I ask this because of an exchange I had on Facebook recently. An old friend of mine posted the following note to her page:
“Friend, you cannot legislate the poor into freedom by legislating the wealthy out of freedom. And what one person receives without working for, another person must work for without receiving. The government can’t give to anybody anything that the government does not first take from somebody. And when half of the people get the idea they don’t have to work because the other half’s going to take care of them, and when the other half get the idea it does no good to work because somebody’s going to get what I work for. That, dear friend, is about the end of any nation.”-Dr. Adrian Rogers
Adrian Rogers, to whom the above quote is attributed, was the pastor at Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, TN for many years. Bellevue is a mega-church (one of the first?) and Rogers was the mastermind behind its growth and success. I have very little respect for Rogers (in fact, I think he was one in a long line of morally bankrupt — though ironically he amassed ridiculous amounts of material wealth — Moral Majority types). I left a comment on this note about Matthew 19:24, which is the verse in the new testament that talks about it being easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter heaven. My response was kind of tongue in cheek; without engaging in serious dialogue, I was trying to highlight the irony of someone as absurdly rich as Rogers preaching to a seriously affluent congregation of 29,000 about the dangers of welfare for them. (How much more hyperbolic can you get than to talk about the end of nations?!)
My friend replied that we would have to agree to disagree; she wrote about her experiences and observations and why those experiences/observations made her agree with Rogers. All of this was fine. I agree to disagree all the time; if I didn’t my options for Thanksgiving and Christmas would shrink dramatically! But then, moments later, she posted another comment that read: “Hey and you don’t be mean to me!!!!! Love you!!”
Here was my reply:
Are you kidding?! Why would I be mean to you??? (feelings kinda hurt, sad face!)
But we will definitely have to agree to disagree, because for a lot of people what you call “hard times” they would call being born black in America. Are there people who take advantage of the system? *Absolutely.* I’m not arguing that. But is that the majority of people? Absolutely not. Most people are just like you and me — they want to work, they want to take care of their children and provide them with a good education, they want affordable housing, they want access to good food and clean water, they want health insurance.
To take as an example those who work the system (and they surely exist) and use that image to characterize all poor people (or in Adrian Rogers’ case, all black people, because that’s exactly who he’s talking about) — it’s just wrong. The reality in this country is that issues of systemic (deep, long term, ingrained, and perpetual) racism keep many people ghettoized who do not want to be. So for Rogers to talk in such general terms about poor [black] people is dehumanizing, not to mention demoralizing and ethically suspect — especially for a “minister.” To talk about someone’s behavior (driving around in their welfare car, as you put it) without looking at the social ills that contribute to that behavior is only skimming the surface of the problem.
If he were still alive I would love to listen to a conversation between Rogers and Tricia Rose, who writes that “those who insist on making public, hostile attacks on some of the most vulnerable, least powerful people in society while at the same time neglecting to offer the same kind of vitriol against institutionalized racism, economic oppression, and sexism contribute to the very inequality they claim behavior should fix. They should begin with a deeper examination of their own behavior before moving on to that of anyone else. . . . Publicly beating up on those who have the shortest end of the stick without exposing and keeping our eye on the deep forces working against black people contributes to our collective denial about the profound role of discrimination in our society, and may even end up `justifying’ it.”
There are two things at work here: the fact that I so profoundly disagree with the original quote from Adrian Rogers, plus the fact that my friend — someone I have known and loved for twenty years — would be afraid that I would be mean to her! And it makes me wonder whether or not Facebook is a space that truly fosters dialogue or if it’s just one big soap box. I wonder this for a couple of reasons. 1) It’s certainly easy to read an unappealing status update or note, something with which I don’t agree, and simply click the hide button or just scroll past. Even for someone who respects a diversity of opinion, I have done this a lot — Facebook makes such quick elimination of contrasting viewpoints so easy. Rather than Engage, we Hide! 2) This is someone I love and adore, and a subject that I think is interesting. In many ways, these are ideal conditions for constructive dialogue. But then she thought I would be mean to her. I don’t honestly think that her fear was a direct reflection on me — in all the years we have known each other I don’t *think* I have ever been mean to her. Rather, I think it’s a [sad] reflection of how we see “conversation” happen in today’s public sphere. The mainstream media has so seriously damaged any notion of civil discourse that even friends are learning to fear one another on Facebook.
Yes, I was being a little antagonistic with my Matthew 19:24 response, but I think a little antagonism is called for from time to time. If you’re going to post things online (as I am doing here; fire away!) you cannot always predict the types of responses you will get. But when there is disagreement, a space for conversation can open. But that space becomes fraught when there is fear that I (or others) will be mean. Unfortunately, a quick glance at many comments on online videos, blog posts, and news stories reveals precisely why my friend would be afraid that I would be mean — so many people jump directly to vitriolic spew that I usually find myself avoiding online comments altogether. And then look at networks like Fox News: there is no civility on any of their programs. They are all about who can shout the loudest. And in many ways, they have a great model because with such a handicapped mainstream media only the shortest, crispest, harshest, most divisive, nonsensical sound bites are going to make it “to press.”
Anyway, if you’ve managed to read this far, what are your thoughts? Facebook: can we engage, or are we only preaching?
P.S. If you have any interest in Tricia Rose you should check out her appearance on The Rachel Maddow show from Jan. 11, 2010. In the first clip, which is Maddow talking about race, particularly racist gaffes, Rose appears at 9:45. The second, shorter clip is her almost entirely.
In early February she spoke here, and I was lucky enough to attend her lecture. She’s a very powerful speaker and truly inspirational. You can check out her speaking schedule on her website. If she is ever speaking near you, I definitely recommend hearing her in person. You can also check her out on Youtube. Lastly, a bibliographic note: the quote above was taken from Rose, Tricia. The Hip Hop Wars: What We Talk About When We Talk About Hip Hop–and Why It Matters. New York: BasicCivitas, 2008.