First Responses Matter

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. Edmund Burke

I’ve seen very little loud and vocal protest from Christian leaders regarding white supremacists in Charlottsville. Racism is a pretty straight-forward issue, but so far I’ve seen lots of hemming and hawing from them. They seem to want to explain the “intricasies” of the situation, rather than come out and condemn the hate.

On Twitter today, I engaged with someone who took issue with my frustration. My main point:

In the light of an act of terror, I would expect Christian leaders to clearly denounce hate. I think that’s a reasonable request. Yes?

But sadly, this became my fault for doubting him in the first place.

@jmccartie So if people don’t denounce it like you do, they are endorsing racism?

But here’s the thing: first responses matter. This is not a personal opinion, or asking someone to “react like I do.” How you react when faced with detestable behavior speaks volumes.

I’ll try to give you an example (hyperbolic, but in attempt to try and clarify):

  • Imagine I was on a bus. Someone stands up and begins screaming at the person next to them. They are calling them horrific names, insults, and vulgarities. Someone implores me: “Do something!” My first response matters. If I start with: “Well, it’s complicated. They probably had a tough childhood.” This response is callous. This act should horrify me and my response should be to call out the act for its evil. I’m glad to talk about nuance after the fact, but my first response should be one that matches the depravity of the interaction.

  • If someone told me they were being abused by their spouse, my first response matters. “Well, what did you do to make them angry enough to hit you?” is an incorrect response. It assumes the victim is to blame. Instead, the first reaction is to remove that person from the situation and call the authorities. We can talk about the contributing factors later. But my first response matters.

  • If someone walked up to me and my wife and punched her in the face, I might punch back, run away, or call the police. But if I turned to Erin and told her that he didn’t mean it, or it’s because of a system that oppresses him, my response would be incorrect. Now, I might debate these issues after the fact, but this should not be my first response.

  • When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, our response was to declare war. The incorrect response would be to talk about how world government systems are creating fascist dictators or how we did terrible things during the War of 1812 so why would we blame Japan for the things they did. The correct response was to denounce the aggression and deal with it directly.

When a group of supremacists demonstrates on the idea that Jews and Blacks should be exterminated or when a neo-Nazi runs over a crowd of peaceful protestors, your first response matters. If your first response is to compare this protest to other violent protests of others, the insinuation is that you equate them. If your first response is to blame a statue, a mayor, the police force, or even the peaceful protestors, you (inadvertently) misplace blame. We can talk about nuance — it’s a complicated topic of many moving parts. But your first reaction says a lot about you.

Finally, inaction to abhorrent behavior absolutely makes someone question your negative opinion of this behavior. If I sit and do nothing while my child screams their head off and beats on another child, you might assume I am validating their behavior. If a president does not clearly denounce white supremacy — when given multiple chances to do so with pointed questioning — it absolutely creates ambiguity. Even the white supremacists agreed:

“No condemnation at all,” Anglin continued. “When asked to condemn, he just walked out of the room. Really, really good. God bless him.”

So, let’s agree on a step-by-step way to react to acts of terrorism (both foreign and domestic):

  • Step 1: denounce the atrocity. Make it clear what is right and what is wrong.
  • Step 2: Shut up. Allow people to heal and to grieve.
  • Step 3: When appropriate, begin the discussion of how we got here and what we’re going to do to fix it.

Simple. Our discourse seems to have skipped steps 1 and 2. They’re important and cannot be ignored. Let the world see our unity and love – but let them also see our vilification of hate. First responses matter.

Hi there, I'm Jon.

Writer. Musician. Adventurer. Nerd.

Purveyor of GIFs and dad jokes.