Vilification Is Not Resistance

I find myself more and more repelled by the rhetoric used by my fellow opponents of the President and his administration.  We sound like peevish children, not stalwart defenders of liberty, justice and equality.  We mock his skin and his hair, we point and giggle at his “tiny hands,” we label him as narcissistic, coke-addicted, an abuser.  How clever we think we are, with our nasty memes and snarky insults.

Even if every iota of each accusation is valid, how is it helping us to resist the authoritarian agenda proliferating nationally? Doesn’t it bring us—those who say we are devoted to principles, not personalities—down to the level of the objects of our derision? How is our belittling and dismissal of someone clearly unfit for the role to which we assigned him any different from his mockery of the disabled, the female, the Muslim and the immigrant?

I can’t help but wonder what kind of world the resistance—among whom I proudly count myself—will put in place if our efforts prove successful.  Based on my fellow liberals’ social media descriptions of our neighbors across the political divide as “white trash, toothless deplorables,” it’s not clear that dissidence will be tolerated any better in our brave new world than in the one we’re trying to change.

Even as our President bashes the free press as “fake news,” the white male talking heads of the Left dismiss the lived experience of black and brown people, women, and queer Americans as irrelevant.  What’s the difference?  Are we really naive enough to think that a better world is possible before those of us whose power is inseparable from our privilege do a better job of amplifying (and believing) voices whose power is forged in the crucible of intractable, daily oppression? I don’t get it.  Where is the long pause for remorseful, painful self-assessment by the folks on the Left who were 100% wrong about who was going to be elected President of the United States? Where is the humility of defeat and the rebirth of genuine curiosity about how to achieve victory?

I’m not seeing it. I’m seeing lots of people creeping, striding or blasting out of their comfort zones at the grassroots level.  I’m seeing some heroes—I’m looking at you, @altnps, @altEPA and @RogueNASA and others—standing up at great risk for the values we all claim to believe in. I’m seeing people scrambling to educate themselves and to put pressure on their elected officials.  And I’m seeing the deep, powerful groundswell of activist leadership from marginalized groups who have been fighting this fight mostly by themselves for a couple of centuries.  But I’m not seeing deep changes at the top.  I’m not seeing white people suddenly asking themselves if their unthinking perpetuation of a white supremacist culture might have contributed to the election of a man who thinks all black people are friends with each other. I’m not seeing men responding to nationwide attempts to restrict women’s reproductive rights by asking themselves how their cradle-taught misogyny might have sown the seeds that are now blossoming so foully.  I’m not seeing white feminists asking themselves if their historic dismissal of the intersectional burdens of black and immigrant and non-Christian and queer and trans women might be the reason it’s now so hard for everyone to just work together.

I get it, my fellow liberals who think being rich, white, straight, employed and college-educated are “normal.” I’m right there with you. My analysis of these issues is new, shallow and staggeringly inadequate. I have to do it anyway.  If I don’t, then the highest goal of my resistance is a return to the world as it was on November 7. Remember that day? We woke up in a country with an infant mortality rate for black babies more than twice as high as that for white babies, where deportations of undocumented immigrants were already skyrocketing, where health care costs were beggaring the working poor, where 1 in 5 children lived in poverty, and where there was still no political consensus around climate change. Never mind the gobsmacking inequities of mass incarceration, functionally segregated education and unfettered neoliberalism. That’s not the star we need to be hitching our wagon to.  Our vision has to be higher, clearer, braver.

To fight a higher battle, we need higher weapons. We need to move past insults, mockery, and shaming because the agents of autocracy are impervious to them. We need to stop our playground swipes at the man who symbolizes everything we fear and dislike, and start fighting against the powers he represents.  We weaken and dilute our energy for the struggle when we vent our spleen at a single person.  Attacking him verbally, unpleasant and dangerous though he is, allows us to ignore the much larger, much older forces at work that our complacency has unleashed. Our real enemies are tyranny, totalitarianism, and insatiable, ravening greed, all grounded in a desperate fear of losing white male supremacy and the unearned privileges it bestows.  These enemies will persist long after the President is no longer with us, unless we focus our energies on containing and neutralizing them.

There’s another reason to lay off the personal criticism; it’s toxic to our moral health. Seeing our enemies simply as targets for attack is willfully false. They are not things. While they may disagree with us in every political and cultural particular, they are still more like us than not.  They experience love and fear and shame as strongly as we do, and they choose what to believe and what to dismiss with tools as powerful as ours. We must, if we are to succeed in building something better than what we’ve created so far, acknowledge that our battle is a painfully necessary struggle of principles between us and our brethren, not a brute contest for domination of superior over inferior.  If we are to emerge with any deeper understanding than those we resist, we have to resist the temptation to see our adversaries as mere objects between us and our desires. Until we can fight each other with our eyes wide open to our fundamental and common humanity, we have no moral claim to victory.  Comrades on the Left, we must avoid the most obvious pitfall of all: succeeding in our efforts only to behave as badly as those we defeated.

The 45th President of the United States is a symptom of our national malaise, not a cause. The same is true of his cabinet and Supreme Court picks, his loyal base of supporters and every other individual and group that we on the Left love to vilify. Instead of echoing the puerility of his tweets and his public appearances in the safety of our social media echo chambers, it’s time to focus on righting the wrongs that empowered them. That’s going to mean abandoning our stance of moral superiority and condescension and embracing our complicity in creating the unwelcome challenges of the world we live in. It’s going to mean learning how to shut up and listen,  and how to take direction instead of giving it. It’s going to mean acknowledging just how wrong we’ve been and for how long, and showing some overdue contrition. We’re going to have to step up with our bodies and our hands and our feet and our wallets. We’re going to have to earn our credibility.  And every time we feel that our discomfort entitles us to get personal, we must find a way to do without.

©Mary Braden 2017

8 thoughts on “Vilification Is Not Resistance”

  1. I see that by not being that terrible, horrible Other, and by making it responsible for the evil, I become better by comparison.

    Vilification isn’t resistance, it’s absolution and even self-beatification.

    At some point if you don’t join the vilification you risk becoming a target of it too. Socially it’s much safer to vilify.

    There is some point where shame turns to scorn. When we cannot change a person’s behavior by disapproval (because they don’t care about being in our circle) their shamelessness provokes scorn, where the goal shifts from changing their behavior to tainting them in a way that will bring shame on anyone who associates with them. Scorn is an attempt to make their shamelessness contagious so they become socially toxic.

    I still need to write up the rock-paper-scissors game of fear-anger-shame and this has helped me think more about it. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Let the lessons of history keep us from becoming what we hate.
    As a minor point, the true, radical, feminist movement has always been about the disenfranchised and the marginalized.

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  3. I hear you, Mary et al, I get your point. I agree we have to correct the underlying malaise of which Trump is a result. I disagree about the tactics. I don’t think moral authority is what will work in this reality-TV world. I don’t think they’re listening. Nor are they playing by the rules. We need to adjust our tactics to be effective rather than just right. I think we have an opportunity to make a change because this president is the pettiest man in the world with the most fragile ego. I think snark is the ONLY thing that he can’t ignore. I think we have to torment the bull until he is so crazed he leaves a flank exposed and will be eliminated in the fight. We need him to make an actionable error. I’m sorry, I don’t believe we have the luxury of being right and nice about it. I don’t think we can fight it on the issues. This is fascism, oligarchy, totalitarianism in our own yard and with all the power. It’s a post-nice world.

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    1. Thanks, Stephanie! And I agree with you, it is definitely a post-nice world and the Left must lose no time getting over its lingering concern with being seen as polite. I think the snark of individual liberals, though, is pretty pointless (as opposed to, say, the most excellent snark of SNL, which has the ear of its target). I’m thinking a lot about what the “higher weapons” will need to be, and your comment makes me think even more. One place my mind goes is the words of MLK about the self-assessment and reflection that go towards truly non-violent resistance, which of course means being willing to endure violence without retaliation, and without being stopped until your body is restrained.

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      1. Thank you, Mary, I agree with your essay and have been a little frustrated with PSN at times for the very reasons you elucidated so well. Snarling will not get us where we want to go. So let’s let your essay be our turning point. I think we’ve clarified our need to resist now all the beautiful minds we have access to in PSN should come up with elegant ways to resist. It’s going to mean sacrifice. I do think we continue to call out the lies at every opportunity with family and friends and anyone who will listen. So what should our current action be? How about everyone who can afford it buy a subscription to The NY Times? A free press is vital at this time. We need to support them all we can. I also plan to read “Hillbilly Elegy” as a way to understand the plight of those who put DT in office. So let the snarling cease and the ideas for action begin. We are very powerful when we do something together. Look at the Trump boycotts. I would also like to find a way to boycott everything Koch. Any ideas? What can we stop buying to make the pipeline investors reconsider? Money seems to be the only thing that talks right now so let’s talk.

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