Lately the trolls are having a field day.
The conditions are perfect and they’re breeding prodigiously.
An uninvited guest showed up on my social media doorstep late last night. It was a man from a former church; one I hadn’t had seen in 5 years and hadn’t really known all that well prior to that, other than sharing the same large faith community and having a number of mutual Facebook friends. He began with personal insults and taunts more appropriate to a middle school locker room bully than to a grown, educated man with teenage daughters—and then moved to demeaning the many strangers who rightly questioned his tactics.
Over the course of three hours and well into the early morning, the man unapologetically egged on people he’d never spoken to before, immediately disparaging their intellect, their sexuality, and their faith convictions—all the while claiming some imagined moral high ground that supposedly justified his public expressions of contempt. Well-meaning friends responded in my defense, further fueling the man’s tantrums, and before long I too was sucked into the firestorm, exchanging verbal volleys with him, with little regard for their collateral damage to those looking on.
After catching myself in a moment of self-awareness, I stepped back and watched it all unfold and once again grieved a sight that’s become all too familiar. I lamented the fact that there in those unsolicited, bitter diatribes from an otherwise rational adult human being—was yet further proof of the sickness that has afflicted us all.
Regardless of our political affiliations and religious convictions, many of us can see it clearly and we can feel it pressing down like a heavy stone upon our chests: cruelty is trending here.
There is a profound poverty of empathy in our friendships and church communities, our social media pages and political exchanges, our family conversations and our interactions with strangers that we can’t ignore—and I’m not sure how we recover what we’ve lost or remove what’s been released into our corporate bloodstream. Right now the only solace I take, is in knowing that a tired multitude recognizes the symptoms and shares my lamentations.
I spent the past week traveling and talking to groups of folks about the bigger table, and there was unanimity in our exhaustion; great company in feeling the oppressive fatigue of living in a place where compassion seems to be both invisible and unnecessary to so many. With cracking voices, strangers publicly shared their grief over having to disconnect from people they once loved for the sake of their sanity. They talked of dreading the approaching holidays, not sure whether to avoid family gatherings or to risk the conflict surely waiting there. They recounted social media shit storms and family dinner blow-ups. Mothers of LGBTQ children wept over knowing relatives voted in opposition to their own flesh and blood, and that they’ve done so defiantly and with great malice. Muslims talked about living here for decades and only now feeling endangered.
With every story, they reminded me of the trending cruelty.
And as we diagnose the sickness presently befalling us—we can’t avoid the orange elephant in the room.
There’s no doubt that the man occupying the White House is part of this, but he didn’t create this cruelty—he simply leveraged it to his advantage. He didn’t invent the malevolence my uninvited social media visitor reveled in last night, but he did make it go mainstream. He gave this man and so many like him, license to emulate him—and that’s simply the ugliest truth about where we are in this moment: while those who serve as our representatives in the world continue to lower the depths of human decency, we too will continue to descend unless we resist it fully.
We can’t wait for our political or religious leaders to raise the bar because that may never again happen. We’re going to have to do that ourselves. We who are burdened by this enmity are going to have to raise the flag for simple decency and fight to defend it with the very best of ourselves. We’re going to have to combat this vicious illness by not perpetuating it.
We’re going to have to love the trolls enough not to feed them the empty calories they crave.
We’re going to need to oppose this malice by not replicating it.
We’re going to have to step away from the seductive, slippery slope of putting people on blast.
We’re going to need to keep loving people even when it seems to be a lost and fruitless art.
We’re going to need to make compassion fashionable again.
Yes, cruelty is trending right now.
It’s time we gave empathy the bandwidth it deserves.
Order John’s book, ‘A Bigger Table’ here.