These are hard times; they are angry times. Different groups feel done to, neglected and under fire from other groups. Our leaders are boastful, indifferent to truth. The terrain of politics has become a vast battlefield where everyone wants to win without caring much about how they win.
At this moment, a story of people acting as human beings rather than like robots in a shooter video-game comes to us as a reminder of our better selves.
In a quiet, middle-class and practically all white town, west of Boston, between Interstate 495 and 128, a neighborhood was disturbed when one of the houses began to fly a Confederate flag. That flag has become a symbol of white racism, representing the values of the antebellum South. The neighbors were appalled.
When they first started noticing the flag, they began talking to each other. They finally decided to write a letter to the home owner, explaining to him what the Confederate flag meant to them and wondering whether they could sit down and talk.
They received no reply. A few weeks after sending the letter, on a Sunday afternoon, a local minister and a neighbor, who was a native of the South, knocked on the door of the house with the flag. They expected to be yelled at, to be insulted and perhaps threatened with violence. The person who opened the door spoke quietly and said he did not want to talk about the flag.
One of the visitors saw a Red Sox flag and, being herself an ardent Red Sox fan, they started talking baseball. They talked some about the Confederate flag and also of all sorts of other things, that neighbors might talk about on a sunny Fall afternoon. He flew the flag, the man said, to honor his mother who was born down South and recently moved away to Florida. I suppose he missed her.
No agreement was reached and after a while the visitors left.
A few weeks later the flag disappeared and has not been flown again since last Fall.
The article in the Boston Globe that told this story also recounted similar events in a neighboring town where a calm, if not anxious, neighbor talked to a home owner flying a Confederate flag and in that house too the flag disappeared after a short interval.
The Confederate flag is a symbol of race hatred. It is often flown by persons animated by anger and sharp hostility. Protests against the flag are also often resentful. Before long everyone is shouting, insulting the other and threatening them with harm. Such confrontations are, obviously, useless if not worse. They further foreclose the possibility of calmly discussing disagreements in order to ascertain what the disagreement, in any given case, is and how serious it is. The difference becomes truly profound as soon as everybody starts shouting.
Stories like the two above are not unheard of. But they are sufficiently rare for us to notice them and to want to tell them to our friends.
These stories are also often thought to show that if only we could stop being angry at each other, and could talk to each other calmly and in the spirit of good neighbors, we could avoid most of the anger and shouting and resentment and name-calling and false accusations that masquerade as political discourse these days.
But that is unfortunately not true. The two neighbors who knocked on the door of the house with the Confederate flag, met a very quiet, very private man who did not particularly want to talk to them until the topic of baseball came up. These two brave neighbors were fortunate. They could've encountered a brutal, half drunk man who would have roundly abused them and threatened them with the police for standing on his front porch uninvited. Had that been their neighbor, their calm demeanor would only have inflamed his passion.
Being open-minded and open to good relations between neighbors is not always the best strategy for resolving political or other disagreements. Where one party is bitter and looking for someone to vent their anger on, the goodwill of the other party may not only be wasted but also inappropriate. Could Donald Trump, Steve Bannon or Secretary Sessions be induced to change their policies, or their behaviors by persons who spoke to them quietly and with good nature? Some people feel so embattled that only firm resistance can force them to alter their ways.
A neighbor who flies the Confederate flag knowing full well the pain it will cause among the surrounding homes and the families who live in them, should be spoken to calmly to see whether he is willing to hear his neighbors and to talk with them. But if he responds with anger and insult, with self-pity, imagining himself to be victimized by his "politically correct" neighbors, must we not state clearly that he is in the wrong and will not be tolerated?
Our stories of calm neighborliness, of giving neighbors who offend us the benefit of the doubt, end up confronting us with a difficult dilemma. When is it best to speak quietly, communicating a willingness to accept the others in spite of their behavior? When do we need to unambiguously identify behavior that is nothing but destructive and hateful and therefore unacceptable, and make clear that it will lead to exclusion from our society?
When will we signal our willingness to go to great lengths to keep the peace and when will we take the others’ behavior as a declaration of war which we are willing to join?
This dilemma will confront us again and again in the months and years to come. A great deal depends on us making the correct choice every time we face this conflict.