Righteous Indignation, Wrong Action

Politics 150We’ve been in a culture war for as long as I can remember. There were the 80s, when the Republicans were pretty much running the show, then the 90s where Clinton lead the charge against them from the Executive Office. The 2000s were particularly nasty and disheartening; I couldn’t believe it when George W. Bush took the Republican nomination from John McCain, and it really dampened my advocacy of the political process when he lost the popular vote but won the White House. When he was voted in a second time in 2004…I don’t think I’ve ever felt so marginalized as I did on election night. It felt like the citizens of the United States had taken a look at the values of inclusion, scientific progress and thoughtful behavior and summarily rejected them. That was a rough time.

Now we’re living in the Obama era. It seems naive now, but I believed it when he said that he would change the political process, reach across the aisle, seek compromises with the loyal opposition to face the challenges falling on our shoulders. I breathed a sigh of relief and thought, “Finally, we can find ways to work together on these problems and get things done.” In 2008, I thought we’d be working towards a government I could believe in again.

But the divide is incredibly large now. It feels like I live in a different world from, say, a Tea Party Republican; the only thing we can agree on is that the world is falling apart, though we diverge sharply on exactly what’s causing it. I believe, for example, that climate change is a very real thing caused by the burning of fossil fuels, which releases far too much greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. I believe that I should be allowed to have my love recognized by society in the same way that a heterosexual couple’s love is. I believe that companies that seek profit above all else are inherently irresponsible and not interested in the welfare of the people and resources they use to obtain it. I believe that our current way of life is unsustainable, and if we don’t change our lifestyles to consider something other than our own short-term gratification, our lives will be changed for us.

These things seem self-evident to me. It perplexes me when I hear someone say that climate change doesn’t exist (or if it does it’s part of a natural, long-term weather cycle); it bothers me when someone says that the free market cures all ills, and that the government ‘meddling’ with corporate regulation slows the economy; I shake my head at a knee-jerk distrust of science and technology, or a culture sneering at intelligence and a striving for excellence. It even makes me angry. And I know I’m not alone there.

There is always something in the news cycle that causes outrage. A news story breaks, an offended part of the populace becomes (understandably) outraged, and starts to demand concessions for the offense. A counter-argument is launched by the opposition, and THEY become outraged about the outrage. A lot of screaming happens; the corporate interests surrounding this issue do their best to get the screaming to stop and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Eventually, the furor dies down and the table gets reset. Everyone waits for their chance to get upset over something that someone does again, and the cycle repeats.

I don’t mean to diminish the very real and very appropriate anger that people feel towards public figures who make ignorant, offensive or arrogant remarks. But what we’re doing with that anger helps absolutely nothing. The taking to Twitter and Facebook to condemn the guilty party, the calls for boycotts and protests, the demands for an apology — what do they really solve? Do they actually advance the dialogue we need to have about the issues underlying the offense? Does Paula Deen — or more accurately, her many defenders — understand what exactly was wrong with her use of the word “n*****” or her desire to have a plantation-style party with an all-black wait staff? Does Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson (or HIS defenders) get why his comments about homosexuality and the segregated South are so ignorant? I think we’re right to be angered by their remarks, and the awful defenses constructed by the people who stand by them. (I’m sorry, but calling for consequences over someone’s demeaning remarks hardly constitutes a violation of “freedom of speech”; we’re merely exercising our own. The Right should LOVE that.) But how we express that anger only adds more noise to an already deafening debate. We’re not getting anywhere with our indignation. We’re only screaming ourselves hoarse.

Believe it or not, our ideological opposites are actual people. They may be ill-informed, or callous, or ruled by fear. But they’re still people. And most people simply don’t respond well to being told they’re wrong. It’s hard to own up to a mistake, to recognize when you’ve hurt someone, and to make amends for it. It must be a thousand times harder when you’re in the public eye, or a flashpoint in the latest skirmish of a culture war.

I think these incidents are more an opportunity to actually advance the conversation about the things we can never seem to get past as a society. Racism, the rights of the minority, the limits of capitalism, our responsibility towards the planet — we’re far, far apart on just about all of these. I don’t see how yelling is going to bridge that divide. I think it would be far more productive if we took into account that the person who made offensive remarks — and the people defending them — aren’t symbols of everything that’s wrong with the country, or enemies who can’t be reasoned with, only shouted down. They’re people, who believe things that don’t mesh with our understanding of the world, whose beliefs actually lead to actions that hurt and diminish us. We should find a way to attack those beliefs without bundling the person who holds them right in with them.

Yes, it sucks that there are people out there who believe I should be put to death for loving another male, or at the very least not given equal treatment and protection under the law because of it. It sucks that someone else sees the color of my skin and makes all kinds of assumptions about me. It sucks that because I don’t believe in a Christian God then I’m somehow less of an American than they are. But yelling at these people won’t change their minds; it only entrenches them. It reinforces their beliefs that I am an enemy that needs to be conquered. That mindset isn’t broken through arguments. It’s broken down through persistence, compassion, patience, and showing them that their beliefs don’t bear up.

I know how much this makes me sound like a granola-eating hippie, and I don’t mind that. I’m just as angry about what’s happening to our society, to our environment and to the world. But I think this idealistic stance is borne out of a pragmatic desire to actually change it. In order to change our course of action as a society, we must first change the minds of the people who can direct it. That really doesn’t happen as a mindless, screaming mob. It happens through targeted action towards the things most likely to have an effect. And I think the best way is simply trying to understand where the opposition is coming from and addressing the motivations for their beliefs.

Anger is a perfectly understandable reaction to a lot of what’s happening to our world. But I think it’s really important to examine what we do with it. Our anger can be used as fuel to focus our intention towards making sure that we make positive changes to our environment, and to work hard to make sure that we don’t stand by while injustices are being perpetrated all around us. However, it’s important to remember that anger expressed without purpose or consideration of our values and others does nothing good. It just coarsens an already degraded discourse. The cycle has to stop somewhere; why don’t we make it end with us?

2 thoughts on “Righteous Indignation, Wrong Action

  1. Personally I think anger can be quite useful.

    Respectful dialog can’t really advance ideas in situations where the person you’re trying to convince doesn’t view you as someone worth respecting. If your social situation is lower than theirs, they can just ignore you and all your polite claims. And they often do.

    So while shouting them down is stressful and not a lot of fun, it’s a valid strategy. Like, this stuff, sadly enough, isn’t debate class, it’s war. Culture war. To extinct cultural ideas, it’s good to look at the problem from a collectivist perspective over an individualistic one. Taking inspiration from germ theory is a good idea, I think.

    In the end I think what always prompts cultural change isn’t endearing people to the idea that the oppressed deserve rights, but by making a social environment that will turn hostile to you if you espouse toxic ideas. Someone says something racist, you and all your friends turn around and say “what the fuck, dude?” and that person will cease to expose that idea around that social group. And I think that actually is useful, because human beings are social beings, and often our convictions are as simple as what is affirmed or discouraged by the groups we choose to identify with.

    So yes, I agree that anger needs to be focused to be useful, but I think providing social consequences for toxic ideas IS useful. It serves to isolate vectors that spread toxic ideas, collect them in one place, and then marginalize them, and extinct them from social relevance. The key is to be willing to shout longer and louder than those that oppose you. It’s not pretty and it’s not polite, but I think history is full of examples of it working, for both social benefit and social ill.

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