Having just come through the election season, I’m feeling pretty bruised. After all, I’ve been called, by both ends of the political spectrum:
- perverted and immoral,
- a socialist, KKK member, and a Nazi,
- someone who hates America and freedom,
- a coward, idiot, and fool,
- stupid, deluded, intolerant, and heartless,
- in league with the Devil against (different versions of) God and/or his (various) “people” and “plans”,
- a disgrace, an elitist, and a despicable freeloading son of a bitch,
- part of a conspiracy to control or kill (various) people.
… and that was just friends and family.
Of course, not everyone said that to my face, or even to my Facebook. But I certainly received and read posts, emails, memes, proclamations, forwards, and quotations sent my way that let me know that some people thought so, or at least they thought so about people like me.
And so, the last few weeks have left me wondering, “Do people who know me really think this about me? Am I investing my trust, my time, my emotional health, my loyalty, and my wellbeing in some people who, in reality, despise me?” I’m a pretty forgiving and loyal soul, but I am not afraid to walk away and shut the door when something or someone becomes irrevocably or intentionally toxic. No matter who. No matter what. And if I someone were to think that I, my wife, my mother, my kids, and others close to me were the devil’s spawn, social vermin, or that the world would be better off if we were dead, it would be time. Life is too short already.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not afraid of a verbal smack-down. I can argue passionately. I can also denigrate, mock, belittle, over-simplify, caricature, slander, and engage in a diatribe with the best of ‘em. That’s part of the reason why I have periodically stepped away from deleting some people from my life permanently over the last eighteen months or so: I have probably said or posted things that brought others to a similar place at times. I’m not claiming to be lilly white. I don’t think that most people who know me personally really think I am stupid, disgusting, hateful, or evil. Not really. And I really don’t think that the people who seem to be saying these things about me are so, either.
So what is going on? How do we come to attack people, for whom we claim to care, with such terrible and hurtful words and images? And why do we allow ourselves to contribute to reducing them to a caricature by sharing hateful forwards, memes, or posts with everyone we know? Why doesn’t it work the other way around? Why don’t we return it back to the sender, saying, “This denigrates people I care about and I don’t appreciate it” or at least take the simple and pusillanimous step of pressing “delete” or “hide”?
Only two things I know drive people to this kind of behavior. One is fear. The other is bitterness. Both are inherent in human societies and social relations. And both, allowed or encouraged to grow to the point where they control our impulses, can tear societies, families, and friendships apart. And that is what I think has been happening in our political discourse.
Fear closes off both heart and mind. It shuts down empathy, understanding, and intellection, and it elevates the nastiest, knee-jerk, do-or-say-anything-to-survive, fight-or-flight impulses to the fore. And it pumps us up with enough adrenalin to mask any thought for the harm we might do to others (or to ourselves) until we can regret it from a safe distance. Socially, fear operates from the inside looking out. It motivates us to do terrible things to others based on the perception that they pose some kind of threat. Disgust and revulsion are kinds of fear. Disregard and apathy are close cousins, because one way of preserving one’s self in danger is to ignore others in greater danger and hope that the threat gets them instead.
Bitterness originates not in fear, but in frustration. It depends upon perceiving ourselves as having been wronged in some way without redress. Socially, bitterness operates from the outside looking in, and it looks for an opportunity to be a threat if given the chance. Envy and loathing are kinds of bitterness, and once engaged, vengeance, spite, and cruelty are its fruits.
Both fear and bitterness stem from legitimate social interests. There are things we should fear, and there are injustices and inequities that we should address. But these impulses cannot sustain, build, or heal social relations long term because they are pernicious and corrosive to them. Pushed to extremes, fear seeks preservation at all cost, while bitterness seeks annihilation at any cost. The result is mutually assured destruction.
Political operatives and ideologues know how to push our buttons. They know what turns off our critical thinking and keeps us glued to a message, perspective, or screen. They’ve know this for a long, long time. But our present technology exacerbates their effects on and power over us. It allows us to sink ever deeper into information silos — mutually exclusive realities — that are designed to keep us inside by making us fear and loathe what is outside. It allows and encourages us to strike out from them at our perceived enemies at an instant. And it keeps this process going 24/7, every single day. Of. Our. Lives.
Given enough fear and bitterness, people will lash out at anything just to try and make it stop. And they will justify it by projecting their fears and unhappiness on anyone who fits the momentary need. But, as the Roman poet Horace once observed, et semel emissum volat irrevocabile verbum (“once sent forth, a word flies on, unable to be recalled”). The same goes for forwards, posts, and Facebook: once we hit “send” or “share,” it’s too late to prevent the damage we cause to people who take us at our word. And, at some point, that damage can’t be undone. Eventually, we will find ourselves alone, in our own silo, with little but bile and rancid ideas to live on.
But instead of lashing out at each other, maybe we ought to turn on those who encourage us to do this. Or better yet, maybe we should just climb out of our respective silos and walk away from them. Once outside, a good place to start afresh would be to stop trying to persuade each other and start trying just to understand each other. I’m willing to bet that, if we start from a place where someone doesn’t have to crush someone else to survive, we’ll probably find that, like our friends, most people aren’t the boogiemen that we sometimes make them out to be, even if we disagree with them strongly.