“10 percent of any population is cruel, no matter what, and 10 percent is merciful, no matter what, and the remaining 80 percent can be moved in either direction.”
– Susan Sontag
“If I participate, knowingly or otherwise, in my sister’s oppression and she calls me on it, to answer her anger with my own only blankets the substance of our exchange with reaction. It wastes energy.”
– Audre Lorde, “The Uses of Anger”
“Will we walk all night through solitary streets? The trees add shade to shade, lights out in the/ houses, we’ll both be lonely.”
– Allen Ginsberg, “A Supermarket in California”
In light of the comments above, I would like to make an apparently radical proposition: maybe we should not speak about other human beings with such decisive cruelty.
Because I am making this claim in light of conversations about Governor Kate Brown, you are probably thinking that I am a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, but I’m really not (are millennials dyed-in-the-wool about anything except for the disturbing specter of student loans?). Though I have voted in every election since I turned 18, I’ve maintained a thorough distrust in the two-party system, nursing all the while a comparatively strong faith in both community organizing and mutual aid work as the real nexus of care in American communities.
Considering all this, I hope you’ll believe me when I say that I am not exactly Kate Brown’s most enthusiastic supporter. In point of fact, my ideal governor is some kind of cross between America’s most beloved honorary librarian, Dolly Rebecca Parton, and Admiral Bill Adama from Battlestar Galactica. Because I am rational enough to know that this dreamy hybrid candidate is unlikely to run during my lifetime, I usually end up somewhat reluctantly voting for someone who actually appears on the ballot.
Like you, perhaps, I’m not certain about much at the moment, but I am confident about this: people are angry and scared right now. Not knowing where to put their anger and fear, they are letting these ugly feelings ferment into bitterness and spite. This is probably obvious to most people, especially anyone who has taken even a cursory glance at the comments section of any article on any topic published on any platform at all lately. But still, when I see words like the ones I’ve posted above, I find myself wondering, especially as I consider the sheer brutality of the language that these commenters have chosen, if we are really thinking enough about what this sticky miasma of toxicity really signifies about our ability to see one another as complex human beings– people just as likely hurting as they are prone to inflicting hurt.
KATE BROWN READS MEAN TWEETS
Have you ever seen those “Celebrities Read Mean Tweets” videos? I love those. The original series, which aired on Jimmy Kimmel Live, features actors, singers, athletes, and politicians reading things that people have written about them online. Not only are these clips usually funny, but they’re also often bizarre. There is something about hearing mean tweets read aloud by the targets of the comments themselves that makes the words with which they’re composed seem especially foolish and irrational.* The sheer scale of the comments’ cruelty is exposed by adding something more human– the voice and face of the person the commenter is speaking about–to a scene that depends on so many digital layers: the smartphone of the commenter, the film camera for the show, and the device the viewer uses to watch it all happen.
Sometimes, especially lately, I think about Governor Brown staring at the wall in bed at night, unable to sleep. She watches the headlights from cars passing by. They shine briefly through her window, then disappear slowly as they move past her house. She does this over and over again. Maybe she is feeling emptier than usual. Maybe it’s the worst night of her life. Maybe she doesn’t watch the headlights at all, but instead has to take a sleeping pill or two just to quiet the nerves and the sadness. I don’t know what she does. But I try to think about her as the kind of person that I believe most of us are inside: insecure and lonely and deserving of care. And then I think about her pulling out her phone and sitting up to read comments like this. The words in front of her aren’t funny like the ones on Jimmy Kimmel Live. They seethe and they bite. They shake with simple rage.
“Kate Brown is an evil bitch with evil on her mind,” she reads aloud to the large, dark bedroom.
“Anyone who really believes that Kate Brown is a good governor–or even a good person–is delusional. What a bitch.”
“Kate Brown is the worst. She is taxing our stimulus checks. Piece of shit she is.”
“I hope your kids put you in a nursing home when you’re old and a pandemic hits so you’re isolated from your family…You deserve nothing you heartless witch.”
“You are scum. A day of reckoning is coming for you.”
“Because of you kids are killing themselves and you don’t give a fuck.”
“How does it feel to wake up every morning and realize that you’re the most hated woman in Oregon?”
I think that Kate’s most committed detractors would say that she’d feel nothing at all if she read comments like this. Especially the ones who describe her as heartless, and who have taken the remarkable cognitive leap of placing the blame of every youth suicide in Oregon from 2020-2021 directly on her shoulders. Or perhaps some of her critics would concede that words this brutal would surely hurt anybody, but that “Aunt Kate” will soon forget them, and more than likely end up laughing all the way to the bank.
I find both of these outcomes improbable, though. I really do.
Don’t worry, dear Republican reader. I know you’re thinking that it’s surely easy enough for me to practice my saintly brand of empathy on folks nestled comfortably on my own side of the political spectrum. But, rest assured, I am practicing this with your people, too.
For example, I saw a handful of tweets the other day expressing the hope that Mitch McConnell dies an excruciatingly painful death. While it’s indeed true that McConnell’s beliefs are directly opposite of my own in nearly every way, I find neither satisfaction nor utility in praying for him to suffer. He is certainly not the only politician that has advocated for an expensive, authoritarian border wall intended to keep refugees from pursuing better lives for themselves and their families (to provide just one McConnell position I find heinous). Moreover, the event of his suffering, especially at this point in his rather long life, is unlikely to convince him of his moral failings. After all, we do not live in the plot of A Christmas Carol, and most of us are not visited by literal specters of our wrongdoings. It is also highly improbable, given the proliferation of hateful xenophobes in this country, that upon McConnell’s death, a man with his values won’t simply arise in his place, making any hate that I harbor for him, at least from a utilitarian perspective, a genuine waste of cerebral real estate.**
Because I am a deeply flawed human myself, I do occasionally slip into incoherent, Internet-induced fits of ill temper, my blood pressure rising from some Twitter headline worded in just such a way to make me bristle at the latest antics of the Grand Old Party. But before I touch a single laptop key, I try to pause my rabid scrolling, take a few deep breaths, and remind myself of that useful saying–often attributed to Buddha– about the act of holding onto anger being like drinking poison and waiting for someone else to die.
AUDRE LORDE & THE USES OF ANGER
Hello, activists and academic types: I do know about “The Uses of Anger.” Thank you for providing the occasion for my second counterargument. For those of you who are unfamiliar, the writer/librarian//activist Audre Lorde wrote this really important essay about how white people’s fear of (or distaste for) her anger not only silenced her voice in public fora and revealed harmful racist attitudes, but also kept meaningful dialogue and social progress from occurring. Though Lorde speaks a great deal about the nature and power of anger in this piece, she just as often speaks about the idea that it must have its “uses”– that essential second noun in the title. She says, “We cannot allow our fear of anger to deflect nor seduce us into anything less than the hard work of excavating honesty” (emphasis my own). She also makes an important distinction between anger and hatred. “Hatred is the fury of those who do not share our goals, and its object is death and destruction. Anger is a grief of distortions between peers, and its object is change.”***
I believe that the comments that I’ve shared about Kate Brown reflect hatred more clearly than they reflect anger, particularly because they seek to wound rather than grow something real from the ashes of grief.
Indignation is undoubtedly a vital catalyst of activism as well as an essential means of articulating the nature and consequences of injustice in this country. And there are undoubtedly folks right now, as you saw above, who believe that their own indignation serves the same function. But I’ve been thinking about it, and I’m pretty sure that calling people “communist whores” on social media and rather baselessly accusing them of everything from Satanism to child abuse isn’t quite the same as what Lorde means here. I think you’ll agree, but let me know if you don’t. I’m still thinking through it.
Though some of Kate Brown’s critics have long been fans of equating her with Hitler, they have recently begun devoting even more amounts of time and energy to equating coronavirus restrictions with the laws imposed by Nazi Germany.**** I confess that I don’t have the space or motivation here to address that level of ignorance, and I doubt that the folks in question will ever read this article, anyway. I suppose I’m not addressing the people who consider public health policies intended to minimize the loss of human life equivalent to the systematic murder of more than 6 million people. Rather, I’m addressing those who realize that there are obvious differences between (even admittedly chaotic and inadequate) governmental attempts at controlling a pandemic and violent, state-sponsored genocide, but then still insist upon calling Kate Brown a “crooked bitch” and“ an abomination unto God and man.”
And I’m perhaps also talking to my friends, people who I love deeply and often agree with, but who are so focused on coming up with colorful ways to skewer Lindsey Graham on Twitter that their sentiments eclipse mindful and proactive conversations about the work we could be doing to keep people like Lindsey Graham out of office.
It may seem like I am making a “hate the sin, not the sinner” argument here. But I’m not trying to. Nor am I trying to police the emotions or reactions of others, which they of course have every right to vent– online or otherwise. What I am trying to do is show how incredibly convenient it is to make one person the embodiment of all of the sources of our anger, insecurity, and personal trauma. I am also trying to emphasize how frankly disturbing it is to see how vicious the language of Oregonians on both sides of the political spectrum has become when they talk to each other about people like Kate Brown, a human being who a) they have likely never met or spoken to, b) who they can never really know outside of the way media outlets describe her, and c) whose actual degree of agency in making the decisions that enrage them is likely much smaller than they imagine.
Also, I just know from experience that cruelty only begets more cruelty, and that after unleashing my own vitriol against the people I thought that I hated, I never once felt better. Only like there was still poison sitting in my stomach.
NOTES & FURTHER READING
* This phenomenon reminds me of the work of a now-famous TikToker named Lubalin, whose method of singing the comments of inane Facebook beefs is both hilarious and revelatory.
** The Rush Limbaugh question: Rush Limbaugh, as you probably know, just died, and several major news outlets published op-eds about whether or not it was ethical to “dance on his grave.” Indeed, Rush Limbaugh has said some of the meanest and most sincerely messed up things I have ever heard spoken aloud by a political commentator, and he has succeeded in turning many of my friends’ loved ones into red-faced, Incredible-Hulk versions of their former selves–shaking their fists as they mainline Fox News and incessantly sniffing about for more evidence that millennials are spitting on the Founding Fathers with their safe spaces and their gay agendas. But again, as I read these editorials, I found myself wondering why we were spending so much time grappling with the supposed dilemma of how we should respond to Limbaugh’s death. The man died, as we all will, and those who loved him will mourn him. The more important question for someone like me, who did not love Rush Limbaugh, is not whether I am morally “permitted” to react to his death, but rather how I can personally contribute to a society that leaves his hateful dogma in the Dark Ages *where it belongs*. After all, as I’ve noted, if I spend such a large portion of my thinking life on quandaries like this one, I won’t have the proper enthusiasm or inspiration to roast the latest drivel from the mouth of an Alex Jones or a Tomi Lahren.
*** Later, Lorde defines exactly what she means by “change” : “I do not mean a simple switch of positions or a temporary lessening of tensions… I am speaking of a basic and radical alteration in those assumptions underlining our lives.”
**** I’m really not being hyperbolic:
On Levinas and Kate Brown’s Face
I wanted to go on a whole thing about Emmanuel Levinas and empathy and looking into the face of the Other in this article, but attention spans are short, and forgetting is long. Maybe I’ll save that essay for another day. I suppose it suffices to say that looking into the face of another human being should be an exercise in empathy, even though we know that it often is not. Interestingly enough: I have noticed that the conservative media often chooses the most unflattering photos of Kate to accompany articles about her. Not the ones where she is smiling and looking rested, reading to kids or hugging her husband, but the ones where her mouth is half-open, her face gray and drawn. It’s all old hat of course. Paint the woman in power as the shrew or the hag, and half of your rhetorical work is done for you. Call her “Aunt Kate” with that patronizing roll of the eyes and she becomes something altogether flattened, diminished.