Last year when Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement from the Supreme Court, things got ugly on social media immediately.
My reaction? To take a long, slow, deep breath and head in the opposite direction. I know from bad experience that overreacting and exploding with rage at the first sign of a negative event is counterproductive. Sooner or later, cooler heads will prevail.
But not at first.
I made the miscalculation of blithely replying to a friend’s rage post on FB about Kennedy’s retirement that everything was going to be okay. No, it didn’t mean every single liberal law protecting people’s rights was going to be immediately overturned. It was not the end of the world. Things will get better. We had to try and hold onto hope and work toward change electorally.
His response was to become even more enraged and insult me. Defending myself calmly did not help. Slowly backtracking and offering reassurances that I understood and could see his point did not work. And then his other friends joined in to heap abuse on me; to call me names, insult my intelligence, smear my character. Through it all, I tried to stay calm and answer without stooping to their level. My apology was accepted, but the abuse didn’t stop.
The personal attacks escalated with his friends as a group taking turns to insult, mock and belittle me. This continued all day and into the next. Eventually, I had to unfriend him and block him for my own sanity and well-being.
The point of this anecdote is that all the rage, hate and ugliness directed at me had little to do with Donald Trump, Brett Kavanaugh or me. They were consumed by fear, rage and hate and my refusal to share it and decision to focus on how to improve things made me a convenient and immediate target for abuse. Which they were certain beyond a reasonable doubt that I “deserved.”
I was a Rorschach symbol for them (yes, and they were for me, too.)
We look at someone and right away we project things onto them both consciously and unconsciously. But in projecting onto them, we also reveal things about who we are inside.
Do we allow ourselves to talk about people—political opponents, co-workers, friends, neighbors, relatives, romantic rivals—using language to belittle, invalidate and/or dehumanize them?
And do we rationalize such behavior by saying things like, “Well, they totally deserve it!”
I see this happen all the time online and in social media. I’ve been a target of such tactics hundreds of times. I’m sure many, if not most of us have. What concerns me is how we deal with those reactions and impulses and how we choose to respond to them.
Having a dear friend I was very fond of put me down and tell me I was stupid, a bad person, almost implying I was immoral or evil because I wasn’t raging out of control like he was about Kennedy’s retirement was shocking, hurtful and heartbreaking. I don’t have many friends so I take the loss of any friend extremely seriously.
But as I’ve seen among my friends and acquaintances on social media and on Daily Kos, projecting the ugliest things we can possibly think of onto the other person is something almost all of us have been guilty of at one time or another. Myself included. And one of my biggest fears is that people do not take that casual ugliness seriously enough.
I think most members of Daily Kos know all too well how ugly, poisonous and destructive rage and hatred directed at “The Other” can be. And how it can turn not only our government…
but also ourselves into behaving like people we do not intend or want to be.
I rarely post about Trump on social media. I do not watch videos of him speaking. If I DVR MSNBC or CNN, I fast forward through any footage of him. But many of my friends and acquaintances do the exact opposite.
On their news feeds, on their blogs, everywhere, it is wall-to-wall Trump ALL the time. It is a litany of comments, posts, memes and gifs subjecting Trump, Republicans and GOP voters to every name in the book.
But why stop there?
If you support Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders, there are putdowns, slurs, pejoratives and nasty nicknames for those people, too.
Sexism, racism, homophobia, anti-semitism, Islamophobia, transphobia and more are all different terms for fear and hatred. They can and do bring out the worst in people. The problem is, how do we talk about those evils in the world and the people who embrace them without turning into the people we hate by adopting their tactics and behavior?
I’m clean and sober now, but I wasn’t always. 3 months ago, my best friend and I had an argument which started when I made the mistake of correcting his comment about poll numbers for Pete Buttigieg. Things went downhill from there, but we talked and mutually apologized last month after not speaking for 2 months. We worked it out and all is well.
But in the course of making amends to each other, he mentioned how he got calls from friends in the 12 step community putting me down after they heard we had a fight. This is not the first time I’ve heard this; far from it.
12 step meetings are rife with gossip, slander and backbiting. People who will stand up and talk about getting over their resentments and making amends will proceed to leave the meeting with others and trash-talk fellow addicts in private. I’ve had numerous people tell me over the years that they were warned by others what a horrible person I was and that no one should ever talk to or be friends with me. And that’s not including things said and done over social media which has been equally hateful if not worse.
Hearing that news and what was said broke my heart and took me to some of the most damaged places in my psyche. But eventually, I came around to look at what all that animosity, negativity and bile directed at me said about my detractors and critics. And then I had to turn it around again and examine myself and my own behavior and if I could justify lashing out back at them like I secretly wanted to.
That happens online and here on Daily Kos on a regular basis. It has become so common many of us rarely question it. I had a spat with someone here this week and the person has (as of this morning) stopped speaking to me entirely—and we agree on who we support.
I stop and think before I post as much as humanly possible. However, I am imperfect and sometimes I type something and post it without thinking it through 100%. That’s not an excuse; that’s me being honest about my faults and that I continue to work on them, too.
The point is, we as human beings don’t always take into account that how we react to others’ actions and reactions often provides a mirror into our dark sides, too. We split off our bad qualities and project them onto others (much like the creatures in the film The Dark Crystal who split into good and bad.)
When someone says or does something that makes us angry? We want to fight back. We start doing the usual things: calling them stupid or insane or mentally ill. We call them sellouts, immoral, corrupt, dishonest, fake, rotten, idiots, morons—you name it. The safest attacks we often get away with are usually sarcasm and mockery that are coordinated with other allies online. Safety in numbers—including mobs.
They post something or you do. Someone gets mad. One person replies sarcastically. Another chimes in echoing your tone or resorts to one of the names listed above (stupid, crazy, insane, idiot, fool, corporatist, sellout, etc. are the ones I see the most). Anything to besmirch and demean the other person’s intelligence or character.
I’m human. I get mad and sometimes, yes, I let those attacks get to me. Sometimes I’m trying my damnedest not to let my anger show, but it seeps out in my tone or my choice of words. Sometimes people are mistaken and see hate or contempt when it isn’t there and then they lash out. But over and over, I struggle and strive not to go “there.”
Trump is a Rorschach symbol. So are you and so am I.
We are all projecting onto each other qualities we hate or despise that we may actually share or just fear we do. Sometimes, it is not sharing those qualities. It’s merely attaching them to others because we feel hurt, angry or afraid of losing an argument or appearing stupid or weak.
I get hating what Trump, McConnell, Stephen Miller, the GOP and their voters do. The arrest and confinement of immigrants in filthy and sickening conditions is inhumane and despicable. I respect that those supporting candidates for President other than my own think they are right, just and moral and that who I support isn’t.
What I am driving at is this:
Be very, very, very careful what you wish on another person.
Condemnation? Abuse? Pain? Suffering? Cruelty? Death? "Well, ________ totally deserves it!"
When you talk like this, you reveal much of the kind of person you are that you hide within.
You are showing by your words and actions the dark, hidden parts of yourself that you normally mask. Now...think if that is who you truly want to be--or how you want people to see you.
Because I guarantee there are people in the world who think you "deserve" certain things, too.
It is perfectly understandable to hate the actions of Donald Trump, his administration and the GOP. When they degrade and dehumanize others, of course we want to defend those they’ve hurt, protect them from harm and punish those who hurt them for the wrongs they have done.
The danger is in those words “they deserve it.” We hear many Republicans and others talk like this about women, people of color, immigrants and the LGBTQ community. But it is my belief we cannot and must not behave like the people whose actions we disdain or despise.
To use a quote we all know too well…
Being angry at Trump is natural. Being angry at corporations and the super-wealthy 1% who have used their money and power to discriminate against and oppress the weak, the poor and those less fortunate is perfectly reasonable.
Sinking to their level is unreasonable and self-destructive. It is heartless and soulless. We cannot afford to become a mirror image of the people who hurt us, frustrate us and do us wrong.
When we resort to using namecalling, personal attacks, slander, contempt, sarcasm and rage to prove our points or win our arguments against Trump or candidates we dislike? We become the very things we claim to oppose. We aren’t the heroes anymore; we are the villains.
Then everyone can see the dark side of us in how we fight other people.
We are all each other’s Rorschach test.