With Malice Towards None
With Malice Towards None, with Charity for All
The phrase comes from Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, delivered 4 March 1865. America’s Civil War was winding to a close, and the hour to many seemed the darkness before the dawn. But division, our nation’s worst (as we’d still like to think), was rooting itself in among those who knew that they would lose, but vowed they would not be reconciled.
The passage is worth quoting in its larger context:
Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may soon pass away. Yet if God wills that it continue until the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn by the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, that ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’
With malice towards none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and orphans, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and a lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
We are presently engaged in a great civil disjunction, testing whether in America we have any common sense left at all. Global trickery is on the march, and seemingly, we aren’t quite smart enough to see through it, to avoid seeing our social balance destabilized…yet our leaders greet this turn with a fatalistic shrug.
I contend that the two great drivers of human behavior are not love vs. hate; nor any other dichotomy of nebulous, ill-defined emotion. They are procrastination and aversion.
Procrastination says, “These are awful things. I’ll really do something about them one day—when I’m less busy…I feel better…I’m a little richer. When I’m older, married, divorced, once I’ve retired, whenever the economy picks up…”
Procrastination engenders ethical abandonment, because it allows someone to feel (by virtue of intention) that he is in the right, and is doing right, all the while he’s doing nothing.
Aversion says: I fear you. I hate you. I hate the things you like. I hate the things I associate with you. I hate the things that remind me of you. I hate the city you live in. Now, I hate the state you live in. Soon, I’ll hate the country you live in.
Aversion accounts for behaviors that otherwise would appear nearly insane. Why should a normal-minded person be opportunistically cruel, or refuse to be helpful? A mindset has been cultivated here (often enough, on fertile ground). People who are both frightened, and convincible that the ordinary conceals a veiled threat, can’t feel safe—their new mindset telling them to always anticipate attack. They itch to launch one instead.
Aversion then grows into paranoia, as trajected above. This process leads to self-loathing. Self-loathing leads to a wish to cleanse, and a wish to cleanse leads to…
But here on Torsade, we’re concerned mostly with the arts. And in the fields of fiction, poetry, image-making, etc., we have material enough to work with, in addressing those trends that have so many well-meaning people, who truly purpose going into the world with malice towards none, and charity for all, ducking for cover and running scared.
The framework for rational assessment begins with the outer bracket, so to speak—which we’ll use to determine what we’re dealing with; a first necessity before we decide on faults and punishments.
The three types of exaggeration:
i. Overstated importance.
ii. Overstated influence.
iii. Escalation of reaction.
Bad art should be easy to dismiss.
Whatever controversy rises when someone publishes an insensitive (so labeled) poem, cartoon, novel, remark on social media…
Or gives a performance in costume, perhaps, or produces a piece of statement art, statement misapprehended…
None of this is anthrax in the water.
Art, by and large, is a bubble in the water at best, soon to vanish. Those works historically credited with influencing hearts and minds were never born into a sterile environment. Not even the Communist Manifesto.
Propagandists know this perfectly well. A key tactic of the propagandist’s science is short-handing, the use of words, phrases, symbols, to seemingly express an idea. The reduction to a non-specific stub, makes the symbol more effective. If person A believes life would be great if only the local factory could be reopened, and person B believes life would be great if schools were required to teach Christianity, both may feel they hear the same assurance when this is simplified to the level of a slogan. The slogan can be simplified even further, to a coinage…that may sound like the mumblings of a troll. Maga, maga, maga.
Whatever piece of art emerges as “important”, as a new cultural touchstone, emerges because an audience exists for it, because human beings are always waiting for a bellwether, a guiding force that can encompass a diverse body of longings…and seemingly unify these into a whole, a “herd” to which all believers can belong.
And so, in that respect, yes, popular art can have coalition-building powers.
But this putting of the cart before the horse, this insistence that art is dangerous, that a book or movie can cause conversion in the mind’s otherwise empty cabinet of philosophy, spurs these tooth-combing attacks on clumsy little people, and their clumsy little efforts. These days, preemptive strikes are made against any possibility of a second chance, while the need for second chances, in an angry and accusative society, only grows.
Once upon a time, the mannerly would have said, “I apologize. I phrased that badly.”
And the mannerly reply: “Oh, we all make mistakes.”
But the anonymity of social media, combined with the game-like reward of being first to score a point, encourages a particular kind of depredation. The things that are vital to social interaction, and cannot be tossed aside if we care what kind of country this is, are those things we feel, and know we feel, in the face of all the world’s dismissal.
If someone finds polite speech embarrassing, and shies from using it, he will still find rudeness painful. It’s worth noting that the quick apology and easy (social) forgiveness are not weaknesses. They are diplomacy in action. When a coworker launches into a dirty story, and you say (in effect, or, any modern variation upon), “You mistake me, sir!”; when someone makes a racist comment, and you say…coldly, “I don’t think I can have understood you”; you are saying, either commit to your position or back off!
Here is not only strength, as opposed to weakness, but the time-honored way of keeping social discourse civil. (Forcing clarity at the outset also circumvents the excuses: “I was only joking”; “No one minded then.”)
We forget that to be accused of having bad intentions is deeply insulting. To be accused of wishing to harm others is grotesquely insulting. (To be accused of harming others, implies a criminal or civil violation, requiring the accusation be made publicly, officially, and “on paper”; and proofs provided by the accuser.)
We have the right, when so insulted, to demand our accuser take a stance that can be answered. If apologies and corrections won’t be accepted, then the accuser becomes the aggressor.
With Malice Towards None
(2018, Stephanie Foster)