When I was a kid, trying to figure out about good and evil, it occurred to me one day that if god was love, then the devil was fear. My theology has changed since then. I’m more agnostic, content to experience but not understand the nature of anything divine. That idea about fear, though, has stuck with me. When fear leads the pack, we’re in trouble.
Commentaries abound right now about fear-driven rhetoric, politicians and other public figures advancing a particularly ugly, bigoted, dangerous fear. There’s a growing sense of serious alarm among people of all political stripes, as well there should be.
But what troubles me deeply, as deeply as the deliberate invitations to fear from some on the right, is that many of those who I would expect to speak a truth I can get behind are consistently, joyfully feeding the beast.
This is bothering me particularly after a month of remembrance of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. When Dr. King accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, he spoke of his belief in unarmed truth. Not just truth, unarmed truth. Dr. King was reflecting what history has proven over and over again; violence always begets violence, every single time.
Violence begins the moment we perceive another as less than fully human, undeserving of not only our agreement and support, but our compassion. The first violent act is naming that perception. We step onto the moving sidewalk of violence when we engage in derision, name-calling, and self-righteous mockery.
Increasingly, my social media feeds evidence a disturbing celebration of ridicule, deriding those with whom we passionately disagree, whose positions we ascribe to unsavory fears. In that discourse, no longer are people merely wrong, they are “idiots,” “dipshits,” and “dumbass cows.” Worse are the comments that encourage those with whom we disagree to “get on a boat and sink it,” or “go carpet bomb yourselves.” These responses are devoid of compassion, reducing human beings with complicated feelings and no doubt challenging lives to mindlessness, stupidity, and even worthlessness.
There may be truth in our disagreement, but in derision, we arm our truth. When we respond to fear with violence, we only affirm the fear. “See?” the other thinks, “I was right to be afraid.” Because at the core of all fear is one question: will I be safe? will what I love be safe? When we meet fear with violence, even the violence of discompassionate ridicule, we answer that question very clearly. No.
And in that way, we feed the beast.
It feels good to feel in the right. And even against our better natures, some of us fall back on ridicule, I think, because we don’t know what else to do. I know I have. But ridicule will do nothing but inflame. Reasoned disagreement won’t often beat back fear, either. Beating back fear requires determined focus and serious, strategic action. Strategy requires understanding the other’s perspective. When we respond with violence, we are guaranteed never to understand, no less be understood.
I am not suggesting passivity in the face of this horrible advance of fear-driven, yes, violent, rhetoric and action. I am suggesting the opposite. I’m suggesting that we get serious, resist the easy invitation to derision and focus instead on resistance that will work. Even as we organize relentlessly, urgently against this upsurge of hatred, our resistance cannot focus only on the fear in others; we must resist our own fear as well.
Fear is hungry and getting stronger. We don’t have any time to waste, nor – as fun as it may feel for a moment — can we afford to feed the beast.