I’ve been struggling, like many, in the past weeks and especially in the past 48 hours to think and respond to the failure of grand juries to indict either Officer Darren Wilson for the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, or Officer Daniel Pantaleo for the death of Eric Garner on Staten Island. As a Catholic theologian, as a white man, as a Facebook and Twitter user, as a resident of the District of Columbia, I’ve been dissatisfied with my thoughts and my responses. I’ve been involved in at least two rather unseemly Facebook flame wars, and injured, if not lost, some friendships. It’s led me to wonder what I, as a Christian and as a theologian, can do or say that will make ready the room for the coming reign of God that we pray for during Advent. This isn’t made primarily as a critique of another person’s response, but primarily as a confession – of what I have done, and what I have failed to do, though I expect it might not be only my confession.
First, what I’ve done. Spouted off on Facebook. Made snarky comments. Expressed anger and rage therein. Retweeted, and retweeted, and retweeted. There’s a value, obviously, in raging against the night and in lamenting the lost. But my self-critique is, is that why I was doing this? How much of my own ego preservation and identity formation was tied up in this? How much have I wanted to feel superior to my supposedly less enlightened “conversation” partners, rather than actually intending a discussion? Two thirds of my Facebook friends will just agree with me, and re-share; the other third won’t be helped, convinced, or converted by snark and verbal violence. Particularly (as this essay will no doubt demonstrate) when there are many others who are more eloquent, more intelligent, and more in need having their voices put forward into our public discourse than my own. This leaves me wondering how much these forms of technology, helpful as they are, have become in the wrong hands, or at least in my hands, another form of narcissistic identity-formation – another way of making a story that should be about the death of two unarmed black men, representative of deep-seated structures of racism that victimize women and men of color daily in this country, instead about me.
In his theology, James Alison uses the concept of “mimetic fascination,” drawn from the work of the theorist René Girard, to talk about the kind of phenomenon that I think we might be witnessing in some reactions to the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. As I understand it, the concept suggests ways in which we humans tend to be fascinated by symbolic events or structures in ways that foster the creation of a group identity over and against another group. In a way similar to Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of “the spectacle,” we get sucked into the drama of our position in relation to an increasingly abstracted, distant, and sacralized object of fascination. I’m not talking about the entirely appropriate reactions of those who knew Michael Brown and Eric Garner, nor the reactions of persons of color and their allies lifting up their deaths, in the best sense, to make public the struggles of racism they face every day. I’m talking about me, and perhaps people like me, for whom the impulse to solidarity slides quite easily into forms of us-against-them identity formation – what Alison and Girard might call demonic forms of identity – when two men’s deaths become a way of shoring up the righteousness of our virtual presence. And for whom the impulse to refresh the feed, to respond quickly to the offhand comment, to demonstrate my own intellectual or moral superiority is encouraged and fostered by the fascinating event of a media spectacle. I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be rage, there shouldn’t be protest, there shouldn’t be posts with truth and anger – I’m just saying that I’m beginning to think that I shouldn’t be the one to post them. The danger to myself and to the voices of others might be too great.
So what have I failed to do, and what might help? A first thing I have failed to do is to shut up. This post might be yet another failure in that regard, but I think it might also contribute to remedying another failure, namely, a failure to find ways to help think slowly, and in the longer term. It might also help me and others like me to think creatively about the ethics of how we speak to each other on twitter and Facebook, both the “usual” ethics of civility, but also the question of how our technology use forms or malforms us.
There are also so many other ways of beginning to address the actual issues these tragic deaths raise that are open to us. Prayer for the dead, and for the living. Voting, writing, calling. Listening, perhaps above all. Speaking like a Quaker – that is, when the Spirit moves you, but when you truly believe it’s the Spirit moving you. Given what the economists call my “comparative advantage” as a theologian, that is, the things I can offer that others might not be able to, one thing I can give, and that I used Facebook to help with, is some thought about possible sources for longer-term, non-reactive responses to structural racism that will help us educate ourselves, our students, and perhaps even those we disagree with yet love, about the issues facing persons of color in the U.S., and black Americans in particular, more effectively than a self-righteous tweet. Theologians and theologically-interested people: put them on your Christmas list (and read them!), or get them in your school’s library, and under your students’ noses, and then reflect on how your teaching and scholarship needs to change. And email some of them to your mom or put them in your uncle’s Christmas stocking. And thanks to the Facebook friends who helped me create this list (in no particular order) – feel free to add your own suggestions below!
Video of Bryan Massingale’s talk “Unconscious Racial Bias and the Challenge of Solidarity: Catholic Social Thought Post Trayvon Martin (and Michael Brown and…)”, given at Holy Cross on October 28, 2014
and an ABC 20/20 video on “Racism in America” (2010)