When I was a teenager I choked a kid until he was unconscious. If my Dad hadn’t pulled me away I would have killed him. The kid had made fun of my Dad, who was often sickly and unable to do what other dads were able to do, and I decided to shut the kid up. I was outraged at the awful things he said about the Dad I loved. I got my hands around the his neck and kept squeezing until he couldn’t talk. To this day I’m haunted by the terror I saw in his eyes as my outrage boiled over and he could no longer breathe and slowly faded to black.
There was a cost to my outrage, of course. I had to deal with a deeply concerned father and mother. There were lengthy lectures on the dangers of my violent temper and the downward trajectory of my life should I not deal with my rage. I had to go to the kid’s house to apologize in person and then talk to his parents. It was humiliating and produced a lot of shame. I had numerous restrictions placed on my freedom and wasn’t permitted to go out with friends for a long period of time. And I had to come face to face with the sort of evil I was capable of. It was overwhelming. It was an expensive outrage.
I have hundreds of Facebook friends. These aren’t the kinds of friends who invite you into their home when your house burns down or that even bring you a casserole after surgery. The vast majority are simply acquaintances, distant family members, old classmates, former coworkers and others whose opinions cover the broadest possible spectrum. They run the gamut from confirmed atheists to devout Christians to staunch Republicans to pure blood Democrats to gun fanatics, gun haters, gay marriage advocates, those assured that marriage is only between one man and one woman, those who think black lives matter, cops lives matter, all lives matter, and a hundred dozen other firmly held beliefs about a hundred dozen other things. They think the cop was right or the cop was wrong or the cop should have aimed for the legs or the cops should wear armor and body cameras or the cops should be unarmed or fired or promoted or get his job back or get sent to prison or some other firmly held belief about cops. And they often splash their opinions all over their Facebook page assuming anyone with any intelligence would have to agree with them and then they are startled to discover that other people don’t. Or they post an outrageous statement just to stick a thumb in the eye of folks they are sure will disagree with them. And that is when the outrage begins. “I can’t believe that anyone can be stupid enough to believe…” and the battle ensues.
Of course, it is an easy outrage. It is an outrage that doesn’t cost anything. The normal ‘punishment’ of the provocateur is being ‘unfriended’ on Facebook and the one who was provoked simply promotes all over Facebook that they hold the high ground of being the innocent victim of an idiot or a bully. Meanwhile, the provocateur trumpets that they just told the ‘truth’ and they can’t help it if people can’t stand to hear the truth. Everyone walks away justified. No one has to look into the eyes of the other and see the damage they’ve done. No one has to look into the kid’s eyes and apologize for trying to choke him to death. There is no cost to our rants, no price to pay for the verbal assault, no expense for the vicious attack of others. We just unfriend everyone who disagrees with us, surrounding ourselves only with our cheerleaders and the like minded. I’m free to be who I really am, and that is all that matters.
Dad always said, “Your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins.” I think he stole it from Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., but the saying acknowledged that we live in community and that our freedoms are limited. While I’m allowed to flail about at random, I’m not permitted to make contact with your nose. If I do, it is in my court to apologize, help clean up the blood, and bear whatever costs my fist swinging has caused. There is a real expense to my outrage and I must bear it. Face to face it is costly to be angry. On Facebook and elsewhere in the electronic world, the cost is negligible. Just press ‘Delete’ and move on.
Words have power. There are death words and life words. Just because they come to us electronically doesn’t lessen their power. Sticks and stones do indeed break bones, but it is words that can kill us. When we get to use them with impunity and without cost a human being can be destroyed. I wonder what would happen if we were required to say what we say on Facebook to the face of the person we hurt? What if we had to look into the eyes of the person who thinks differently than we do? And what might change if we had to take responsibility for the damage we cause with our words? How would it temper our outrage if we saw the true aftermath of broken community?
In war we depersonalize the enemy. We call them ‘gooks’ or ‘ragheads’ or some other word or phrase that allows us to falsely believe that we aren’t impacted by the people we kill. On Facebook we do something very similar. We call people ‘liberals’ or ‘cop lovers’ or ‘bullies’ or ‘big Pharma drones’ or some other depersonalization so we don’t have to deal with their humanity. Underneath our characterizations are flesh and blood people. People whose stories we do not know and cannot know unless we sit at their feet and listen to them. Humility is required. Learning is required. Being willing to be wrong is required. Being face to face with someone is very different than being in someone’s face. Truly seeing the other can rock your world.
Facebook outrage is an addiction. It helps us feel superior and good about ourselves. We feel justified and righteous. The problem with addictions is that you have to keep feeding them. This addiction feeds our megalomania. “I am right and I must persuade the world that I am right!” And if I might be wrong, I must crush them lest they see my doubt and fear. I will reward those who agree with me and like their posts. I will unfriend those who disagree. It is an impersonal and easy outrage.
By the way, it wasn’t some kid I choked into unconsciousness. A ‘kid’ is an impersonal word referring to someone who is young and immature. Calling someone a kid allows me to dehumanize them and discount them. Calling him a kid allows me to feel better about what I did. He shouldn’t have said those things about Dad. I was justified in choking him. But he wasn’t just some kid. His name was Dale. And I almost killed Dale, all because of a few words.