A does something to B. (Maybe A shoots B; maybe A refuses to bake a cake for B. It doesn’t signify.)

Social media pick up the story of what A did to B.

Some members of Group Y are outraged at what A did to B, and demand swift retribution.

Some other members of Group Y to are also outraged by what A did to B, but hesitate to commit themselves to a call for swift retribution. They think that perhaps they don’t know all the facts; or they wonder whether the retribution called for might be too extreme. But they stay silent because they don’t want to be called out by, or exiled from, their group.

Some members of Group Z are outraged by the calls for swift retribution. Either because they have a predisposition in favor of A or have bean agitated by the rhetoric of the more vocal members of Group Y, they come to A’s defense, and suggest that what A did isn’t that bad after all.

Some other members of Group Z are also outraged, or at least disturbed, by those calls for swift retribution, but aren’t sure that they can come to A’s defense. They think that perhaps they don’t know all the facts; or they wonder whether the justifications of A are really warranted. But they stay silent because they don’t want to be called out by, or exiled from, their group.

The vocal members of Group Y are even more outraged by the attitudes of the vocal members of Group Z than they were by the original actions of A. They double down on their condemnations of A, and demand that the members of Group Z receive their own retribution for justifying the unjustifiable, defending the indefensible.

The vocal members of Group Z ascend to the condition of righteous wrath. Those who had originally said that A’s actions were wrong but not that wrong now say that A’s actions were completely justified, and in fact could have been much more extreme and still justified. They denounce Group Y’s calls for retribution as “McCarthyite” “witch hunts.”

The vocal members of groups Y and Z make no distinction between the aggressively vocal members of the other group and the silent ones. Any attempts to suggest that the members of the other group are not monolithic and unanimous is met with a sneering hashtag: #notallmembers.

Some of those in each group who had remained silent because of uncertainty or an instinctive desire for moderation realize that they’re being targeted just as aggressively as the most extreme members of their group. They begin to suspect that those extremists were right all along about the other group. In their shock at being so condemned, they tend to forget that there are people in the other group who are feeling just as they feel, for for the same reasons. Their silence has led the rest of the world to think that they don’t exist, and that their entire group of fairly characterized by the behavior of its most extreme members. And gradually that assumption, initially false, comes to be true.


  1. "The doctor described himself as a Christian who understood his commitments to be "totalizing." His faith led him to a strong opposition to abortion and gay marriage, although he said that his faith also led him to question the idolatry of the free market and quick resort to militarism that seemed to characterize much of the Republican agenda.

    But the reason the doctor was considering not voting for me was not simply my position on abortion. Rather, he had read an entry that my campaign had posted on my website, which suggested that I would fight "right-wing ideologues who want to take away a woman's right to choose." The doctor went on to write:

    "I sense that you have a strong sense of justice…and I also sense that you are a fair minded person with a high regard for reason…Whatever your convictions, if you truly believe that those who oppose abortion are all ideologues driven by perverse desires to inflict suffering on women, then you, in my judgment, are not fair-minded….You know that we enter times that are fraught with possibilities for good and for harm, times when we are struggling to make sense of a common polity in the context of plurality, when we are unsure of what grounds we have for making any claims that involve others…I do not ask at this point that you oppose abortion, only that you speak about this issue in fair-minded words."

    Fair-minded words.

    So I looked at my website and found the offending words. In fairness to them, my staff had written them using standard Democratic boilerplate language to summarize my pro-choice position during the Democratic primary, at a time when some of my opponents were questioning my commitment to protect Roe v. Wade.

    Re-reading the doctor's letter, though, I felt a pang of shame. It is people like him who are looking for a deeper, fuller conversation about religion in this country. They may not change their positions, but they are willing to listen and learn from those who are willing to speak in fair-minded words. Those who know of the central and awesome place that God holds in the lives of so many, and who refuse to treat faith as simply another political issue with which to score points.

    So I wrote back to the doctor, and I thanked him for his advice. The next day, I circulated the email to my staff and changed the language on my website to state in clear but simple terms my pro-choice position. And that night, before I went to bed, I said a prayer of my own – a prayer that I might extend the same presumption of good faith to others that the doctor had extended to me."


Comments are closed.