Sunday, April 5, 2015

Hate Speech On The Rise And What To Do About It

Bowdoin students stage sit-in outside president's office by Beth Brogan, Bangor Daily News 4/1/15

It's a bit sad that I'm blogging about hate speech rising at dawn on Easter morning. It's the spring holiday when every faith celebrates the return of light and life, and the re-greening of the planet.  So happy Passover, happy Nowruz and happy Ostara everyone. I fear that what's rising in my neighborhood is not the eternal spirit of love and forgiveness, though, at least not for many.

My first discouraging discovery this week came right on the heels of a happy one: students at my alma mater had staged a sit-in at the college administration offices to call attention to their demand that Bowdoin divest from fossil fuel investments. After being stonewalled by the trustees of the college for 150 days, and in response to the non-responsiveness of the college's lame duck president, twenty young adults occupied the halls outside Barry Mills' office. 

Why this was encouraging: Bowdoin students generally go along with the status quo and are too polite to make waves. Many an activist student who finds him or herself at Bowdin expresses frustration about this; many transfer. Though the college states its mission to educate youth to serve the common good, there's a general perception that what they mostly serve is their own agenda to enjoy life and make a lot of good connections while getting a degree that will get them into a good grad school. Many of the people I went to Bowdoin with a long time ago went on to become Wall St. types who helped crash the economy in '08 and accelerate the crushing poverty of the masses. Bowdoin's endowment, by the way, is epic; it passed the $1 billion mark in 2013.

Why this was discouraging: check out the pages and pages of hate filled comments on the Bangor Daily News article about the sit-in. (The thread is now closed for comments. Maybe because I tried to get some friends to send the students some love? We'll never know.)

Here's a mild example for starters:

This sets a theme that others developed with sneering contempt. There were recurring insults that made me feel many of the commenters were paid climate change deniers who were operating from a common playbook. Free wifi, for example. Other criticisms that willfully ignored the issue the students were concerned about ridiculed them for their creature comforts including being warm (it's been a long and very cold winter in Maine this year due to changes in the ocean currents due, ironically, to climate-change induced melting of the polar ice cap). 

Access to electronics and free wifi, and politically correct food choices were also recurring themes.

Free wifi came up so often it was kind of amazing. Doesn't McDonald's and your local library offer free wifi for the masses? Don't Bowdoin students either pay or borrow thousands of dollars a year for their "free" wifi? Of course I should stop trying to find any logic in the hate speech spewed by talk radio and Fox news which the commenters are parroting.

And about those cars. Apparently students at expensive private colleges are all driving fancy SUVs that get poor gas mileage, the hypocrites.

This recurring accusation seemed a little behind the curve, actually. Because wouldn't a lot of these particular students drive (expensive) hybrids? Plus, isn't the Mainer most likely to leave comments like this driving around in a full size (like 6 or even 8 cylinder) pickup truck that gets lousy gas mileage, too?

But it was the underlying current of threat that I found so discouraging.

Do people who don't know how to use the apostrophe correctly naturally hate people who do, or is this something that must be learned?

Next on my discouraging news of the week came from blogger Shay Stewart-Bouley who heads, as she puts it, "one of the few organizations in the United States dedicated to anti-racism work," Community Change, Inc. in Boston. 

While walking down the street in Portland's Old Port fancy pants shopping and dining district, her mixed race family encountered a car full of cowardly youths who yelled the N-word at them and drove off.  She wrote about in her blog,  BlackGirlinMaine: When gelato gets racial or a little girl hears the N-word for the first time. 

I recognize how sad it is that being targeted by hateful, threatening speech is a constant for people of color in Maine. As Stewart-Bouley put it:
as a mixed-raced family in a white space, the reality is that anytime we leave our house as a family, we risk incurring the wrath of the ignorant and hateful
I don't want this to be, but so it is. Reading the facebook discussion about how a white news anchor in Maine witnessed the event and wrote about it made me think about what I would have done if I'd been there. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have chased after the car, though I understand why Shay's 23 year old son did. I like to think I would have yelled something at the car, but what?  SHUT UP! maybe. I refuse to shout IDIOTS, because name calling is part of the problem, not the solution. I also like to wish I would have the courage to go over to the family as Shay reported one man did to say, Are you ok?

Well that's really the question, isn't it -- is a family or a 9 year old girl or any of us ok in a place where hate speech is the norm?

Personal racism results in hate speech, and all within earshot are aware of it. Many argue that institutional racism -- the kind built into the structures of society -- is more apparently polite, often invisible, and probably much more harmful. Some would argue that getting the ugliness up into the light of day where we can all hear it and acknowledge it is a good thing. 

Sure, like it was better when the Nazis shouted ugly slogans at Jewish people on the street than when they turned them out of their jobs as college professors.

Stewart-Bouley observed:
In my professional work, I work with white people on race and the white American culture is an all-too-polite space where too many times white people don’t speak up and unfortunately silence can be harmful. Racism is a system, and that silence upholds that system even when we don’t believe we are actively creating harm.
That's their white privilege in operation. And if you really want to see people get angry, call them out on their white privilege.

The third discouraging thing this week was the glee with which liberals greeted the news that a former mayor of Biddeford and former state legislator, Joanne Twomey, had thrown a jar of Vaseline at Maine's governor during a public appearance. Her missile was apparently a response to a crude remark of a sexual nature that the governor had made. 

Having cartoonish villains is part of the personalization of politics that normalizes hate speech and hostile gestures, making them seem desirable as long as they are directed at the proper targets. Maine's governor is the buffoon liberals love to hate and they are fond of calling him various forms of stupid when he is, in fact, a creature of ALEC and an extremely astute politician. His criticism of a different Democratic state legislator as "a bad person" with "no brains" and a "black heart" is reportedly what spurred Twomey to action. 

The rise of accepting hateful speech and gestures aimed against anyone is not and cannot be a good sign. I don't like the governor's proposed budget either; it's designed to make the un- and under employed working poor of Maine even poorer and angrier than they are now. And the media is sure to tell them who to blame: affluent college kids, and families that vaguely resemble (in the sense of lazy thinking to the effect that "they all look alike") that much reviled, well-educated African American family in the White House.

All who care must teach and practice tolerance -- or we will repent at leisure. Get busy.

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