"Try to understand men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love. There are shorter means, many of them. There is writing promoting social change, writing punishing injustice, writing in celebration of heroism, but always that base theme. Try to understand each other.” - John Steinbeck
In “Mice and Men”, Steinbeck is concerned with a few aspects of human nature, but especially oppression and abuse. When I first read the classic back in high school, I wondered if the “mice” imagery would come through as a condemnation of cowardice within humanity. I still wonder that to this day, though that is the one animal imagery from the book that is not necessarily intended to represent cowardice. But one important understanding has tipped for me since my high school days: my view of what a coward is has evolved dramatically.
At its most simplistic stage, I used to think of a coward as someone who was afraid to fight. Immediately following were those who would attack or abuse those who are significantly less powerful (that much was central to Of Mice and Men). Soon enough, the definition began to include those who would blindside or backstab you. That of course is a delicate expansion of the definition: given the benefit of context, it can be argued that sometimes you have a justifiable option to blindside. But only to someone who has proven to be a serious (and presumably unprovoked) threat to your existence. And therein lies a huge complication to the moving-target definition of bravery.
For almost forty years since I first read Steinbeck’s masterpiece, that’s roughly two generations, I have observed a peculiar thing about some fellow humans: the tendency to over-generalize out of what can only be irrational fear. It typically manifests itself in derogatory labeling, grouping, or stereotyping of nationalities, races, and religions. Predictably not our own.
I have also noticed that a certain percentage of the generalizers “double-down” on their generalizations. Meaning, when intelligently challenged on their logic, they simply repeat it louder. Not unlike when simpler minds travel to foreign countries, and speak their own language louder when natives cannot understand them. It seems to me at that tipping point that only two things can possibly be taking place: they are either intellectually limited, or they are just intellectually lazy. In the latter case, they have conditioned themselves to be highly suspect of any use of the intellect for purposes other than work and immediate family.
While I can certainly understand the plight of those who possess less than average intellectual reasoning, I found myself frustrated in recent years with the intellectually lazy. They are the ones who know better, but choose not to. Their reasons vary, but I have come to understand they boil down to two: they have either indoctrinated themselves in the suspicion of intellectual thought and reason, or they have become addicted to a greed-driven existence.
Today I see a coward as someone who hides irrational fears (aka hate), or unchecked fears in the case of the lazy ones, behind a hawkish bravado. By contrast, someone who is afraid to fight, and admits as much, is nowhere near as cowardly in the ultimate scale of bravery.
There is no doubt that sometimes we have to fight. That’s a given. There is no doubt we have to be vigilant about potential threats to civilized individuals and society. But the false hawks, ultimately the true cowardly ones, always have been and continue to be a major complication in our mission to evolve. For all practical purposes, they are an evolutionary liability.
Yet here lies the ultimate challenge: it’s not their fault. It’s actually ours, those of us who claim to know AND act better. Because we have too much contempt for the false hawks. Which makes us, at the end of the day, a hypocritical part of the problem: we hate the haters.
Steinbeck was right. We are not going to change the world by hating the haters. Our only hope is to try to understand them. You don’t have to agree with their views and actions. But understanding them better will finally earn you that moral high ground that we automatically, and mistakenly, assume is ours.