I try to avoid politics on this blog. I do that because I have dear friends on both sides of the aisle and in between. These friends are good and sincere people and I value their friendship and don't want to be incendiary. I also question how much good talking about politics really does. I mean, having a calm, reasoned discussion is almost impossible. People believe what they believe and I don't think posting things is going to change opinion--but may get people mad. Which accomplishes nothing.
But I am really disturbed by something going on. I've waited for someone to say something and a few people have, but not too many, and I don't want to be silent about it.
In 1838, the early Mormons were living in Missouri. Because of theological, cultural, and political differences between them and the Missourians, tension turned to friction, which ignited violence.
As things got worse, the governor issued what has become known as the Extermination Order. Citing Mormons as a menace to the peace, Governor Boggs said, "...the Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the State" (link here).
And they were. Mormons had their homes, farms, and businesses burned down. They were whipped, tarred and feathered, beaten, raped, and murdered because they were Mormons.
Not people. Not men and women with feelings and hopes and dreams and fears. Not humans who could feel pain on the flesh of tormented bodies or the pain of broken dreams and cruelty. Not children who cried from hunger and died from exposure. No. They were Mormons.
That is all. Just a word. One word to sum up everything they were--a true word, but a reduction of their humanity into on strange and sinister term. Mormons. Enemies. Killing them or wounding them would have been much easier to do because they weren't people.
One young boy survived a massacre at a settlement called Haun's Mill. When the attackers came in the stockade where the men had barricaded themselves, they found this young boy. "Nits make lice," one of the mobbers said, before pulling the trigger and blowing his thigh away. (Link to reference here).
How easy it is to reduce others to a name, a term. To see them, not as humans, fellow travelers here on this earth, but as the Other. Someone who is not quite human. Not like us. And once this reduction has been completed, how easy it is to be inhumanly, unspeakably cruel.
The Nazis did this to the Jews. The Holocaust didn't happen overnight. It happened only after years of demonization, as Jews were portrayed as infernal, evil, and sub-human. Once the propaganda was spread far enough, the actions followed.
A group of Mormons did the same thing to a wagon train wandering through Utah to California. They heard they were from Missouri and suddenly, instead of families, instead of men and women and children trying to get a better life, they were Missourians. Enemies. They were massacred.
If history teaches us anything it is that we can be grossly cruel to each other and such cruelty seems to be the default setting, not the exception. We can fight against this impulse--but it is a fight. It requires constant vigilance and unremitting effort. We are never past the point where our society could quickly unravel and tribal affiliations flare up into violence. If we think we are past this, if we think we have somehow evolved or progressed beyond this, then we are dangerously and foolishly naive.
And so, I watch with tremendous concern the demonization of groups of people. The Rich are doing this and that. Wall Street Bankers are stealing from you.
Not humans. Not names and faces. Not people who live and love, who die and bleed. Others. Rich people are greedy. They are oppressing us. They are stealing from us. Wall Street Bankers. Fat cats. And so on.
Note that these are vast and generalized terms that are true--but reductive and imprecise. Is everyone who is rich bad? At point does affluence or prosperity become evil riches? $1 million? $500,000? Do the rich get a chance to prove their innocence? If so, what is the process for this? To whom does one submit exculpatory evidence? Is everyone who makes a living on Wall Street greedy?
Terms that make them the Other--a problem that must be solved. The barrier to our happiness and prosperity. The rich are the problem but for whom everything would be good and peaceful. I also note that all the examples I've pointed to are with basically unsympathetic people. It's rather clever. Who's going to go out on a limb to defend rich people? Or, slimy Wall Street people.
Well, I think we all should.
I'm sure there are some crooks on Wall Street and some really nasty rich people. If they broke a law, they should be prosecuted. Period.
But do we really want to live in a society where we can prosecute people we don't like, people we disagree with, or people didn't commit a crime beyond being slimy? Do you want to live in a world where a group of people decide they don't like you or what you did and so call for you to go to jail or be killed just because they don't like you? Or because you were irresponsible? How about just stupid?
It's quite different to criticize a person for specifics. To say, "The President's proposal would have this result..." or "Speaker Boehner's policy actually causes this problem...." It's even different to criticize voluntary, specific groups. "Republicans's policy preferences are wrong because...." or "Democrats are incorrect when they assume ...." (I do think we ought to be specific, not general, and not hyperbolic. I hate it when people do that).
If we want to criticize the way that the government and some corporations work together--fine. That's specific. If we want to discuss the merits or demerits of different policies, legislation or philosophies--great. I love spirited discourse.
But when we stir up resentment toward people in vague, unsympathetic categories, we are playing with fire, I fear.
Revolutions are ugly things, generally. The American Revolution worked out pretty well for us. But the French, Russian, and Chinese (and other more recent, smaller) revolutions were ugly, ugly things that caused suffering far and wide, and ruined the lives of millions and millions of regular people.
Fires, once started, can spread quickly, and are difficult to put out. We live in difficult times and there's a great deal of dry timber in the body politic. I pray that all of us can consider what we say, and whether it's wise and good and helpful--and whether our comments will be sparks that could light a fire that none of us will really want.
I find that possibility chilling. God help us.
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