Four years ago I was in the chair in a crowded barbershop, when an elderly customer, awaiting his turn, unleashed an astounding tirade of racist vitriol after the man cutting my hair mentioned his support for the candidacy of Barack Obama.
This wasn't political banter. There was no mention of policy and no pretense of support for the Republican ticket. The man's vile monologue was pure racism: as simple-minded as it was hateful, as sinful as it was hurtful. His was a vocabulary not often employed in Silicon Valley.
Everyone in the room was shocked and embarrassed, yet no one stood up to the racist. We had our excuses: the old codger was unreconstructed, probably senile, and no one was paying attention to him anyway; so we kept silent.
And I regret my silence. I missed a chance to be the kind of person I want to be: someone who stands up to bigotry and hate.
I've not seen that old man since, but four years later, sometimes I feel like I am in a similar situation when I visit social networking websites. I have a few virtual friends who take liberties with my liberalism by posting updates infused with ignorance and venality. Some are homophobic, some suggest Islam is a religion of violence, some are pro-life in a way that finds fault with women who exercise agency over their bodies.
Sometimes I push back, but usually I don't. I excuse myself by remembering the futility of trying to out-stink a skunk, especially in cyberspace. I tell myself that most online friends aren't real friends, and I don't know what kind of response is socially appropriate online, so why bother?
Social networking has created wonderful ways for us to connect and communicate, but as a society we haven't developed the social mores needed to keep us polite, nor have we decided what kinds of reproach are appropriate and necessary when a member of the community employs hateful vocabulary.
When someone says something nasty, we need to figure out how to be as embarrassed online as we would be in the face-to-face intimacy of a barbershop. In either setting, I doubt silence is a response worthy of our humanity; and I wonder if by keeping quiet we are missing the chance to be the kind of people and the kind of society we want to be.
With a Perspective, I'm Ben Daniel.
Ben Daniel is pastor of Foothill Presbyterian Church in San Jose.