There’s been a lot of online discussion in the days since the Orlando massacre, and, as we’d expect, that discussion has included both enlightenment and point-scoring, and sometimes exploitation. Which category we think a comment falls into is a function of our own attitudes, perceptions, values, etc. So, too, is how we choose to respond.
There are plenty of outspoken people in the USA who have made very well-paid careers out of being professional adversaries of LGBT people. They spread disinformation, exaggeration, defamation, and outright fabrication to try and score points and victories. Very often, they’re successful. These are the people we see popping up in mainstream newsmedia reports on LGBT issues as the “balance” to the rational viewpoint expressed by someone supporting the civil and human rights of LGBT people. These are the people who pretend to condemn violence against LGBT, while blaming LGBT people themselves for their own deaths and injuries.
And then there are the others: From the merely loopy to the seriously unhinged to folks willing to pretend to be one or both in order to gain attention, notoriety, and, of course, money. These are the folks who can be counted on to, as they have done, praise the Orlando shooting in some way, probably declaring that it should be repeated.
What is the proper response to these people? In the case of the first group, they have a mainstream media platform already, and it’d be best for them to be dealt to there—but they never are. At best, some newspaper columnist may condemn the rhetoric of these professional opponents of LGBT people, but since fewer people read newspapers these days, most will never see the response. This is why so many bloggers take the professional anti-gay activists to task—because they don’t see anyone else doing it—but even fewer people see that. Still, it's out there…
The bigger question, though, is what should we do about the disgusting wannabes in the nether regions of the Internet or on rightwing radio? The folks who do all the same things the professional adversaries to, but add on levels of vile and disgusting bigotry along with outright incitement of violence against LGBT people. What’s the best way to respond?
There is ALWAYS a decision to be made (and many arguments about it) over whether to call out evil or ignore it in the hope it will die, starved of oxygen. Those who say sunshine is the best disinfectant argue that challenging hate is the only way to stop it, while the other side says that doing so only adds oxygen to the fire.
In my view, both are absolutely right, and both are dangerously wrong.
The main points to consider, I think, are these: Does the response to the hate speech or action help it to spread more widely? And, if so, is it better, on balance, to challenge the hate speech or hope it dies unnoticed?
In the case of the professional adversaries, it’s easier: Their words and actions are widely reported, so responding is unlikely to bring them any more attention than they’d otherwise have. Even so, I have a sort of rule that I don’t respond unless they say something in mass media, like a CNN interview, or a newspaper op ed, that sort of the thing. I don’t usually respond to things they say in their own media or on their own sites where they’re usually at their most provocative—probably in the hope of inciting an over-reaction among normal people (so they can use the over-reactions to help them raise more money).
It’s the more fringey people who should give us pause. Many of them are pretty obscure, and most would never be known widely at all without the attention given to them by outraged normal people. And yet, unchallenged evil can eventually become evil triumphant, so perhaps it must be challenged so it can’t win. But, what if doing so helps it win?
Yep, this is why there’s no easy answer, nor one single correct approach.
I seldom talk about fringe types at all, and if I do it’s without ever mentioning them by name (what I often do with professional adversaries, too), nor where, specifically, the hatred was spread. If there’s a website involved, I never link to it, at best linking only to a mainstream site that links to the offending site (again, something I do with professional adversaries, too). This allows me to talk about the bad ideas without giving the person explicit search engine points, or their site any added traffic. This is my compromise.
The issue for me is NEVER any specific bigot or hatemonger, unless they run for public office; instead, it’s their bad ideas I want to take on, and to challenge their bigotry. That’s what’s dangerous, not the person himself (because, after all, it’s almost always a male…). In this way, I can focus on the substance of what they did or said without giving the person any attention. As an added bonus, this is the ultimate in disrespect of the person doing or saying the awful things—it’s treating them as if they don’t exist.
Most of the time, though, my response doesn’t even directly mention whatever incident/person I’m commenting on. Instead of talking about the latest absurd pronouncement of a hate radio host or a professional opponent of LGBT people, I’ll talk about their bad idea, why it’s bad, and what the better idea is. It’s true that some people won’t know what, specifically, led to my commentary, but putting better ideas “out there” is always the main point for me, not talking about why someone else is wrong or dangerous. There are always exceptions, of course.
Up until this point, most of what I’ve been talking about has been blogging or things I share online. These are the things that I control. But what about stuff others share?
Commenting on what other people post also invites the same debate: To help publicise or not? The vast majority of people who see a post on social media are “lurkers”, that is, people who see it and say nothing. Since something about the bigot has already been shared, the choice is whether these lurkers should see others’ silence, or people standing up to hatred, bigotry, and the promotion of evil.
I don’t decide the same way every time, but when I respond it’s usually to make a larger point, to draw connections to larger issues, or to provide missing facts—unless I’m in a bad mood or otherwise pissed-off, in which case all bets are off. Being human is messy.
Whether we choose to respond to expressions of prejudice and bigotry is a personal decision that can only be made by ourselves. We can express our feelings about others’ decisions, but we mustn’t condemn those who choose differently than we would—assuming, of course, that their response remains somewhere in the realm of legitimate discourse, that it isn’t as bad as what they’re condemning (no threats or incitement of violence, for example, either explicit or implied—and it’s sad that these days I have to say what should be bloody obvious!).
I absolutely support the right of people to make their own decisions—to ignore outrageous bigotry completely or take it on by name. That’s their choice to make, not mine to make for them. At any particular moment, we can only do what we think is right, even if we’re wrong.
Personally, I think it's awesome that people want to respond to outrageous acts or expressions of bigotry. I also think that it’s great that people struggle with how to choose to respond. This is why good people will always triumph over bad people.
This post was inspired by a Facebook discussion I had with my friend Andy. We bloggers take inspiration wherever we find it!