Why the Us vs. Them mentality of modern social justice harms its own cause
And how I’m part of the problem.
This weekend, I missed a bus in downtown Seattle because cops in riot gear blocked my way. I was 50 feet away from the bus to Everett, wearing two backpacks and carrying an oversized duffle bag full of mountaineering gear on my shoulder, and a member of the SWAT team told me to walk around the block to get to the bus that was about to pull away.
I guess this is normal now — the riot shields, the pepper spray, the disruption to normal life.
Once I finally got on the next bus, I read about the protest I had walked into in Seattle’s Westlake Center. I’d had to navigate through the remnants of a Patriot Prayer rally to get to the bus stop. Or was the crowd I pushed through the remnants of the anti-fascist counter-protest? I still haven’t sorted it out.
I’ve spent a good portion of the last 48 hours reading analyses of the Charlottesville events, and the much less tragic Seattle protest (apparently the Seattle cops deployed pepper spray on the counter-protesters, but that was about it). Then I read responses to the analyses. Then I read responses to the responses. Bullshit was called. Haters hated. Anti-haters also hated, but in the name of love. This longread was the best thing I read, and it ended with a lot more questions than conclusions.
The resurgence of White Supremacy is terrifying, and it’s hard to comprehend the fact that the President doesn’t care to call it out for what it is. But I’ve noticed a funny trick of rhetoric at play in many of the online discussions about Trump’s reluctance to condemn White Supremacy in those words. Vox calls him out for hypocrisy — he was so obsessed with Hillary Clinton’s refusal to say the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism,” but now he’s the one playing name games, Vox’s Zack Beauchamp says.
But what’s ironic to me is that by calling Trump out for hypocrisy, you give credence to his beef with Clinton. I don’t think either politician is guilty of hypocrisy in this case. I think their choice of words reveals exactly how they feel about each issue. Clinton believed that Islam itself wasn’t the problem. She believed that it’s not an inherently violent belief, and calling out “radical Islamic terrorism” does a disservice to peaceful Muslims. Trump believes that racism isn’t a problem in the U.S., and calling out White Supremacy insults nice white people.
I’m watching HBO’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale right now and it’s really freaking me out, even though I’ve read the book, so I know the ending. I can’t help but see similarities between our modern day protesting, and the uselessness of the protests after all the women had their rights stripped away in the story. The most chilling line from the show so far was this one:
“Of course there is an ‘us,’ because now there is a ‘them.’”
Resistance in its many forms is a major theme of The Handmaid’s Tale. But while each woman’s form of resistance helps her stay sane or maintain her dignity, none of their actions make a significant difference in dismantling the oppressive system. They’re all about making the women feel better in an unwinnable situation.
That’s what the endless responses I’ve read all over social media and the news have felt like to me. They’re all pointless, on the whole, because they only make people who agree with them feel better, while giving more ammunition to the people who disagree.
I’ve seen people in my networks calling out others for staying silent. “If you’re not outraged, you’re part of the problem,” etc. But if you shout your rage into the giant echo chamber of your Facebook feed, are you really part of the solution? You haven’t risked anything by standing up for this belief among a crowd of peers who agree almost blindly with you.
Sure, protesting is a risky thing. You might literally lose your life. It’s always been risky, and it seems to be only getting more so. But if the protesters and the counter-protesters are both obsessed with demonstrating their own beliefs, is anyone actually listening to each other?
It seems like everyone is accusing each other of being a fascist — the left’s political correctness is a form of fascism because it suppresses opposition and criticism, but guess what else is notorious for squelching diversity of thought and opposition? Fundamentalist Christianity. Obviously, White Supremacists and neo-Nazis are in favor of fascism because they want to bring back an all-powerful dictatorship that places them back in their “rightful” place of economic privilege in society. But then there’s the anti-fascists, or the ANTIFA, and far-right wingers are complaining about the left not condemning them for their militant approach to protesting. So it’s not OK to be fascist, but it’s also not OK to be anti-fascist. That leaves apathy as the only socially acceptable belief system.
This has been a really long introduction to a post that was supposed to be the third in a series about creativity, crowd-sourced from my peers. But I couldn’t just launch into a discussion of the virtue of creativity as if nothing had happened. I felt the need to condemn somebody. But as I looked around, I couldn’t find anyone more worthy of condemning than myself. My first reaction to the pictures of the Charlottesville protesters is hate — the same hate that drives their actions. It’s just that more people agree that my hate is justified. Moral, even.
I’m part of America’s race problem. Not just because I’ve committed all of the microaggressions in the book, but because I’m so easily deceived by the idea that there is an us and there is a them, and that it’s possible to be part of the Righteous Us without ever falling into the same patterns of the Oppressive Them.
I’m really uncomfortable with the doxing of the Charlottesville White Supremacists. (Doxing is the publishing of identifying information on the Internet, typically with malicious intent — in this case, with the goal of getting the protesters fired.) On a gut-reaction emotional level, I’d like to see these guys face punishment, because it would make me feel better. But from the perspective of justice, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, it’s a really bad precedent. Your beliefs will always have the potential to offend someone, and if standing up for them in a non-violent protest can get you fired or harassed, then Democracy loses. That’s why the ACLU defended the white supremacists’ right to hold that protest in the first place. (The fact that it turned violent can’t automatically be blamed on each of the protesters who showed up.)
The ACLU’s defense demonstrates, to me, true integrity. That’s the kind of behavior I want to model when I respond to events like Charlottesville. I want to act with integrity and with consistency, questioning the mob mentality, while still standing up for the vulnerable — not for the sake of making it clear that I’m not “one of them”, but for the sake of actually preventing some harm from befalling someone more vulnerable than me. And to do that, I’ll have to constantly evaluate my own motivation.
I hope I’m not just adding to the noise.