During this highly charged political climate of division and, yes, hate, more and more, people are nervous about expressing an opinion or engaging in any kind of discourse that could be politically linked. We hear a lot of discussion about recipes and things we loved as children, fairly safe topics, while the world feels as if it is imploding.
One of the many great aspects of membership in Indivisible is that people I meet and talk with tend to be braver and more resolute in expressing their thoughts on an injustice or a societal, ethical wrong. However, when you step into the wider culture, good people are too often silenced by the trolls and hate-mongers. No one wants to be labeled and treated as “the enemy.” Yet, that is exactly what the false “populism” propelled by the Trump campaign and presidency has fostered—a culture of hate in which any opinion deviating from the group becomes ostracized, demeaned, and showered with hateful language (or actions).
While Trump’s campaign certainly dug at this wound in our national conversation, people from all sides seem willing to engage in it. Perhaps no platform more succinctly expresses this hate divide than the Facebook “block” or button used to either “defriend” a social media voice or stop anyone with a differing opinion from entering the “dialogue” online. Before blocking, however, individuals are frequently verbally assaulted by angry posts that may or may not be coming from a real person—Russian trolls and bots have achieved a high level of success at infiltrating and altering our conversations and our elections.
Sometimes, all of that nastiness is coming from a real person, however, and nobody wants to read hate directed at him or her. Rather than do daily battle on social media, many people have simply backed away from social engagement involving any kind of political issue. Of course, politics is behind almost every facet of our lives, so disengaging, while protective, is also harmful to national life.
Everyone understands both the benefits and the dangers of social media, but we take these same issues and feelings into our personal lives. I recall serving as a county legislator a number of years ago. I went into the work thinking I could help serve the public good, but I left formal politics feeling that the task felt hopeless. I recall one very popular legislator whom everyone on both sides of the political aisle (at the time) seemed to like. He simply didn’t have enemies. I thought a lot about this man, partially because I had managed to draw enemies like a magnet for voicing concerns and opinions on legislation. That particular legislator, however, never voiced his opinion on any controversial issue. In fact, when I looked at the voting records, he was seldom present for any vote that had a hint of controversy behind it. He remained a legislator for many years. It is easy to be everyone’s “friend” when very few know where you stand on anything.
During my tenure in the legislature, I was threatened subtly many times, poked in the chest by a screaming man, and overtly, when a “constituent” called to tell me that I might be walking down Main Street in Homer one day and happen to have a cement block fall on my head at just the right moment. I’d never see it coming, he said, because I wouldn’t be expecting it, and it would crush my head. He hung up. Later, I realized I probably should have recorded the conversation and called the police, but by then, I was used to hateful rhetoric directed against me because I dared to question the zoning and placement of a feed mill in a largely residential neighborhood. Although I had been asked by my neighbors to defend their rights, there were powerful forces in opposition, even in the lowly political arena of Homer, New York. The experience taught me a great deal about politics and about the people around me.
Here I am putting my neck out there again for what I believe. It is not as if I didn’t learn about hate from people the first time around, but there are issues around which I believe you have to make a stand. Yet, I am so pleased to be in the very good company of Indivisible of Cortland County, among others, who are willing to challenge and debate policy and public issues, willing to incur wrath for the sake of democracy, principles, and ideals.
Nancy Avery Dafoe