Bullies, Bystanders, or Bravehearts?: Questions of Civic Participation

There is an argument I consistently have with myself regarding civil discourse. In theory, I believe in civility. I believe in thoughtful discussion. Whatever vulgarity or cuss words I’ve used here, have always been of my own volition, albeit I have taken more opportunities of late to use them. I am an angry person. I believe in justice and I loathe deliberate ignorance.

canstockphoto11106690For all the understanding and tolerance we are supposed to extend to people who tell us liberalism is a mental disease and that they’re giddy about these current circumstances, we get very little in return. The message is that we are to fall in line and adore their great leader or else what? They’ll call us names? Vote in spite? Threaten us with violence?

Reading comments from people who seem to adore the president and his mafia, I am completely baffled by the appeal. But I’ve never understood celebrity worship or the idea that being unfiltered is somehow preferable to being thoughtful. I’ve never invested my sense of self in strangers on TV or politicians bloviating over donuts. I don’t get my news from Facebook or Twitter. I know that reality TV is curated bullshit. I’m not going to wear clothes with people’s names on it, whether it be Tommy Hilfiger or Trump. I am no one’s standard bearer or billboard.

And that’s what I find so baffling. I grew up in a poor working class family. I learned several skills or beliefs in this environment: 1) That nobody is going to fix my life 2) How to spot a bullshitter a mile away 3) Television is fake and politicians lie. I met people all along the way with the same beliefs. Those are the people who progressed, got out of poverty, worked hard to get an education and most, if not all, are solidly middle class now.

Whcanstockphoto3529451en I saw the chanting crowds in Minnesota yesterday during another feed-his-ego rally, it made me feel ill. There were so many people at the church of Trump. So many people slavishly cheering and grinning and repeating tired mantras. So many people worshiping at his feet. It must have been very gratifying for him, that he could say or do anything with impunity and people would still hold him up as a false idol, clap and cheer and act like glorifying him would somehow raise them up. It was grotesque.

Does it make a difference that there were protesters, yelling, carrying signs? Not to the Trump supporters. Those protesters are for people like me – letting me know that I am not alone in my disgust with this administration, encouraging me to wage protest in my own way. Protesters are important to those of us who eschew crowds, but feel isolated in the face of authoritarianism. It’s a public message – we’re not laying down for the jackboots to march all over us.

But it does bring us back to the issue of public discourse. I’ve been having a come to Jesus moment with myself (which is a really funny thing for an atheist to say). I keep thinking of that Martin Luther King quote:

First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.

Reverend Martin Luther King, Letter from the Birmingham Jail, 1963

canstockphoto32473828The idea of negative peace and being devoted more to order than justice is something that plagues moderate middle class white people. We’re not all inherently cruel or uncaring, but we mistake the lack of violence or strong language or raised voices to mean that things are quietly being worked through and that if something really bad is going to happen, the government will prevent it. We were raised to believe in Big Daddy and that there would be things that wouldn’t happen in our beloved America.

But that is not the case. Most people of color, women, chronically ill, vulnerable children and the elderly know that the system turns a blind eye to systematic abuse, gaps in care, and cries for help. That power and wealth corrupts absolutely and disconnects people from their humanity. That leaders, those who can truly maintain a balance between personal ambition and that amorphous concept, the common good, are far and few between.

What we don’t get is that we are the stopgap, the brakes, the safety net, the protection against authoritarianism. We have to choose not to be bystanders, not snapping selfies in front of tent cities on U.S. soil, chatting up the ICE agent while fearing the bogeyman foreigner. What does our country need from us now?

canstockphoto6397204Many of the words I read from Trump supporters are no longer part of any rationale. They’re mainly spewing cutesy insulting names, parroting lies with no underlying facts, sending links to un-sourced, biased news stories, using the polemics of either-or for every single argument. Gun control = no guns. Pro-choice = drive-through abortions. Civil liberties for all = war on religion. Free speech = no consequences for said speech. Political correctness = silence, not civility. They’re digging in, not listening, not thinking.

Does it make a difference if I call the president a bastard? Have I, too, come to mistake strong words for strength? Have I adopted a bully’s approach to discourse? Or will I be the moderate white person – choosing peace over justice, order over resistance? And am I succumbing to the unthinking, blind rhetoric of both sides, falling prey to the false equivalencies equating those who fight for justice and those who just fight?

These are tough questions that have been unraveling in my brain over the last week, because I am trying to find a better way forward. Not for peace, but for integrity and progress and so that someday, I can look back, and know that I didn’t just let it happen.

What do you think of the public discourse?

Is fighting fire with fire necessary or is there a better way?

What truly makes a difference?

26 thoughts on “Bullies, Bystanders, or Bravehearts?: Questions of Civic Participation

  1. i have become involved with an organization called Empathy for Peace. Last March Went to a presentation by a member of their Board, who is a neuroscientist. It was fascinating. He present fact-based evidence that treating hostility with hostility does not work. Here’s a link to some info on what he discussed:


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for sharing that. I look up at the organization’s website. It looks like they’re doing good work. Empathy is tricky. I have a great deal of empathy for the marginalized and those that need help. Finding it for Americans who support Trump and have enough resources to attend rallies and purchase merchandise is VERY challenging. People who brag about their own ignorance and are nasty to other humans, man, I have to dig really, really deep and sometimes I come up empty-handed (and hearted).

      Liked by 3 people

      1. They are doing good work and their international board members have amazing credentials. I really like the fact that they are fact-based. I agree, “empathy” is tricky and I worry that it is becoming a buzz word, that’s being thrown around willy nilly. I also have a hard time sustaining “empathy” towards people whose views I detest. I talk to myself a lot.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. You’ve given me much to think about this morning, Michelle. I have never tended to be one who is truly involved in public discourse other than having conversations with like-minded individuals and going to the polls to vote. Trump, however, has me thinking of painting signs and marching against all of what he believes in. I fear he has thoughts of taking this country away from a democracy.

    The most difficult aspect (for me) of the Trump supporters and many Republicans (it seems) is that they use Christianity as their excuse for this negative peace and order. As a Christian myself, I am truly saddened and angry when followers of Christ hold Trump up as some sort of idol or god. That their anger, hatred, bigotry, greed is okay simply because they are a Christian and what they believe is correct or holy or whatever. This is not Jesus in any way, shape or form. Not ever.

    In fighting fire with fire, my only wish is that the politicians and citizens (myself included) opposed to this horrible regime would be loudly boisterous and that we would have increasing demonstrations that speak about the good of humanity and the positive changes we can make that help all Americans. We can be as loud as Trump and his supporters, but for the right and rational reasons.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Religion is one of those things, like the Bible, that can be used for good or ill, dependent on the agenda of the person wielding it. I admire people who find their personal comfort, peace, and moral guidance without abrogating the rights of others or using it to beat others over the head with values talk. It really is problematic for Republicans whose fiscal policies are the exact opposite of what Jesus taught and who, while loudly proclaiming that they know what morality is right for the rest of the country, are grabbing interns’ butts, cheating on their spouses, and snorting cocaine in between committee meetings. Bigger than the hypocrisy, though, is using faith as a way to underwrite hate and intolerance and to justify policy that destroys the planet one federally-protected acre after another.

      Still, I’m obviously preaching to the choir. You get it. And you’re right, moderate people need to become less moderate – the silent majority can’t continue to be silent. For me, while I’m actively involved in politics now, I have to look at my own rhetoric and approach. My post got too long to add this, but I’ve really been thinking about the value of de-escalation, which knocks the legs right out from under the bellicose meme-repeaters. It’s learning to calm myself in the face of deliberate provocation.

      Thanks so much for sharing your perspective. As with most things, it’s always the loudest worst, representations of any group that gets the attention. And that makes it hard for the rest of us to keep our vision clear.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. “I’ve really been thinking about the value of de-escalation, which knocks the legs right out from under the bellicose meme-repeaters. It’s learning to calm myself in the face of deliberate provocation.”

        I wish you success with this value. Much success! It’s difficult, though, in dealing with narcissistic personalities. I lived with a poor version of Mr. Trump for far too long and I can tell you that trying to have civilized, thoughtful conversation with someone like that can be extremely frustrating…because there is no thought or empathy for anyone else. It’s probably the reason I tend to shy away from confrontation and why I take my religious faith so seriously. I hope the power of the Republicans begins to crumble under the weight of what is truly morally and ethically right, especially come this November.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I used to work in a math library at a large university and the main librarian taught me a particular trick that works well with entitled patrons (and toddlers as well). You repeat your point, quietly and calmly when someone wants to skirt the rules or argue with you. I wonder if the same thing might not work with people who promote hateful views: That is not true. I do not agree with you. That is not the kind of person I choose to be. Repeated. Over and over. I imagine how frustrating that would be for them.

          Liked by 2 people

      2. Without any real knowledge of de-escalation techniques, this is one thing I’ve been pretty good at over the last couple of years. I always go for the “high road,” I suppose. It REALLY irritates the “bellicose meme-repeaters” but engages others. For the BMR’s I’ve found that, in the end, I’ve simply had to tell them off. I finally had to tell one “friend,” who became a Troll for Trump on my Facebook page, that he either had to engage in sensible discussion or the get the hell off my wall for good. He chose the latter (or at least went latent). Another acquaintance dropped me as a friend altogether yesterday after I engaged his ranting with civil discourse.

        I’m okay with that. All opinions are welcome in my world. Bellicose styles, on the other hand, are not.


        1. I admit to being less than tolerant of opinions that are rooted in personal grievance and bad actors in the news world (Breitbart, Fox, Infowars). I’ve found that people will go to great lengths to rationalize bad decisions – the cognitive dissonance drowns out any possibility of reasonable discussion. If you suspend reality in order to feel right, that planet is all yours. Back on Earth, I’ve learned to be more firm in stating my beliefs, but am painfully aware that l have to shut my mouth and listen more, if any dialogue is going to happen.

          There are several books that I keep as references in regards to de-escalation: “Taking the War out of Our Words” by Sharon Strand Ellison, “Thank You for Arguing” by Jay Heinrichs, and I’m currently reading Gene Sharp’s “The Politics of Nonviolent Action” series. Anything that will give me better rhetorical tools and choices.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Very well said. We are informed by the sources we source — as I was shown yesterday by someone who disliked my tolerating silence more than my fed up words. I was accused of watching too much CNN (presumably by a Fox Network watcher). The only thing I watch religiously is John’s Gospel — and he never says anything new or to the contrary from day to day. How 2 God-fearing Christian daughters — and Christian friends and some extended kin in the Midwest and elsewhere — can adore this orange calf made of temporary gold is beyond me.. and now, it’s beyond tolerable. In regards to your three ending questions: Yes, a public discourse will HAVE to happen. Yes, we have to fight fire with fire, because we can be sure that Congress isn’t going to unless we’re on the very brink of civil war (aren’t we??). And last, what truly makes a difference is folks doing their homework — like YOU, thank you!! — and then heading for whatever podiums we have (or can stand). I may’ve stayed out of it all even longer, but to see this asswipe (did I say that out loud?) separating little kids from their families — and seeing DEFENSE of it! — oh, Lord.. forgive me my earlier hesitation.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I suppose it’s a tad pedantic, but the fire with fire probably needs to be defined more. I think fighting back through protest, legislation, votes, etc. makes sense. I’m just not sure my response to being called a “libtard” should be to call the person an ignorant asshole. Satisfying, but not useful. There’s probably some sage nugget about picking fires or battles or whatever. It’s easy, in an age when the discourse is so uncivil to mistake tough talk as a replacement for tough, but polite action. One is definitely more effective than the other.

      And I think many of us will need forgiveness when all is said and done. We just have to do our best to not need as much!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. LOL, yes.. those are very wise words. I have no faith in voting anymore, but I’ll push for, protest for, and sign every petition for his impeachment. We’d end up with Pence, but you know, I’d feel a tiny bit safer about my kids and grandkids. And every one ELSE’s.

        Liked by 2 people

  4. I am totally guilty of not causing a ruckus. This is a very recent thing for me! I would rather stay out of it and pretend nothing is happening. It’s hard to confront things that are sooooo big. I am absolutely standing by and letting it happen, and I hate that I am this person.
    What can I do? My generations lacks organizational skills, most baby boomers still see us as like 10 years old so we aren’t taken seriously. Like my mom told me that one day I would learn how government works. This was after we argued about this current administration. I’m in my 30s and I have 3 degrees. What? And it’s frustrating because she just will not listen to me. It’s like I’m screaming and no one is listening.
    Loved this piece!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think no age or generation is immune to either complacency or being so overwhelmed as to not know where to start. It happens to everyone. But none of us need to reinvent the wheel. There are organizations that have been doing this work for years. So you pick one – donate money, sign their petitions, whatever you can manage. And then vote in every election that is available to you – from local to state to federal.

      None of us has the power to fix anything on our own, but if each of us only did one thing, the collective power would be amazing. And we don’t need permission from anyone to do it. We don’t have to wait until someone deems our message is polite enough or timed right. I am getting louder and more insistent, but I didn’t start out here – I started quietly, doing one thing at a time. You start where you are and it will make a difference.

      Herein ends the unsolicited advice and lecture. Standing on my soapbox is exhausting. I need a nap.

      Liked by 2 people

    1. I don’t think there is any question of fighting, but I want to be effective. Getting in a shouting match with someone who is just as entrenched in their views as I am in mine likely accomplishes nothing – just the visceral satisfaction of indulging anger. I’m ignoring the exhortations to “go high”, because I think it’s bullshit chicken soup for the soul and it sounds like conditioning to do nothing. I just want to do what works without compromising integrity or wasting energy.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. I feel like I just found a new leader in my personal resistance crusade. This is brilliant, Michelle. Because I have so many friends (and family) who have inexplicably backed this administration and its bizarre ringmaster, I have often tried to be the voice of reason and peace in interactions. Sometimes, I feel guilty about that. Now I know why.

    The idea of “negative peace” had never occurred to me before; by intensely desiring harmony am I truly an accomplice to a greater discord? I believe I am, though how to adjust my approach will take time to consider.

    A thoughtful dissertation on such a topic takes heart, planning, and insight. You’ve displayed all of those things and you (and Mr King) have given me much to contemplate today. How can I make a difference? For starters, quit trying not to, Tom.

    Looks like I’m gonna have to break some eggs.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If I were really straight up about my activism, I would say it is a necessary antidote to the chronic depression I experienced after the election. This administration is the antithesis of all of my values. So I think a lot about how to find actions, no matter how small to counter feelings of anger and fear. For the first year, I kept making angry comments on Washington Post articles, writing blog posts, joining organizations, and investigating my political choices – lots of flailing about and wasting energy.

      The second year has me taking a leading role in a voting rights organization, registering as a Democrat (now precinct chair), writing letters and emails, making phone calls, volunteering to be an election judge, and showing up at a lot of @#$% meetings. It’s a tough haul for an introvert. I have to retreat frequently. But as the administration escalates its attacks on the integrity of this country, so must we all step up our game. Civil disobedience cannot be far behind.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. A true think piece. I’ve read it twice now and still do not feel I can talk on such a weighty substance with any confidence. Except to say, act in a way you can live with. And if swallowing angry words will cause you to choke, perhaps it is better that you say them. They are obviously coming from a strong sentiment. Civilized words belong in a civilized world. This is a dark, old world we inhabit now.

    Liked by 1 person

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