I believe we spent so much time fighting micro-aggressions we missed the macro-aggression. -- Jonathan Pitts
In the movies, the bully gets put down and goes away. The narrative we see consistently involves the trod upon kid finally working up the stones to stand up for himself, the courage to fight back and he defeats the bully by both beating him up and humiliating him in front of the rest of us. Then the bully miraculously disappears from the story because he has served his purpose in providing the instigation to help the hero evolve. His part is done.
In the world of non-filmic living, the bully does not go away. In the real world, the bully goes to his corner and plots his revenge. He waits until the hero is no longer paying attention and pops up, beats the hero with a baseball bat until he's broken every bone in his body and gets back on his throne of dominion over the rest of the school. And the hero lies in the hospital, pissing through a catheter, wondering what the fuck just happened and maybe it was because he didn't fight hard enough.
For the past few decades, the policy of the Progressive Left was the "Call out" Culture of publicly shaming and ostracizing the most strident racists, sexists and xenophobes in efforts to chase them away. And it seemed to work. Public displays of abhorrent behavior lessened. So we doubled down and started in on the people who seemed indifferent to our causes. We determined that if our cause was not their cause, then they were also racists, sexists, and xenophobes. We started labeling anyone unwilling to throw in with us as the enemy regardless of context.
Today, a racist is no longer defined as someone who espouses and practices racist ideology. Today, a racist is anyone white who does not find race to be the most important factor in our day to day living. If someone thinks the call for trigger warnings or safe spaces or micro-aggressions are a bit polemic and unwarranted, that someone is a racist monster on par with the worst among them. Personally, I've suggested that we approach the divide with rational discussion and a goal to persuade those on the larger margins and I've been labeled a racist apologist, a "Good German," a misogynist idiot by people who have never spoken to me once in my life. This is the landscape we now live in.
None of this erases the importance of recognizing the essential need for us to find ways to bridge systematic racist gaps manufactured to marginalize black and brown people. To build up opportunities and eradicate barriers created by a white supremacist narrative. We need to build a better system of fairness and tolerance. We all fundamentally know this. Even those who voted for the Orange King understand that equity and justice for all Americans is necessary.
We thought by suppressing language and outward behavior, we would destroy the power of these words and acts but instead we made them more powerful. They hid, just under the surface, waiting for someone to signal that they could be spewed forth with no more shame. We allowed bullies in our midst to thrive - online public pillorying, support to anyone who claimed to be hurt without regard to any actual harm presented, and the kind of angry, victimized whitewashing associated with the Trump campaign but used effectively by activists long before he came along to use it against everyone else. This all set the stage for him.
What we know about suppression is that that which is suppressed doesn't evaporate but gets stronger under pressure. Calling a racist a racist is a simple act of truth. But being a racist isn't a crime. That is to say, having racist attitudes is not, nor should it be, a punishable offense. Practicing active discrimination is, in fact, a crime in terms of law enforcement, job procurement, housing and lending practice. Legal remedies exist (if not consistently or adequately enforced.)
Bigotry is like a terrible stench one gives off. If you run into someone who has horrendous body odor, you generally don't start openly shaming him for his smell and gaining a crowd of your friends to chase him away. If, however, he decides to hug you and try to transfer the stink on you and your clothing, your action of pushing him away and giving him a piece of your mind seems appropriate.
In the lead up to Election 2016, we on the Progressive Left have tacitly accepted the sensitivities of the least tolerant to the degree that the very term "racist" means very little. The bullies were waiting and watching as we branded insult as injury, a lack of empathy as active harm, and micro-aggressions as assault. But these bullies, these beasties, have real teeth. The tactics of shame and outrage do not affect them and we were surprised and unprepared for their sudden reappearance.
We now have true monsters to defend against rather than the tepid specter of "passive racism" and the outcry for comedians to censor their less gentile jokes. By exaggerating the harm of idiot college students wearing black face and the horrors of white women wearing corn rows, we forgot the very direct devastation that the true active bigots can deliver. The real vampires have come out of the ground and they're day walkers and a crucifix does not phase them.
Will we learn from this or continue to fight the bullies, expecting them to disappear from the very thought of our outrage? Will we determine that a strategy of numbers is the only lasting method to defeating these beasties and that we do not have enough numbers to do anything more than a constant stalemate? Will we take the time to recruit rather than castigate those who chose to sit out the process of democracy or simply tell them to fuck off with their complacency? Will we make efforts to persuade those who, while not personally touched by racism in any real way as they walk their days, that racism exists and can be overturned?
Christ, I hope so or we are doomed to continue the ineffective cycle of fighting bullies who will inevitably return stronger and with more teeth.