PROVINCETOWN — Walking along Bradford Street with my dog, I see the DPW truck coming down the hill. I know many of the DPW guys, and one of them, Paul, is a particular friend, but I can’t see who is driving. I raise my arm about 45 degrees and hold out an open palm, thumb a bit extended.
A little later, the F.A. Days truck appears and I recognize my friend Jeff at the wheel. I raise my arm a bit higher and this time spread all my fingers — an open hand. The next car is driven by another friend, Genevieve; I give her the same raised open hand, this time shaking it back and forth. When I cross the street, a car stops for me and I show a cupped palm about chest high.
Each of these signals, slightly different, conveys a message, ranging from a basic thank you to simple recognition to genuine affection. The gradations of meaning in a simple wave of the hand are remarkable, and all the more noteworthy when the face is masked.
I’ve read that the open-handed wave originated in our distant evolutionary past, when one person (or pre-person?) wanted to signal another that he or she was not carrying a weapon. I have no idea whether this is true, but it makes sense. Our early ancestors lived in very small groups and were wary of each other, and especially of strangers.
This premise must be viewed against the violent beginnings of our species. Modern scholars emphasize that early humans were an extremely aggressive bunch. If you doubt this, Steven Pinker (Angels of Our Better Nature) marshals the evidence from prehistory to the Greeks, to the Bible, through early European history: basically, a bloodbath in every epoch. Yuval Noah Harari (Sapiens) goes further: even 20th-century tribal cultures, he says, are characterized by high levels of homicide. Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs, and Steel) corroborates this view in the case of the people of Papua New Guinea, suffering from “murder and chronic tribal warfare.” In fact, Pinker would have us believe that we have never lived in a less violent time than the present.
And yet, murder rates in this country have gone up dramatically over the past few months; in some cities, they have doubled. June saw a historic peak in American gun sales, and, apparently, even liberals are buying guns, according to the BBC. But it is not liberals I see on social media and cable news at right-wing rallies. It’s guys with red MAGA hats, waving signs and American flags — and carrying AK-47s. There have already been skirmishes, violence, and a few people shot and killed. It seems inevitable that there will be more. Chekhov’s maxim applies: if there’s a gun on the wall in the first act, it has to be fired in the second act.
Most likely the vast majority of those gun-toting people are engaging in theater, never intending to shoot anybody. But what is the message? That the state cannot be trusted to protect them and their rights? Those in Black and brown communities have more right to that message, but they are largely not armed at their rallies. Are the guns to demonstrate the seriousness of their claims? Are they determined to use force to further their goals? It has never worked, in the history of humankind, and it will not work now.
Enough about them. What about us? This is our challenge: can we find a way to approach these people and coax them away from their threatening attitudes? Can we find the courage to enter in dialogue with them, to try to find common ground? It will be difficult — next to impossible — but surely there can be some progress made.
Put down your gun, I say. Sit with me, and let’s talk reasonably. I raise my hand to you, and it is open.