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Let’s Debate, Not Dehumanize

Try saying one good thing about someone you don't like — whether it's George Bush or Nancy Pelosi.

by
Elizabeth Scalia

Bio

August 4, 2008 - 12:00 am

On July 27, Jim D. Adkisson walked into a Unitarian Universalist Church, opened a guitar case, brought out a 12-gauge semiautomatic shotgun, and began shooting. Two people are dead, numerous others are wounded, and we may be thankful that a man carrying 76 rounds of ammunition did not deliver more carnage upon peaceful people, peaceably assembled.

Initial reports were that Adkisson had “problems with Christians.” Later reports suggested he also had “problems” with “the liberal movement” and with gays. Predictably, people on both the right and left immediately staked out claims of victimhood and identified each other as the true culprits upon whom both blame and condemnation must rain down. “They” inspired Adkisson to kill those worshipers, no, to kill those progressives, no, to kill those … those …

Those human beings.

If you’re wondering who “they” is, “they” is us, losing a little more of our shared humanity every day, as we increasingly insulate ourselves away from the “others” who do not hold the same worldview as we do. We label ourselves as belonging to some respectable group of believers, or agnostics, or liberals, or conservatives, and we live, work, socialize, and blog — as much as life will allow — amongst our “respectable” peers, in our “respectable” echo chambers. We label the “others” as disrespectable and then commence disrespecting.

It begins with name-calling, which seems so innocuous, so sandbox. Well, name-calling is infantile behavior, but it is hardly innocuous. As marijuana is to heroin, name-calling is to diminished humanity — the gateway. It begins the whole process of dehumanization. Call someone a name and they immediately become “less human” to you, and the less human they seem, the easier they are to hate and to destroy. A “fetus,” after all, is easier to destroy than a “baby.”

Thus, George W. Bush is “Chimpy McHitler.” Hillary Clinton is “a pig in a pantsuit.” Barack Obama is “O-Bambi.” Cindy McCain, who has exhibited some courage and laudable compassion in her life, is reduced to a “pill-popping beer-frau,” and so forth. From there it is smooth sailing down an ever-descending river of hatred, until we are incapable of seeing anything good in the “other,” both because we have willfully hardened our hearts, and because our hate — especially when it is supported by a group of like minds — feels safe and inviolable.

Recently I asked rabid Bush-haters if they could manage to say “one good thing” about the president. Predictably, they could not.

They are capable of sarcasm: “One good thing is he will die someday.” “One good thing is that he can’t serve three terms.” Once, when pressed, someone sneered: “He managed to marry a librarian who could read and explain books to him.”

Conversely, when asked to name “one good thing” about Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, some on the right were equally stymied. “I used to think she dressed well,” a woman told me, “until she put the scarf on her head in the Middle East.”

When we are incapable of finding “one good thing” to say about Bush or Pelosi or even someone in our personal lives, we’ve surrendered reason to repellent hate; the hate owns us. At that point, we are no better than the person we abhor; we may be worse.

To acknowledge even “one good thing” about the object of our loathing serves to humanize that person a little. But once we begin to humanize what we have demonized, we are susceptible to doing it again and again, even to the point of finding some common ground with that hated, hateful “other.”

When the Iraqi people voted in their first elections in 2005, The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart worried to Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria, “What if Bush was right? Here’s the great fear that I have: what if Bush, the president, ours, has been right about this all along? I feel like my worldview will not sustain itself and I may … implode.”

Stewart was joking, of course. But his joke exposed a germ of hard truth: our hatreds, particularly if they are socially acceptable in our sphere, sustain us — they make us feel strong and impenetrable. And if your hate supports some or all of your worldview, you cannot afford to admit to “one good thing,” because you cannot allow yourself to be vulnerable. The slightest breach might tumble the fortress of your whole society.

We are safe, then, as long as we do not give in to the idea that there may be “one good thing” about the object of our revilement.

Or are we?

Jim D. Adkisson — his humanity subsumed by his hate — unloaded his shotgun on people who had become mere labels to him. They had become “others.” They had become “theys.”

Jesus of Nazareth — whom even atheists will concede was a “great teacher” — concluded his Sermon on the Mount thusly: (paraphrased) “Love your enemies, pray for those who annoy you, for the sun rises on the bad and the good, and rain falls upon everyone, so learn to live together. If you love only those who love you, what’s that, something hard? Who can’t do that?”

Praying for the one we hate certainly does have a way of bringing our own faults to the surface of our consciousness, and therefore tempering our repugnance toward the “other.” Jesus gave good advice.

But if we are disinclined to pray, perhaps being open to simply admitting “one good thing” about those we hate can help us maintain a hold of our shared humanity, before we lose our collective grips.

Elizabeth Scalia is a contributing writer to First Things Magazine and the blogger known as The Anchoress.
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