What is it that causes otherwise kind and gentle people to become villainous beings? What is it drives people to compromise their moral code, to distort their constitution? It’s uncertainty. Fear is the thing that breaks us.
Fear “is a unique political force. Its ebbs and flows through American political history have pulled on elections, reordering and destabilizing the electoral landscape” (Molly Ball). But why is it so effective at doing this? I believe that one of the primary reasons has to do with scale and desperation.
If we or our loved ones were faced with an immediate threat, the natural inclination of self-defense might mean we would do things that we normally wouldn’t do – like physically hurt or kill someone else. However, if we knew for certain that the danger would subside or pass us by, we’d probably be willing to wait things out. Whether it is a fight, investing in stocks, or politics, the scale of our vision will ultimately influence how we view the risks and what kind of action we’re willing to take.
Recently, every Republican Senator (with the exception of Mitt Romney) voted to convict the President during the impeachment trial. Most wouldn’t even vote to admit evidence or hear witnesses, even though they would normally do so in any other circumstance, for fear of retribution from President Trump. That’s short-scale thinking and desperation. For decades, it was the progressive left that were the most ardent defenders of Freedom of Speech, including that for a neo-Nazi group. Yet today, more liberals than ever believe in curbing the First Amendment, for fear of disagreeable speech. That turnaround is also due to short term fears that justify breaking a moral code.
It takes courage to think about the bigger picture, to realize that “the moral arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice.” To remain steadfast in our own values even if the other guy cheats because only a just process can ensure a just result.
If you don’t believe in mudslinging, then don’t do it. If you believe that every life deserves dignity and respect, then offer compassion to everyone, including your mortal enemies. Especially your enemies. If you despise dictators, then don’t be one – justice isn’t achieved through autocracies (not by you nor those you’re fighting against). And if you want to hold others accountable by speaking truth to power, begin by being willing to do that for yourself. This is one of the reasons why I believe it is important to engage with others that we disagree with (yes, including white supremacists).
Remember, justice is a process not a result. It’s a journey, not a destination. The doing of it (compassion, truth, equity) is more important than the outcome – because the doing of it is the only guarantee that we’ll have it at all. Don’t let fear obscure that vision and convince you to take shortcuts or to compromise on your values. That moral arc is a long one. Stay with it.