On the Violence at the U.S. Capitol

Peter Upham

Peter Upham

TABS Executive Director

Out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope.

Martin Luther King Jr


None of us is immune.

Not from the virus, which rages on, reducing to ash thousands of lives each day.

Not from the blindness to racial and class injustices that continue to plague our society.

And not from the animus that characterizes politics at the start of the 21st year in this new millennium, one that some futurists predicted (rightly) would be aglitter with technological marvels and predicted (wrongly) would usher in a new Canaan for a new age.

No individual, no family, no community is invulnerable to these diseases. They are contagious. And none of us may simply turn away, safe in our seclusion. The anguish and suffering are too great, the peril too proximate.

As we recoil from the violence at the U.S. Capitol and the ominous behavior and deceitful words of President Trump before and during last week’s attack, I am moved to share a handful of thoughts, in a spirit not of despair but of hopeful conviction.

First, in our politics, we must never accept violence. It sorrows us all that this requires repeating. When we harm another, we desecrate a brother or sister and with profound conceit declare that we are made of a different substance entirely—less fragile, less mortal, more perfect, more deserving. Violence strikes at our shared identity as citizens and at our common origin and end as human beings.

Second, in our disagreements, we must never accept lies. This simple proposition bears heavily on our work as educators. Lies subvert our mission, which—as the Latin phrases on so many school logos and diplomas attest—is the pursuit of truth. Our students practice truth-telling and truth-seeking at the science lab bench, the Harkness table, the writing desk, and the chapel pulpit. Our schools have a proud history of insisting on the highest standards for these exercises. This week has underlined the sanctity of that work and the gravity of our obligation. Facts matter. Logic matters.

Third, for those of us ensconced behind gauzy filters of privilege, times of great distress can illuminate certain plain injustices. The disparate treatment of this week’s Capitol Hill rioters and last year’s generally peaceful protesters in DC stands in stark and acutely uncomfortable relief. In my own life and work, I hope to use that discomfort as a prod to grow in my understanding and resolve.

Fourth, our technology, in schools and in society, demands much closer scrutiny. The role of social media in shaping opinions; the interplay of privacy, free speech, and safety; the outsized role of a few large private companies in hosting and moderating much of the nation’s public speech; media bias and echo-chamber effects—all of these factors contributed to last week’s disgusting spectacle, as well as the generalized alienation so many citizens of every political stripe seem to be experiencing.

Fifth, there is cause for optimism. In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “Out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope.” As unsettled and as possibly dangerous as the days ahead may be, I retain a growing faith that our nation can repair itself. Even now, certain forces and actors are realigning in ways that I believe will produce a dividend of progress. Restoration will require a clear rejection of both falsehood and of violence in favor of truth—about the present as well as the past.

Sixth, healing will also require a very large dose of individual and collective humility. Today, what passes for political discourse is dominated by slander, ad hominem attacks, various forms of demonization, and real and performative outrage. Indeed, entire industries (e.g. political fundraising) seem built on these rhetorical stilts. Our national language is neither English nor Spanish; it is Anger, with its extensive vocabulary for rebuke and cynicism, but no words at all for compromise, consensus, negotiation, and listening. It is no false equivalency to note that this covers the waterfront of party and policy commitments. Less often, anger is forged into moral or legal argument, passionate advocacy for a preferred course of action. More often, regrettably, anger arrives unprocessed, delivered as a raw screed against some other or others who represent the quintessence of vice, accused of ruining our society. Vitriol has many likes and followers. While there is of course an important role for righteous anger in crying out against injustice and agitating for important change, when untempered anger becomes the lead actor in our national theater, dominating the stage, the results are predictable and tragic.

Seventh, we must therefore practice a better way and we must redouble our efforts to teach our students a better way: requiring arguments grounded in reason and evidence; channeling anger into constructive service, activism, and eloquence; instilling curiosity about the world’s religions, philosophies, and competing political theories; and perhaps most importantly, encouraging and modeling genuine kindness and charity for ideological rivals. Our system of government not only tolerates but in a sense requires robust difference and disagreement. The constitutional order and its separation of powers, which helped preserve our democracy over the last weeks and months, was wisely designed to reduce the ability of any one individual or political party to establish complete or permanent dominance. The flags carried into the Capitol were not American flags, precisely because they carried images of separatism, neo-Naziism, and most frequently, the name of a man. On the contrary, we are a nation of rules, not rulers. Yet, beyond the structural safeguards, equally important to the health and longevity of our republic is a basic presumption of goodwill—even when it is a very difficult posture to sustain. Hyper-partisanship erodes this presumption. Trust crumbles when tribalism reigns.

In the extreme, we are surrounded only by us—fellow tribesmen we must defend at any cost, even the cost of our own integrity, and them—enemies we must defeat by any means, even the means of annihilating force. Such are the ghouls who would whisper us on to lies and violence. We must save ourselves from the terrible fate of bowing to their seduction.

Eighth, boarding schools are greenhouses, with the capacity to grow both medicinal herbs and poisonous flowers, to reproduce what ails us or multiply what elevates us. At their best, boarding schools are lush gardens, producing exceptionally skilled, resilient, and diverse graduates of honorable purpose. But it is the recognition that this project requires careful, daily, and deliberate cultivation that protects against moral indifference, luxurious depravity, and intellectual conformity, all vices to which our communities have at times been susceptible. Moral excellence supersedes academic excellence. Liberals and conservatives, libertarians and socialists, greens and independents, should always be welcome in our schools, so long as the adherents can live according to the order of the school’s way of life. The act of living in community with one another—which is thoroughly countercultural in the gated and walled divisions and subdivisions of America—holds the promise of lessons in respectful debate, conciliation, and compassion for the pains and perspectives of others. It is quite possibly the most effective teacher your school employs. When you recognize her, and promote her, you increase the inheritance you offer your students and plant the seeds of peace for this nation and the world.

I leave you with more of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s timeless words, from one of his famous sermons, Loving Your Enemies:

“Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Wishing all of us a year full of love and a sky full of stars—

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