The term, hold the line, originally referred to military tactics in which a line of troops was supposed to prevent an enemy breakthrough. The non-military meaning today alludes to maintaining the existing position or state of affairs.
Like many people, I think Gen. James Mattis’ remarks to his troops about “holding the line” are inspiring: “Our country right now, it’s got problems we don’t have in the military. You just hold the line until our country gets back to understanding and respecting each other and showing it.”
So, to what line was Gen. Mattis referring? We may reasonably infer he was telling his troops to defend our homeland and vital interests abroad without worrying about the political implications. As a corollary, we may accept he was telling his troops to be ready to wreak unrelenting havoc upon our enemies. That is the task of the United States Military.
What line should those of us not in the military hold in this time of national division with approximately half of our citizens divided against the other half, e.g. progressives vs. traditionalists, capitalists vs. socialists, and pro-supporters of President Trump vs. those with profound antagonism toward him?
I became politically aware in Junior High School when I delivered approximately 100 copies of the afternoon Atlanta Journal before it combined with the morning Atlanta Constitution. I always managed to secure an extra free copy of the Constitution from the local newspaper distributor. Generally, I read copies of each paper every day. Ralph McGill, best known as an anti-segregationist editor and publisher of the Constitution, greatly influenced my political understanding. I met and interacted with Mr. McGill twice while in high school. During those early years, I came to the intellectual conclusion that segregation/racism was immoral and a waste of our resources. I could not, of course, keep my opinions to myself—a circumstance that did not endear me to my family and many of my friends.
Looking back from the perspective of my long years of political awareness, I can without hesitation say I have never seen our country so dived against itself as we are presently. The only situations that remotely came close were during the segregation vs. integration battles in the South and the pro- vs. anti-Vietnam war years. The ready availability of uncensored Internet forums serves to exacerbate the present discord. A great contributor to the hostility of people participating in these forums is the widespread devolution into ad hominem attacks: That is, attacking the person rather than attacking the person’s ideas and opinions.
I have a great intellectual and emotional attachment to almost unrestricted free speech. Why almost? Because my Judeo-Christian principles tell me that I should not engage in conversations or forums that violate those values even though I have free speech in the civil arena. I think one teaching we may take from Mr. McGill is: His columns did not employ ad hominem attacks, even though many of his segregationist opponents certainly engaged in these types of attacks.
So, what line should we hold during this time of national discord? We should, first and foremost, eschew intentionally harmful speech. Yes, sometimes expression of our well-thought-out speech may cause pain to those who disagree with us. But, two quotes from John Wesley come to mind, as adapted for today’s inclusive language:
(1) Condemn no one for not thinking as you think. Let everyone enjoy the full and free liberty of thinking for themselves. Let everyone use their own judgment, because all must give an account of themselves to God. Abhor every approach, in any kind or degree, to the spirit of persecution, if you cannot reason nor persuade someone into the truth, never attempt to force someone into it.
(2) Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion. Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences.
I look as these imperatives in conjunction with my commitment to free speech as models for letting our ideas and the ideas of others compete in the marketplace of ideas without coercion. In this context, our civil and criminal laws are coercive because, while they may have some welcomed positive influence on our behavior, they do not change hearts and minds. I suspect no ad hominem attack has ever changed anyone’s mind or behavior. No person, law, or principle forces us to engage in ad hominem attacks.
Another line we should hold is to employ receptive listening. That is, we should give our full attention to what others are saying and observe their effects while speaking without trying simultaneously to formulate our own opinions and responses. Almost every time I have employed receptive listening techniques, I have found some common ground with those disagreeing with me or at least decreased the intensity of the discussion.
How should we react to ad hominem attacks directed against us or our friends and loved ones? First of all, we should decide if a response is merited. Sometimes refusing to respond will end the attacks, sometimes no response will cause great consternation to the attacker. Secondarily, if we feel a response is necessary, we should not respond with our own ad hominem attacks; rather, we should focus on addressing the actual issues involved, preferably in a calm and reasoned, even if passionate, manner. In following this approach, we must recognize that we may never convince some people of the “righteousness” of our counter-arguments; hence, we must trust Wesley: If you cannot reason nor persuade someone into the truth, never attempt to force someone into it. That is, we must wait for the will of God to become manifest while we hold the line without wavering.