On being pleasant and nice online

(I wrote this a couple weeks ago now, and then just let it be. In light of a recent uptick in Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids, and something similar a friend of mine posted on fb, I’m putting it online. Just as a short declaration of where I’m at right now.)

The other day someone commented about how I could stand to be more “pleasant” on facebook. This echoed another conversation I’d had recently via messenger with another friend about how I wasn’t very “nice” sometimes in some of my criticism of the current president and his policies on social media.

So let’s talk about that.

I realize that for some of you, facebook is simply a place to share pics and memes and recipes and jokes and sometimes it’s that for me, too. I know how the algorithm works. I know that unless you’re interacting with me regularly #onhere you’re not seeing half of what I post. Maybe you missed my post about how Audre Lorde felt poetry could build bridges. Or maybe you missed my post about I missed Vermont snowstorms since moving to Tennessee. Or maybe you missed my post about how Pete Seeger’s music lifts me up when I’m sad or anxious. But that’s okay. That’s the algorithm. That’s not really what this is about.

This is about my not-so-pleasant posts. The ones that get more likes and more shares. The ones I assume pop up in y’all’s feed more often because they get more likes and more shares. And to talk about my not-so-pleasant posts we have to talk about why people are afraid.

If you’re white, and especially if you’re white and from an area of the country where most of your neighbors look like you, you might not realize this, but historically marginalized people are really fucking scared right now. And not necessarily how Republicans were scared in 2008.

Back then folks were fearful Obama (and his progressive agenda) would take power from the already powerful and distribute it to the less powerful — aka the oppressed or the marginalized — however you feel comfortable lumping together* black folks and brown folks and queer folks and disabled folks and yes, sometimes, even women. The white community was fearful of what it meant that a black man was in charge of a country that had historically screwed over black men. In their privilege, they were afraid of the prospect of an even playing field. A playing field where their kids might not have an immediate advantage for being born white or suburban or middle-class — an educational advantage or a geographic advantage or an economic advantage — all advantages white folks think of as “normal.”

(*If there are better words please let me know. I am all for better words.)

And because those advantages are considered “normal,” there’s very little understanding amongst some white folks that not everyone is born into those advantages, that not everyone is born on second base, until someone starts threatening to legislate that EVERYONE ought to be born on second base. That’s the kind of fear Republicans had in 2008.** The fear of an even playing field. And how painful, in reality, it was going to be to get everyone onto that even playing field.

(**Of course, there were other fears. Fears of banking regulations and labor regulations and environmental regulations and the higher taxes for the wealthy or the larger budget deficits that go along with that. But mostly what many of those regulations do is, oddly enough, is protect the marginalized from the powerful. Of course, there were other fears. Valid fears. But those regulations help workers and the middle-class as much as they help the poor and marginalized. The rich and powerful have done a really good job convincing you otherwise, but it’s true. That, however, is another post entirely.)

“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” — Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Now let’s talk about today. In 2017 folks are fearful of a whole different set of circumstances. People of color, and people in the LGBTQ+ community, people with disabilities, and a whole lot of women, are fearful that Trump will take power from the marginalized and give it back to those already rich in power. That many of the gains of the last 50-odd years, some of which have been slowly eroding already, will be systematically erased before we even get to the midterm elections. That these gains — which have saved black lives and brown lives and gay lives and trans lives and queer lives and disabled lives and immigrant lives and refugee lives — could take America decades to get back.

These fears are fundamentally different. Don’t kid yourselves.

The 2008 fear was a fear of what it would mean — how painful it would be — for privileged communities to lose some of their power to the marginalized. Like that anonymous quote: “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” But when you’ve had the upper hand for so long, being powerful feels “normal,” and losing power does *feel* like oppression, even when it’s not. Even when it’s a simple (but oftentimes unpleasant) leveling of the playing field.

The fear today is a fear of what it might mean — how painful it could be — for the already marginalized to be *further* marginalized with laws against refugees and DREAMers and the LGBTQ+ community and disabled people and Native peoples and poorer populations (who are, because of our ugly racial history, disproportionately people of color).

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” — Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Just to be clear, I’m not saying it’s easy to come to grips with what it means to be born with a leg up, my fellow white folks and people of privilege. I’m not saying it’s not painful to adjust to a society that is less and less white, and less and less evangelical, and less and less traditionally conservative. I’m not even saying it’s not painful to have to let certain privileges go — privileges of superior education and better paying jobs and safer communities — in order for all American citizens to share a level playing field regardless of their ethnicity or race or gender or sexual identity or disability status.

What’s painful is by definition, unpleasant. And pointing out how our privilege contributes to the pain of others is, most often, not “facebook nice.”

So it’s okay to go on posting your pics and your memes and your recipes and your jokes. I’m going to be doing the same.

But I’m also going to be pointing out the ways our president seeks to take away the hard fought gains marginalized peoples have fought for and are fighting for — and ways we can fight back, too — especially ways we as white folks can put our privilege to good use in protecting marginalized peoples from oppression or persecution.

“ In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churches stand on the sideline and merely mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard so many ministers say, ‘those are social issues with which the gospel has no real concern.’” — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I know it’s good to be white. I know it because I live it. Being a white man, I’m pretty near the top of the privilege pyramid myself. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have empathy for people who don’t look like me or act like me. That doesn’t mean I remain silent when I see injustice all around me. What I am asking for is empathy. Empathy at the cost of pleasantness, if needs be. Because without empathy, without sharing and shouldering the pain of my black friends and my Muslim friends and my Latino/a friends and my gay friends and my queer friends and my trans friends and my disabled friends and my indigenous friends, I’m not really living in the real America. I’m living in my privileged America, sure. But at what cost?

I’m asking for empathy. And not just empathy, but loud empathy. Radical empathy. Empathy like agápē. Empathy like ẖesed. Empathy that our president can’t ignore.

“And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” — Elie Wiesel