Friday, August 20, 2010

The Internet and Civil Discourse

I was a child during the McCarthy hearings, a teenager during the key years of the civil rights struggle, and a young adult during the escalation of the Vietnam War. I have lived through protests and riots, murders and assassinations. I remember James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner buried in an earthen dam in Mississippi in 1964. I remember vividly the assassinations of John Kennedy in 1963 and of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy in 1968. In many ways the latter year, the year I graduated from high school, was one of the worst in American history. For me the 50s were no “golden era” in American history, but a time of brutality and conflict over the very soul of the country. I grew up in the American south, in Tennessee and saw and heard the racism and xenophobia that held my home state and region in thrall.

You would think that having lived through all this I would take our current conflicts in stride. As far as we know there are no bodies buried in Mississippi dams. Protests have been rather mild. No major political figure has been assassinated—yet. And yet, I find myself more concerned, more fearful of the state of the country than I ever have been. I fear we are standing at the brink of an era of bigotry and bloodshed that will make the 50s and 60s seem tame in comparison. I say this because we are living in an era of dehumanization fostered by the anonymity of the internet and the outrageous behavior of media personalities who mock, sneer, and demean their opponents with evident impunity. And the first step to brutality and murder is dehumanization.

Throughout the 20th century, perhaps the most murderous century in human history, the first step to genocide was dehumanization. Whether the hated minorities were capitalists or communists, Jews or Serbs, Hutus or Tutsis, the strategy was the same. They were vermin, cockroaches or leeches. There were infections or cancers on the body politic. They were diminished with crude epithets and mocked via cartoonish depictions. They were less than human. As a result they could be killed with impunity. Who worries over much about the fate of a rat? Whether they were locked up in camps, lined up and shot, imprisoned and starved to death, or sunk in misery at the margins of society, dehumanization was an aid to their demise.

Whether we are given the language of demonization by Glenn Back or Keith Olbermann, whether it comes from the Tea Party or, the result is the same. Human beings are reduced at best to intellectual stick figures and at worst to insects or viruses to be eliminated at all costs. Although the media and our politicians are to blame for fanning the flames of bigotry and fear, we are to blame for listening and responding. We no longer hear genuine concerns. We scoff at honest objections. As a result, truth is a victim of ideology. I have my views and convictions like everyone else. But I want to listen—because I could be wrong. And perhaps more important, I know people whose views are very different than mine who are generous, loving, good-hearted people—many in my own family.

It is tempting in such a brutal time to fall into despair. And I would be less than honest if I did not acknowledge that there are days I want to find that cabin in the woods. I am genuinely concerned about the world I am bequeathing to the grandchild that is on the way. But I am a Christian. And that means I live in hope. Not the “hope” or “change” offered every four years by politicians, but the hope of the new heavens and the new earth--the hope of resurrection. And I believe that the job of the church is to bring the light and life of the coming kingdom into the darkness and death of the present. Years ago Stanley Hauerwas argued that the failure of a Christian couple to desire children is a failure of hope and faith. Having children, he suggested, was a way of declaring our confidence in God in spite of the circumstances. So I look forward to welcoming a granddaughter and live in faith, hope, and love. But I also hope for a world in which she will be able to state her views without being diminished and scorned.

John E. Phelan, Jr.


  1. You stir my heart...wish this were postable on Facebook. The world out there needs your message.

  2. As a '68 grad I identify with your historical perspective. I too, and deeply concerned with the state of American Political discourse, where the reasonable voices are drowned out by the vocal extremists. Scripture has a way of bringing us back to the centrality of our purpose; to love God and love mankind as he loved us.
    Dan Bolstad