the politics of not unfriending

the politics of not unfriending August 6, 2016

File:Plato's allegory of the cave.jpg

If you post racist stuff online, I probably won’t unfriend you.

I’ve unfriended and blocked a few anti-Semites in my time, for the sake of my emotional equilibrium. I’ve done the same with creepy guys who send private messages starting with “hey” (so original and eloquent) and proceeding to “I feel like we could have a special connection” (really? On the basis of what?), ending with “why u not respond to me?” (seriously, guys, don’t do this, ever, to anyone).

But for the most part, if you share material that I find to be morally offensive, sexist, racist, and prejudiced, I probably will not block, unfriend, or hide you. This is partially because I believe knowledge is one of the few forms of power that doesn’t corrupt, the kind of power that we need to tap into, if we strive for communal transformation. Using power or violence to defeat power or violence merely exacerbates the problem, and leads to greater moral and intellectual darkness. Understanding power and violence, however, is a path to light.

I need to know what you are thinking, o sharer of offensive material; I want to understand what motivates you, which preconceptions you’re clutching. I may be tempted to reduce you to a stereotype, but when I consider how humans interact I remember: you can’t work for social justice by fighting caricatures or stereotypes. Honestly, I’m not sure you can work for social justice by fighting at all, because no matter how correct I may be, no matter how many logical arguments I amass, or – if I’m arguing with fellow-Catholics how many church documents I quote, you are probably not going to change your view because someone hammered you over the head with reasons. And I expect that calling you a “bigot” or “racist” won’t help, either. If I somehow succeed in shutting you down by shaming or shouting over you, I don’t imagine that I will have thus created a more humane or civilized culture simply because I no longer hear the things I don’t like.

People do change their views, however. I’ve changed mine, and usually it was because there was a bond of friendship that allowed someone to speak to me above my ignorance and resentment, and because my friend did not reduce me to my worst opinions. And what if I didn’t change my opinions? Was their friendship contingent on my coming around? Of course a friendship is better where there is greater moral unity. But if I’m using a pretense of amiability simply to lure you to my “side,” it’s not real amiability. I need to continue to recognize your dignity as a person even if you hold opinions I find repugnant.

If you pose racist stuff, I may be tempted simply to deride you, but I don’t think it will do any good for me, or for you, or for our culture, or for the victims of racism, if I simply excommunicate you from my online community. I realize this is part of my privilege as a more or less white person, that I’ve not personally been the victim of extreme prejudice or systemic racism, and am not triggered by bigoted material. Those who have been repeatedly, systematically oppressed do not have this luxury, and may need to block or unfriend more regularly, to protect their own psychological well-being.

So, while I will not block you, or unfriend you, or deny your personhood, I am asking you at least to consider that what to you is just a joke, is, to another person, part of a constant barrage of negativity and disrespect. When you think you’re ballsy enough to be politically incorrect, you’re actually falling in with the politics of power, the worst kind of political correctness, because it’s not only rude and tasteless; it also serves to perpetuate injustice.

Except, wait: if you post racist stuff online, you may not even be aware that you are posting racist stuff online. You may have bought into a false definition of racism that exists to leave room for prejudice, or to the relativistic false morality that treats victimhood as a mere “choice.”

If you do, I don’t know whether I can completely blame you, since cultural brainwashing can override the voice of natural morality, and you may never have had the chance to examine your conscience if you can’t even locate it amidst the clamor of superegos. I do know, though, that I hope you will reject the narratives of superiority or prejudice, that you will learn to recognize injustice embedded in our systems, even our systems of discourse.

I know also that I may be guilty of being inadvertently offensive in various arenas. I wasn’t aware of how hurtful it is to use “the r-word” until I read my friend Phoebe Holmes’ post on the subject. I can’t remember whether I often used the term “retard” insultingly, before I read her piece – but, if I did, I am sorry. I am also grateful that, if I did, Phoebe did not unfriend me, but instead wrote her thoughtful piece.

I understand that sometimes one has to unfriend or block for the sake of mental peace. However, I encourage those who wish to create a more just and humane society, as much as possible, not to create ideological bubbles in which you never hear anything with which you disagree. Universities are doing this, and it is destroying both intellectual discourse and the possibility of attaining moral maturity. We can’t easily shift the power dynamic of the universities, but we do have have an opportunity to craft a virtual agora in which we can exchange ideas thoughtfully, and learn from one another. We need to learn where prejudice comes from, the better to eradicate it. And, if we refuse to engage with those who hold offensive opinions, all we do is leave them in their own echo chambers, assuring one another that the rest of us are hypocrites who preach tolerance but act out of spite.

Those of us who try to follow Christ’s radical path of love and forgiveness come off as insincere when we preach love of everyone, even terrorists and criminals, but are unable to engage courteously with ordinary everyday sinners who happen to be bogged down in prejudices of earlier generations, or infected with new ideologies of hatred pedaled by malicious media sources, false prophets, or self-aggrandizing politicians. And when we can’t engage courteously, we lose the opportunity to invite others to join us on Christ’s path. We may reject the culture war, but contributing to the fragmentation of human communities into disparate isolated groups means creating a scenario in which war is the dominant paradigm.

We say that we see Christ in everyone. I say this, but when I say it, am I preening myself on a moral superiority I do not possess? Because, actually, I don’t usually see Christ in the other. I might be seeing silliness, or annoyingness, or interestingness, or ugliness. How do we find God in these attributes? I am not sure.

Still, seeing Christ in the other has to become more than theoretical, though theoretical is a good place to start. If we can’t see Christ in the other, we can take a nihilistic path  – or an apophatic one, seeking presence even in absence. And we must remember that the absence may not be in the face of the other, but in our own blindness.

image credit: Mats Halldin.



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