Jan. 20 is fast upon us, and social media is ablaze with grief-stricken individuals assuming all those who are not openly distressed are one of two people: they support President-elect Donald Trump and by extension are [insert insulting adverb(s) of choice here] blinded by their White privilege, or they did not vote, apathetically allowing Trump to win and thus expressing a blatant disregard for the experiences of those marginalized by Trump’s divisive rhetoric.
This piece will not debate the truth or falsehood of that assumption, but rather will chalk that likely mischaracterization up to a mass sense of anger. Such rage is to be expected, as those who Trump’s campaign targeted and hurt are grieving. Now that Trump’s inauguration approaches, the inevitability of his presidency becomes more impossible to deny, and as is typical of the grieving process, denial turns to anger.
Anger—the most arresting emotion; the all-encompassing feeling that turns even the most rational among us into time bombs primed to go off at the touch of a nerve; the overwhelming feeling that the world is a battlefield where everyone is with you or against you, and you must crush your opposition or die trying. When you’re angry, you can’t reason with yourself, let alone have a genuine and productive dialogue with anyone who isn’t orbiting the closest ring of your echo chamber.
Thankfully, I’m not talking to you right now because I don’t have the slightest idea how to break through the wall of pain-fueled fury that is separating you from the agonizing reality of the world. I’m looking at the ones who call themselves activists, whose time to shine is in the face of adversity, when the downtrodden have their faces pressed so far into the dirt that their tears are turning the Earth’s core into mud. You are the people who roll up your sleeves to lay the brick and mortar for the rest of us to walk unhindered to our destination, and society admires you for it. I admire you for it, so I’m just letting you know imposters walk among you.
These “hashtag-tivists” have taken to social media allegedly to fight racism, sexism, homophobia, classism...all the while they fight fire with fire, hate with hate, intolerance with intolerance, anger with anger. “Clapping back” and “shutting down the haters” are not productive forms of activism, they are reactionary emotional expressions that are entirely valid, but should not become the new norm for how society combats discrimination and intolerance on the individual level. Although the person being shut down might never utter that particular phrase again, cutting someone out of the conversation gives the illusion of progress while actually exacerbating the problem. Silencing someone merely removes their perspective from the dialogue, it does not change their perspective.
Telling someone not to use certain words without giving them alternative terms prevents them from engaging, asking their questions and sharing their views. This is an easy way to pretend you’re an activist affecting positive change and saving the world. If everyone in your utopian echo chamber is as woke and enlightened as you, they will assuredly congratulate you for crushing the opposition, the ignorant outsiders, the other. To assume that such a world signals progress in the world is a convenient fiction that ignores the reality—those people you clapped back against are doing exactly what you are, celebrating the removal of the enemy other, in a separate bubble just with different views.
Similarly, banning discussion of certain topics on the grounds that they are “traumatic” or “triggering” has become a trendy way for “hashtag-tivists” to avoid discussions that would result in tangible change for those in need. While it is understandable to warn people about graphic descriptions of sexual violence, issuing a content warning for the President-elect of our country (whose name is in every form of news media worldwide) trivializes what it means to live with trauma and threatens to make dialogue a thing of the past. How can change happen when people’s discomfort—which is not nearly on the level as the suffering victims of violence or tremendous personal tragedy face on a daily basis—is a valid excuse for eliminating that which needs to be changed from the discussion?
Of course, when these issues are brought up, “hashtag-tivists” try to project themselves as true activists and insist they are welcome to having a dialogue with those who oppose them, but what they actually mean is that they are open to conversing with people who will admit they are wrong and quickly accept the “hashtag-tivists’” opinions. Some people—the moderates—who might be open to hearing your perspective are turned off by the perception that you know more about their lives than they do.
For example, you should probably not tell a low-income person from a rural town in the Rust Belt that they ought to check their White privilege because, chances are, they have never experienced this privilege. In fact, they probably have witnessed what they perceive to be privileges for other races, the classic example being affirmative action, and interpreted this as directly disenfranchising them. To imply that they are actually in positions of power is counterintuitive and comes across as you invalidating their truth, in the same way you interpret their political perspective as undermining yours.
Just as you were taught about privilege and empathy and the validity of others’ experiences, they must be too. Many people did not learn basic literacy and arithmetic in school, let alone discuss privilege, institutionalized discrimination or how to conduct a dialogue. Clapping back is an excellent way to alienate this population and push them further into themselves; thus, it is quite a dreadful way to educate them. Shutting someone down is to assume they have had the same opportunities you did and to disregard that you too have been taught. Your education is a privilege.
Although I can’t say for sure what everyone’s level of education is, I know people who have had genuine questions—which to the “enlightened liberal” seem intuitive or offensive—but come from a place of ignorance. They usually ask me in a shaky or uncertain voice because they know how the question might be perceived, but because they’ve never had the conversation—for fear of being called out and shut down—they struggle to phrase it. The remedy for ignorance is education, which is a privilege, and the best way to teach someone is to take a moment to understand where they are coming from, so you can engage them in the best way possible.
Amani Carson is a Trinity senior. Her column, "a commoner's sense," runs on alternate Tuesdays.
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