Years ago, I had a boss who liked to make jokes about Mormons. With some regularity, this employer teased me about things I hold sacred. Some of the jokes were funny. Some were lame. And some were offensive. Yet, I would never, ever, ever consider this person a bigot or even vaguely antagonistic to Mormons.
In fact, it would be ridiculous to do that. You see, this boss was also incredibly good to me and my family, looking out for us with a generosity and care that is pretty rare in an employer. I knew that this boss wanted only good things for me, and in every way made that happen. I learned a lot, personally and professionally from this person. In fact, after having bosses since the age of 14, I probably learned more about being a boss from this person than any one other employer. Were I to ever be a boss (heaven forbid), I would largely model what I do on what this boss did. Minus the Mormon jokes (Forgive the clunky prose--I'm trying to avoid using pronouns since I don't want to even slightly reveal anything about a person who was very good to me).
Over time, I came to realize that making jokes about my faith and culture was part of what my boss did for two reasons. First of all, the boss thought they were funny. If I am honest, I have to admit that Mormons do stuff a lot of people think is weird. If I have the freedom to be different, I suppose I can't begrudge someone else the freedom to laugh at my difference, can I?
But more than that, I think the reason this boss made jokes was that it was an effort to relate. Not being able to understand some of my beliefs and practices, the boss and I had something that was uncommon, a gulf between us. I think that jokes and efforts at humor were an attempt to connect and bridge that gap by virtue of something we both did appreciate and have in common.
But, I digress a bit. My main point is that this was a good person. The boss's actions showed me that. Day after day, year after year. Jokes aside, I knew the boss cared about me. Actions, we once believed, spoke louder than words. Substance trumped symbols.
I say this because we seem to be rapidly devolving into a sort of extended social frenzy where the use of formerly-benign words, or stupid, off-the-cuff remarks can end careers. Where even being suspected of having the "wrong" opinion on something can bring down wrath. Social media has accelerated this process, but it's not new. In fact, we've seen it before. We call past episodes the Salem Witch Trials. Or the Red Scare. McCarthyism. The French Reign of Terror. During these times, one did not have to actually do anything wrong. Simply thinking the wrong things--or being suspected of thinking the wrong things--was enough. And there was no real way to prove innocence. In fact, a mere protestation of innocence could be construed as guilt.
We laugh at the ridiculousness of Middle Age villagers drowning a woman to see if she was a witch. And we don't do things like that today. At least not physically. But how quickly do we descend on people with rhetorical pitchforks because of something they say, or think, or feel, or based on something we assume they think or feel? Often the victims of this kind of social media shaming have just as much recourse as some poor mentally ill woman in the medieval era. Sometimes it is only our perception of what was said, our interpretation. But that is no reason to pause. "Okay, we did the nose...but she's a witch!"
There is so much real evil in our world. The kind of evil that blows things up and sells girls as slaves and shoots people worshipping in their churches and executes gay people. The kind of evil that abuses and maims and kills. With that much obvious, genuine evil, why are we so quick to decide that others around us are evil (or stupid) because they have a different opinion than us?
I think it is because we all want to consider ourselves good people. Our reasoning goes something like this, I think: "I am good, then my opinions and beliefs must also be good. And, everyone I know agrees. Therefore, those who disagree are wrong. Not only wrong, evil. Or stupid." It is the only explanation because the other possibility is too painful for us to consider. Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps I am not as good as like to tell myself.
We used to encourage each other to judge based on actions. On the content of a person's character, their collected body of works, as it were (I heard a preacher named Bishop Joseph Walker III use that phrase once). No one is just one thing. And very few people are cardboard cut-outs of a villain.
But now we judge each other with such speed and certitude, swinging a terrible swift sword, confident we are right and good and wise. Those who disagree are enemies, and enemies must be dispatched. We know they are enemies based on word, a belief, even an unexpressed opinion. Not to mention a vote or a political donation.
Perhaps because we live so much in virtual worlds this is even more true. If all we know of each other is what we say in 140 characters or less, then a lifetime of kindness to others, a commitment to service, a steady grappling with human weakness, and other good things are simply inadmissible. But is that really the kind of world in which we want to live?
A friend of mine wrote something I think is quite profound: "A culture of offense makes us shallow. We judge imperfect wordings instead of the intentions behind them. We grow lazy in our perceptions."
I believe that so much. However, the problem is also quite profound. Because each of us can only make these decisions for ourselves.
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