“Prejudice makes prisoners of both the hated and the hater.”
I read something this week that struck me. A couple of nights ago I was continuing to read Randy Shilts’ book about the beginning of the AIDS crisis. And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic. As I did so I was struck by a single sentence “Prejudice makes prisoners of both the hated and the hater.”
In the book, Shilts, a journalist and author, discussed the impact of hatred on people. The part of the book I was reading was about the release from prison of Dan White, the San Francisco city councilman who murdered the legendary Gay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone on January 7th 1984.
Shilts reflected on how that reciprocal hatred between White, his supporters, and the Gay community harmed all. Back then Gays were angry about how a man who murdered two other men in cold blood and got off on a ludicrous defense based on White’s consumption of Hostess Twinkies. That anger was compounded by how many Gays felt about the AIDS epidemic, which at the time the cause was still unknown. When White was released, angry Gays protested, some even calling for White’s death. White was out of prison but he was a prisoner of his actions, he killed himself a number of months later. Shilts noted in his book that: “Prejudice makes prisoners of both the hated and the hater.” At the time neither the Gay community, nor its detractors could get around the hate.
When I read the quote I was struck with just how timeless it was. The fact is that though Shilts was discussing something the Gay community was experiencing in 1984, it can be applied in almost every instance where there is anger about real or perceived injustice.
In the past couple of months we have seen the anger of the African American community towards law enforcement in the case of Michael Brown and other instances where police killed unarmed blacks and suffered no legal repercussions. While most protestors were peaceful, some were not.
Last week black man traveled from Baltimore to New York boosting on instagram that he was going to put wings on police. Baltimore police attempted to warn New York, but by the time the message arrived the man had brutally murdered two New York City Police Officers as sat in their patrol car. Before he left Baltimore he shot his girlfriend. The man had a long history of criminal behavior, belonged to a prison gang that advocated killing police and had a long history of severe mental illness. However, because he was black and because he had publicized why he was going to kill the officers, the protestors and other critics of police who abuse their authority were blamed for causing the action.
Since then the invective has only increased, despite the efforts of people, mainly those who support the protestors to scale back the rhetoric and seek reconciliation. Sadly, it only seems to get worse, especially from those who seek to only see one side of the problem and blame one group. I have a military physician friend who wrote something on her social media page that I agree very much with:
“I support police officers and first responders. I also support equal rights and believe discrimination based upon race, creed gender, sexuality, etc. is wrong. Am I allowed to support both these now-a-day?”
A week or so ago I asked a similar question. I have been in the military the bulk of my life and I have a strong affinity to those who put themselves in harms way be they in the military, law enforcement, fire, rescue, EMS or other first responders. At the same time I also know that not everyone in those organizations are law-abiding, and some harbor terrible prejudice against people whose race, religion, social or economic status, or lifestyle they oppose. Sadly some of them use the power they have been entrusted with to persecute or harm others and in many cases are never held accountable.
That being said I know that people who face very real prejudice, discrimination, inequity and persecution, including that of some in the law enforcement community grow angry and frustrated. Most remain peaceful, even in the use of civil disobedience, but even then they are often attacked or set upon by the very law enforcement agencies who are also supposed to serve and protect their rights as citizens. And some do lash out and cause harm to people and property.
Honestly I do not know what can be done at this point to change the direction that our society is heading. I wonder like my friend if it is possible to support law enforcement and at the same time ensure that they too obey the laws they are sworn to enforce, and the people they are sworn to serve. It was then that I remembered the words of Nelson Mandela. He said, reflecting on the 25 years that he was wrongly imprisoned by the Apartheid government of South Africa: “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”
Maybe that is too idealistic for most of us today. Maybe we have become so embittered by what we see that we simple decide whoever disagrees with us must be at fault for everything. Today I noticed a comment on a post I had written about a military subject. The writer of the comment was definitely parroting everything that he listens to on the right wing media circuit, Fox News, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and so many others, not to mention the allegedly “Christian” religious extremists who parrot them. The man wrote:
“Love the page. BTW there is nothing progressive about socialism. The “Progressives” in the USA are in fact socialists. It is regressive. There is nothing democratic about it either, it is top down dictatorial. There is no life liberty and pursuit of happiness when the people belong to the state. The Soviet Union, China, Cuba, North Korea, East Germany, Fascist Italy, Venezuela and even Nazi Germany (socialist workers party) are all good examples of where socialism leads. Lets not bring this kind of progressive to the USA.”
Of course this is complete hogwash and I politely but bluntly told him so.
However, his words came out of the same echo chamber that blamed peaceful protestors and their supporters for the deaths of the two New York police officers. Since on occasion I have gotten death threats and other lesser forms harassment from the most extreme elements of this right wing movement I am a bit sensitive to crap like this.
That being said I commit myself anew to the message Nelson Mandela because no matter what happens to me I do not want to be bound in the dungeons created by my the hate of others, or what hatred that on occasion that I might feel toward them. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
How do we get to where President Mandela or Dr. King believed was the true path to freedom? I think like both both of these men realized that it is about forgiveness, forgiveness even in the midst of injustice. As Dr. King said: “Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a constant attitude.” Such an attitude however requires genuine empathy, and sadly many people cannot feel empathy for others and as Captain Gustave Gilbert noted about what made the leaders of the Third Reich evil, wrote: “Evil, I think, is the absence of empathy.”
Sadly, that lack of empathy makes everyone a prisoner of hate.