Like many a budding activist in this day and age, the first steps on my journey to greater involvement in the struggle have been Arguing With Trolls On The Internet. This really started in earnest when Mike Brown was shot in Ferguson–a moment that has proved to be the catalyst to a whole movement, largely made up of people who weren’t activists before, like myself. I began, like never before, to connect the dots, and I started out by sharing articles, often accompanied by my own thoughts, on Facebook about the systemic and structural racism that leads to incidents like Brown’s death, and the police response to the Ferguson protesters. Immediately after one of these posts, I received this private message in my inbox, from someone I’ve never seen before, and with whom I had exactly one friend in common:
First, I love that this was sent as a private message, rather than posted as a comment on the status it obviously refers to (and quotes even! Yeah, I get a little haughty with my rhetoric sometimes, what of it?). As if Mike here is trying to pull me aside, and with an avuncular hand on my shoulder, correct me about some FACTS. Of course you don’t want to post this kind of ignorant bullshit in public view. Second, nice guitar strap, duder. Third–we see here what I would soon come to recognize as a theme in the mind of the reactionary asshat when encountering a Fellow Man arguing for the obviously misguided side of Social Justice: “he must be doing this to get laid.”
A few weeks later, after a particularly heated keyboard war with some dude trying to tell several female friends of mine that we have ~no proof~ that Bill Cosby is a rapist, and specifically because he hasn’t been charged with it in court (by which logic we should really stop saying that Hitler was responsible for the Holocaust, or Bin Laden for 9/11), therefore we should all Shut The Fuck Up about how Bill Cosby is a goddamn rapist. Which he totally is. This dude though was not content to let anyone else have the last word, and kept circling back on the same logical fallacies etc etc. So I walked away from it, but I still needed to vent this last little bit, so I typed up this short paragraph, and tossed it up on Tumblr:
This was in response to one specific person, but this dude also represents a certain archetype–one that has been most visible on the internet lately in the form of GamerGate. So, on a whim I tagged this post #GamerGate, and lo and behold! There are better ways to get girls to fuck you. Ain’t that the truth? It’s almost as if–and stay with me here because I am about to blow your MIND–my motivation for writing these things is something other than trying to get my dick wet. If you are only capable of viewing other human beings in terms of what use they can be to you, then I suppose it must be pretty impossible to admit that other people might actually care about each other on a deep, empathic level, without irreparably damaging your worldview.
Oh, but this is just the beginning. This particular post really took off among the ironic reblogging set, and provided a whole Rogue’s Gallery of self-congratulatory zingers from stalwart guardians of the dominant culture.
This is a fun twist on my favorite insult from one Internet Bickerer to another: “get a life!” You, uh, apparently weren’t too busy working and living in the real world to reblog my Tumblr post, there, chief, but I guess it would’ve somehow taken you longer to “handle my fuckery?” Break’s over at Burger King! Gotta get back to scrubbing floors for $7.25/hr so you can save up the $60 for Far Cry 4–don’t let me oppress you with my hurtful words!
Now, see, this one I had to look up. I ~am~ a Marxist, and I do spend much of my time on cultural critique, but I could tell my new friend here had a more specific connotation in mind to this particular epithet, which I had never heard before. Thanks for motivating me to learn something, reactionary assholes!
So it turns out that Cultural Marxism doesn’t just refer to Marxist ideas applied to a cultural critique, but a whole elaborate, anti-semitic conspiracy theory centered on the Frankfurt School and their nefarious Jewish plot to undermine everything that decent, god-fearing, white heterosexual American cisgendered males believe in, and basically making life shitty for everybody (“everybody” as defined by white hetero cis male Christians anyway) in a cartoonishly evil sort of way. How fun! The biggest barrier to the effectiveness of this as a pejorative term, at least as applied to me, is that I am in no way secretive about my intent to undermine most of the things that decent, god-fearing, white, heterosexual American cisgendered males believe in. I am an open opponent of sexism, racism, classism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia and any other form of oppression (including working at Burger King–a rising tide lifts all boats, broseph, even reactionary asshats’ tiny dinghies). If you are defending a culture built upon these oppressions then, yes, I am trying to destroy your culture. I’m not trying to be sneaky about it!
When someone tells you that you have privilege, it stirs up a whole mess of emotional silt that had settled down at the bottom of the murky duck pond of your heart. Most people get defensive. “How can I have White Privilege,” they ask, “if I grew up so poor? (short answer, you have white privilege, but maybe not much class privilege) I haven’t had ANY privileges! My life has been hard!” And hey, I’m not here to tell anyone their life hasn’t been hard. That’s not what privilege means. The second component of the defensiveness is “well, ~I~ never owned any slaves/raped anybody/beat up any gay people, don’t blame ME.” But it isn’t about blame, either.
It’s not your fault, and nobody is saying you haven’t personally struggled. It just means that, due to factors beyond your control, you were born with certain features that make life easier (but not necessarily easy) for you within our current society than for people without those features. If you’re anything like me, and you can get over these hurdles, the next stage is the guilt. For a long time, I felt really terrible that, as a young, white, able-bodied, ostensibly heterosexual (I consider myself bi, but I am married to a cis-woman, so society really doesn’t care) cisgendered American male, I had some things easier than others. Despite the fact that I did grow up poor, I can still walk down the street knowing that I am 21 times less likely to be shot by police than I would be if I were still me, but my skin were just a few shades darker. I don’t deserve that. Nobody deserves that. But me sitting around feeling guilty doesn’t help anyone. Me saying something just might.
So, despite all the flaming bags of internet-poo likely to get left on my e-porch, I don’t think the lesson here is “don’t feed the trolls.” A friend of mine–himself a leftie (of the—ugh!–liberal persuasion) but one I’ve entered into a couple of heated keyboard battles with now–recently pointed out that we may not change the minds of the people we’re debating with on Facebook posts and in comment sections, but these are public debates, and there are plenty more reading than there are joining in. Some of those observers may not have taken a particular stance on an issue, or may feel ambivalent, but seeing the issue fleshed out by people who disagree about it can really help those viewers, I think. Getting into it with your racist uncle on your timeline probably won’t ever make your uncle less racist, but it may make your cousin, who hasn’t liked or commented or anything, think “damn, is that what I sound like when I agree with my dad? Do I actually harbor racist feelings without realizing it?” Because it’s not the blatant racists that keep racism alive, it’s the rest of us who don’t realize the ways our actions have racist effects in the world, who don’t realize the ways we benefit from other people’s oppression, even though we never asked to. So yes, if you need me, I’ll be out there in internet justice land, bickering with friends, casual acquaintances, and strangers for the greater good.
And when the going gets tough, I just need to remember the words of my personal spirit animal, Agent Albert Rosenfield:
Timothy Volpert is a poet, musician, armchair sociologist and activist from Topeka, KS, where he works for the public library. His writings have appeared in Mobius: The Journal of Social Change, Electric Cereal, and HTMLGIANT among others. You can find him on Tumblr and Twitter, like any good internet boy. In the interest of full disclosure, ranting about social justice on the internet has gotten him laid exactly 0 times.