“If I’ve got my timings right, and clearly I have…this is Christmas 1914, and the Human Miracle is about to happen – the Christmas Armistice. Never happened again, any war, anywhere, but one day, one Christmas a very long time ago, everyone just put down their weapons and started to sing. Everybody just stopped. Everyone…was just kind.”
~The Doctor (Doctor Who “2017 Christmas Special”)
If you’re not familiar with the series, The Doctor is an alien time traveler who regularly interacts with humanity in Earth-saving, universe preserving ways. In the episode mentioned above, he was tasked by future humanity to return a British officer to a WWI battle, from which he was mistakenly taken, so that the officer could die at the hands of a German soldier who was about to shoot him. The Doctor, who possesses a vast storehouse of wisdom and knowledge amassed over his 2,000 year lifetime, acts on gut instinct and returns the officer at the very moment the German troops begin to sing “Stille Nacht,” initiating one of the most remarkably beautiful moments in human history, the Christmas Armistice, thus sparing the British officer’s life.
How is possible that these warring factions, one bent on overthrowing the other, could find such a moment of peace? How is it possible that these men lowered their arms, crossed no man’s land, and embraced? Shared humanity. Just thinking about that moment, as it really happened or as depicted in Doctor Who, leaves me in tears. Even as I type this, my eyes are filled.
So, what has happened to us on the battlefield of the internet, where fellow humans with whom we disagree are reduced to something less than human? My particular favorite Facebookism is when we refer to someone as a “piece of shit.” What does that actually accomplish? I believe the primary thing it does is diminish another’s intrinsic worth, removing any compelling reason to listen to them, learn from them, or allow them to edit us in any way. There are copious studies on tribalism, confirmation bias, etc., that shed light on these behaviors. What I am talking about here, though, is simple, basic, human kindness. The lack of it is killing us.
Many bemoan the ills of social media, how it ruins discourse. I’m not sure I buy it. The devaluing of another human being is a moral action, not a technological byproduct. Yes, impersonal settings (read, not in the same room with only text and images to express sometimes complex and nuanced ideas) make it easier to lose civility, but let’s be real. We would never allow our children to act the way we grownups do on social media, no matter what the setting. In a society that teaches tolerance and acceptance on a grand scale, in public practice, we no longer value kindness the way we once did. How ironic that we show the least tolerance in the very venues we use to promote it.
Now, before you accuse me of longing for the good old days, I fully acknowledge that pride, bigotry, hate, and dismissiveness of those with whom we disagree have all been around since humans have. But, it seems that there are so few left who will cross no man’s land, who will “put down their weapons and…sing,” who will just be kind. Why? My guess is that we are scared. Scared to be wrong, scared to change, scared to lose power, scared to go first.
What is gained by putting down our verbal weapons, by leaving our trenches, by singing songs, by being kind? Recovered humanity. And doing those things is essential to peace, public service, and productive debate. In fact, it’s essential to everything.
Immediately, some will read this and say, “But the [insert the favorite object of your ire here] really is a P.O.S for saying or doing such and such.” No. No, they’re not. They are people who say and/or do things that we disagree with, or that we may even find reprehensible. Don’t devalue them. Especially don’t devalue the one who you are inclined to hate. In doing so, you levy judgment in a way that, if levied on you, would hurt unfairly, because you know that you are more than your worst behavior. Sometimes, we are hardest on others when we recognize our own failures in them, all the while not accepting that they are more than the sum of their most egregious sins, acceptance we offer ourselves much more freely.
So, should we stop calling out what is wrong? No. Should we let bad or criminal behavior go unnoticed? Of course not. But when we engage in discourse with other people over these issues, we must keep their humanity in view at all times, even if they don’t do it for us.
In my faith tradition, one gospel writer notes that as Jesus Christ was being nailed to a cross in a public execution, he uttered these words, “Forgive them, Father. They don’t know what they’re doing.” He was kind to the people who were killing him. It makes me think of all the times I was unkind to those who were acting out of their own pain or confusion towards me. And it makes me think, too, of all the people who name Jesus as Lord but then spend their time crucifying everyone who they don’t like or agree with. That is worthy of a separate post.
By and large, people with whom we disagree aren’t trying to kill us. In all seriousness, though, when we devalue others as to something less than human, that is essentially what we are doing. When a politician is labeled a piece of shit because he denies climate change, or when he degrades women by his words and actions, we kill him. When a professional athlete is labeled a piece of shit because he protests police brutality against African Americans by kneeling during the national anthem, we kill him. When we launch ad hominem attacks on individuals with whom we disagree, we are dehumanizing. We are killing them. Killing them.
My views (political, cultural, religious, etc.) have evolved, morphed, and even reversed in some cases, all because people valued my humanity while challenging my beliefs, assumptions, tribalism, prejudice, bigotry, you name it. I am so grateful for this. In some cases, my views remained the same, yet I was equipped to articulate them better because of the exchange. In others, I opened gateways of thought for them. In all cases, they shied away from labels, ideological identification, and, above all, anger. They were kind. And the peace that kindness imported to my mind and soul allowed me to objectively assess the topic at hand.
For the sake of our shared humanity, it’s time to raise the level of our public discourse. We must resist with persistent kindness the temptation to obliterate our fellow humans. I kindly welcome opposing viewpoints.