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Thursday, June 5, 2014

Engage The Trolls




"That's interracial. I hope nobody sees a picture of that. I'll be through." 
- White man, hugging filmmaker Mo Asumang in The Aryans, 
her documentary about confronting racism (2014) 

Conventional wisdom says you shouldn't engage with "trolls," meaning people dedicated to "bashing and degrading others." See this chart from the Air Force.


Multiracial filmmaker Mo Asumang turned this idea on its head when she decided to engage directly with White supremacists in Europe and the U.S.

Asumang understands, rightly, that haters operate by dehumanizing the object of their hatred. Thus, as shown in the clip from BBC News, she thrusts herself right in the middle of the action. Not yelling or chastising, but rather seeking to understand.

They are at turns degrading, bewildered, and friendly. It's fascinating to watch, and it's hard to pick out the best clip even from the short four-minute extract. One of them is when she gets a hug from the White supremacist who had been "educating" her. Another is when she asks an Aryan leader what will happen to people like her, and he matter-of-factly tells her that she will be deported to a "melting pot."

It's hard to believe that people like this actually exist. But they do. Of course they do. I found myself nodding when she said that such people never actually see Black or Jewish people. So they hate them without knowing anything about them.

I reflected on the hidden and not-so-hidden racism in the Jewish community. In the African-American community, too. And by Caucasians. I've experienced it personally from all three. For example I am Jewish and other Jewish people have stereotyped me as either being too Jewish, not Jewish enough, or just plain "confusing."

Asumang is right: Racism is very definitely inversely proportional to the amount of time people actually spend with those from other backgrounds. 

This is what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King meant when he said "I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear."


Love doesn't literally mean love. It means embracing others' humanity. 

There is a great Israeli film, Walk On Water, that explores the complex legacy of the Holocaust. The fact the Germans today are not the Germans who did those terrible things to us. People are just people. And that we should look at people for the complex beings that they are. Not as objects.

There are so many films showing Jewish people and Palestinian people in Israel struggling to find a peaceful Third Way amid all the violence. It is so difficult to overcome the hate, the hate, the hate. 

Public trust in government is at an all-time low. No wonder: Government, unfailingly, ignores or marginalizes the critics. "They're crazy." That is, until there is some admission that the critics were right, or at least that their perceptions were understandable.

(Working in government, in public affairs for many years, it has irked the hell out of me that we don't tell our side of the story in any great detail, which could help defuse the more irrational theories.)

Sources: Pew Research Center, National Election Studies, Gallup, ABC/Washington Post, CBS/New York Times, and CNN Polls. From 1976-2010 the trend line represents a three-survey moving average. For party analysis, selected datasets obtained from searches of the iPOLL Databank provided by the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, University of Connecticut.

Writing at The Feminist Librarian, Anna J. Cook talks about the politics of labeling dissenters as crazy or marginal. This is about establishing leadership through force, the force of exclusion and deciding who can speak

The context of her post involves a certain listserv, its dominance by a male despite the list serving a predominantly female field. 

(Don't tell me that listservs are old fashioned - I know they're old-fashioned - but for some people they do work. And the point is the dynamics of the online conversation.)

Look at how easy it is to shut a troll up. 
  1. The first person complains about the dominant person. (Male complaining about male.)
  2. The second person tells the first person to delete the posts if they don't like them. (It's a community problem, though, right? As she points out.)
  3. The third person passionately defends the first person.
  4. The defenders of the first person speak up.
  5. The dominant person breaks his silence - but only engages a woman, not the original man. Some sort of gender factor exists here as he speaks in "mansplainy tones." She notes he creepily sometimes responds to female criticism through unsolicited private email, a "power play" well-known to female bloggers.
  6. Others speak up to say the whole debate is stupid.
  7. Others say there are bigger fish to fry.
  8. Others cry censorship.
  9. Still others "shame all participants in the debate for behaving badly."
It's true - some people are mentally ill. Or just disgruntled: You will never win them over. 

But when we use the word "troll," that's dangerous. Because it's too easy to lump together opinions we don't like, thoughts that are inconveniently critical, with people we are safer ignoring. (As Iyanla Vanzant once famously said, "When you see crazy coming, cross the street.")

We have limited time. We can't engage with everybody. 

But sometimes we have to do it anyway, or we are weighed down anyway, by the burden of our collective silence.

* All opinions my own.