"It is YOU YOU YOU YOU who cause the suffering and harm."
Closing a recitation of the deepest hurts beatings, suicides, depression in a blog commenter's life, the above quotation
resonates threateningly even through the gauze of anonymity that the Internet provides. The reason, beyond its discomfiting hysteria, is that the accusation is leveled not at a lifelong nemesis, or even an acquaintance, but at a stranger with the audacity to offer his opinion in a forum intended for and visited by those of a disagreeing worldview. In some circles, such is the collective guilt of conservative Christians that an individual can be held responsible for decades of suffering among people whom he has never met.
Of course, the wilds of cyberspace echo with the venting of all sorts of extreme thoughts, whether they represent cathartic release for the habitually civil or simple liberty for the intemperate. Consequently, anybody wishing to decry dangerous rhetoric from opposing political camps can find examples. The attitude that permeates American universities, however, brings into question whether the all-caps incrimination of an anonymous Christian YOU can be dismissed as extreme.
University of Rhode Island senior Nathaniel Nelson, for example, has found that the authority figures in his environment are not above leveling similar, if more erudite, accusations. For his final column
for the school's student paper, The Good 5¢ Cigar,
Nelson published a sweeping essay about the moral ills of modern society. Midway through, he made a sloppy and ill-considered juxtaposition of debatable AIDS statistics and the same-sex marriage controversy.
In a letter to the paper
the following day, professor of English and film studies John Leo expressed his "sense of shame that [Nelson] will soon be credentialed by URI." In Leo's eyes, the only way in which Nelson might cleanse himself of the stain that "clearly marks [him] as an ignorant bigot," would be to follow up with an essay about how the African AIDS policies of "the Bush administration and the Catholic Church . . . are contributing to the unconscionable killing of hundreds of thousands of people."
A few editions later, library and film studies professor Michael Vocino described the notion
that Professor Leo might have been "trying to 'exchange ideas' with the student" as laughable. Simply put, commentaries such as Nelson's "cause murder, beatings, humiliation and more for LGBT community members." Leo's reaction, therefore, was a model for the "passion" with which professors should speak to their students. Especially a certain type of student:
The student in question is a fundamentalist Christian and believes in a literal interpretation of the Bible. He has stated that outright in classes, private and public conversations and implies as much in his many columns.
The classification is offered as if, once proven, it is decisive regarding the respect that the student is due. The "fundamentalist Christian" tag marks Nelson as a member of a class that deserves none of the allowances or even courtesies that other identity groups enjoy. Gone is the presumption of extenuating circumstances; the young man's right to comity has been expended by definition. Nelson is among the "faces of hate," in Vocino's words. "Please don't be fooled by them," he exhorts, stating as incontrovertible fact that an "exchange of ideas" is the "last thing they are interested in."
Perhaps the most disquieting quality of conservative Christians' designation as an unprotected class is that it finds such high currency among professionals who ought to know better. Humanities professors have practically made a grammatical Truth of language's ability to dehumanize and disqualify, making violence against individuals appear less culpable.
Nell Sullivan of the University of Houston offers a perfect example while analyzing the novel Passing
by Nella Larsen. About the possibility that one black character who "passes" as white pushes another to her death, Sullivan writes, "that action is merely a conditioned response to the white voice of authority pronouncing 'nigger,' which, in accordance with the Plessy v. Ferguson
decision, entails an act of expulsion or exclusion."
The anonymous Christian was banned from the blog on which he had been commenting. With proper perspective, that's an insignificant consequence for speaking his mind. Being branded in condemnatory terms in the midst of a career academic or otherwise would be another matter. And one can't help but worry what voices of authority might pronounce in the future.