Gamers love killing Nazis in games like Wolfenstein and Call of Duty, but most of us never thought we’d wind up fighting them for real. In a recent facebook post, a friend of mine wrote: “I grew up with Nazis being two dimensional movie and video game villains, goddamn it, and that’s where we were supposed to leave them. But 2016 wants to try and tell me we have to listen to folks who literally cite Nazi propaganda and terminology in their hateful, stupid rhetoric? No thank you.” No thank you is right. But what can we do about it? How do we fight back? Punching them in the head seems to be in vogue right now, but, let’s face it, that’s not for everyone. The skills we honed in years of first-person shooters don’t really translate.
So what do we do? We get really active and organized on the local level to reform our electoral system. Call your state-level legislators. Take over the media. Write to editors. Self-publish articles, and propagate the work of journalists who speak the truth at a time when truth is in such short supply. But, most importantly, we must vigorously work to create a culture in which hatred cannot take hold. This is something everyone can do, regardless of age, ability, or nationality, and if we all work together, even the smallest actions can have a tremendous effect.
There are several ways we can go about creating a hate-free culture. I’m going to focus on three: be visible, connect, and don’t compromise.
All I wanted to do when the election results came was hide. Stay in my house, let my rainbow-colored hair fade, and hide. I was afraid of being assaulted for looking different. I was afraid that the government would take me away. I was just afraid.
The thing that changed my attitude was an article that crossed my facebook feed. I’ve been searching for it for months to link in this article, but haven’t been able to find it again so I’ll do my best to describe what I remember. It was a list of rules for living under a dictatorship. There was a lot of overlap with Masha Gessen’s famous article, “Autocracy: Rules For Survival”(1), but this list was more specific, and there were about twenty short entries consisting of concrete actions and specific warnings. The rule that spoke to me was high on the list. Again, I can’t find the exact quote, but to paraphrase, it said: don’t anticipate. Don’t change your actions based on what you think the dictatorship wants you to do. You’re probably already doing it. Stop. It won’t protect you. If you start doing their work for them, they’ve already won, and they’ll start taking more and more from you. Don’t anticipate.
I realized that by hiding I was anticipating a crackdown that hadn’t happened. I also realized that fascism depends on homogeneity. It works by dividing people into ‘us’ and ‘them,’ and making ‘them’ the enemy. It’s much harder to do that if whatever group is being ‘othered’ consists of real people, people we know and interact with, not just abstract ideas of people. It’s easy to make an enemy of someone you don’t know. It’s much harder if that person is a neighbor, friend, or family member.
So I dyed my hair blue and put up Hanukkah decorations as an act of defiance, to remind my neighbors that not everyone who lives here looks the same, or celebrates the same holidays. It was scary, maybe dangerous. I spent the entire holiday season waiting for a swastika to be painted on my house. But I made it a little bit harder for anyone who drove through my neighborhood to think of Jews as an abstract concept, and that made it worth the risk.
I extend the call to you: be visible. Be seen in your communities online and off. Online life tends to mean coming out over and over again about all sorts of aspect of identity, from gender to race to sexual orientation and more. This is hard and scary, and for good reason. I want you to stay aware and stay safe, but when and where you can, tell the world who you are. Let them know that you’re real, you’re hurting, you’re affected by what’s happening in the world. Show them that the bubbles they live in are thinner than they think.
This leads us to point #2:
This next part is all about empathy.
There’s been a lot of bubble rhetoric floating around. Liberal, east-coast cities are bubbles. Rural, all-white areas are bubbles. Maybe the most important bubbles we should be thinking about are the ones that surround each one of us, preventing us from seeing the people around us as they really are: complex individuals with rich inner lives and a variety of good and bad characteristics.
After the election, there was a wonderful Vox article by German Lopez circulating, called “Research says there are ways to reduce racial bias. Calling people racist isn’t one of them: the challenge for anti-racists looking for solutions in Trump’s America.”(2) I highly recommend reading the entire article.
Have you read it? No? Well I hope you get a chance to, eventually. Lopez talks about how people who feel attacked don’t tend to listen or consider others’ points of view. Right now, I think everyone feels attacked in some way, so listening is very difficult, but we have to try anyway. You can turn a fight into a conversation by asking questions. Pick someone you know well, but who disagrees with you and ask them how they are holding up. Really listen, with an open heart and mind.
The thing about connection is that it goes both ways. Each of us are complex tapestries of identities including race, gender, sexuality, income and many more. If you’re reading this, the chance that one or more of your identities are privileged ones is practically 100%. Maybe you’re a person of color who is also able-bodied and male, or a gay woman who is also white and Christian. Maybe you’re not American and aren’t sure what your American friends are freaking out about. Privilege isn’t a bad thing: it’s part of what makes you you. The important thing is what you do with the privilege you have.
When connecting with others, it’s important to be aware of the ways you are different. You can never truly know what it’s like to be anyone other than yourself. Don’t assume you know what someone is thinking or feeling. Don’t judge their reactions to threat and stress. You don’t know what it’s like to be them. The only way you can come close to knowing is to ask questions and truly listen. Listen to people who are angry. Listen to people who are scared. Listen, and let them know that you hear them. Simply being heard is powerfully healing by itself.
We cannot defeat the bad guys if we let ourselves become them.
You might think that ‘don’t become the bad guys’ means that you should be nice. It doesn’t. Be kind, be compassionate, but never ‘nice.’
Love may win, and love may trump hate, but contrary to what the Beatles might tell you, love isn’t all you need. My mother taught me this when I was a child. She said, “There are parents who love their children and still beat them. Love isn’t always enough.” This lesson has served me well, and helped me out of several abusive situations with people and institutions that I loved, and may well have loved me. You can love with all your heart, but that doesn’t mean letting the people you love hurt you.
We need to listen and empathize and stand fast in defense of ourselves and the vulnerable people around us. This means not letting it slide when someone makes a racist joke or comment. Stop saying “everyone is entitled to their opinion.” Just like freedom of speech only extends until it infringes on the rights of others, like you can’t shout fire in a crowded room or intentionally promulgate slander, people aren’t entitled to express opinions that hurt people. “Mexicans are rapists,” or “Jew’s aren’t people” aren’t opinions anyone is entitled to. They are not just bigoted but factually wrong. We must not compromise when it comes to the humanity of our neighbors.
We must not compromise on facts. There has been a lot of false information floating around, along with terms like “post-truth” and “alternate facts,” which are scary, Orwellian ways of saying ‘lies.’ Here’s what I need you to do: if someone says something that you know to be false, say, “That statement is false,” and explain how you know. If someone says something that doesn’t sound right, say, “That doesn’t sound right,” and ask to see their sources. Follow this simple rule when speaking or writing publicly: say what you know, not what you think you know. Follow this checklist when reading and sharing news stories online.
Do these things in real life and online. Don’t be afraid to engage with friends-of-friends on social media: if you don’t have a relationship with them you have nothing to lose, and the freedom to be more direct than your mutual friend could. Be polite but firm. Remember that one of the smartest things you can say is “I don’t know” and that one of the bravest things you can say is “I was wrong.” Just don’t say that you’re wrong when you’re not.
It is especially important that you do these things if you are a moderator in a community or if you have any sort of platform. People need leaders to follow. Make it known that lies and bigotry are not welcome in your community. One of the saddest realities of our era is that the push to normalize hatred and disrespect has succeeded. But we can push back. We can create pockets of culture where diversity, empathy, and support are the new normal, and over time those pockets will grow. When they do, the whole world will start to change for the better.
The arc of the universe only bends towards justice if we all push together. Time to start pushing.