“Very Fine People on Both Sides” & “Some People did Something.” A Case Study in (Lack of) Charity
What Can Save Our Country
Obviously, America is massively divided.
I’m not prone to much fretting about the future of things on a large-scale, but the one thing that does routinely grind my stubborn optimism to a halt is when I consider the opposing trajectories of the Right and the Left in America.
We are well on our way to a society at war over two entirely different understandings of reality.
The Right have their bubbles. We on the Left have ours.
The Right have their facts and stats and insistence on what is real, and we’ve got ours.
Our country’s children are being raised with worldviews that their perspective, their news sources, their ideology is the “correct” one; whearas the other side are brainwashed, followers of fake-news, and willful ignorers of what is real.
So what (if anything) can save our country? I think our only hope lays in an oft-forgotten virtue: charity.
Charity might typically be reduced to “giving money to the poor,” or used in the context of organizations that do “charitable” work. But the Christian Church has long maintained that charity, as a virtue, is the ultimate form and expression of Love. It is how we practice showing love for God and love for neighbor.
Lack of Charity on the Right and Left
But this article would be super boring and not all that helpful if I was just like, “therefore, we should love each other! That’s how we’ll heal the nation!”
Instead, I want to specifically hone in on one way we can tangibly practice charity -- especially toward our “enemy,” aka, our political/idealogical other. And that is, choosing to read/hear/interpret their words in the most charitable way possible.
I think the Right/Left’s typical MO is the exact opposite: we read a tweet or listen to a news conference or see a friend post a comment on Facebook and instantly we interpret those words in the least charitable light. We immediately assign that person an idealogical label (you’re a snowflake liberal, or, an alt-right racist, etc) then proceed to convince ourselves that we know exactly what they are really saying.
Context be damned.
Past statements be damned.
Future clarifications be damned.
And our assumption of what we think they are really saying is almost always the least charitable way to take their words.
Let me give you two examples (not to compare, but for the sakes of showing how both sides have work to do).
“VERY FINE PEOPLE” -Trump
On August 15, 2017, President Trump held a press conference that ended up being solely about the violent protests in Charlottesville. This was where the infamous six-word snippet was dropped and then reproduced ad nauseam.
There were “Very fine people on both sides,” he said, suggesting a sort of moral equivalence between those on the Right (who were there to protest the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue), and those on the Left (who showed up to protest the protestors).
His remarks incensed most of us (on the Left, anyway). We insisted that his words suggested that white nationalists and neo-nazis were “very fine people.” And, since we all know that Trump is racist and xenophobic, these words simply showed his cards (again).
We called them a dogwhistle to those sympathetic with the cause of white supremacy.
“SOME PEOPLE DID SOMETHING” -Omar
My other example hit the news cycle again yesterday during a press conference for family members who lost loved ones on 9/11. A New Jersey man named Nicholas Haros Jr participated in a reading of victim’s names at Ground Zero, and did so while wearing a shirt that said “Some people did Something.”
These four words were pulled from a speech on March 23, 2019, by Rep Ilhan Omar (D-Minn) at a Council on American-Islam Relations (CAIR) banquet. Similar to Trump’s six-words above, this phrase got passed around the Twittersphere as evidence to confirm the Right’s picture of Omar as an anti-American who should “go back to where she came from."
The idea being that her casual word-choice of “some people” and “some thing” showed at best a disregard for the victims and their death at the hands of terrorists, and at worst a dogwhistle that perhaps Rep. Omar supports extreme acts of violence from radical Islamic groups.
Both of the above interpretations of Trump’s and Omar’s comments strike me as the least charitable interpretation of their remarks.
And that lack of charity, that insistence from both sides to read the other side’s words in the least charitable way, not only perpetuates the divide in our country, but it jumps like a 3 ton hippo on the handle of the jack that’s pushing us apart and makes the separation
A More Charitable Reading of Trump
Here’s what I mean when I say we should practice loving the Other through a more charitable interpretation of their words. First with Trump, then Rep. Omar.
It’s true, there are numerous examples of Trump’s racism and xenophobia. But the least helpful thing we can do (on the Left) is to force his diabolical views in to every single comment he makes, insisting that he’s saying something that he might not really be saying (in that instance). Such insistence is both dishonest and uncharitable.
Because in the case of “very fine people on both sides,” his direct meaning is pretty evident. If you’ve never read/watched the whole press conference (and maybe you should, as a tangible exercise to practice charity), then I want to point out two things.
First, in the context of the flow of his words, he was talking about the group of people who were there to protest the removal of the General Lee Statue. He made sure to point out that not everyone who was there were neo-nazis or white supremacists (I know, I know… I imagine you might disagree, and I respect that. But I choose to hold space for the possibility that there are people who don’t want statues removed AND who are also not neo-nazis or white supremacists, if for no other reason than because I know people just like that).
So his comment about “very fine people on both sides” was referring to the two sides of:
those who were there to protest, and
those who were there to protest the protest.
He was not referring to the two sides in terms of “neo-nazis/white-supremacists” on the one, and those on the left on the other.
Second, just moments after those six-words, he said, “And you had people -- and I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists -- because they should be condemned totally.”
Many of us on the Left — myself included — have been guilty of accusing Trump of not condemning such hate groups in that press conference. But he did, we have to acknowledge that (if we want to remain credible voices of sanity and truth-telling).
Do not mishear me! I’m not defending his remarks, nor am I suddenly a Trump apologist.
What I’m suggesting is that the least-charitable interpretation of his remarks dismisses what he actually said and insists he was supporting the “fine people" within the neo-nazis and the white supremacists.
A more charitable interpretation is that President Trump was attempting to name that, in conflicts like Charlottesville, there is a degree of blame on both sides, and there are good people on both sides.
Yes, we can totally debate how much blame which side deserves.
Yes, we can certainly get more granular about what it means to be “good people,” and who actually deserves that label (for the record, my opinion: I think everyone deserves at a fundamental level to be seen as and called “good.”)
But I don’t think it’s an accurate interpretation (let alone a charitable one) to insist that Trump was saying the neo-nazis and the white supremacists in Charlottesville were comprised of the same sorts of very fine people as those who were there to protest the protest.
A More Charitable Reading of Omar
Now, let’s do the same thing with Rep. Omar’s remarks.
Taken in their broader context, it’s absurd to suggest that she is anti-American or sympathizes in any way with radical Islamic terrorist groups or individuals.
(In fact, later in her speech she specifically called out muslim majority countries like Egypt and Saudi-Arabia for their abysmal human rights record, “It doesn’t matter if that country is being run by my father, my brother, my sister... I will still criticize that country because I know every country is capable of living up to its best.” And then reiterates her commitment as an American citizen and Congresswoman, “I know as an American, as an American member of Congress, I have to make sure I am living up to the ideals of fighting for liberty and justice.”)
The point of her speech at CAIR, as I understand it, was to empower American Muslims to fully take up their space in the world and not be ashamed to be who they are or to practice the religion they practice.
As a progressive Christian pastor who tells his church every week that they are a loved Child of God, and that such a truth should lead them to living bravely in the world, I resonate with Rep. Omar’s ideas 100%.
It breaks my heart that so many Muslim men and women feel like they have to contract, like they have to work extra hard to be nice or likable or agreeable, because they live in a country (ours) who cannot see past their skin color, past their wardrobe, or past their belief in Allah and Muhammad.
Here’s the fuller context of Omar’s remarks:
“For far too long we have lived with the discomfort of being a second-class citizen and, frankly, I’m tired of it, and every single Muslim in this country should be tired of it. CAIR was founded after 9/11 because they recognized that some people did something and that all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties.”
She is not wrong!
Some people DID do something. Yes.
But her point is painfully clear to me: A massive side effect of the horrific events of 9/11 — carried out by a minority sect of Muslims — is that now in America the majority of Muslims feel like and are treated like second class citizens.
The least charitable interpretation of her words suggest that she refused to call them “terrorists” or to name what they did with specificity because she is anti-American and in some way sympathizes with them.
A more charitable interpretation of her words is that she was simply pointing out that 9/11 was the result of a specific and small subset of radical Islam (aka, “some people”) and that in saying “something” she was simply using shorthand of an event we all know about in her efforts to make a larger point.
It’s been 18 years, there’s no risk of anyone forgetting what happened. Why can’t we give people the space to allude to it in general terms and not require they recount the events in detail lest they be guilty of not really caring or taking it seriously?
How Charity Can Save Us
I believe loving other people -- especially those who are different, opposed, against, other -- is the only way our world will find the healing it needs.
I believe intentionally practicing charity -- especially as it relates to how we interpret other people’s words and actions -- might be the single most effective form of world-saving love.
The sad truth is, the people quickest to defend Trump and argue, “that’s not what he was saying!” are the same ones quick to call Rep. Omar anti-American or adorn a “Someone Said Something” shirt at a 9/11 press conference.
The reverse is also true: those of us on the left who are quick to reject such an absurd interpretation of Rep. Omar’s words, were likely the quickest to decry Trump’s “fine people on both sides” comment as supportive of neo-nazis and white-nationalists.
Friends, we ALL have to do better than this.
We have to practice the long lost art of charity wherein we give people the benefit of the doubt (this is doubly important when it’s people we are prone to not like or disagree with in the first place!).
We must always seek to put people’s words and ideas in their proper context and truly try to understand them (after all, understanding leads to compassion, and compassion leads to love).
The more we lazily interpret our neighbor or enemy’s words in the least charitable light, the greater we contribute to the widening of the gap that divides us.
But this takes time, it takes attention, it takes refusing to place everyone in these little idealogical boxes and labels and reduce people to what we assume we know about them.
It takes a commitment to listen, learn, and choose to interpret people in the most charitable light possible.
I know it’s hard. In fact, this path is truly narrow. Few find it.
But I promise,
it leads to life, love, connection, and unity.