Virginia Woolf once said that life is what we see in each other’s eyes. Today, sadly, we rarely see each other’s eyes and we rarely see life either because we impersonalize and demonize each other through labels.
It is a terrible scourge, a moral failure, this labelling. A label renders another faceless, an amorphous category and usually, a hated one as well. Through labels we set up faceless demons through which we can give full vent to paranoia.
A generation ago, we did this with communism and its corollary labels: Godless Russia, leftist, Marxist, Soviet and so on. In the face of those labels we could discharge every kind of paranoia and suspicion and we could scapegoat to our hearts’ content.
Thus, for example, we could justify building nuclear bombs and could hate in the name of God. (“We need to be protected from this godless monster!”) Why? Because we were not hating actual persons, with faces, feelings, dreams, pains, families and children. We were hating a faceless monster, without eyes.
One wonders, as Jim Wallis is fond of asking, whether we would have had the same feelings back then had we been shown, regularly, pictures of Soviet families—mothers nursing children, grandparents playing with their grandchildren, husbands and wives agonizing over unpaid bills, lonely young children with innocent trusting eyes staring out at us.
Had we seen the Soviets in those terms, with faces, and not as godless insentient monsters, we might have had less appetite to build all those nuclear weapons. How do you plan for nuclear war when you are actually looking at human faces? But, having never seen their faces, we could rationalize every kind of paranoia.
All wars, ultimately, come about because we no longer look at persons, but rather at ideology and then create the appropriate labels by which to demonize people. Many soldiers, for instance, have commented that they find it almost impossible to kill someone if they are close enough to see that person’s face.
Killing is more easily done from a distance—with mortar shells, bombings and long-range weapons that strike a faceless “enemy” who is not actually seen. It is easier to live with ourselves when the people we have killed are faceless, “collateral damage.”
But this isn’t just true for war and that is my real point here, it is just as true within our church and civil circles: Here we disrespect, justify paranoia, and rationalize lack of elementary charity because we are, in the end, not dealing with real persons, but with faceless liberals, conservatives, feminists, male chauvinists, reactionaries, old fogies, New Agers, good-for-nothings on welfare, valueless yuppies, out-of-date patriarchal bullies, fanatical pro-lifers, familyvalue-destroying radicals and up-tight fundamentalists, not even to mention a whole other category—geeks, nerds, slobs, neurotics and people with an attitude.
We need not give these persons the love and understanding the Gospel asks for because, thanks to the labels we have already given them, they are not persons at all but demons to be exorcised.
We live in a time of paranoia and hysteria, both of the right and of the left, within society at large. Simply put, there is a lot of hatred, disrespect, slander of others and distortion of the truth around.
Moreover, on all sides, it is rationalized on the highest moral grounds. How is this done? Through labels we demonize each other, strip the faces off of each other and, figuratively and literally, kill each other.
When·is enough enough? When will we see the destructiveness and evil of this? When will we realize what this is really doing to us? When will we look at ourselves—and this congenital propensity to label, impersonalize and demonize—with some courage and honesty?
Despite loud protests to the contrary, despite our professed sensitivities, despite our politically correct indignations, and despite our growing belief that we are morally coming of age, especially in our championing of the poor and the misunderstood, we haven’t, I believe, moved a moral inch beyond previous generations that we look upon for labelling and demonizing certain ethnic and political groups.
The labels have changed and grown more sophisticated, but the charity and respect haven’t increased an iota.
It is time to say, enough!