By Steven R. Ford
It’s late on a Sunday afternoon. I’m sitting on the family room sofa, occasionally glancing at the television on which a national news program is set on mute. What has actually been holding my interest is the computer I have on my lap. My cat Pete can wait his turn.
I’ve been scrolling through the weekend’s Facebook posts of my friends. Suddenly, at the bottom of the CNN visual across the room, I see President Repeatedly Tweets Criticism of Clinton and Obama. I continue with browsing Facebook and out of the corner of my eye I see We Need to Call Them Islamic Terrorists. A bit later yet another glance at the silent TV showed this scrolling quotation: “Medicaid Recipients Can Always Get Jobs.” My sociologically trained mind shifted into overdrive.
It’s been known, perhaps since the beginning of time, but not formally articulated and studied until the early 20th century by French social philosopher Émile Durkheim (The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, 1912). There’s no easier way to forge social solidarity than to create a common enemy. It works in politics: commitment to an ideology becomes strong when its opponents are demeaned and dehumanized. It functions well in promoting class solidarity, when the very rich or the very poor are targeted as the source of a society’s problems. And there’s no arguing that it serves religion especially well. Fundamentalist Christianity probably couldn’t exist without the enemies of the world and the devil. Neither would liberal Christianity have much of a following in a truly egalitarian society.
My interest in the postings of others suddenly shifted gears. I revisited several posts (many of them humorous in nature), and I clicked to the page that identifies my friends by name. Social media in general, and Facebook in particular, have evolved into a significant means of social cohesion or at least into a metaphor for it. Is there some common enemy that binds me to others in my little virtual community? I gave that a lot of what we priests call prayerful consideration.
In my musings, of course, I excluded friends who aren’t actually friends at all, but people I knew decades ago and whose posts I’ll occasionally like to let know that I haven’t yet succumbed to some hideous disease. If any of them unfriended me, I probably wouldn’t even notice. I also excluded those who are really just acquaintances who come into and go out of my life more or less at random. I pondered only real virtual friends, a number of whom I’ve never met in the flesh. They are those who, were they to unfriend me, I would actually miss.
It turns out that those in the social media with whom I feel a strong connection don’t appear to have any common enemy at all. While most are Christians of various pedigrees, a few are Muslim, one is Jewish and several identify as atheists. While many fall somewhere along the broad economic spectrum of the middle class, I suspect that one is quite wealthy and several are recent immigrants who live paycheck to paycheck. Some are vocal Democrats, but just as many are political independents. Some are Republicans. Some are highly educated and hold doctoral degrees; others have high school diplomas. No, there doesn’t seem to me any obvious common disdain of any social group that holds us together.
That led me to a quick review of Durkheim’s seminal work. While his common enemy observation is obviously true, a closer reading reveals that it works best in times of anomie, when social cohesion is breaking down. But my real virtual relationships aren’t breaking down. A far stronger basis for connection, Durkheim theorized, rests in shared common values and passions. My most precious and prized virtual friendships, it turns out, are with people who share my deepest values. Those friendships, therefore, don’t need to be reinforced or renewed through creating any enemies.
These values are really pretty simple. Everyone deserves clean water, enough to eat, and access to quality healthcare. Political expediency can’t be allowed to determine who gets them and who doesn’t. Everyone has a right to high-quality public education provided by adequately compensated professionals. All full-time workers have a right to a living wage, and those unable to work have a right to have their needs met. It’s better to build bridges than walls. Absolutely everyone has a right to be treated with honor, dignity, and respect. And it probably goes without saying that I value our shared ability to see irony and humor almost everywhere.
Some of us call these religious values (they are, after all, shared by every major religion) while others don’t. But they certainly constitute what Durkheim calls a collective conscience — what I consider the strongest interpersonal bond that exists. It’s also my opinion that these values, at least in nascent form, are present by nature in most human beings.
Perhaps the gift that my real virtual friends and I can give to other through Facebook is the awakening of these values in others. Who knows?
The Rev. Steven R. Ford assists at St. Mark’s/San Marcos, Mesa, Arizona.