My Heart Weeps, But That’s Not Enough: A Reflection On Charlottesville

Business Consultant, Denyse Whillier

Business Consultant, Denyse Whillier

No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.
— Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom

I felt compelled to write this after Charlottesville, yesterday's terrorist attack on Barcelona, and in advance of the far right marches this weekend which I fear will bring more violence. It's highly personal, and explains how I'm trying to navigate my way through these events.

Last Saturday I bought a copy of "Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and A Culture in Crisis" in which JD Vance, who grew up in rust-belt Ohio, tells the true story of what regional, social and class decline feels like for America's white working class through his own experience of growing up in poverty, domestic violence and abuse. But it's also a deeply personal story of the influence Appalachian values had on the young Vance, of the triumph of hope over despair and of accomplishment over learned helplessness.

In reading this book, I hoped it would help me to understand why Trump enjoys the level of support he does. Because as we all know, frankly it baffles me. I also hoped the book would give me a glimpse into what prompted people in our once proud and still devastated British communities - mining, manufacturing, steel working - to vote for Brexit, an outcome which has the potential to ruin our economy and immeasurably worsen the standard of living of those who can least afford it.

Reading JD Vance's memoir was also uncomfortably close to home. 

Like Vance, I grew up in a house with a persistent undercurrent of domestic violence. I lived in a constant state of fear and powerlessness. My father routinely ranted in highly disparaging terms about 'the communists,' 'the Jews,' 'the niggers,' 'the nips,' the 'chinks' and 'the pakis' who he clearly viewed as inferior and a threat. Growing up in Worthing, a quiet seaside town, I wondered what on earth he was talking about. But I knew bigotry and hate when I saw it. He told us that he didn't fight in WW2 because he was a 'conscientious objector.' I knew instinctively that this wasn't true. He was too much a coward to put himself on the front line. That's the bully pulpit for you.

Like JD Vance, thankfully I had other influences on me. 

For Vance this was his wider family and community. For me, this was school, books and the TV programmes I watched. Daft as this might sound, The Streets of San Francisco and Charlie's Angels taught me that good always triumphs evil. Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, What Katy Did and The Diary of Ann Frank offered spirited, empowering female role models. Both gave me hope that life could be different.

Education was my route out of my circumstances. I worked hard at school and kept my head down until the time came to go to university, and carve my own destiny. That, like Vance, I forged a different path to the narrative of my childhood is in large part due to the role of stories. An avid reader, my head was full of stories.

I later discovered that Robert McKee, one of the world’s foremost thinkers on story believes story calibrates a moral compass in our brains. He says it’s "from story we learn what to value in life, what’s beautiful and what’s banal, what to live for and what to die for."

Absorbed by JD Vance's story and my own uncomfortable and rarely discussed memories, I didn't watch the news until Sunday morning. It was only then I learnt of the tragic events unfolding in Charlottesville.

I don't know what I found most shocking about these events.

  • That a 20 year old man, who should have had his whole life ahead of him, was so filled with hate that he would ram his vehicle in to a crowd of people protesting peacefully, killing a 32 year old woman, and injuring 19 others. 5 critically.

  • That Heather Heyer should be so shockingly murdered, and her family, friends and community left bereft.

  • That a group of thugs - because let's call them what they are - incited such violence, hatred and bigotry.

  • Or that the leader of the free world would take 2 days to fail to condemn the thuggery for what it was - white supremacy and extremism - and stand up resolutely for the indivisibility of equality and tolerance before the law. And as if that weren't bad enough, to revisit the topic in Tuesday's bizarre press conference, only to make the false equivalence between those thugs with the courageous Americans of Charlottesville who had gathered to stand up to the racism, anti-Semitism and doctrine of violence that won the cheers and Nazi salutes of the alt-right hordes to whom Trump felt such loyalty.

This should be axiomatic: there are no 'fine' Nazis.

The 'Tuesday comments' affected me in an entirely personal way. My country, aided by its allies, fought a war to overcome the threat of tyranny and persecution in the form of Hitler, his henchmen and his enablers. 6 million Jews. and very many others, died in the most chilling example of man's inhumanity to man. Millions of troops, Brits serving alongside soldiers from more than 20 other countries including the US, either died, had life altering injuries or were wounded in what has often been described as history's most savage and devastating war.

My grandfather served in the navy, in the submarines. Thankfully he returned unharmed.

For 70 years, since the end of WW2, a consensus held across the democratic world that seemed so obvious it barely needed stating. It declared that some ideas are beyond the pale, that certain beliefs are taboo because they are unconscionable.

I grew up believing that, while there would depressingly always be fascists, there would be no debate on Nazism. And like everybody else, I expected the post WW2 consensus that built the peace to hold.

I, probably like you, thought we had moved on.

Right now I don't know where the US is headed. None of us know how this (and Brexit) will play out. This scares the s**t out of me because of the pivotal role America plays on the global stage. And it makes me immeasurably sad on a personal level because the US, as embodied by the moral values we collectively instill in its President, represents fundamental decency, opportunity and global leadership. I've wanted to live there since I was ten, avidly watching The Streets Of San Francisco.

But what I am clear about is that this is a moment of moral clarity. This is not about politics or policies. Left or right. It's about what's right and what's wrong. What we stand for. Our values. Our sense of decency. Our shared common humanity.

No one who lived through WW2, or whose families saw similar mobs rising up and ultimately collaborating in the murder of their family members in Hitler’s Europe, could view Trump’s performance without a degree of fear. The same must be true for African Americans who have watched mobs lynch their family members and seek to deny them the most basic rights. And for people of Muslim faith who have too often been tarred with the same brush as so called Islamic terrorists.

When it comes to initiating and implementing policy, it's clear that Trump doesn't have a clue. So it's a reasonable assumption that his rhetoric probably won't be backed up by action. But that's beside the point. His rhetoric on Charlottesville is morally bankrupt and rotten to the core. And more importantly it has emboldened Neo Nazis, the KKK and other extremists. They have 9 further marches planned this weekend that I know about. They came bearing semi-automatic weapons to Charlottesville. And used a car as a battering ram.

So what are we to do?

We enjoy free speech because of the sacrifices of those who came before us. And the willingness of allied nations to help protect our families, our friends, our communities and our way of life. But with free speech comes responsibility.

It seems to me that small individual acts of courage are required. What courage looks like for each of us is different. I'm no longer the powerless little girl I was, and I've got the freedom to speak out freely in my typically feisty manner. Not everybody has that same freedom.

Individual acts of courage come in many different forms.

It could be supporting those in positions of leadership and influence who speak out. Simple acts such as liking, commenting and sharing their articles and posts on social media - whether ordinarily you agree with them or not. Perhaps sending them an email , a letter or a card thanking them for their stance. This tells those that speak out that we've got their back, and it bolsters their resolve and courage.

The importance of supporting those that speak out was brought into sharp focus for me when I read the reaction Michael Hyatt (a writer on leadership) received on Monday to his Facebook essay. Whilst many people were supportive of his observations, and some disagreed respectfully, many others (trolls aside) reacted in a highly critical, and sometimes downright nasty way. And they were supposedly fans of his work. This gave me a tiny insight into how, for many in the US difficult it is to speak out in the current climate; and an inkling as to why good people I know are fearful of causing rifts, or being on the receiving end of personal attacks and abuse.

Which is why I made a point of commenting supportively on Michael's post, and counteracting those who criticised him for among other things 'not sticking to business.' His platform is in large part about leadership, so wouldn't you expect Michael to comment on matters of character and values? As Michael says:

This is not a political issue; it is a moral one. Therefore, silence is not a virtue; it is cowardice. It is unwitting cooperation with the enemy."

Speaking up is not without its challenges. 

How on earth do we do so respectfully in a way that doesn't shame, demean or alienate others?

This is a question I hear a lot. Imperfectly is the answer given by Brene Brown in her Facebook Live earlier in the week. We speak up in the best way we know how - thoughtfully and with kindness. And if necessary we tidy up our words later if they didn't come out quite right. True friends will forgive us if our words don't come out quite right because they understand our intent.

Fifteen years ago, I too was a protestor at a Neo Nazi demonstration in South London. In truth I was terrified about attending and worried how I'd react in the face of violence. And bear in mind here in the UK, we have strict laws on carrying weapons to protect us.

However as a prominent business and community leader, my role was to lead by example. So I asked myself the question: "can I live with myself if I stay home?" The answer was a simple "no." Decision made, I put on my 'big girl pants' and set off to the protest. Now, whenever I'm faced with a situation that requires moral courage, but scares the heck out of me, I ask myself this same question.

Heather Heyer stood for “fairness and equality and caring, and that’s what we want people to take away from this,” said Susan Bro, in advance of her daughter's memorial service. Heather went to protest in Charlottesville in pursuit of her values.

My heart weeps.

My heart weeps for Heather's family and friends; fatefully killed on that street in Charlottesville while protesting peacefully to ensure safety for all people. My heart weeps for the people of Charlottesville as they start the work of getting over the trauma of last weekend's events. It weeps for people who have to deal with abuse, intolerance, bigotry and hatred, whether that's as a child like JD Vance. Or any form of discrimination or harassment. And now it weeps for the people and visitors to Barcelona, a city with a proud history that I regard as my spiritual home.

But weeping is not enough. Now is the time to step up our individual acts of courage.

ScaleDenyse Whillier