Let’s imagine you had a friend who was really into learning things and making the world a better place. Let’s suppose that friend happened upon some people who seemed to have some really important things figured out. So, in the interest of gaining knowledge and doing good things, your friend decided to hang out with those people for a while. Later, they came to you with some misgivings.
“I like what these people are saying, but there’s this one person who everybody looks to as the leader, and frankly, he’s mean. Like, he won’t just tell people he disagrees with them and why, he will also tell them they are shit, worthless, terrible human beings and they need to go die. Sometimes he says this to people who are solidly against him, but he will also say it to people who are basically on his side but disagree with him on a few issues. He will even say it to people who are making accidental newbie mistakes.”
Your reaction to that would probably be, “wow, that’s not okay.” If your friend told you they decided to bail on the group based simply on that, you would probably support that completely. You care about your friend. You don’t want them to be treated badly. Those don’t sound like good people to be around.
But let’s suppose your friend doesn’t want to do this. Suppose your friend still really thinks there is awesome stuff in this group, and would rather move away from that particular section of it, hopefully into a place that is kinder and less toxic. If the ideas are good, that is true regardless of the behavior of the people preaching them, right? Isn’t it better to try to leave aside the bad and accept the good?
It’s a tall and difficult order, but a good thing to do if you can pull it off, so you wish your friend luck. Later on, you check in about how this project is going.
“Um, so-so,” they say. “On the one hand, I’m still learning a lot of good stuff. Also, I’ve found a lot of people who think the way I do, who think that guy from before was unreasonable and petty and mean, and they don’t listen to him either.”
You sense a but, so you supply it. “But….?”
“But he’s really, really far from the only one out there. I mean, people who talk like him are everywhere. I always have to be really careful and watch what I’m saying, because I never know when somebody is going to pounce on something I’ve said, maybe something that I had no idea was wrong, and they make me feel like total shit. And sometimes I think I didn’t deserve it in the first place, like I’m being misunderstood or maybe what they are saying isn’t quite right. But usually when this happens I can’t talk to them and get some clarity, because any questions are seen as confirmation that I’m just a bad person to begin with. Sometimes I say, ‘okay, thanks for educating me’ even if I don’t quite get it, because I want to get out of the conversation.”
“That really sucks.”
“Yeah. But I still feel like this group has good stuff to offer, both to me and the world in general. And I’m realizing some of this is just an inevitable part of how the world works. There are trolls in every group.”
“So you still want to consider yourself part of the group?”
“Yeah, I do.”
Okay then. Based on the things your friend has said, this group does have some good stuff to offer, and you’ve met some of the nicer members. They really are fantastic people. But you still worry a bit about your friend.
Then the day comes that your friend comes to you in tears. “I posted something online. I just saw some people talking about the live action Mulan movie, and how important it was that the cast be Asian, not whitewashed like The Last Airbender. I agreed with that and didn’t really have anything to add. But then some people started talking about how the actors absolutely must be Chinese, how some people being considered are Korean or Filipino or Japanese and that’s just the worst bullshit ever. I thought, ‘it would be pretty cool if the cast was Chinese, but I think it’s also possible that the actors who give the best auditions happen to be of a different Asian ethnicity, and if that happens it won’t be the end of the world. It will still be a step forward for diversity and a great opportunity for under recognized Asian actors.’ So I said as much. I was so afraid of how people would respond, it took me thirty minutes to write even though it was just a few lines, and I’m still shaking.”
“Nothing yet. Maybe nobody will notice it. But it could get spread far, and I’m scared I’ll get slammed, even though I’m pretty sure I’m right. And you know what drives me crazy? Let’s say I’m totally wrong. It’s possible. I’m not infallible. But even if I am wrong, I am wrong about an incredibly minor issue, yet I fully expect someone to rip me to shreds.”
You already pretty much know what’s coming next, because you’ve heard these rants before, but your friend is still really worked up, so you let them go on.
“And you know what else? I’m mad that I’m hoping nobody notices. Because I want to be somebody who expresses my opinion and gets to participate in the discussions, but I’ve been really quiet for so long. I’ve been quiet because I’m afraid if I make a single mistake, somebody is going to pounce on me and tell everyone else to ignore me because I’m total worthless shit. I want to be able to say what’s on my mind. I want to be able to make mistakes and learn from them. When I make them and somebody points it out, I want to feel free to thank them but maybe not agree that it’s a mistake right away. I want to mull it over for a while, explore a few different angles, and then when I finally say ‘I was wrong’ be saying it because I really believe I was wrong, not because I was scared to say otherwise. I’m never going to be perfect, and I’d like that to be okay.”
When they finally wind down, you say, “write about it. Write all that down, and share it.”
“But they’re just going to say I’m trying to shut them down, that I’m using their anger as an excuse to silence them. Which is a real problem, and I fully support anyone’s right to feel angry, I’m just sick of looking over my shoulders for fear that opening my mouth will get me attacked. I don’t know how to explain the difference between those two things.”
“If its wrong for you to silence them for their anger, is it right for their anger to silence others? If you have a duty to respectfully listen to their beliefs, do they not have a duty to respectfully listen to others?”
Here’s probably a good time to de-mysticize the metaphor. I am the friend. I am also mostly the person listening to the friend. I’ve been having these conversations inside my head for years. In the last part, though, where the person listening is actually my boyfriend (I’m sorry, I swear I won’t become one of those bloggers who mentions their significant other in every single post, he’s just the source of that last quote and I had to credit him). The group is the nebulous entity known as social justice activists; those fabulous people who really do battle every day to improve the lives of everyone, to educate people about important and under-recognized issues, and who often demonstrate the best of human kindness in their day to day lives. And also all those trolls, many of whom have extremely large followings and have somehow turned a message as positive and edifying as “go educate yourself” into an ugly putdown. Many of them have gone through phases of being one or the other. They are human beings, after all.
I feel like posts like these usually end with a call to action and a detailed battle plan that will lead us all to Utopia. I’m not going to do that, because I don’t have a solution. I still think some of the problem is just human nature. Still, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from hanging out in social justice-y circles, its that if you assume a problem is just engrained in human nature, you will never fix it, but if you start a conversation you might find solutions that surpass your most optimistic expectations. I’m not the only person out there talking about this issue. I talked to another friend before posting this, and they later sent this to me. So I’m skeptical about this problem disappearing, but optimistic about it getting better.
In any case, solving the problem is not sole point of this post. The point of this post is quite selfish. The point is that I was scared to post the Mulan bit on Tumblr, and I’m scared to post this, and I don’t want to be someone who lets my own fear of others’ anger silence me.