Political articles have been written for millennia, but thanks to the Internet, anyone with the right technology at their disposal can voice their opinions on the published work produced by professional writers. This is mostly a good thing… but what lessons can we learn from those occasions when readers cross important lines of decency?
Last week I wrote an editorial that criticized white supremacist, misogynistic, and other hierarchical ideologies as inherently unmasculine. It was published by The Good Men Project, cross-posted on Salon, and continues to net me far more personal feedback (i.e., sent by email, Facebook, or Twitter) than any other piece I’ve written this summer. I’d like to focus on one subset of that reader response – namely, the reactions that have targeted me for being a Jew. Bear in mind, the article in question never mentioned that I was Jewish, meaning that the respondents had to research my other work in order to discover my ethnic background.
For a sampling of what I encountered on Twitter, visit the original article here.
There are two main observations that need to be made here:
1. Most obviously: When you resort to attacking someone through bigotry, you are implicitly admitting intellectual bankruptcy. It doesn’t matter whether you choose race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or any other criteria; similarly, it makes little difference if you utilize actual slurs or try to find sneakier ways of making your point. From a strictly logical standpoint, any argument worth defending doesn’t need gutter tactics to win converts. At best you will earn applause and support from fellow bigots (in this case anti-Semites) on the grounds of your bigotry rather than any additional particularly cogent or insightful analysis that you might be offering. More often than not, however, the offenders do little else besides draw attention to themselves thanks to their shocking language. This is an achievement on par with scribbling profanity on a bathroom wall.
2. The language itself is harmless… but because it can be more sinister, it needs to be taken seriously. Trust me, I receive no joy writing about anti-Semitic tweets. This isn’t to say that I derive no pleasure from reading said comments; like most writers, I have a bit of an ego, and there are many hate letters/tweets so magnificently dumb that I’d have to be positively inhuman to not derive a few chuckles from them. That said, there is always the concern that granting any recognition to the lowest common denominator automatically empowers it, and as such I generally try to refrain from acknowledging them in my written work. The problem with doing so with bigots, however, is that their language isn’t always limited to the world wide web. As of last year, more than 100 murders were traced back to users of Stormfront, the Internet’s most popular forum for white supremacists (which created a thread about me back in 2013), while numerous mass shootings have been linked to the misogyny that pervades Men’s Rights Activist and other “manosphere” groups.
From these observations, three lessons can be learned:
1. When someone uses bigoted language, don’t express outrage – characterize that person as a coward. After all, if someone feels the need to shock in lieu of presenting an intelligent argument, it’s a safe bet that individual is motivated at least in part by the fear that they lack the intellectual and moral resources to construct a persuasive and rational position. Outrage gives them the veneer of legitimacy, whereas calling them out on what they’re doing exposes their vulnerability.
2. If you use bigoted language, you deserve to be lumped in with the most rotten and violent elements of society. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve personally committed acts of violence yourself. Because online hate groups have caused real-world deaths, the simple act of attacking someone on the basis of their demographic profile is an inherently threatening one. This doesn’t mean we should prosecute these individuals (the First Amendment exists for a reason), but it absolutely gives us the right to lump them in with the brutes whose rhetorical tactics they choose to emulate.
3. If someone who agrees with you uses bigoted language, distance yourself from that individual. One of my earliest published articles was a piece for Mic (then known as PolicyMic) that urged my fellow Democrats to oppose attacks against Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney that focused on his Mormon religious background. Even though I received dozens of angry emails from liberals after that piece (I hadn’t activated my Twitter account at that time), I am particularly proud of it because I was willing to call out “my own” instead of blindly standing by them when they opposed their own ostensible values. It may be uncomfortable to part ways with the men and women who are usually on your side, but at the end of the day, it is far better to be on good terms with your own conscience than to simply follow the herd because you think they’re usually right.
In closing, a relevant quote for those who dragged my religion into this discussion:
“Anti-Semitism is a noxious weed that should be cut out. It has no place in America.”
– President William Howard Taft