The bitter angels of our nature are sometimes easier to hear. Sometimes, the words chosen and spoken by the “better angels of our nature,” the peace-lovers among us, are heard by the bitter angels as bitter. That is insidious.
When President Lincoln delivered his first inaugural address, from which we get the phrase, “better angels of our nature,” there was little he could have said or done that would have averted the Civil War; there was no guarantee the war was going to happen, but enough people were looking for the fight rather than looking for areas of agreement that the war was minutes instead of hours or months away. (Some states wanted to leave—and had already formed a new country—and the remaining states did not want them to leave but did not want them to stay in the Union with slavery as a part of their economy, so there were few areas of agreement.) Once an anti-slavery, pro-Union Republican (a new political party) was elected president, secession began, and war looked ever closer.
Lincoln dedicated his speech to explaining that secession was logically impossible, since a Union is a union, and promising that the federal government would not fire unless fired upon (which happened a couple weeks later, at Fort Sumter).
He concluded his address with an emotionally stirring paragraph, beginning with this plaintive sentence: “I am loath to close.” He did not want to end the speech. It was almost like he believed that, the longer he talked, the longer the Union would remain. But he went ahead and finished with these famous words:
We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
There was no response from the states that had seceded, official or otherwise, until the attack on Fort Sumter. That was their reply, and then the war was on. Those southern newspapers that deigned to report on the new president’s first speech focused on his “threats” (their word) to preserve the Union and ignored or insulted the concluding sentences. Northern newspapers apparently highlighted the “better angels” passage.
(I have an acquaintance who believes himself to be a Southerner more than an American and refuses to allow pennies in his house, because “that man” is depicted on them. It would be comical, except for it not being funny at all.)
In her book, “Abraham Lincoln the Orator,” a Binghamton University scholar named Lois Einhorn writes about the first inaugural address and the marked difference in reactions to it from North and South:
Selective listening, in effect, means that people hear what they expect and perhaps want to hear. All people listen selectively, hearing only part of any message. In the case of Lincoln’s Inaugural, one could expect a great deal of selective listening because the situation was marked by a high degree of prejudice and because Lincoln had said little to counter these prejudiced views. Many of the editorials evaluating the Inaugural Address support the view that selective listening and selective perception help account for the divergent reactions to the speech. Northern and Southern editorials tended to quote different portions of the speech: Northern editorials usually quoted the speech’s conciliatory peroration, while Southern editorials usually quoted Lincoln’s forceful statements about how he would treat the South.
“Selective listening” is an enormous phrase. I saw it in all its power recently. A friend who was important to me started to express opinions that I found offensive; I struggled to find the words to express my discomfort—this friend was not attacking me personally, after all, so why complain? There must be some reason behind what I felt was ugliness coming from my friend, I thought. I wrote to him, explained that I was not going to attempt to change his opinion, that I did not need an explanation in return nor did I want a debate, but that I simply needed to express my discomfort and for that to be accepted so we could move on to happier conversations. Even if my friend simply expressed discomfort with my discomfort, I would have been fine. (“Agree to disagree,” as they say.)
I hoped my better angels were present. The issue happened to be about social unfairness and race and recent events in the news, an issue I have written about before—in “Guilty of White” —and will again, and my friend responded with a photo of himself with people of color, as if such a thing could even be a response. (I restrained myself and did not write this: “Okay, fine. You have African-American friends. Have you shared with them what I have been reading from you? How well has that been going?”) A joke that I will not reprint followed from my friend; it was at about the same level of emotional maturity as not allowing pennies in one’s house. I have walked away from that friendship, grateful that I learned a lesson, but I am still not certain what that lesson was or is, because this is a friend who tended (tends) to find better angels in almost every circumstance. I was and am confused.
My friend read my expression of discomfort as an attack that needed to be rebuffed; it is sad. Was I selectively hearing his anger as hate? Was he selectively hearing me attacking him? Both at the same time?
There is a line I can not cross just so I can say that I am friends with all sorts of individuals, even intolerant people who insist on being tolerated.
The WordPress Daily Prompt for January 16 asks, “Do you have a good friend or close relative with whom you disagree on a major issue (political, personal, cultural)? What’s the issue, and how do you make the relationship work?”
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