did. Be good to those you fight. Be kind to those you fight. Fight. But fight with malice towards none, with charity for all. Because we do not wrestle with malign powers and principalities, but with otherwise good people who are, I know, not willfully and truly evil, but horribly, and painfully mistaken.
And I think sometimes, that we do the same thing Glenn Beck does, and we do it with the same reason. Presuming for a moment, that Glenn Beck does not actually believe what he says. Why then would he say it? Why call Obama a Nazi and a communist? Because otherwise Glenn Beck would look like a complete tool. To you and I, who know full well that Obama is nothing of the sort, he sounds like a total tool. But to those who have been deluded, and lied to, he sounds like a hero. If you believed Obama was a Nazi, Glenn Beck would not be a pompous asshole. He’d be goddamned Winston Churchill.
And let us look to our own backyards. I have heard many, many people comparing the Tea Party to the Nazis. To fascists. To the KKK, to the Nuremburg Rallies, to every sort of hyperbolic evil we can think of.
And yet, there have been no lynchings, no killings. Simply more and more stupid and hyperbolic speech on both sides. And I think we are doing this for the same reason that Glenn Beck does. Because if we were to admit to ourselves that these people are not evil Nazi fascists who want to stick us in concentration camps, but simply a large block of people who, by shouting in an echo chamber, have come to some pretty weird ideas, we’d look a bit hyperbolic ourselves. We are using the same language, the same tactics, the same ideological warfare that Glenn Beck uses. And against who? Against one half the Republican party, a group that seems to be causing little more than a tempest in a teapot, if you’ll pardon the pun.
They are not stupid and evil. They are not evil fascists. They are not filled with hate and rage and murder.
They. Are. People. People with some goddamned weird ideas, sure. But people. Not evil people, not saints. People. People who are doing bad things not because they’re cackling maniacs but because they’re scared, or they’re confused, or they’ve been listening to their own echos until it sounds like reason, or some combination thereof. But they are not evil. They are doing evil things, and that is wrong, but THEY. ARE. NOT. EVIL. And its not just me saying this. It’s Martin and Lincoln and Gandhi and everyone else you’ve ever admired. This is what the good guys had to say about their enemies, enemies whose malice was far beyond a Glenn Beck. So we can continue to shout and rage, and get the cheap adrenal rush of screaming and shouting. Or we can be the good guys. Not the nice guys, but the good guys. We can be kind, and good, and extend that open hand without backing down an inch from the rightness of our cause. Without easing up a hair on the firmness of our rhetoric. Without rolling over and giving up. Without giving in to the temptation to become the monsters that we fight. We can do it, because they did it. And because they won. It took time, it took effort, it even took blood, but they won. All of them. And we will to.