We live in an angry time in America, a time when the sparks of disagreement are fanned to become bitter divisions. While division is not new, our current times have made this different and dangerous. As individuals and as groups, our ability to preach our angry outlook has been weaponized by social media and a president who thrives on ratcheting up that type of discourse. We’ve broken free from social norms that kept overt intolerance from being mainstreamed and even accepted.
In 1989, Spike Lee made “Do The Right Thing,” a landmark film that laid bare the undercurrent of that era’s unspoken racial tensions. In that movie, people tired from life’s challenges and racial tensions exploded on summer’s hottest day. These days on social media each day’s temperature grows hotter than the last.
“Do The Right Thing” included an incredible scene of people ranting unfiltered stereotypes about other groups. A black man ranted about Italians. The Italian ranted about black people. Diatribes targeted Puerto Ricans, Koreans and Jews. No doubt these were things said privately among like-minded people, among friends and family. To think otherwise was to be naïve. But to have Spike Lee splash these across a movie screen was breathtaking to behold.
In Lee’s 2002 film “25th Hour”, Ed Norton plays an Irish Catholic lead character at a moment when bad life decisions have him facing the consequences of his own actions. His reflection in the mirror speaks back to him in a hate-filled rant targeting Sikhs, Pakistanis, gays, Koreans, Russians, Jews, Wall Street types, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Italians, black people, cops, priests, the Catholic Church and Muslims. His reflection seeks to blame everyone else, to blame “the others” for the problems he faces.
Seventeen years ago this film foreshadowed a coming sentiment that is now part of our everyday politics. Even that scene’s rants about black people and police officers parallel what we hear now. The character says, “Slavery ended 137 years ago, move the f*** on,” and about police shootings, “Standing behind a blue wall of silence, you betray our trust.” These unjustly paint a group of people with the same brush.
In their time, these scenes were controversial. Now they no longer shock the senses given that these opinions are openly expressed by people all the way up to people in leadership of our country’s institutions. The steps backward are a surprise to those who believed we had turned a corner when this country elected a black man to the presidency.
Maybe some of us have turned a corner.
When I speak with young people, they talk inclusively about the issues of race, religion, sexual orientation, and gender with ease and understanding. At the same time on social media, you find other young people extolling any number of other extremist ideologies.
Which segment of the next generation will emerge to lead America?
Right now for those entrusted with leadership we must come to a more judicious understanding of the weapons of mass destruction that we possess in our hands. Demonization, name-calling and vilification via smartphones, tablets, media and social media accounts are weapons of mass destruction. Hateful rhetoric grabs attention, ratings and money. To some, it may seem harmless, but those words are the matches lighting the fuse of violence. The words we spread are ingested by people, who even if they do not act upon them, have their minds poisoned. And in these mistrustful times, we readily put faith in like-minded strangers over people living around us who could disprove our stereotypes if we’d only let them.
In this week of Easter, Christians find hope in the Bible. Hope does not entail boasting of our lives’ pious righteousness and casting judgment on the ways of others we’ve deemed less worthy.
Intolerant judgment of others puts us on a path that is completely opposite of the example shown in the Bible. We are no better than the caricatured rantings Spike Lee used in those scenes. The New Testament’s story is a ministry spent among society’s outcasts to lift and unite people. Its message was not to condemn, but rather to save.
In an age of identity politics hell-bent on splintering groups and competing interests against each other for political gain, we are headed for a bad place. Time will tell if we will learn anything from across the centuries.
But as we look toward the future’s horizon we must seek visionary leaders to bridge the divides. We need leaders who understand that words matter, that social media can be a force for good rather than a weapon for destruction. We need leaders whose only goal is to serve all Americans and not just one’s “base.”
Until we do that we can only hope that Lincoln’s “better angels of our nature” somehow guide “We The People” to overcome the gathering storm of division that threatens the fabric of our nation.