Put downs are so popular. It was cool to have a witty jab back in the 70s, in the 80s, in the 90s. But the counterculture was still counter culture, not mainstream. What has become of us? The issue has been nagging me a lot, lately, especially as I’m inheriting two teenagers who both revel in fast tongues and rapier wit. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve got a quick wit. I’m good at the come back. Wittiness will get you everywhere with me. Check out my favorite quotations on Facebook. But demeaning, belittling, denigrating, cruelty—these are unconscionable.
When I was in junior high and high school, we found it acceptable to tell “Polack” jokes, to mock “retards,” to use the word “gay” as a pejorative or a synonym with “stupid” or “tacky.” We judged each other. We did our level best to appear “in the know” even if terribly naive, not wanting to appear stupid or ridiculous (i.e., worthy of ridicule). There are countless times I chose to laugh heartily with so-called “friends” at dirty jokes I didn’t get, so as to avoid being seen as less than my peers. It was almost an instinctual reaction.
So I understand the need for kids to fit in. I understand the hierarchical mindset that dictates youth culture. But, unfortunately, this isn’t just youth culture I’m addressing.
The problem, it seems to me, is far broader. Consider: television success of “Family Guy,” “The Simpsons,” and any so-called ‘reality’ show, but especially “Survivor,” “Big Brother,” and “Hell’s Kitchen.” Consider: radio / internet success of shock jocks, pornography, and the “Fail” blog. Consider: the success among self-proclaimed “Christians” of such things as jingoism, proclamations of judgment and wrath, and sectarian superiority complexes. The success of these satirical television shows is, it is hard to deny, not because viewers are keenly appreciative of the failings in society as failings and their consequent appreciation of satire. Most have no idea that the intention is to mock bad behavior and dull thinking, not endorse it. Thus, they in fact choose to become the very thing their favorite show parodies. The success of the ‘reality’ shows relies on voyeurism, narcissism, and exclusionism as cherished cultural values. The success of shock jocks and internet porn rests on a loss of decorum and respect for the other as intrinsically valuable. The popularity of the “Fail” blog comes from a delight in seeing the errors of others and a powerful sense of Schadenfreude (transl: “finding happiness in the shame of another”) demonstrated in a thrill at pointing out the stupidity of those believed to be less than oneself.
And the success of jingoism among Christians, the prevalence of wrathful proclamations against certain groups, and the continual presence, in some Christian groups, of sectarian superiority all arise from a complete loss of the very transformation of mind Paul wrote of, a total failure to adopt the love Jesus himself declared to be characteristic of his disciples. We love to hate. We love to characterize the world in terms of “us” and “them.”
Thus, what I am addressing here is bigger than teenage Angst or the behavior of those whose brains are not yet fully formed. I am addressing a value system that has created a culture of hate, cruelty, unkindness, and intolerance in the name of justice, truth, security, and freedom.
It isn’t just insults, put downs, trash talk. It’s screaming at senators with whom we disagree. It’s willingly participating in fear mongering by passing on emails and political rumors instead of taking the thirty seconds it requires to go to Snopes or Fact Check to find out whether what we’re passing on is true. It’s over-simplifying an issue so as to “win” the debate, regardless of the plain fact that winning with words has nothing at all to do with the states of affairs we leave people in after the debate is over. It’s vilifying and mocking those with whom we disagree.
The Psalmist wrote, “happy is the one who does not walk in the counsel of the unjust, or stand in the way of sinners, or sit in the seat of scoffers.” The fact of the matter is that our society runs down the lane of injustice, stands proudly broadcasting our sin (“glorying in our shame,” it’s been described as), and sits triumphantly in the Simon Powell seat of scoffing. So are we happy?
The root of our social ill, the cancer that gnaws at us, is our lack of love. The ancient Hebrew faith taught that the community was to protect the widow and show hospitality to the stranger. Jesus wasn’t teaching anything new in his parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Mt. 25). He was reminding people of their own tradition. Our own American tradition claims that we value “all men (humans) as created equal, endowed with their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” Egalitarianism. We believe that everyone has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—or, in the words of French democratic values, to life, liberty, and brotherhood. Jesus said that those who are great in the kindom of heaven are not those who lord it over others, not those who set up hierarchies, but those who put themselves below others.
Nowadays, though, we Americans declare ourselves vastly superior to the French, to anyone of a Muslim view, and to absolutely everyone who disagrees with anything we say. To paraphrase our former president, right before plowing into the current war, “those who don’t agree with me agree with the terrorists; those who don’t agree with me are terrorists or terrorist sympathizers.” To iterate my own convictions even back then, who knew Switzerland was so full of terrorists?
The problem of our current state of affairs is the valuing of what one believes as far superior, thus trumping, of what one is. We are human beings. We are created in God’s image, to quote Augustine, ad imaginem Dei—for the purpose of imaging God. That “idiot” who cut you off on the interstate today is an Image-bearer. That scary-looking guy in a turban and a dark beard who lives down the street bears God’s image. The homeless and ratty looking fellow who holds up the cardboard sign by the on-ramp bears the stamp of the Divine.
Now consider how the world would be if we truly believed this. Would we not see the humor of “black” comedies (“About Schmidt,” “American Splendor,” “Pulp Fiction,” etc.) as rather quite tragic? Would we not find the disrespect and unkindness in animated satires sad instead of funny? Would we not be sickened at the back-stabbing in ‘reality’ shows, and aghast at the cruel words of those like Powell and Ramsay? Wouldn’t we, rather than love to hate them, find a need to pray for them, and wouldn’t we, rather than judge them, pity their need to be unkind? Would we enable ferocity? Would we value back-stabbing, deceit, mockery, and denigration as “talent”? Would we objectify people, making them things we do things to?
Fact is, we do not value people—we do not love our neighbor. And, to quote John, “if we hate our brother, whom we see, how can we love our Father, whom we cannot see?” We demonstrate our love and respect for God by loving and respecting his image. By loving and respecting those who are his image. And when we do this, we are fulfilling our purpose—ourselves imaging God, who so loves, who is love.
If we truly value people, if we truly believe that everyone is equal by design, that everyone has the same right to life, liberty, and happiness, then how would we act? It seems to me that my words cut. It seems to me that when I hurt another, I take from that person her happiness, that my words deny a right. It seems to me that when I mock, when I denigrate, when I insult, when I attack, I am violating the very things I claim to value. But of course, if I truly valued something, I wouldn’t violate it. Our actions betray our hearts, our true investments.
It is common among certain Christian groups to mock what is blanket termed as “being PC” or being politically correct. I had this long conversation, some months ago, with a friend who was increasingly irritated by my “failure” to call people names. Worse still, I failed to side with her in her belief that people unlike her were all worth treating poorly. I didn’t realize I was angering her until she blurted out her frustration at my inability to see eye to eye with her. It turns out, my worst failure was that I didn’t categorize people as “us” and “them.” But if we’re all image-bearers, then it seems to me there isn’t any ‘them,’ just a whole lot of ‘us.’ The problem with PC, among certain so-called “Christian” sects, is that people are not weighed according to belief, behavior, ability, appearance, or affiliation. People are supposed to be labeled and tossed into different buckets, each to be treated according to the label. When did this become characteristic of a group bearing the name of Christ? When did segregationism and judgmentalism replace “you will know my disciples for their love,” and “love your neighbor as yourself”?
No, it’s not new to our century.
But what is new is that we are increasingly glorying in our shame. We boast about how vile our language can be. We honor deceit and dissembling with a quarter of a million dollars. We memorize denigrating come backs, and laugh heartily when one is able to fire one off without thought. We spend millions of dollars on murder, mayhem and destruction as entertainment. And when somebody doesn’t entertain denigrating song lyrics (even though the song’s got such a good beat!), when somebody fails to laugh with the objectification of an image-bearer joke, when somebody refuses to share in the mockery of another, that person is seen as narrow.
But who’s narrow, really? The one who broadens the world into a giant ‘us’ category of Imagis Dei, or those who focus on themselves and those few that don’t threaten their sense of superiority? Those who jump, to use Rob Bell’s picture, on the trampoline of faith, having built no exclusionary conditions into who may come jump along, or those who build and guard walls designed to exclude? Who’s narrow? Those who respect all as equal and valuable, or those who draw tight circles around themselves?
Whatever happened to manners? And who will be courageous enough to teach them, to model them in this upside down world—to actively pursue imaging God’s love? Are you? Am I?