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How to engage Social Justice Warriors- My experience at Silent Sam

By: Jonathan Harris
If you prefer listening to this true story, click the youtube player below.

Maybe it was Southern heritage, the honor of a family name, or Christian conviction. Or perhaps I just needed to prove something to myself. More than likely, it was a combination of ingredients that motivated me to confront the social justice warriors staging a non stop sit-in below the Silent Sam statue at UNC Chapel Hill. The statue itself, depicting a student enlisted in the Confederate army, had stood for 104 years, originally erected in honor of the 50th year anniversary of the beginning of the War Between the States and paid for by fund-raises sponsored by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and university alumni. Though the soldier depicted carries a rifle, it was nicknamed “Silent Sam” since the Canadian sculptor John Wilson purposefully did not include a cartridge box on the soldier’s belt making it impossible to fire the figurative weapon. Sam stands to this day right by the Battle-Vance-Pettigrew building facing North, a symbol of the university students who withdrew from their studies in order to protect their homes, state, and country.

The protestors had already been on campus for a week before I decided to engage them. Listening to local media outlets praise their “noble” stand made me feel sick. I found myself angry with each new report. Is this the America I live in now, where trashing the reputation of brave men defending their homes is considered heroic? What will it mean for my children to grow up in a world where duty, honor, and sacrifice are no longer sacred? I had already been offering up my grievances and advice to the to the most efficient complaint department I knew of—Facebook.

And then something happened—conviction set in. I knew I could write social media posts all day but the protesters would likely never see them, and even if they did they would probably not be convinced by my arguments. I would just be another faceless man behind a screen shining a spotlight on their immaturity and causing resentment toward myself. I would be accomplishing nothing except to solidify their already fool-headed notions. What they needed to see in me was the same thing that I needed to see in them—worth. They were not, as my previous pattern of thought suggested, the enemy—though they were being used by him—and I was not their enemy.

A plan formed in my mind. I would give myself an opportunity to view the protesters as men and women made in the image of God. I would look into their eyes and see humanity even if they could not find humanity in the heroes of traditional Christian America. I could only hope that as we interacted something inside of them would recognize the same intrinsic worth in myself.

And so I set out on a Sunday afternoon with two large packs of sports drinks in tow. I knew the old adage, “You attract more bees with honey than with vinegar.” Now it was time to put it to the test. After all, it was better than sitting at home angry! As I approached the Confederate monument I could see about 15 or 20 people loitering in the shadow of Silent Sam. There were a few older folks and a few minorities, but most of the protesters were young caucasians not much younger than myself. The area surrounding the statue was fairly messy, and among other signs attached to the base hung a large black sheet of fabric with white lettering covering up the interpretive plaque. The sign read, “We will not be intimidated by Silent Sam.” Two smaller signs contained the messages, “No Hate,” and “No Fear.”

I walked past a male guitarist singing protest songs toward two student-aged females sitting on a bench. I proceeded to ask if they and their friends would like some Gatorades seeing as the temperature was so hot. They were both appreciative and kind, doubtless miss-taking me as a supporter of their cause. I asked one of them to take a picture of me in front of the statue which she was more than happy to do. I then inquired as to who the organizer of the protest was. They both pointed to a young student seated on a bench with five or six fellow students perched around her in a circle. I approached the group with more excitement than trepidation. The organizer was the same person I had seen on a local news broadcast the evening before. “Perhaps I could reason with her,” I thought? “They look harmless enough?” I interrupted the discussion to ask where I could place the sports drinks I had brought for them. She thanked me and motioned toward a table behind her. I set the drinks down and made my first move.

“Would you mind if I sat with ya’ll and asked a few questions?”

The organizer warmly replied, “Of course, discussion is what we’re all about,” as she moved over to make room for me on the bench.

Smiling, I accepted the offer. I could feel the anticipation as the group silently waited for what I had to say. I started with an opened-ended question.

“Why are you all protesting this monument? I know what the news says, but what is your personal motivation?”

A skinny looking young man with a fair complexion suspected something. He stared into my eyes and in a condescending tone challenged, “What do you think we are protesting?!”

I gently responded, “I assume racism?”

He verified my answer, nodding his head in agreement.

I followed up my inquiry. “If you’re all against racism why not go down the street to Planned Parenthood where three times as many black babies as white babies are being killed right now. Wouldn’t that serve your cause better than protesting something that allegedly happened more than a hundred years ago?”

The cat was out of the bag. I had shaken the beehive and the stingers were coming out. All at once those in the circle frantically interrupted each other trying to catch my attention so as to refute me. It was then I realized the power I wielded. I could effectively select which protestor I chose to engage. Since I was at best a misguided young man and at worse an enemy to the cause of social justice from their perspective, whomever set me straight or humiliated me would be the hero to their comrades. As the one and only villain, I could choose whom the hero to oppose me would be.

To avoid confusion, I pointed toward each student I would engage with. The others quieted down as I listened to each argument for a pro-abortion position. A female student told me that abortion reduces the number of children raised in dismal circumstances. I pointed out that one could also make the same argument for slavery since living conditions under American slavery were superior to tribal living. Another student asserted that a fetus was not a person. I asked why someone who was pro-slavery could not also define a slave as a “non-person?” It was rationally argued that the decision to abort should be a private one made exclusively between a woman and her doctor, without government interference. I inquired why the decision to own a slave could not also be a private one made between a slave master and a slave trader? My intention was to use the protestor’s cartoonish conception of slavery against their “sunshine and roses” view of abortion, thus hopefully encouraging them to second-guess their ethical system. It seemed to be working. At least, they were running out of arguments, or so I thought?

One of the more memorable moments of the whole encounter came next. A male student asked me, “What if I go out one night, get drunk, forget about protection, and have sex with a girl I don’t know? I don’t want her to be punished with a baby.”

I wanted to cry. “There is a better way,” I encouraged him. “My wife and I are Christians. We chose to abstain from having sexual intercourse until we said our marriage vows a year ago. If we had an accident, our child would be born into a stable home with two parents who loved each other.”

It was like the world had stopped. A miracle had occurred. A full second of silence. The look in the young man’s eyes told me he had no idea what I was talking about. As I scanned the faces in the circle I felt as if I could read their thoughts. “Is what he described even possible?” I sensed them saying internally. “Who does that anymore?” their awkward expressions seemed to query.

Out of the corner of my eye I could tell the pale looking man was visibly angry. Years ago a street preacher told me about how he used hecklers to draw a crowd. Engaging with a bully draws an audience and spreads the message, especially as listeners contrast the message of the bully with that of the preacher. Bullies aren’t generally looked upon favorably. I pointed at the pale looking male student who had been trying to interrupt repeatedly.

“Even if abortion does target black communities,” He forcibly contended, “This monument is racist, so why would you support it?”

Previously, I had evaded a similar argument that got lost in the cross fire of discussion to which I responded with a passing remark that identified me as a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and hence a likely Silent Sam supporter. It was now up to me to defend the Confederate memorial. Fortunately, I had already contemplated what I hoped to be an unexpected and effective response. The stated contention of the social justice warriors was that memorials to Confederate soldiers were monuments to slavery and by extension racism. The problem with this state of affairs was the offense such displays formed in students. I knew there were two primary problems with this interpretation. First, there are no interpretive markers or plaques on any Confederate memorial that say anything positive about racism or slavery. Second, it is the way someone is conditioned to think about a statue that causes offense, not the statue itself. If I could motivate the protestors to question their conditioning based on the meaning behind the interpretive plaque, I may be able to introduce them to a paradigm that not only made sense of Confederate memorials, but perhaps reality itself. I responded.

“I have three grandfathers who fought for the Confederacy. Two of them were killed during the war. They were dirt poor farmers, owned no slaves, and had a choice to make. Either defend their families, homes, and property, or watch them get destroyed by Federal troops. The local church where the family records were kept was burned by Sherman’s men, and it was not until recently that we were able to even trace our genealogy because of it. When I see this statue, I don’t see a statue to politicians or governments, but to soldiers. And while this statue is meant to honor the students of UNC, I think about my grandfathers and their sacrifice when I look upon it.”

I sensed a small amount of empathy as I ended my short speech. Millennials, such as myself, are accustomed to associating victimhood with virtue. To even ponder the plight of a Confederate soldier in victim terms was an immense accomplishment toward challenging their conditioning.

Not everyone was positively affected however. The student who had challenged me was gaining color in his previously pale face. He started rambling about an article in The Atlantic on Robert E. Lee. I informed him of Dr. Brion McClanahan’s refutation of the article. He told me that secession was treason. I countered by citing the ratification agreements. He asserted that a Confederate statue killed someone in Charlottesville two weeks earlier. I asked how we could even have a rational discussion if it was ok to attribute human characteristics to inanimate objects. This particular argument he did seem to realize was not a very advantageous one, but not to be undeterred, he moved on to yet another attack. Alexander Stephens, the vice-president of the Confederacy, believed whites were superior to blacks. I asked him if he was in favor of tearing down monuments to Lincoln, Grant, and Sherman since they felt the same way. To this remonstrance he astonishingly declared with defiant indignation, “No, Sherman is a hero and should have killed all the Southerners!” This did not go over well with his friends, who at this point seemed more interested in converting me than destroying me. One of them advised him to cool off and listen, a prescription he did not take, instead opting to leave in a furious huff.

By this time the number of protestors listening to our discourse had swelled to as many as twenty including additional students, members of the community, and what looked like professors. It became necessary for me to repeat the statement about my family more than once as newcomers to the discussion would ask the same questions. I found it especially interesting that as audience members heard me repeat myself, they started creating exceptions for me in their attacks on Confederate memorial supporters. One female student emphatically said, in the presence of the other protesters, “Confederate soldiers fought for hate,” then glancing at me continued, “Except your ancestors.” She wasn’t being sarcastic either. No one said “KKK go away” to me. No one called me a Nazi. I was finally something Southerners have always desired to be—human. A misguided human in their eyes perhaps, but human nonetheless.

Then something unexpected happened. Whatever rapport I had gained I felt was lost in one instant. Wanting to challenge the protestor’s assumptions further I queried as to why the interpretive plaque on the base of the monument was covered by a large sign? My intention was to demonstrate that the original purpose for the monument’s existence was incongruent with the prevailing opinion of the social justice warriors. A fresh face I did not recognize toward my left blurted out, “It’s covering the chair!”

“The chair?” I thought to myself. “What’s so significant about a chair?” I asked the young man to please explain what he meant by his statement.

“You know there’s an engraving on the base of the statue don’t you?” He queried in a tone which resembled the way an adult explains something obvious to a child.

“Yes of course,” I responded. “A young lady in a flowing robe represents the State of North Carolina. She is busy compelling a student to arise, leave his books, carry a sword, and defend her.”

He could not muster his words fast enough. “And who do you think made the chair the student is sitting on?” He stammered.

With a perplexed look I ventured an answer. “The sculptor?”

“No. Who do you think made chairs one hundred years ago?”

I was lost, but still attempted an answer. “Furniture makers?”

“No, slaves!”

“Ok?” I said with a quizzical look. “Even if that is true, which I am skeptical of, why is that relevant?”

He pressed further. “Do you know how much it hurts minority students to have to walk past a statue depicting a chair one of their ancestors likely made?”

“This man cannot be serious,” I thought to myself. “This has to be one of the worst arguments I’ve ever heard, but he seems dead serious about it.” I opted to try to lighten the mood with what I thought was a little humor.

Replying I said, “Well, It seems like a fairly well made chair to me. I think if my great grandfather had made it I would be proud!”

Little did I know it, but I was starting to dig my own grave with some of the students as my refusal to take the argument before me seriously came across as insensitive.

“Slaves built this entire campus!” the young man cried in an elevated tone.

I made what I perceived to be my check-mate move. “So why don’t we tear down the entire campus while we are at it?”

I thought I had won, and perhaps in a few of the protestor’s minds I had. But what came next knocked me off my figurative feet. Standing behind the circle was a middle age woman with blonde hair. Almost shouting she proclaimed, “White privilege exists just as much today as it did back then! Black students still don’t have the same opportunities as whites and Silent Sam continues to represent this fact!”

“What are you talking about?” I said, with some degree of bewilderment. “Of course they have the same opportunities. If anything they have more opportunities through things like affirmative action!”

I quickly learned that technically right and strategically right were two very different things. A sea of rolling eyes and audible scoffs sounded as my comment “triggered” half my audience. About ten protestors exited the conversation. I was beginning to think I would lose everyone when suddenly a middle-aged hipster-looking man carrying a stack of hymnals drew the protester’s attention. I asked an older gentleman, who had taken a position beside me, who the newcomer was. It turned out that a number of different religious groups had taken it upon themselves to support the protest by bringing food and beverages to the students and holding religious services beside the statue. In this case, it was a local Quaker pastor with members of his congregation offering moral approval for the now even more vindicated protestors.

Most of the students declined to participate and as a result side conversations began to form as the singing commenced. I quickly found myself in a conversation with the elderly man and a middle-age woman. The man asked me what at first seemed to be an irrelevant question. “Why do miscarriages take place?” Judging from the smirk on his face, I did not think his question was of a biological nature. I recalled averting his attempts to enter the abortion discussion earlier, but now it was time to face the music.

“Well, as a Christian,” I started off, “I believe as a result of the Fall of Adam nature itself bears a curse. Miscarriages are ultimately a result of sin.”

The old man hung his head and laughed for what seemed like an eternity. “Is something funny about that?” I asked.

Catching his breadth he responded with a shake of the head, “Yeah! You’re worse off than I thought.”

It later occurred to me that my major crime was not that I opposed removing Confederate monuments, but the fact that I was an outspoken Christian. The Confederacy may be offensive to social justice warriors, but I felt most disdained when opposing abortion, favoring traditional marriage, and holding to the doctrine of original sin.

The middle-aged blonde haired woman, who had only arrived on the scene in time to hear my apparently distasteful comments on affirmative action, possessed what I only know how to describe as “indignant curiosity” as she proceeded to half lecture and half interrogate me on my knowledge of the history of race-relations. To her credit, when I answered her questions she did listen, which was reason enough for me to stick around.

As the singing had ceased and our discussion progressed I noticed an audience forming once again. Six protestors sat around me in a semi-circle making arguments, asking questions, and trying to win me to their point of view. The main argument I kept hearing repeatedly was that Silent Sam represented white supremacy because in 1913 Julian Carr asserted in the dedication speech that after the war Confederate soldiers had, “saved the very life of the Anglo Saxon race in the South,” and that he had, “horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds, because upon the streets of this quiet village she had publicly insulted and maligned a Southern lady.” Fortunately, I had read the dedication speech before attending the protest and was prepared for the debate. I knew better than to try to defend the speech itself. Though the detestable phrases seem to be more like off-handed remarks in an address of over 3,200 words, a little poison can ruin even the best looking beverage. Instead I made two basic arguments. 1) If we tear down Confederate monuments, we also have to tear down Union ones if we are to be consistent. 2) To claim the erectors of the monument did so for the purpose of white supremacy is simply prejudicial conjecture since they left no such evidence on the interpretive plaque.

After agreeing with the group that Julian Carr’s comments were repulsive, I proceeded to ask why the union garrison did not help the poor half-beaten black lady? Looking around at confused looks I explained. “If you keep reading the speech, after the portion about him whipping the black woman it says that ‘she rushed for protection to these University buildings where was stationed a garrison of 600 [I miss-spoke, though no one noticed. It was actually 100.] Federal soldiers.’ Carr goes on to say that he ‘performed the pleasing duty [whipping her] in the immediate presence of the entire garrison.’”

To some defenders of Dixie my method may have appeared rather curious. Why would I begin my response by highlighting the dreadful nature of the very affair the protestors are using to bring down the monument? It’s actually rather simple. The social justice warriors were enraged and nothing I said would be capable of assuaging that rage. What I could do however is try to channel their rage, and in so doing show where such anger would lead. The Christian apologist Francis Schaeffer called this form of argument “taking the roof off” since it is meant to expose a bad argument by showing its unseen related consequences.

I followed up my statement with a question. “Why would the union garrison fail to punish Mr. Carr?”

The middle-aged woman confidently spoke. “It was a racist time in our country’s history. That’s why this monument must come down!”

“There it was!” I thought with exhilaration, “An acknowledgment that Federal troops may also have possessed racist tendencies.” I saw my opening and I went for it.

“I believe you are right. This monument was erected during the progressive era when “Birth of a Nation” was popular and Ota Benga, an African pygmy, was on full display in the “Monkey House” at the Bronx Zoo.” The North’s “treasury of counterfeit virtue” was losing money fast. I continued. “In fact, if we take a look at Abraham Lincoln and some of the early republican party’s state platforms we will see a great many racist statements there as well.”

No one seemed to want to argue these points with me. If anything, there was agreement. So I determined to drive my argument in all the way with a question. “If we are going to take this monument down, should we not also take down the Lincoln memorial?”

Turning my gaze to a curly brown-haired student on my right I heard, “Isn’t your argument a slippery slope fallacy?”

“No,” I started off, “A slippery slope would be if I told you that taking this monument down would also mean we necessarily would take the Lincoln memorial down. What I’m saying is the same argument you are using to take this monument down could sufficiently be used to take the Lincoln memorial down.”

The point seemed to have gotten through. He followed up with another question. “Ok, so let’s take the Lincoln memorial down. But first let’s take this one down. Do you agree?”

“No,” I answered once again with a half chuckle. “I’m not really for taking either down.”

“But clearly you admit that they’re both racist don’t you?” the curly haired student pressed.

“No, I merely stated that if you charge Silent Sam with the crime of being erected for the purpose of white supremacy, you could also charge the Lincoln memorial with the same crime.”

“But Silent Sam was erected because of white supremacy! Didn’t you hear what Julian Carr said?” the young student shot back.

One of the things I noticed when I first arrived at the protest was that select quotes from Julian Carr’s speech were readily available, while the interpretive plaque was purposefully covered up. I now had an opportunity to use this circumstance to further my second major argument.

“Let me ask you a question,” I gently stated. “Do you know there’s an interpretive plaque underneath the sheet covering the monument’s base?”

“Yes,” the curly haired student replied, wondering where I was going.

“Do you know what the plaque says?” I inquired.

None of the six protestors surrounding me seemed to know.

“It’s a shame we cannot just read it right now isn’t it?” I said with a smile that betrayed a hint of sarcasm.

Picking up his phone, the curly-haired protestor proclaimed, “I got it here. It says, ‘To the Sons of the University who entered the War of 1861-65 in answer to the call of their country and whose lives taught lessons of their great commander that duty is the sublimest word in the English language.’”

“There you have it,” I announced. “Duty. Duty, is the reason the Silent Sam memorial was erected.”

“Then why was it put up in 1913 when black people were being lynched around here?!” the middle-aged woman frantically declared.

My retort was direct. “The South was poor after the war and it took years to save up enough money to erect many of these monuments. They were erected by the children of those who came home injured or did not come home at all in an effort that future generations would not forget their sacrifice.”

The discourse took a turn at this point and rather than discussing the interpretive plaque we conversed about the merits of nationalism, sacrificing for one’s country, and the curly-haired student suggested I read “A People’s History of the United States,” by Howard Zinn.

When we finally came back to the subject of the monument I asked my first set-up question. “Where do you think the best place to go would be if you wanted to know what this monument stood for? Don’t you think the interpretive plaque would carry the intentions of the erectors more accurately than anything else?”

I could sense frustration mounting in more than one of the protestors. The  middle-aged woman’s face turn read again. “Why don’t you get it!” She rang in defiance. “These men were racists! This monument was meant to intimidate blacks! It was a racist time! It offends black students! We need to take it down!”

Figuratively speaking, it was now time to set my argument’s phaser from stun to kill. “If the purpose of the monument was to intimidate black people, then why didn’t the erectors simply put racially offensive statements on the interpretive plaque?”

Like clockwork the elderly man quickly replied, “They’re not going to put something like that out there for people to read. No one would accept it if that was the reason.”

“So you mean to tell me that in a thoroughly racist culture, the racists who erected this monument were not able to print a racist message on the interpretive plaque because it would offend all the racists?” I admit, exposing the foolishness of this position did cause me to feel my oats perhaps a little more than I should have as a Christian.                   

For the second time that afternoon there was a small moment of silence. The elderly man looked temporarily paralyzed, trying to think of how to respond. In the mean time a student to my left asked me why I would not want the monument to come down given that it offends people. I answered her question but deep down I knew the reason for my coming was complete. I informed her that there were people like me who would be offended if it came down. I also said that the reason for such offense is not because of the monument itself, but because of how some people are conditioned to think about the monument. I made it clear that I would rather help correct the conditioning than rip down a piece of history.

After this it was getting dark and I rose up to say goodbye to my new-found friends. As the crickets were chirping and the lightening bugs flashing I shook the hands of five of the protestors who were left speaking with me, with one of them offering me a hug. I gave each of them a card with my blog address on it which contained some of my writings on Southern history and most importantly to me, a Christian gospel presentation. No one refused my cards. As I made my way past tables of food and students studying in lawn chairs I noticed two protesters, one male and one female, who were part of the earlier conversation that afternoon. Walking up to them I offered my cards which they readily accepted, and then a unexpected thing happened. Both of them profusely thanked me for coming and proceeded to compliment me. As the female student nodded in agreement, the curly haired male student said he respected my beliefs and enjoyed the conversation. I reciprocated his kind words, and as we looked at each other I know we both recognized something deeper in our shared experience than mere arguments or political positions. We saw humanity. We saw value. We saw intrinsic worth in each other.

With a smile on my face and joy in my heart I walked through campus to the parking garage I had left my truck in. Not only had the Lord allowed me to defend his servants and my heroes, but I had been able to expose a group of 25-30 social justice warriors to a Christian pro-Southern conservative who was not a Klansman or a neo-Nazi. I had to wonder if they ever expected to really meet someone like me, even though I am just one of many who feel the same way.

The next day I noticed a comment on my blog from one of the protestors who had visited my website. It read, “Thanks for talking with us at Silent Sam yesterday. I see now that an evangelical viewpoint seems to be an anchor for you. I grew up (mostly) in the Presbyterian church but my dad’s death changed all that (long story!)”

Going to her social media page I noticed this public statement about our conversation.

Today a Baptist seminary student showed up at Sam, bringing Gatorade and a highly self-referential opinion about the statues (i.e. “My great-grandfathers fought, they weren’t bad people”). Many of us talked with him (he wasn’t waving a flag so he just sat down with us) and I’m glad to say there was no ugliness whatsoever. I’m not sure his mind was changed–and I don’t know if anyone’s mind can be changed by a few hours of conversation–but I know that communication and listening are at the heart of true healing.

For once, I agree with this social justice warrior. Talking to the protestors with a listening ear was not a waste. After all, it was better than sitting at home angry!

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