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Don't Build a Wall When You Need a Bridge

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In the wake of Don Imus’s trial by firing, I’ve noticed a particularly disturbing phenomenon. It’s not new, and it often surfaces after a public figure or institution commits a gaffe or has a painful or humiliating experience.

I’ve noticed it in both the private discussions and public denunciations of the radio shock jock. The loudest and shrillest cries, as one might expect, have called for Imus’s head, at least metaphorically speaking. However, I have heard a few people make some not-so-metaphorical proposals to damage The Don. Nearly all such demands for Imus’s demise involve name-calling or worse.

Why am I disturbed about such things? Well, if the history of the human race should teach us anything, it’s that mimicking or reflecting the behavior or attitudes — sometimes with a worse version of the same — of those we ostracize or punish rarely does anything to change the behavior of whomever we demonize. And in reacting in such ways to behavior that we don’t like, we diminish ourselves.

The result is that distrust and hostility increase, which further removes from our grasp any chance that the situations we don’t like can be resolved fairly and satisfactorily. So continues a futile circle of mutual disrespect.

Whether we use words or bombs to assault each other, the impetus and effects are, in the end, the same: violence, and more of it. Sometimes the conflagrations leave thousands of people killed or injured, as when Bush and his cronies attacked Iraq in response to the incidents of 9/11, even though no connection has ever been established between that country and the destruction of the World Trade Center. But more often, the result is more suspicion and hostility between individuals or groups of people, as seems to be happening in the wake of Don Imus’s infamous broadcast and some of the reaction to it. Either way, people who have been debased, or feel they have been so, by someone else go out and try to debase whoever committed the transgression, or who is believed to have done so.

Morally, I find no difference between the situations I’ve just described and those of the Vietnam-era protesters who burned down ROTC buildings to protest the war, the people who expressed their wish that John Hinckley had a better aim when he shot Ronald Reagan or the religious fundamentalists who murder abortion doctors to protest abortion. The only differences, really, are in the scope and venues of the spiritual violence that people, institutions or nations commit against each other.

Another unfortunate development of such incidents is that they foster and exacerbate an "us-against-them" mentality on both sides. According to such a worldview, if you condemned someone for burning down your college’s ROTC building, you really wanted Nixon to send more American boys to die in a futile and illegal war. If you didn’t wish that Reagan had been bumped off, you favored an expansion of the corporate-military welfare state. Denouncing the killers of abortion doctors is denouncing the unborns’ right to life, or — gasp — God himself.

And, by that same strange tautology, if you don’t call for Imus’s head on a stick, you’re racist and misogynistic. You are thus ignoring a long history and litany of abuses and outrages and either hiding behind your privilege or trying to win the favor of those who are believed to have it. Or so this way of epistemological train goes.

History, whether it happened 60 minutes or 60 centuries ago, does not become a well from which to draw wisdom. Instead, the past — whatever interpretation of it someone believes — becomes nothing but a rationale for retaliation. "So-and-so did such-and-such," is the mantra for those who are more interested in venting anger than in trying to make a situation better. Such scenarios illustrate what George Santayana wrote: "Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it."

And so the cycle of hatred and violence continues. In some way, I believe, what Imus said and the way self-appointed leaders reacted to it is a symptom, however minute, of an addiction to spiritual violence into which too many of those who are entrusted with power or influence fall. Nearly all of the behavior on all sides is unconscious; the actors are simply repeating the lines they’ve internalized.

However, in the wake of Imus’s banishment, as in the aftermath of 9/11 and other incidents, I have also heard calmer, saner voices. Those tend not to be as media-friendly as the ones who call for spiritual violence, but as long as they are present, there is hope, I think. Among them are some friends of mine who are writers and artists and who all denounced the public tarring and feathering of Imus. Two of them thought that sanctions against Imus would have been much more effective and given him more incentive (as if he doesn’t already have a considerable amount) to think about his words and their effect, or even to explain what he, as a comic, does.

As people who live for and by their creative expression, these friends of mine are naturally concerned about what Imus’s firing says about our freedom of expression, or lack of it. But even more important, I think, is that they recognize that the human spirit needs opportunities to reflect and grow, and that no progress is possible without either.

"We should build bridges, not walls," declares one of those friends, a painter.

He has a point. Walls do not help people or countries to grow or prosper. But bridges can. It seems that demagogues end up building walls. On the other hand, people like my artist-friends want to make connections. So, in retrospect, I’m not so surprised that the painter should say: "Walls aren’t good for business. But bridges are."

The ones who essentially intimidated Les Moonves into firing Imus are, I believe, building a wall for which Imus, however unwittingly, laid the foundation. I hope to replace it. Bridges really are better for business. And, in my opinion, they look better.