To some degree, we understand theft when it is motivated by desperation. While we might never near the line of physically harming another, we at least comprehend the desire for vengeance.
But when someone harms a child or bombs a roomful of strangers or spouts hatred for no plausible reason, we tend to look at them as the ancients did at a person who poisoned a well.
Such a person was seen not only as evil but as a fool. His vengeful act left a whole territory impoverished at best and uninhabitable at worst – even for the perpetrator himself.
Before modernity, the only way to reverse such contamination was the hard work of hauling the poisoned water up out of the ground and finding a place where it could be poured out.
Bucket by laborious bucket, hour after agonizing hour, the locals would heave the well rope hand over hand, bringing up a gallon or two at a time, and cart it off to some patch of ground that would be barren for years, decades, or generations.
The effort might take hours. It might take days. While they strove to dilute the poison in the well, the laborers – perhaps the malefactor’s neighbors and kin – would likely suffer agonizing thirst until they’d worked hard enough and thrown away enough to make what was left drinkable again.
That’s the power that racism has in latter-day America: It poisons wells. It degrades the territory. It makes everyone – all races, all classes – suffer.
Those people who flaunt the n-word and other overtly racial insults – be they white, black or otherwise – make a short-lived currency of it at the ongoing expense of the rest of us.
Even pale-skinned, Y-chromosomed, pot-bellied, pickup-driving, deer-skinning, dirt-plowing, syllable-drawling, Mississippi-born, pentagenarian throwbacks such as I readily understand that.
Another danger, though, is hypersensitivity. It’s far too easy to read meanings into people’s words, dress, symbols and behaviors that are entirely foreign to what was intended.
I learned when I was co-pastor of a racially integrated congregation in the Mississippi Delta that the same “conservative” that meant fiscal responsibility and family-friendly morals to me meant to some of my congregation the virtual equivalent of “Klansman.”
“You people” can apply to Rotarians as much as to races, and “Take back our country” usually refers to self-reliance, individual charity and personal liberty, not a call for a return to plantation society.
Civilization depends on our not giving needless offense.
It depends just as much on our not taking needless offense.
Contact Daily Journal Oxford Bureau reporter Errol Castens at firstname.lastname@example.org.