Open Season on the Voiceless: In Search of Compassion in the Age of Disrespect

DSC_0645“Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” –Mohandas Gandhi

Hello friend,

My feathers are ruffled this week. I am stirred up. Anger, shame, envy, and simple hurt feelings are forming a combustible mix in my heart. They have been building up lately as I watch more and more of the political coverage on CNN, but what really tripped my storm this week was a simple Facebook post by a friend. It began with the type of snarky meme that I am becoming so accustomed to seeing—this time it was a baby shooting us the skunk-eye with the saying, “Why the heck do I have to press 1 for English? Did America Move?But instead of being accompanied by her commenting something like “Truthor “So sick of this! or some other diatribe against immigrants, my friend went the exact opposite direction. She blasted the people who post this type of meme for their perpetuation of hate and negativity, and implored us to move beyond the hate with some tolerance. She made great points, challenged the readers, and was super-passionate (her flair for the F-bomb is something I can only aspire to!).

“Yes!!!was all I could think to write in the Comments section, because it was exactly what came out of my mouth as I was reading it. Yes Yes YES!!! I was charged up. So many different emotions were swirling. For one, I was really proud of her, specifically for standing up to the ignorance and negativity that is so especially prevalent on the web and Facebook. I was also simply excited that someone was saying something, especially something with so much spirit and intelligence behind it. That also made be extremely envious of her for having the guts to do it. She said something I should have said any number of times when I read mean-spirited and ignorant posts, and I wished it was me with the guts. That made me ashamed of myself, especially as I am keenly aware of my privileged position as a White, heterosexual, middle-class male in America. I have a voice in this society that I didn’t do anything to earn. Nobody stood in the way of me putting my voice out there, and all of the characteristics I just mentioned automatically lend some credence to my opinions that people without those characteristics are denied. They are the voiceless.

I see all of these memes on Facebook—about welfare recipients, Muslims, immigrants and others whose first language is not English, and on and on—that are extremely mean-spirited and narrow-minded. And I understand that some people who create or share these things are trying to be funny—hey, my own humor is also quite sarcastic—but the clever factor in these pieces is far outweighed by the disrespect and complete absence of compassion. They perpetuate so many hateful and factually incorrect stereotypes. And they are EVERYWHERE!

There is a wave of insensitivity sweeping over us. It has become perfectly acceptable to bash anyone and everyone at any time. Perhaps it is the Internet age, where any nutjob—perhaps I am one of them—can get their opinion out to the world, and negativity draws more attention than positivity. But it is not just in crazy, underground blogs. It is in the mainstream media, and no one is safe from it. The Pope is sweeping America this week, mostly drawing positive reviews for the way he seems to galvanize support even while challenging people on both sides of the political spectrum. And yet, there I was watching CNN a few nights ago after stirring speeches to Congress and at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and the woman representing the Tea Party was completely slamming him in the most petty and mean-spirited tone. Look at the level of disrespect shown to President Obama that goes way beyond simply disagreeing with him; it is off the charts! It is as though we have lost control of our manners. The old, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all,has been replaced by, “If all you have are nice things to say, save your breath! Negativity leads. If you can make your negativity “funny” and add a photo to it, your ideas can reach a lot of people in a short time. Even the Pope and the President aren’t immune to the onslaught of disrespect and disdain. Nothing is sacred.

But the Pope and the President are big boys. They both have lots of privilege and lots of protection. They can handle a skewering on social media, no matter how classless the attacks. They have a loud, public voice to respond. On the contrary, the other groups I mentioned—Muslims, immigrants, welfare recipients—have no accepted voice in this country, no way to inform the conversation. So, they are easy targets for disrespect and inhumane treatment. Bullies pick on the kids who can’t fight back. Unfortunately, it seems we are becoming a society of bullies.

I look at the astounding level of animosity toward Muslims as an example of this bullying. Even though there are millions of Muslims in America—almost all of them peace-loving, hard-working, and tolerant, by the way—they are a voiceless group right now. And because of that lack of a voice, they are being demonized and disrespected at an alarming level. Yesterday I saw a couple of my Facebook “friends” share an anti-Muslim meme, and all of them, I am quite sure, neither know any Muslims nor know anything about the central tenets of mainstream Islam.

I said to my wife the other day, “Muslim is the new Black. I was serious. There was a time not long ago—and stretching back to this country’s beginnings—when you could write or say anything you wanted to say about Black people without fear of backlash. Public figures could call them names and tell racist jokes and chastise them, and nothing would come of it. Black people had no voice. They do now. Sure, all sorts of awful things still happen to them on a daily basis in more covert ways, but a shift has been made in our society. What was once socially acceptable when it comes to Black people in America is no longer. But Muslims? Not at all. You can still say whatever you want without fear of reproach. The meme I mentioned above joked that we have been at peace with Japan since we dropped atomic bombs on them, concluding with, “IT’S TIME WE MADE PEACE WITH ISLAM (you can tell the high intellect of the creator of this one, as it makes perfect sense that we can bomb a religion).

This kind of bigotry and absence of compassion is on display on my nightly peek at the Presidential candidates on CNN. Ben Carson tells us boldly that a Muslim should not be President. Donald Trump fails to correct a man at Trump’s own rally who says that the problem with America is Muslims. These are the two leaders in the race for the Republican nomination right now. Leaders.

Trump says he doesn’t have time to be politically correct. The poll numbers show that a lot of people love that philosophy. Unfortunately, too many are taking that as a license to act like bigots. They are checking their compassion and decency at the door and attacking every voiceless group that comes into their ever-narrowing minds. It is open season. It really saddens me. It frightens me, too.

With all that we know and all that we, as Americans, have been privileged to claim as our own as part of our residence in this great land, how dare we betray our gifts and turn our backs on our responsibility to be a positive example to the rest of the world? We have an amazing amount of privilege. If any of these characteristics describe you—White, American, Christian, male, middle or upper class, employed, English-speaking, heterosexual, healthy—then you have power in this society and a great advantage over many others. It is an advantage that you probably did little or nothing to earn. When we don’t acknowledge our privilege–and especially when we don’t see it as something we didn’t earn—we tend to lack empathy and compassion. Instead of seeing ourselves in the eyes of others, we see our differences. We build walls instead of bridges between us. It becomes easier to dehumanize “them” because they are not “us”. They are different, and as long as we have the power to define the terms, they get defined as less than us. Not as good. Not as human. Not as deserving of respect and compassion. There are very few things in the world as damaging as the absence of empathy and compassion. It saddens me to think we are living in that absence.

When I saw my friend’s post on Facebook with the offensive meme, it triggered that sadness in me. Her passionate response, on the other hand, triggered my belief that we can do better. That excited me. As the guy who is always striving to live his best life and help the world do the same, it made me envious of her for putting herself out there, knowing that she has a powerful voice and could use it for good. It also made me ashamed of myself for not squashing so many other negative and pitiless messages that I have seen and heard. After all, I have a voice. It is to be used. It is to be heard. I must take responsibility for my privilege and use it to not only share my own message of gratitude, positivity, and self-knowledge, but also to give a voice to the voiceless. To make sure they are represented, not misrepresented; that they are respected; and that they are seen as part of the universal “us”, not “them”. I can do that.

How about you? What kinds of messages are you sending with your voice? Open up your journal and think about what role you play in this drama. I mentioned Muslims, immigrants, and welfare recipients; what other groups are out there that catch a lot of negativity and seem to have very little voice to defend themselves with? Go through my list and yours, and with each group, ask yourself what your impression of them is and how that dictates your interactions and your judgments. Are you being fair? Why not? What is it about certain groups that make you separate them into “them” versus “us”? Is it appearance? Religion? Economic class? Who comes to mind when you think about public figures—whether politicians or talk show hosts or religious leaders or celebrities—who deliver a message that really speaks to your heart and mind? What is it about that person’s message that appeals to you? Is it more inclusive or divisive? More positive or negative? How often do you see Facebook posts or shares that run counter to everything you stand for? Do you just fail to “like” it, or do you comment on it or unfriend that person? How do you feel about your track record for standing up for what you believe in, even in the face of hostility? Do you engage in political or social justice issues when you are online? If I were to look at your posts, shares, comments, and likes, how compassionate and positive would I find your message to be? Are you doing enough to fill the world—even just the Internet world—with examples of empathy and inclusion? Do you protect the voiceless, or do you tend to do the bullying? Are you proud of your message? Leave me a reply and let me know: What is your voice calling for?  

Be the change,

William

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