I went to a new church today, and heard a good sermon on Matthew 7 – a passage that, oddly, I don’t think I’ve heard a sermon on for a very long time:
7 “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. 2 For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
3 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4 How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.
The pastor did a good job of pointing out that this passage is not saying that we should not exercise good judgment, but that it is instead suggesting that we should examine ourselves for faults before condemning those same faults in others. As usual in our individualistic society (and I think this is especially true of evangelical churches), the sermon focused on personal sin, but all I could think about were collective issues: cultural racism, and foreign policy.
Why Facebook is a Terrible Place
For the last few months, social media has been awash with debates about Muslims, refugees, and security. Social media has a way of reinforcing what we already believe: Facebook curates our newsfeeds in order to show us the posts that it believes are most relevant or interesting to us, based on our past browsing history. So if you hold strongly to a particular viewpoint and tend to read articles that confirm that viewpoint, in time that’s almost all that you’ll see – until you run across your friend who holds to the opposite viewpoint. Often, by the time this happens your two views of reality are so far apart that they almost don’t resemble the same story, and it’s nearly impossible to find common ground. If it seems like Facebook is a nasty, polarizing place, this is part of the reason why.
Media are increasingly making their stories friendly to social media, recognizing that this is the fastest way for any story to spread. As such, speed is of the essence: better to get a story out quickly and update it later than to wait for all of the facts to come together in a cohesive narrative. At the same time, the blogosphere has turned most people into pundits, and even mainstream news sources have almost as many opinion and editorial pieces now as they do actual news, so the facts we receive are already interpreted for us, more than ever.
The combination of these two phenomena has led to all sorts of viral posts, some from major media sources and some from average joes, that both feed off of public sentiment and feed that sentiment further. In this case, while security concerns about bringing 25,000 Syrian refugees into Canada as quickly as possible may have been legitimate at some point, they have become a justification for racism for many: I’ve had people tell me sincerely that racial and religious profiling is a “no-brainer”, and that we should not allow any Muslims into North America. Take a moment to surf through twitter hashtags like #refugeeinflux and you’ll see some lovely comments, and some terrifying ones – and the comments usually match the tone of the article they’re attached to.
To counter this, some on social media are posting articles that try to bring perspective to the issues. For example, faced with post after post about Muslim terrorists, many have been posting about the white and highly armed militia that has taken over a government building in Oregon to suggest that not all terrorist groups are Muslim; or in the face of floods of posts about US gun control, either being for or against it, some have started posting articles about Black Panthers celebrating Texas’ new open-carry law (as presumably the gun-toting Texans who celebrate the 2nd Amendment aren’t as thrilled about a Black Power terrorist movement also being able to legally and openly arm themselves in public). Posting this type of thing instead of adding to the already ubiquitous posts about Muslim terrorism is a deliberate way to undermine the feedback loop of social media and, hopefully, calm some of the fears and cool some of the heat surrounding the topic. Unfortunately, it does not always have that effect: it has caused many to suggest that political correctness (podcast link), interpreted as refusing to speak the truth for fear of being labelled a racist, has undermined good sense and put us and our national identity and values at risk. So we remain polarized, with some posting blatantly racist things, some refusing to even comment on major issues for fear of feeding that racism, and most of us somewhere in between but probably only being fed half the story by our social media feeds. Most of us don’t really know what’s going on, but we have very strong feelings, thoughts, and comments about it. We’re the blind fighting the blind.
While all of the finger-pointing and name-calling happening online should be a sufficient example of the kind of hypocrisy Jesus was talking about in Matthew 7, there’s an even bigger hypocrisy behind it, something those posts about the Oregon militias only scratch the surface of: the role of our governments in the “war on terror”, and their refusal to address the ways that we’ve exacerbated the situation abroad and ignored the situation at home.
Foreign Policy, Domestic Terrorism
Recently I listened to a fascinating podcast that asks “is there a better way to fight terrorism?”(podcast link) One of the insights they note is that suicide bombing, perhaps the action most associated with terrorism, is almost never a religious act (though it is often dressed up in religious language), and is almost always in response to military occupation. That is, suicide bombings happen in the Middle East primarily because either Westerners have invaded there, or because we have set up governments there as our proxies (or at least, that’s how people who live there perceive those governments). In other words, the number one cause of terrorism in its most extreme form is our anti-terrorism efforts abroad. Once again, this should not surprise us: the Parliament Hill shooter told us that this was precisely what motivated his attacks.
Today I listened to an interesting podcast that talks about home-grown US white terrorism, and how the US government has deliberately focused its efforts on Islamic terrorist threats(podcast link) both abroad and at home. The guest on the podcast used to work for Homeland Security studying white supremacists, freemen on the land, and other anti-government or racist militias. His department had been asked to research the possible response to a black president before Barack Obama ran in 2008, and they continued to research after he was elected. When they released a report, the Republicans spun it, saying that Obama was getting Homeland Security to spy on all conservative Americans. The department was reassigned to focus on Islamic organizations, which were less politically problematic, even though it is estimated that there are around 100,000 members of anti-government or racist militias in the US.
To bring this into a Canadian perspective: I’m very proud of our government’s current stance on pulling out of our bombing missions. Every bomb we drop is a recruiting tool for ISIS, particularly because our bombs don’t always hit their mark. This is just a first step, though. Accepting as many refugees as possible is a second step – 25,000 is a good start, but we should continue to bring in refugees, especially from Syria, Iraq, and other nations fighting ISIS, and offer whatever aid we can to those who are unable or unwilling to relocate. We should also offer aid to legitimate governments in the region to maximize their aid impact, and I suggest this as an alternative to offering military support or training, or at least in addition to it: we could be offering training and resources for emergency relief programs, medical training and personnel, and even educational resources (if local governments invite and allow it) throughout the region. Finally, if we maintain any military involvement it should be to push toward de-escalating conflict rather than eliminating the enemy – because an ISIS without war is simply a local government, and we may actually have the power to limit their capacity to wage war, in large part by refusing to fight. If we are able to empower the nations around ISIS while at the same time dialing down the polarized worldview that we’ve been reinforcing in that region through decades of war, we may be able to cut off the streams of support that feed ISIS. At least, that’s how I understand the situation: I should be clear that I’m not a military tactician, but I have spent quite a bit of time studying the way people respond to violence on either end of the gun, and I’ve become convinced that nonviolent conflict resolution holds greater promise for ending conflict than violence does.
Hypocrisy, Self-Examination, and When to Keep Our Mouths Shut
So there’s rampant racism, xenophobia, and political correctness on social media, and the same things are affecting our government’s ability to address terrorism effectively. Make no mistake, we should not be afraid to criticize certain groups or actions simply because they are representative of a racial or religious group: we must be able to distinguish between people and their actions, and judge actions based on the ethics of those actions rather than on the race or religion of the people involved. “Political correctness” interpreted as the refusal to speak out against injustice because of fear of being perceived as prejudiced against the minority committing the injustice is wrong and dangerous – but we must always remember that our words have an impact.
Words spoken on Facebook seem benign to us: our brains perceive us to be alone at our computer, rather than in a public forum, so we’re more likely to say things that we would never say in front of other people. But those words get repeated, and the more we repeat something the more we believe it. And the more we believe something, the more likely we are to act on it. They say that if one person takes the time to write about something, one hundred people are thinking it; I think the reverse is also true to some respect. If a thousand people write (or re-post) something, one person is probably going to do something about it. A few months ago someone in Peterborough Ontario burned down a mosque; last week someone in Vancouver pepper-sprayed refugees at a welcome party. “Lone wolf” terrorists like Anders Breivik may act alone, but they are supported by the words of others.
But words don’t just inspire attackers, they also inspire politicians. Would Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Ted Cruz all be trying to out-xenophobe each other if there wasn’t widespread support for xenophobic policies such as building a wall to keep out Mexican migrants or refusing to allow Muslims into their country from any source? Politicians pander to our worst impulses as well as to our best impulses – and it’s often easier to pander to the worst in us. Western foreign policies that incite violence against minorities also incite terrorist responses.
But the key to all of this is that we’re blind to the negative role that we play. The preacher this morning held a two foot length of 2×4 to his eye to illustrate Jesus’ words in Matthew 7 and show how ridiculous the example is, and in the process he almost hit a child in the head with the plank as he turned to look around. The point, he said, is that our own attitudes not only blind us, but we can also inadvertently hurt people even when we’re trying to help, or simply when we’re looking around. Our self-righteousness destroys any good that might come of pointing out the faults or crimes of others, and we often end up hurting more than we help.
So before posting anything on the internet or invading another country to impose democracy, take a look at yourself. It might change what you have to say, or make you decide to say nothing at all.