About 20 years ago, I wrote a novel about our local Confederate guerrilla, Champ Ferguson. Champ was a divisive character in both history and historical memory (how groups remember something). At his graveside here in White County, there is a historical marker describing him as a martyr and a hero; at his birthplace in Clinton County, Kentucky, there is a marker describing him as a terrorist. White County was mostly Confederate, Clinton County was mostly Union - and that still affects people’s perceptions. I tried to be fair and present Champ as a flawed human being with some good and a lot of bad. I was apprehensive about how readers would react - I thought everybody would be mad at me on both sides. But I was surprised. What happened was that people who already revered Champ told me how much they liked the fact I showed he wasn’t as bad as people said; people predisposed against Champ told me how much they liked that I showed how bad he really was.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about the blue dress/white dress thing, using it a means to demonstrate people’s difficulty seeing things from the other side’s perspective, and I mentioned racism as an example. My friend John - rightly - pointed out that I was being selective in my own points. Therefore, I spent several weeks looking to various movies and TV shows from recent decades to explore - and try to understand - the pent-up anger in many white, middle class, MAGA, Trump supporters, which led to a violent attempt to overthrow the government by a few individuals… and a disturbing amount of support for those rioters from many on the right. My conclusion was that, although I vehemently oppose their actions and many of the ideas behind them, in order to understand them, I have to have empathy for the frustrations and emotions that led them to that point. We have to recognize those things in each other if we are going to find peaceful resolutions, we can’t just all hate each other and call each other evil. We have to see each other’s humanity, and that works both ways.
I feel like John may have missed my point. In his response last week, John seemed critical of my effort to look for shades of gray rather than black or white. He pointed out that all the characters in my examples broke the law and did evil, and that fact was what ultimately mattered. This took me somewhat aback, as my whole point was trying to understand the anger on the right by looking more deeply than the actions of Jan. 6. I believe those people broke the law and performed evil deeds, as did the various criminals in my examples… but I was proposing we look at WHY, so as to prevent it in the future. And I did so because I felt remiss in doing so in earlier discussions.
Too often, on social media and in real life, I hear people on my side of the political fence othering conservatives or rural America (or the South) in general, by tossing around hateful stereotypes and painting them as evil and/or stupid. Of course, there is plenty of that from the other side… I’m tempted to say there’s more, but it’s hard to tell. It’s like we all hate each other without thinking - and definitely without showing empathy or trying to see the other side. I see something similar with a lot of my conservative friends when they react - not to what I said - but to what they had presupposed I was GOING to say, to the extent they start responding before they’ve even listened.
That said, though, I stand beside those individuals and groups who feel like the other side is out to strip away their rights or even their existence. I draw the line at empathy for Nazis and Klansmen.
--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.
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