In My Words: Standing on the Edge: Is political rhetoric tearing our country apart?
Newspapers around North Carolina recently featured a guest column by Jeffrey Pugh, professor of religious studies, who writes about the contrast between the efforts by South Africa's Nelson Mandela to unite a fractured country and the divisive rhetoric heard in today’s U.S. political contests.
The following column appeared recently in the Burlington Times-News, the Fayetteville Observer and the Asheville Citizen-Times via the Elon University Writers Syndicate. Views are those of the author and not necessarily Elon University.
By Jeffrey Pugh, firstname.lastname@example.org
In January of 1996, I sat in the prison cell Nelson Mandela occupied on Robben Island and listened to his former jailer speak of how Mandela treated him with a dignity that Mandela himself was denied in captivity. Today, Mandela is hailed as a moral exemplar, a man who kept his country together at the time when it could have fallen apart. What most people forget is that he was imprisoned for 27 years and vilified as a violent revolutionary by many of the global political elites.
The story of Mandela’s impact on South African society, part of which is told in the movie “Invictus,” is one of the inspirational stories of our age. A man who had every right to hold a grudge, who people feared would inflame South Africa upon his release, turned out to be a force for reconciliation and healing.
Mandela had choices when he was freed. He could have sought revenge against those who oppressed him and his people. Instead he chose the path of forgiveness, to the point of inviting his former enemies, including the prosecutor who tried to have him executed, and P. W. Botha, one of the staunchest defenders of apartheid, to his inauguration.
I think often of Mandela in this season of America’s political discontent. We expect real disagreements in political fights; there are real stakes involved. How will we order ourselves as a society? What does justice look like for those on the margins? How can we guard both the lives of our citizens and those who protect our communities? What role should money play in our lives, and where do we put our resources? How do we deal with the tensions between individual and community rights? These are issues that have different answers depending on where you stand on the political spectrum, but our current fragmentation threatens the health of our nation.
Many observe that we have entered uncharted waters with this election. In political battle, words matter; the way words are used and directed have real-world impact. We are feeling the effects of this now as GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump’s rhetoric against minority groups grows increasingly divisive and unleashes emotions all along the political spectrum. Trump channels the frustration of those who feel left behind in America. Those who believe they are on the margins know that the political and economic systems have failed them and they feel that Trump takes them seriously. This leaves him an opening to mobilize people by pushing grievances and pointing out scapegoats to demonize.
The problem with this strategy is that a strong society only exists as long as we are all telling the same story. Once the American story starts to fragment, when groups start to claim America as uniquely theirs, the very thing that allows us to function as a cohesive society in the midst of our diversity disappears. I have known moments in my life when society was under pressure. I still remember the Ku Klux Klan marches in my southern Virginia town and the scars those rallies tore into our community when we integrated public schools. The Klan believed that our community was only for them and not for people of color. Their racism was corrosive to all of us.
Societies are more fragile than most of us realize and if we are careless we can quickly fray the bonds that keep us united in the face of life’s challenges. We need one another, but political rhetoric is growing increasingly divisive right now and I am not sure we realize how perilous this is to us all. When politicians inflame crowds with vile racist and misogynist words, and threats are chanted and shouted at campaign rallies, we lose more of our societal cohesion and as a result, more of what truly makes America great.
Shouting out that the system is rigged ensures that you don’t lose, you can only be betrayed. While that may protect a fragile ego, it rips apart the bonds that should unite because we are Americans. Political battles always contain some heated words, but attacking the foundations on which our lives together depend harms America worse than an external enemy can. How trustworthy are those who call for the imprisonment of their opponents? Those who threaten violence and armed insurrection if their candidate loses do not care about our country. And they most definitely do not care about those for whom they claim to be fighting.
There is a line that can be crossed that leads to war among ourselves and we haven’t entirely healed from the last time that happened. We may feel like we do not have any good choices in this election, but one decision we can make is the one that Mandela made upon his release. He was willing to put his country’s needs ahead of his own. I keep searching the landscape for a Mandela who can lead us away from the precipice we presently stand on.
Jeffrey Pugh is the Maude Sharpe Powell professor of religious studies at Elon University. His most recent book is “The Homebrewed Christianity Guide to the End Times.”
Elon University faculty with an interest in sharing their expertise with wider audiences are encouraged to contact the Office of University Communications should they like assistance with prospective newspaper op/ed submissions.