What should I say when everything is going to hell?

Oh, hey, guys, nice tikis. We doing a candlelit vigil? No? Oh, you’re Nazis? Uhhh… yeah, I think I left my torch at home. No, you go on without me, it’s cool!

A few days ago the Charlottesville white supremacist rally clustercuss happened, and I’ve spent 95% of the time in my social media reading since then scanning increasingly repetitive outraged takes talking about how we should all be punching the Nazis all the time. I have complex feelings on this that I expect absolutely no one to like, because I’m not even sure I feel good about how I feel. A lot of it is contradictory.

  1. I am first and foremost opposed to white supremacy, racism, and any violence related to these things. The fact that somebody felt justified in driving his car through a crowd of people he disagreed with sickens me. I hate that someone died over such stupidity. I feel scared and threatened by the resurgence of out-in-the-open racist violence, and I can’t believe how many I see at these rallies. I want less of this, much much less.
  2. Who gives a damn what I think? It’s all been said in terms more eloquent and forceful than any I will bring to bear. Half a dozen times I’ve started to post something to Facebook and then thought, “I don’t want to read any more of my friends’ posts about this; I doubt they want to read mine.” This is doubly true on this little blog, which has precisely one reader at the moment. I often think the best thing I can do is just shut up. On top of this, at a certain point, it feels like anything I might have to say is just preaching to the choir, which I have no interest in. We ought to be persuading each other about these difficult things, not looking for people with whom we can nod approvingly. “Virtue signaling” is a term that seems to have been co-opted by the alt-right, which makes me a tad uncomfortable, but it remains quite apt.
  3. I don’t like the current go-to solutions that most people are using against viewpoints they deem unacceptable: shaming, drowning out, vilifying, or otherwise making certain things unsayable. Case in point: I had an undergraduate communications class some years ago where the teacher asked us to list the ugliest racial epithets we had heard. People were silent for a while, and then gradually offered up words that we all know and know we shouldn’t use. They started out with mild ones and eventually were emboldened enough to throw out uglier terms covering most commonly-occurring races in America. Can you guess which word didn’t get said? That’s right, the granddaddy of racial slurs, the N-word. Even in a situation in which we were encouraged, as a learning tool, to list these words, nobody was able to say it, myself included. It was a striking moment for me. Everybody was thinking it; nobody could say it. The fear of social censure was too great. I tell that story not to say Hey, how come I can’t use the N-word? but to demonstrate that while social pressure is effective in controlling what people say, it doesn’t actually change what they’re thinking. As it happens, I don’t think the N-word is a word people ought to be using, nor do I think that fascist ideologies are what people ought to be endorsing. What I’m trying to say is that some people already do say and believe these things, and making sure they’re quiet doesn’t eliminate the beliefs. This is something I believe quite strongly, which has only been reinforced by my training in social psychology: people don’t change their minds just because their viewpoint becomes unacceptable. Instead, they learn to suppress the expression of that viewpoint until they are around others that have proved themselves to be “one of us.” Ideological shaming creates hidden subcultures that can last for decades or longer until conditions change and the viewpoint becomes safe to express again. And lo and behold, Trump becomes President of the US and racist, isolationist, and misogynist creeps come pouring out of the woodwork like termites. Everyone is caught off-guard — no one talks like that anymore! This kind of racism is supposed to be dead! Nope, you just thought it was because you successfully shamed those folks into silence… until things changed. I do not believe any of these dangerous fringe attitudes will change until the people who hold them have friends and loved ones who will TALK through these hard issues with them, repeatedly, maybe over the course of years, and who will hear their horrible points of view without shunning them, calling them Nazis, or getting them fired from their jobs. Love, trust, and patience do what shaming cannot. I think.
  4. Everybody’s so damn loud. (Get off my lawn!) I try very hard to hear multiple sides of any issue and to keep revising my standpoint based on the confluence of my values and the information that seems most reliable and true. I’m sure I do a mediocre job of this, because nearly all of us do, but I try. That means that I read and hear a lot of stuff, especially when it comes to current events and hot-button topics. The knob on all of this just keeps getting turned up, both in decibels and fury. I’m a low-capacity guy, and any opinion that turns into mouth-frothing ends up getting tuned out because I just can’t handle it. And the longer I pay attention, the fewer people I can pay attention to, because it feels like more and more of us are getting polarized to the point where we can only spout ideologically pasteurized and homogenized pap of either pure red or deep blue. I just can’t focus on it any more, because the world I see is nothing but shades of purple (gray? brown? whatever), and there are no simple solutions on either side. Fixing the mess of racism – or any of the other dire problems that we face – is going to be ugly, uncomfortable, and full of compromises we’d rather not make. That’s life. Punch the Nazis all you want; they won’t magically puff away into the ether or slink off to Bavaria. They’ll take your abuse as justification of the purity of their cause and come back with bigger guns. We don’t win points for purity of thought.

So. I don’t have any good answers, and I’m so heartily sick of being told how to think and what to do that I certainly won’t tell you what do do or think. Do what you want – it’s what you were going to do anyway. I think what I’ll do is 1) mostly continue keeping my mouth shut. It’s easier to listen that way, when I can. 2) Try to find the human in every face I see, even if it’s got a swastika on its cheek. It’s not what you have to do, but it’s the only way I know how to face it all.

Now I’m going home to be with my family. They never ask me about any of this garbage.

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