I didn’t want to see the image Kathy Griffin is now infamous for, but there it was on my news feed, vivid and uncensored. Even as the headline asked me to make my own judgment about whether this photograph could be art, valid political statement, or something else entirely, I was already looking away. I knew it wasn’t real. I knew Ms. Griffin wasn’t suggesting this as a serious course of action. But that made it no less cruel and unkind, and I wanted no part of that.
Hate is a language, and just like any language, the fastest way to learn is to be immersed in it. That kind of immersion is readily available, particularly online, where a search of mere seconds can locate private tutors and master classes in it. I’m not a cynic—I believe the majority of us don’t go looking for such a thing. But what we do find, and more commonly, what we seek out, is a group that shares our views, including our fears and ideals. In itself, this is a valuable thing. We are built to form communities and families, to make connections with others. But in growing these relationships, there can be a hidden disease that can blight the roots. That rot has a name. It’s called “Not One of Us.” As we find commonalities with others, we also define who is not like us. And if we do not want those who are not like us to come into contact with us, to affect us, to have anything to do with us, the blight festers into unkindness.
Unkindness is a word that grows rusty with adults, which is probably why we find it hard to recognize sometimes, or even worse, diminish it when we do recognize it. For children, the world is made and broken by kindness and unkindness, and so we teach them to be kind to others. To themselves. To what they own. But at some point, we grow older, and suddenly, kindness seems like a luxury that we feel we can live without, a pretty thing, but an ultimately useless thing. It’s too delicate for the world of adults, where sharper, heavier virtues are the main competitors. If you want to be thought of as a person of worth and intelligence, you better be willing to get violent. Throwing shade or dropping a mic is the least you can do. If you want people to hear you, burn your opponent. Cut them. If you want people to cheer, roast your enemy, or slay them. If they fight, you clap back, you return fire.
And the worst part? We’ve learned to muffle the sound of these battles with laughter. We are masters of covering unkindness with comedy. But why does it matter? Why not have a little fun, revel in some well-timed insults?
It matters because unkindness isn’t a bruise that fades over time. It is a blight that warps the plant until it becomes an ugly thing that we can see on the surface. The leaves begin to curl and blacken, the stalk withers, and the flowers turn to dust. That’s when we call it hate. We all condemn hate—as we should—but at that point, the damage is far-gone.
People are resilient, wonderfully-made creatures. Very few of us go looking to learn hate, but most of us are fluent in unkindness. It is an unfortunately easy language to learn. Somewhere, we make a conscious or unconscious decision that someone is not like us and that we want to distance ourselves from them. And what happens from there often begins as a joke.
If you’re still reading to this point, I’m grateful. Because what I’m saying is something that I’ve wanted to express for quite some time. I regret that I haven’t put it into words sooner, but I have to confess that I’ve often talked myself out of it because I’m not sure how much power my words could possibly have concerning how a person thinks. But I still think it is worth saying, and so regardless of whether or not it changes anyone’s mind, I’ll go on.
Unkindness has another name. It’s far more common, and when we see it out and about with this name, we try to root it out immediately. We weep over it. When it’s called bullying, we fight against it. We bring out our finest weapons. But why do we not treat unkindness with the same prejudice? I think the answer is because we have made a decision, conscious or unconscious, that the person receiving it is Not One of Us. And if they are Not One of Us, they deserve it.
By a loud, passionate, ferocious many, President Trump has been declared to be Not One of Us. Not American. Not human. And so, he has been bullied by millions. Even if he is thought to be a bully, do we become the thing we hate?
Let me illustrate a picture for you that should break your heart, or at least give you pause.
Imagine a girl in high school. She is not the picture of beauty. Everywhere she goes, people talk about her. How she has bad hair. How ugly she looks when she concentrates on her work. People spend time in study hall telling each other about stupid things that she said, mistakes that she made. Even weeks later, when she tries to speak up in class, someone yells out one of those things she said. Every idea she has is booed out of the room. When she sits down at a table, everyone else gets up and leaves. Other kids find unflattering pictures of her and circulate them around the school, captioning them with rude or explicit jokes. And then those pictures aren’t just in the school, but spreading across the nation, and then the world. Whenever she is slighted or made fun of, her classmates high-five each other and laugh with delight. They go to bed content when someone’s ridiculed her in front of important people.
What I’ve just described would be completely unacceptable behavior. It is cruel. It could kill a person.
Take away the school setting and replace that girl with our president, and suddenly, we don’t call it bullying anymore. But he deserves it, they say. He is Not One of Us.
Comparing these scenarios is a great simplification, of course. I don’t want to give anyone the impression that I believe that those two people are in the same position, but they are both human beings.
But let me ask you this: how do we teach our children not to bully others when those same actions are called activism, comedy, political discourse, or even art? How do we teach them not to be cruel to others when they see an adult holding a replica of the president’s severed head?
Call it tasteless if you wish, or bad form. But do recognize that it was cruel. President Trump’s eleven-year-old son saw the same image on the news that I did, but unlike me, he didn’t know it wasn’t real. I can imagine the horror he felt. I know what it’s like to have a father whose job takes him into places where people hate him and would not stop short of killing him. That’s terror. And we should not wish that on anyone, not even our enemies.
As I conclude, I’ll finish with a few thoughts that address Christians, but what I have to say is a good remedy for anyone who wants to root out the blight. We are called to love. We are not told to love those who agree with us, who are beautiful, who are worthy, who are honest, who are good, who are eloquent, who make good decisions, who are like us. We are told to love our neighbor and our enemy. And we know that first, love is patient, and then it is kind. Kindness isn’t looking for failures, enjoying someone’s humiliation or crushing opposition. While hate looks the same wherever it grows, kindness has many different blooms. It can look like support, and it can also look like disagreement and correction. It can look like a gift, and it can also look like a lesson that is taught again and again. Please don’t diminish, excuse, or contribute to unkindness, no matter how much you think a person might deserve it. All of us have been given much that we don’t deserve, and we are the better for it.