Without naively or arrogantly pretending to hold all the answers to the riddles of existence, philosophy can—by deepening and clarifying our understanding of reality (and partly by leading us beyond itself)—teach us how to live in better solidarity with ourselves, with others, with the whole created order, and with God.
The conversation at first appears to be going nowhere. The young man, under the pseudonym “Dildo Baggins” directs racial epithets and slurs at the young woman, Ms. Oluo, and she answers him with quotes on non-violence from Martin Luther King Jr. He mocks Dr. King. She answers with more quotes. She behaves with dignity, but so far the conversation isn’t really a conversation at all.
This all changes when Ms. Oluo shifts to using her own words to address “Baggins” personally. “I wish you peace and love and freedom from the hate that hurts your heart,” she writes. Instantly, the dynamic changes, as “Baggins” drops his epithets to ask who she is quoting.
“That’s me,” Ms. Oluo tells him, “sending peace and love to you.”
From there, real conversation begins.
Eventually, through the conversation, it comes out that “Baggins” is a young teenage boy, recently bereaved of his mother. He started this Twitter account, he explains, to “let out all my weird horrible feelings.” Ms. Oluo suggests journaling and assures him, “It’s just like tweeting—I promise!”
By the end of the conversation, “Baggins” has apologized for his earlier words, and Ms. Oluo has invited him to get in touch if he ever needs to talk.
Two things struck me about this conversation. The first thing is that this exchange is made possible by Ms. Oluo’s obvious self-possession. As a professor I am fond of quoting frequently said, “in order to give oneself, one must first possess oneself.” This is the first part of personalism-in-action, knowing ourselves as unique persons of irreducible worth whose true value is not threatened by the estimation of others. Secure in self-knowledge, Ms. Oluo is able to respond to the language of hatred with the language of love.
This paves the way for the second part of this conversation that drew my attention—the transformative power of personalism in practice. “Baggins” begins by treating Ms. Oluo as a non-person—a joke and a means for venting his darker feelings. He treats her like a target, and she treats him like a person.
She treats him as a person, and it recalls him to his own personhood, and moves him to see her as a person too.
I’m not going to tell you that you should engage trolls on the internet with the hope of invoking this kind of breakthrough self-revelation. I won’t tell you that personalism requires you to open yourself to communion with people who have sought to hurt you. Our universal call is to recognize the value of each and every human being, to act in a moral manner, to seek justice and mercy. But we will have different personal moral callings within that universal call, and not everybody is called to engage with hatefulness as has Ms. Oluo or the remarkable Daryl Davis.
The universal call is to treat others as persons, as subjects with their own worth, regardless of how they treat us. It is a beautiful thought that this may in turn awake some to the truth and the value of their own subjectivity and, through that, of the subjectivity and value of other persons.
To borrow the words of Dr. King, by putting personalism into practice, we may "carve a tunnel of hope through a dark mountain of disappointment."