Person or Idea?

The current events of the last year have started us mewsing about how we view people with whom we do not agree. Watching the news and social media, it is easy to see “the other side” as faces on a screen, which is, in effect, dehumanizing them. That is a dangerous slippery slope. Please take the time to read and ponder this mewsing seriously.

During the Civil War, things were no different than they are now. Both sides vilified the other in newspaper print and in political speech. Individual citizens—civilian and soldier—easily lumped people of the other side into general stereotyped beliefs, rather than recognizing real human beings. For both sides, losing the war would be the end of the world. Sound familiar? This is human nature. But the big question is, when push comes to shove, do you believe the person from “the other side” is a human or a personification of an ideology? It’s an important distinction. Either view will dictate how you interact with that person.

013 GrineWhat does it look like if you view “the other side” as a human? It means you will respect them, whether you agree with them or not. It means, when face-to-face, you will see a human, not an enemy. During the fighting on Little Round Top at Gettysburg, Pvt. Philip Grine of the 83rd Pennsylvania Infantry ventured out between the fighting lines to retrieve a wounded Confederate. Later, he went out for a second enemy soldier. A third time he went out, and he was killed in the attempt to rescue yet another wounded Confederate. Why did he do it? To rescue fellow men who lay stranded and bleeding, and to see that they received medical attention at his regiment’s aid station. He didn’t care which uniform they wore, merely that they were suffering and he could do something about it, even at the risk of his own life.

But what happens when you dehumanize the other person? If we do not believe that every human being—whether we agree with them or not—is as valuable and deserving of life as we are, then we open the door to war crimes and atrocities:

At Fort Pillow during the Civil War, African-American soldiers were massacred after they had surrendered.

During WWII, German SS troops (not to be confused with the Wehrmacht, the German army) rounded up 80 prisoners who had surrendered, herded them into a barn, and then tossed in grenades and strafed them with machine gun and rifle fire.

In bushido, the code of the Japanese samurai, to lose is to lose your honor (respect). This view meant that Japanese soldiers in WWII had no respect for defeated enemy soldiers. During the Bataan Death March, Allied POWs were made to march over 80 miles, in extreme heat, without food, with little to no water, and in constant fear of random beatings or death by bullet or bayonet.

We all have beliefs that we feel strongly about. Opposing views can cause us to “see red.” But this is why the First Amendment is so important. It is the right to be able to speak my mind—and for you to speak yours, too. It does not mean we have to agree, and it does not mean that one of us has to give in to the other; it means we can discuss our beliefs and try to persuade each other, but it’s okay if we walk away from each other maintaining our original positions. Most importantly, we do not try to crush each other into submission. If we take this right away and silence those who believe differently, we dehumanize them, slipping down the slope toward the atrocities that come hand-in-hand with that. It sounds extreme, but the danger is closer than we might think. Let me ask you a question. Answer it honestly.

If you were faced with a member of “the other side” (politically, ideologically, religiously—think of anyone who “makes your blood boil”) who is in trouble, do you feel sympathy or that they “had it coming” and deserved it? What is your gut reaction?

If you really dig down deep, do you see the other person as a person or as an idea you do not agree with? If you can see past the ideology to the human being, then you will respond as Pvt. Grine did, helping the injured enemy. If you see only the ideology, well… what then? Do you want to crush the other person (by word, action, or law)? Think about what your answer says about how you truly see the other person.

One final thought. The gut reaction you felt—are you spreading this reaction (good or bad) to friends and loved ones? Think especially about your children. How you react to opposing viewpoints will impact how your children learn to view others. Talk to them about what they feel towards people who are “the other side” to them. And remember, yours is not the only voice that shapes them, and shaping the next generation is shaping the future. Dig deep, so you know what your child really believes.

There will always be other people whose viewpoints “drive us crazy,” but the important thing is to be aware of when we cross the line into seeing only the ideology and not the human being. That is when we lose the heart of Pvt. Grine and start down the slippery slope to becoming the SS.

Who would you rather be?

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