I had a naive optimism when the election had completed in November a fresh wave of people would be elected and prepare themselves to act as waiters to serve our country. I had believed what would arrive at the dinner tables of America would be glasses filled with civility and we would all enjoy a meal which was to arrive at the beginning of 2019.
Needless to say, I was disturbed by what was brought to our tables. What we received was more of the same language and anger which has been characteristic of our nation since President Obama’s executive leadership. What do you say when a newly elected congresswoman calls President Trump, “motherfucker?” The response was reminiscent of my children when they were younger. “Well he did it first!”
The context of our nation’s uncommon decency did not begin in January 2017. Yes the executive leader of these United States demonstrates a lack of decorum in terms of language, a combative tone with those who would challenge his most off the wall statements, and an incessant penchant to tweet. This uncommon decency which washes over our country did not flow initially from President Trump but has been flowing out of the hearts of many persons regardless of party affiliation, ethnic community, or religious commitment. A Pew Research Study (Dimock, Kiley, Keeter, & Doherty, 2014) examined how uniformity along political ideology increased in a twenty year period between 1994 and 2014. The study sadly points to an increasing adversarial sentiment in which 38% of Democrats had very unfavorable views of Republicans, while 43% of Republicans had very unfavorable views of those holding Democratic positions. Therefore, the incivility we are experiencing has been growing through Democratic and Republican presidencies. Presidencies which have experienced impeachment, unfavorable wars, accusations of Islamic influence, and now Russian influence. President Trump is not the source but a symptom.
Sadly, these two parties have positioned themselves to dominate the public square, pitting family members, co-workers, and even persons of the same religious affiliation against one another. In the same period of 1994-2014, we also saw the rise of social media. Facebook launched in 2004 essentially eclipsing the outmoded Myspace. Two years later, Twitter and its 140 characters-now 280- would also position itself as a significant communication tool which the current President uses with fervor. The public square has now moved to the technological square where persons can hide on a phone or behind a computer screen communicating some of the most damning, damaging, and dehumanizing content without fear of reprisal.
We are all accountable for the lack of decency. This lack of decency pervades our communication devices and finds embodiment in those who position themselves as our elected leaders, whether political office or religious office. If we have arrived at this place because of our collective efforts, then it requires we as a people lay hands on the future to secure a common decency for our posterity.
Noam Chomsky, crafted an article entitled, “Humanity Imperiled: The Path to Disaster” in June 2013. In this article Dr. Chomsky examined the future of humanity considering if our path to disaster would be through ecological destruction or the penultimate of nuclear destruction. I would propose that these paths are chosen only if we continue to demonstrate an uncommon decency towards one another. If we are not willing to galvanize as peacemakers to claim decency towards one another, how much easier it is to devastate our soil or the soil of another nation for monetary gain or claims of democracy? A lack of common decency willing to dehumanize persons on social media is a slow steady descent towards more conflict, more war, and the most devastating event, mushroom clouds.
Imagine how a cup of common decency can be just what we need to stop a great dinner from becoming a food fight. We just need the waiters willing to serve.
Self-reflection has become a critical personal discipline for my life. This practice offers me the opportunity to examine actions I have taken, words spoken, and thoughts I have meditated on throughout the year. Self-reflection is a humbling practice as it allows an individual to face him or herself.
I think we are all in need of a little bit of self-reflection during this period of our societal history. We are not as holy as we make ourselves out to be on a daily basis. We are not as just and merciful to others as we would want others to be with our own actions and words. We are not as civil as we think we are in the 21st Century America.
What a strange word.
This word invokes images of peaceful interactions between persons. Persons who have equally chosen to place themselves in positions in which there are no religious, social, political, or economic hierarchies. I imagine civility as the embodiment of two human beings on a journey of questioning, discovery, and understanding.
Civility should produce friends.
Then I realized something. In order for civility to be embodied in human beings it necessitates the acknowledgement of a human being’s personhood. Rufus Burrow identifies a zeitgeist or spirit of the age in which persons are not appropriately given the consideration of their inherent worth. If I am not willing to acknowledge the dignity of the person with whom I am engaging within a form of communication the result will not be beneficial to either of us. If I desire to see civility I have to do something different.
As I reflect on this past year, I worked hard to provide a platform for people, primarily on social media, to discuss topics of race, poverty, and other social issues. Sometimes the topics went very well while other times I just shook my head and chose to delete the whole interaction. I realized I was contributing to the incivility I was seeking to reduce.
Breath changes people.
When a person feels, touches, and sees another person the opportunity for change is possible. That is what happened to John and his friends in first century Palestine with a Jewish Rabbi who embodied the breath of God. Social media is a poor platform for interaction because people are not face to face. Our ability to feel appropriately, touch a hand, and see facial expressions are significantly hindered. Social media many times creates opportunities for persons to diminish themselves through disrespectful and dehumanizing comments which prevent any type of meaningful engagement, discovery, and understanding. I have observed even the most encouraging statement can descend into ugliness.
So now as 2019 approaches I need to exhale in the presence of other living persons. I want people to recapture the power and beauty of inspiration through the virtue of human presence.
Noam Chomsky stated “freedom produces opportunity and culminates in responsibility.” I have a responsibility to people in the area in which I live to cultivate civility. Why? (Only God knows.) Whatever the case, I understand my small platform and will pursue opportunities to advance the dignity of persons.
What will this look like?
Join me for self-reflection, civility, and the opportunity to experience the breath of another human being.
I don’t know when it happened. I can’t get my head around why there are so many people who have so much energy to talk yet such an anemia of action. It is a very uncomfortable position to place oneself in what could bring opposition from a variety of persons.
Maybe its social media. Everything comes at us one hundred miles an hour. One moment a man is shot by a policewoman. In another moment a president with Nobel in hand drone strikes people. In another moment children are being escorted to centers apart from their parents. While another president drops a MOAB an already turbulent land. As soon as we get outraged about one event, here comes another. Dang it Nike! We return to business as usual.
Maybe we like our comforts. You know business as usual. Selfies. Trips to some resort getaway. Getting all emotional because Cardi-B and Nicki Minaj had blows. We swoon over a Kardashian’s lifestyle and our desire to be part of the rich and famous.
Outrage. Pontification. Normalcy.
Outrage. Pontification. Normalcy.
Maybe outrage is simply a cathartic opportunity to feel as if we care. I mean surely we don’t “want to be on the wrong side of history.” I can’t look like a bigot or a sympathetic nationalist. I pick up my phone. I get on my computer. With furor and anger. With some sense of moral standard and justice, I have to get my thought out there into the universe. I have to say something to show I care. It is the two-hundred and eighty characters who I will employ with my moral outrage to express my shock, put my opposition in a corner, and anxiously await the glorious sound of affirmation.
Now I can go back to my comfort because I have maintained my distance from the Jericho Road.
Looking back on the Civil Rights Movement of the sixties, there were many well meaning Caucasian brothers and sisters who wanted to see changes in the society. In the North, there were well meaning persons who rejected segregation and racism. There were those, yes even in the South, who wanted to progress out of the dehumanizing posture towards Black Americans. Inspirational in words. They were outraged about the treatment of courageous young persons facing dogs, hoses, and Sunday school teaching resistance. Yet the level of activism resided in words and lacked any strength to be present, participate, and if needed, have their reputations perish for a greater cause, the cause of justice. Many simply did not want to give up a way of life which was normal. “Life seemed unrecognizable to many white Southerners. Confronted with a reality they had barely contemplated, some whites retaliated with any weapons at their disposal. Others attempted to avoid the upheaval; they tried to maintain cherished ways of life even as the ground shifted beneath their feet. In the end, evasion proved impossible” (Sokol, 64).
History illustrates a point. One can be outraged about the treatment of others or the trajectory of our country, yet in the same experience, we can choose not to act because of the implied changes which would happen to us, our context, and most importantly those we are advocating for in words.
Outrage and intellectual activism which remains in our social media silos or silently discussed around our white chocolate mochas and expensive MacBooks are ineffective knives to cut the chords of injustice.
James Brown opened a song with the following words:
Like a dull knife
Just ain't cutting
Just talking loud
Then saying nothing
Don't tell me
How to do my thing
When you can't, can't
Can't do your own*
The Godfather of Soul has some good instruction for all of us. Outrage and intellectual activism without actions which puts us in the middle of the injustice are ineffective knives. The very design of a knife is have and maintain a sharpness which is then capable of cutting through some object. The knife for a period of time becomes part of the object until it separates the object from whatever it maybe attached. If we would be honest many of us are simply dull knives, creating a lot of noise, fostering incivility, and not willing to offer substantial change.
If you are not moved by James Brown, I would encourage you to hear the voice of a woman. Esther was a Queen who took outrage and words over the treatment of people she identified with, choosing to disrupt normalcy for the sake of justice. In her actions, she went unannounced into the throne room of the King.
Outraged about the impending injustice to kill Jewish people.
Intellectual activism in her discussion with her uncle Mordecai, “I will go to the the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish” (Esther 4:16).
Action knowing the threat of death, “And when the king say Queen Esther standing in the court, she won favor in his sight, and he held out to Esther the golden scepter that was in his hand” (Esther 5:2).
James Brown and Esther still speak today. We can be men and women who act justly. Yes it means being outraged and discussing the injustice. Yet these two must be accompanied by actions because injustice is tied to people. People whose lives, potentiality, and capability are interrupted by some form of individual or societal injustice. When outrage, intellectual thought, and loving action work together, the chords of injustice are severed and people can move freely.
“Words from James Brown’s Talking Loud and Saying Nothing”
Sokol, Jason, (2007). “There Goes My Everything: White Southerners In the Age of Civil Rights 1945-1975.” Vintage Press.