It's not a rhetorical question. I think the answer to that will decide what happens next.
Here's a popular right-wing meme that got spread around before the attack in Charlottesville:
So, here's what I want to ask anyone sharing that (or wearing it on a t-shirt -- yes, they sell them): When we replace the stick figures with actual bleeding humans, does that change how you feel about it at all? (WARNING: Graphic fucking video):
It's not a rhetorical question. I think the answer to that will decide what happens next.
Bigotry is never about hating a real person. The target is always a perfectly hateable caricature we invent to avoid glimpsing the true enemy staring back at us from the mirror. It's a punching bag, a shape drawn around a bull's-eye. This is why so many racists have a real Black Friend they can hide behind -- when they actually get to know one, a whole different part of their brain lights up ("I mean, he's not even black to me! He's just Steve!"). Do I have to point out the obvious, that their entire worldview would change if they could somehow get to know every minority the way they know their buddy? How many times have anti-immigration politicians and pundits gotten caught hiring "illegals" themselves? "Well you see, my illegals are honest and do great work. Not like the rapey stick-figures on those T-shirts."
I had secretly been hoping that the internet, social media, and smartphones would make it impossible to not put a real human face on those groups. In a connected world in which I can tell you what my cousin's coworkers considered eating for lunch yesterday, minorities can't remain abstractions. I was hoping that over time, smartphones would do to racism what they did to UFOs.
You remember UFOs, right? For a generation leading up to the 1990s, some fuzzy flying saucer turned up in the news every month. Now, when there are a thousand times more cameras around, the flying saucers have evaporated like smoke -- belief in alien visitors plummeted by the mid-2000s. The myth became impossible to preserve in the face of evidence (or lack of it).
Racism, likewise, is based on a myth -- that these people aren't people at all, that they don't cry or bleed or want the same things we want, that fixing our discomfort is as simple as making them ... go away, somehow. Now we have the technology to see an event like Charlottesville in real-time from half a dozen angles; we can hear the screams, see first-responders desperately trying to resuscitate victims. We can get a mental image of what an ethnic cleansing would really look like -- that same chaos, repeated millions of times. That's the truth behind the edgy frog memes and red-arm bands. Take it in, assholes.
It would be a wake-up call. That was the dream, anyway.
I'm known as a hopeful optimist, possibly having to do with being a white person who accidentally made a lot of money off of a story he originally wrote as a prank. But it's not like I just pulled this dream out of my ass -- there's precedent for it.
The presence of cameras all but eliminated the American public's tolerance for military casualties, for example -- we've completely built our foreign policy around it. America lost 100,000 troops in WWI, 400,000 in WWII, and almost 60,000 in Vietnam. That last one was the turning point -- a flood of full-color footage of maimed soldiers and screaming civilians turned public opinion against the war overnight. The reality of war didn't change, but you can bet your ass that seeing it made all of the difference. We haven't had a comparable war since; Afghanistan saw a tiny fraction of those losses (2,400) and so did Iraq (4,500). Suddenly, soldiers' lives mattered -- the myth of the consequence-free war went the way of the UFO.
"Why in the hell did you think a horde of screaming Actual Nazis would have their hearts melted by the sight of dying protesters?" you ask. "If anything, they probably get off on it. After all, Americans don't seem to care about hundreds of thousands of bombed Iraqis."
But I'm not talking about the raging Nazis here -- it's only the extreme fringe who'll walk around in public doing that shit, and some of them try to sheepishly talk their way out of it later. The systemic racism that exists in the world doesn't emanate from them, it flows from the comfortable indifference of the majority. The most incurable form of bigotry persists specifically because it doesn't feel like heat coursing through the veins -- it feels like nothing at all. I was born in Trump Country and I only met a couple of people who openly called for black genocide, but knew dozens if not hundreds who simply thought society didn't need changing (and I agreed, at the time). We didn't want the stick figures to die, we just didn't think they needed help. What does a stick figure need food stamps for?
The latter are the ones I thought would be turned in this age of pervasive cameras and personal connections. It's easy for the comfortable casual racist (who, by the way, hates Nazis) to ignore a headline or pie charts about income inequality. It's harder to ignore a man bleeding in the driver's seat of his car while his young daughter and her mother sit helplessly next to him, wailing in anguish. I didn't think it would change overnight, but over the decades I thought these attitudes would be chiseled away one gut-wrenching video at a time. "Do you see? He's not a fucking statistic. He bleeds. His family loved him just as much as your family loves you. Look."
Hey, did I mention that after years of decline, belief in UFOs has shot back up to its previous highs? The need to believe was always there, so others looking to fill that void simply adapted to the marketplace ("If you think about it, the aliens would have cloaking technology that makes them invisible to cell phones!").
Now consider the fact that the Confederate statues the protesters were rallying around in Charlottesville aren't all 150-year-old relics. New ones are being built all the time (35 Confederate monuments have been added since 2000 in North Carolina alone -- lots of them were built in the 1960s as backlash to the civil rights movement). They are, in other words, modern symbols erected by groups looking to change policy today. That's why there's a movement to take them down, and a bitter counter-movement to preserve them. It is only about preserving the past to the extent that it's about making current law conform to it.
The point is, if racism is a dying relic, it sure as hell doesn't feel like it. Oh, I'm not surprised that hate groups thrive in this era -- a few charismatic sociopaths have always been able to cast a wide umbrella of influence and mass media has just amplified their reach. I mean, you've seen their memes. What I had hoped, though, was that society would be better at spotting them, quicker to see through their tricks. I often wonder how average German citizens would have reacted if camera phones had existed back then and somebody had leaked video from inside a concentration camp. "But lots of German citizens did know about the concentration camps!" Sure, but it's one thing to have a vague concept of "eliminating" Jews, another to actually see a wheelbarrow full of dead children. It would be meaningless to the true zealots, but most people aren't that.
And yet ...
It's too easy to think of Nazis as a different species, like they were aliens who invaded from another planet. If you tell me we shouldn't humanize them, I say that humanizing them actually makes them scarier: They are not only human, but they are your motherfucking neighbors. After the war, German soldiers and officers went back home and got jobs -- it's not like you blow up the mothership and the foot soldiers topple over. Likewise, your brother or uncle or daughter could join a hate group tomorrow and they would still be family. Some of the people reading this have had this exact thing happen.
Think about it: Even if the worst happens and 20 years from now we're in an actual shooting war with a new round of Nazis, it's not like we'll kill them all. No war ends that way; there'll be some kind of resolution and the combatants will take off their uniforms and the very next day they'll be next to you on the subway. If you want to stop that future, you have to start with understanding how Nazis are made, and how regular everyday folks get sucked in. Hate is a prickly shell humans grow around fear, a defense mechanism to replace the terror of the unknown with the cold certainty of rage. You don't have to feel sorry for them, but hate is like cancer -- it's all about knowing the warning signs and catching it early.
So, let's start here: What a human needs, above all else, is to matter. And mattering in 2017 is hard as shit. There are 100 million Americans who neither have jobs nor are looking for one. Of those who do work, only 36 percent say their job has "meaning and significance" (did you know that a low-paying, unstable job is actually more stressful than unemployment?). I guess there used to be pride in building a house or a car, or growing crops -- creating something tangible -- but now, the machines have those jobs and we're stuck serving coffee or moving numbers around a spreadsheet, counting down the days until the machines take those jobs, too.
Our generation has fewer close friends than previous generations and are less likely to have a sexual partner or children of our own. We trust each other less than we ever have. We need to matter, but we don't have people in our lives reminding us of that, so we compensate. "I matter because I'm not [insert hateable stick figure here]."
And I can't emphasize enough how much it doesn't actually make a difference what goes in those brackets. Reddit's Trump community The_Donald overlaps strongly with their now-banned "Fat People Hate" community and the anti-woman subreddit TheRedPill. Where you find articles railing on blacks, you'll find articles demonizing Jews, homosexuals, trans people ... hell, go to any right-wing site and notice their bitter loathing of vegans.
It's hard for most people to grasp how hate can be both arbitrary and murderous, but that's how the human mind works. Once you switch into that primitive Us vs. Them survival mode, the rationale becomes totally irrelevant. Remember that one of the world's oldest and most pervasive prejudices is against left-handed people. Skilled manipulators could pull out endless examples of how inherently dishonest and filthy those lefties were, and they always found an audience. That only sounds ridiculous until you realize how great it must have been to wake up every day and congratulate yourself for using your right hand, a.k.a. the hand you automatically used anyway.
If you haven't built anything you can be proud of -- be it a house, career, family, or loving circle of friends -- then you need to draw your pride from somewhere. Hate groups let you set the pride bar so low that you can swell with pride over the fact that you woke up this morning with a certain color skin and heterosexual urges, as if both were the result of diligent effort on your part. Imagine eating a delicious cheeseburger and congratulating yourself for having accomplished your noble goal of not being vegan.
If you've come to the conclusion that the internet really didn't change anything because people are people and set in their beliefs, the facts say you're wrong. For instance, the internet era has been devastating for religion in the U.S.A., with the ranks of nonbelievers more than doubling just since 1990. In that same span, support for gay marriage went from 13 percent to 58 percent. Support for marijuana legalization, from 12 percent to 53 percent. I absolutely believe those abrupt changes happened because many Americans were coming in contact with their first atheists, uncloseted gay people, and admitted pot smokers and finding they weren't monsters. You can strap somebody to a chair and make them watch a thousand hours of PSAs about how this group or that is "just like us," but it won't have the same impact as a single positive encounter with one of them. Dogma dies in the face of such experiences.
It's easy to think of the internet as a cesspool of anonymous harassers but it is mostly a constellation of tight-knit communities that overlap with others, bringing them together in unexpected ways. You've heard a lot of talk about online "bubbles" of like-minded people getting more and more extreme in the absence of opposition, but the reason we became so much more open-minded on some issues in the first place is that online communities forced us to mingle across demographics. We may all have joined a forum based on our Babylon 5 fandom, but we quickly realized some of the cool people we were talking to were the type we'd never have run into in our real-life neighborhoods ("Wait, you're posting from Brazil? What time is it there?!?"). When I was a kid, you'd hear about a deadly earthquake in Taiwan and briefly raise an eyebrow over your coffee. "So sad." Today, you jump online and say, "Wait, did they say Jiji? That's where Ironheart69 is from! Has anybody heard from her?"
What I'm hoping is that what we're seeing now is the reaction to that, the loud rage of a racist realizing his sister is dating a damned Muslim, that his old college roommate turned out to be a trans woman, and that there are black people in horror movies who don't die. An ideology kicking and screaming as it is dragged out the door, the equivalent of segregationists blocking black children from their schools, knowing full well that theirs was a lost cause.
Over time, lots of those segregationists realized they were wrong, that their rage and the fear at its core were based on nothing. That will happen again. I think. I hope.
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