I almost did not open Facebook at all last Friday. I have started avoiding it more and more, or searching for particular pages and people whose new posts I am interested in seeing, rather than scrolling endlessly and taking whatever happens to be there. Because lately “whatever happens to be there” is more than I can take. I’m tired. Of politics, yes, and blindly shared links from questionable sources, and comment wars that have no end or purpose. Mostly, though, I am tired of being told to “get over myself,” to suck it up, to stop whining. I am tired of hearing about how “this happens every four years” (no, THIS does not happen every four years). I am tired of having someone explain to me in a bless-your-heart kind of way that I need to be open to change (spoiler alert: “change” is not what this is, y’all). But what I am really tired of is being called names.
Please don’t run to my page and scour it for signs of some cyber bully who is making my life miserable with vulgar obscenities, because the name-calling isn’t directed at me specifically (nor is any of that other stuff I mentioned, really) and the source isn’t some no-good scumbag with nothing better to do than troll social media looking for a target. In fact, the source might be you.
When I was a college freshman I wanted to buy my then step-grandparents a front license plate for their car from the college I was attending. I was proud of my institution and proud of myself; I had earned a full ride, and the path this place had laid out before me was teeming with amazing opportunities. The decorative license plates were expensive on my almost non-existent budget, and there were several to choose from, so I picked up a catalog from the bookstore and asked my step-grandmother which one she liked best. I knew things were taking an unexpected turn when she met my question with a look of pity. Smiled insincerely. Shook her head in a patronizing way. “Oh, well, that’s sweet of you but with Step-Grandfather being a [legalistic Baptist] pastor and all, we really can’t advertise such a liberal college on our car. If you went to a different school [her suggestion was The University of North Carolina] then it would be okay. I’m sure you understand.”
I did not. I was not particularly political back then, but I’d been hearing for years that being “liberal” was a “sin;” however, I didn’t attend a “liberal college,” I attended a liberal arts college, meaning one could explore a number of academic subjects there rather than just focusing on a professional course of study. Also, UNC-Chapel Hill, even way back in 1992, was one of the least conservative university campuses in the state. It was my first exposure to the demonization of a word that has, in recent months, taken on a whole new depth of ugliness. I am not all that much more political today than I was as a naive 18 year-old college freshman, but the hatefulness dripping from that word–liberal–is no less confusing to me now than it was back then. Maybe you can help me understand.
Let’s start with a few basic definitions. Please note that these are from a reputable dictionary, and not the Holy Bible, because in case there is some confusion on this matter, there are not definitions of “liberals” and “conservatives” in The Word. Conservatism is not a synonym for Christian, any more than Liberals are automatically worshippers of The Dark Lord. For the purpose of simplicity, I’m sticking with the adjective forms of “liberal” and “conservative”:
From the Oxford English Dictionary:
1 Willing to respect or accept behaviour or opinions different from one’s own; open to new ideas 1.1 Favourable to or respectful of individual rights and freedoms
1.2 (in a political context) favouring individual liberty, free trade, and moderate political and social reform
1 Averse to change or innovation and holding traditional values
1.1 (of dress or taste) sober and conventional
2 (in a political context) favouring free enterprise, private ownership, and socially conservative ideas
Belief in a political philosophy based on belief in progress, the essential goodness of the human race, and the autonomy of the individual and standing for the protection of political and civil liberties; specifically : such a philosophy that considers government as a crucial instrument for amelioration of social inequities (such as those involving race, gender, or class)
Belief in a political philosophy based on tradition and social stability, stressing established institutions, and preferring gradual development to abrupt change; specifically : such a philosophy calling for lower taxes, limited government regulation of business and investing, a strong national defense, and individual financial responsibility for personal needs (as retirement income or health-care coverage)
These are not complicated definitions, and we all fall somewhere on a spectrum that has liberalism on one end and conservatism on the other. As different as they are, neither sounds particularly vile or unreasonable. I could get into other words like “democrat” and “republican” and “progressive,” “socialist” and “dictator” and “nazi.” But liberal seems to be the one that contains the most bile, so I’ll resist. People call others liberal the way a high school girl might call her rival a bitch, or the way a disgruntled employee might call his boss an asshole. If you’re reading this and you’ve called someone “a liberal” lately, with or without a string of colorful adjectives in front, you know I’m right. There is no friendly, objective use of the word anymore. It’s no longer simply the opposite of the word “conservative.” It is spoken or written in anger or mockery or extreme disapproval. When you use it to describe someone, you are figuratively spitting in the face of of that person’s beliefs, because you sure as hell aren’t merely throwing it into conversation as an acknowledgement of difference in perspective–even though that’s essentially what it is. An opinion different from yours, plain and simple. Please don’t mistake my point: name-calling of any shade or flavor is unnecessary. I was raised not to make assumptions about people based on external factors, to listen to the other side, to never direct my frustration with an injustice at an individual. But when I open Facebook these days, I am reminded that not everyone got those lessons, or that most of us have forgotten them.
Last Thursday, one day before the inauguration, I saw the word “liberal” being used as a derogatory slur on three different Facebook threads. Your Facebook threads. Posts about “delusional liberals,” “butthurt liberals,” “f*cking liberals,” and “libtards.” On Twitter last week a renown Christian (and I use that term lightly and with great irony) writer likened liberals to Satanists, and called the Women’s March on Washington “ridiculous.” Someone please explain to me what happened to the phrase, “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” Better yet, what happened to acknowledging that your friend or relative feels differently about something than you do; and rather than making rude, dismissive, or argumentative comments, or openly declaring a future in the burning fires of hell for said friend or relative, you asked questions like, “Can you help me better understand? What experiences in your life contribute to your position? Is it okay if we agree to disagree, because I love you and I don’t want either of us to be hurt or angry?”
It is usually around this point in the progression of things that I hear about how “you liberals do the same thing in reverse,” or the like, and I’m not going to deny it. As a Christian, and more specifically, a lover and follower of Jesus, I’ve gotten my fair share of eyerolls and petty names from those who think we Christians are simple and naive, or narrow-minded, or a bunch of rabid Bible beaters. But that’s a different essay. The thing is, in these recent days of peaceful protests and marches and standing up for rights, I’ve seen almost no name-calling or finger-pointing, aside from that which is directed at a leader who has openly denounced many of the people and issues we pesky liberals hold dear. Those many, many thousands of women who marched on Saturday worldwide, and the many millions of people here in the US and across the globe who want better for this country, are not interested in how we got here, because quite frankly, HERE is where we are and we can’t change that now. They are interested in how to improve on HERE and make where we are going better.
And that, my friends–that is what you are ridiculing. That’s what you’re calling names over. That’s what is fueling your venom. You think it’s time to shut up and wait, see what happens, let God do His work. Let’s be clear: WE are God’s workers, and He told us to pray for our leaders, but he did not tell us to SIT DOWN. He told us to take care of people and love each other. He Himself spent lots of time in crowds filled with sick people, people who were shunned by society, little children, groups who strongly opposed his message. He could have just hung out with Peter and the gang, but He didn’t. He didn’t care about safe zones or dirty looks. He made the world His church, and He started conversations, and He ignored conventions and traditions. I hate to break this to my conservative friends, but in the big picture of our current situation, I see far more “liberals” on the ground doing these things that Jesus did, and I see an awful lot of conservatives rolling their eyes and calling names over this work, the work Jesus started and implored us to make our own. So many conservatives and Republicans think this is an issue of winning and losing (it’s not), or that liberals are just whining because they hate guns and love abortion (c’mon, you know it’s not that simple). Consider this: if you went to dinner at a 5-star restaurant where you received bad service, were served food that was questionable, and were overcharged for the experience, would you complain to the management? Of course! Would I be right to scoff at you, to call you a whiner or a sore loser for expecting better? No, not at all. So why is it okay for us to do as much to each other over issues that are far more important than the over-doneness of a filet? If your liberal-leaning friend or sister or colleague says to you, “I’m worried about this. I don’t like it,” and your reply is anything but “Why? Help me understand,” then you’re just widening the gap.
And a lot of the gap-wideners and eye-rollers and name-callers are people I care about. They–YOU–are my neighbors. Former students. Long ago classmates. Favorite teachers. Cousins, aunts, uncles, friends. I come across your post shares and your scathing status updates, and I cringe, not because we disagree, because let’s be honest, shall we–WE KNOW WE DISAGREE. I cringe because this is not the you I know. This is not my experience with you. This is not how you would talk to me.
“I’m not talking TO YOU,” you might say to me at this point, but guess what? You really are. Every single time, I’m part of the audience you’re attacking. You’re also talking to my sister. My best friends. My mom. You’re talking to a number of people I work with and worship with, and you’re talking to several of my students. You might even be talking to my daughter, who declined gifts for her 10th birthday and asked her friends and their families to donate cash to Urban Ministry in our city. Would you look my beautiful daughter in the eye and call her a “libtard” because her heart breaks for the hungry and the homeless? Would you look at her soccer teammate who has Cystic Fibrosis and belittle the tireless policy work her family does to ensure that she gets to have a future? Would you stand before me, with my passion for both Jesus and human equity, my love for my country AND my desire for the leaders of that country to be transparent in their actions, to listen to the voices of ALL its people (not merely the white, educated, economically stable ones), to care for the poor and broken and discarded people who seek refuge from those in higher stations, and spit directly in my face? If your answer is no, I beg you to think about me the next time you want to share or compose a Tweet or Facebook status or Instagram post that is anything but positive, unifying, and empathetic. Picture me. Look me in the eye. I am showing you my whole self, my liberal-leaning-Jesus-loving bleeding heart. Will you name-call, ridicule, spout off all the reasons why I’m stupid or naive or eternally condemned? Will we have an argument or a conversation? Will you remember that it’s up to all of us to bridge the divide? Will you remember who I am? Who you really are?
I’ll be looking for your response.