One year ago, I wrote an article about a political commentator who had recently gone viral for saying something stupid. In this, I achieved something many bloggers dream of: getting featured on The Huffington Post. But the truth is that if I could go back in time, I would not have written that article. Just today, I asked HuffPost if they would kindly delete it.
My heart was in the right place when I wrote the piece: I was empathetic in my critique; I tried to relate to the commentator on a human level; I critiqued their ideas, not them…but overall, it was the wrong decision. While that person’s 15 minutes inevitably came and went, the article I wrote about them still appears when I search for my name. That person never believed the embarrassing things they said, and now my name will forever be associated with them.
I want to make a real difference with my activism. That person just wanted attention.
There is a vocal minority of people who I have come across who get very offended if I, or any activist, mentions the gross injustice of the world and the way it manifests: rape, animal abuse, police brutality, etc. But they are not upset that these things happen. They are angry at the activists who point them out. They have never experienced these things, and therefore they do not matter. They wonder, why are you stirring up trouble when MY life was fine before YOU came along and tried to burst my bubble? Regardless of the type of activism you do (anti-racism, women’s rights, animal rights, environmentalism, poverty reduction…) you will come across these types, and I’ve learned that you must ignore them.
These people tell you you’re being “ungrateful,” and this is basically low-key bigot language that they are either using to signal other bigots, or that they’re ignorant of but learned from a bigot. In either case, they are invariably self-centered people. They want your activism to be about THEM. They haven’t seen what you’ve seen, and rather than try to learn about your experience or why you’re doing what you’re doing, they just want you to stop, because you’re making them uncomfortable.
Ironically, social justice activism does help them in the long run because it creates a better world for everyone, but they do not understand this. They see the world as a black/white, zero sum game. There is no nuance to their childlike views. They think another’s win can only come at their loss, which is a very strange (and frankly toxic) mentality.
But unfortunately, in today’s world, many of these defeatist, negative personalities even get prominent jobs as talking heads. You might think that this makes their views worthy of discussion, but it does not. They may gain a big following, but what type of following is it, and what is it really worth? I can guarantee you that our history books will not remember these folks, at least not kindly. If you give them attention, you’ll be forgotten, too.
And if you see yourself in the kind of person I’ve just described, please don’t be offended — change.
To put this in perspective, look at how much public opinion on gay marriage has changed in just the last 10 years. Or think about MLK. He was one of the most hated men in America during the 60s. Nowadays, even those who are the farthest to the right of the political spectrum do not speak ill of him. I imagine that 50 years from now, our grandchildren will have a similar stance on Colin Kaepernick, who got an entire nation talking about police brutality (and a few talking heads desperately screeching about anything but the topic at hand).
When I wrote my article for HuffPost, I was younger and more immature in my activism. I was less sure in my step, and I was easier to derail. I gave people the benefit of the doubt who did not deserve it, and I ignored people and causes which were much more worthy of attention.
Part of my wake up call came from following other activists who are much more productive than I am, regardless of what their activism is about. While I focus on animal rights, I was quite taken by Shaun King, who works night and day to raise awareness about police brutality and systemic racism. This isn’t my prime focus, but police brutality something I care deeply about as someone who values freedom and is very wary of over-reaching control of citizens on the part of the state.
Over time, I noticed Shaun King’s determination bring about results. A fearless whistleblower, he called out corrupt officers — BY NAME — until police departments relented to social pressure and responded. (The response was often suspension with pay, but I was still in awe.) He phoned police officials in notoriously anti-civil rights districts 24/7 until they finally arrested men who almost killed a young black man during a neo-Nazi rally. The police never even identified these men; Shaun and his network did. He was policing the police. He was pulling off things I thought were unimaginable.
Honestly, he was doing things that could get you killed, had you done the equivalent version with an animal rights slant. There are powerful people in the multi-billion dollar meat industry that have the means to “silence” opposition, and I’m sure it’s the same with any type of activism. Of course, some methods of activism are more dangerous than others, and whistleblowing is certainly the top of the list.
Shaun King never seem to care.
One day, just before the US election, a man decided to go on a very public, very racist tirade. He shouted racial obscenities, yelling “GO TRUMP! TRUMP! TRUMP! BLACK LIVES DON’T MATTER!” and when he found out he was being filmed, he said “GOOD! Film me! I’m proud to say this and I want everyone on the internet to see it!” It was absolutely horrific to watch.
Shaun King granted his wish.
“Friends — can anyone help me identify this man?” he posted on Twitter.
Within minutes, Shaun King received hundreds of replies…from trolls: “How can you dox him? Isn’t this illegal?”; “Are you against free speech?”; “By opposing racism, you’re just as bad as the racist!”; “The police are finally going to get you, Shaun!”; “Why do you care so much about racism when there are bigger problems, such as world hunger?” and on and on and on…
I had comebacks to each of them: such as, is it still doxxing if he asked to be exposed? And is it wrong to expose him if he could physically hurt someone in the future, if he doesn’t face social repercussions this time? Free speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequences for what you say in a public setting. And I don’t like world hunger either, but can’t you care about more than one issue at the same time? What are you doing to stop world hunger anyway, aside from feebly bringing it up any time anyone tries to solve any other problem?
I shook my head, ignored the noise, and I got to work on Google. I was a passive admirer of Shaun’s work for a while, but there comes a certain time when you have to take sides. Those who wrote derailing messages to Shaun had chosen the side of that monster. I chose to stand with Shaun.
I found a preacher on Facebook who had posted asking his friends in law enforcement to run the racist’s plates, and I found others who were sharing copies of his vehicle registration on message boards.
I wrote a quick tweet to Shaun: “His name is Robert Neil Thompson.”
Exactly two minutes later, Shaun ignored hundreds of trolls and wrote back to me alone: “Can you prove that?”
I did so, and Shaun King posted his name publicly. Now, the trolls were on to me, flooding my mentions with all the same inanities they pulled on Shaun. I deleted my post, but sent Shaun an email with all the information he could have ever wanted.
So yes, the trolls got me to falter, more than once. But it won’t happen again.
And guess what? About an hour later, a Fox News reporter was on the case — on Shaun King’s side.
I was dumbfounded.
Some time after that, the same person tweeted a picture of himself in front of Thompson’s house.
“Hey Mr. Thompson, you had a lot to say the other night. Why won’t you come out and speak to this friendly reporter?”
…And now the trolls were on him: “How could you post this? What if someone finds his house and hurts him?”
I was amazed at everyone’s concern for this racist. Had anyone harmed George Zimmerman, who had done much worse than Thompson? Why were they so paranoid on behalf of Thompson, but without regard for the man he had yelled at and intimidated?
The reporter quipped back coolly, “No street address, no problem,” and ignored the rest of the noise.
I was impressed. But I also knew I had work to do. I mean, no offense to Fox, but if a Fox reporter can take heat in the name of social justice better than you can, you know you need to toughen up. Ignoring trolls is Social Justice 101, and something I should have done long ago. From then on, I promised I would be more like Shaun King, a man who has blasted past rumours about him “secretly being white” (who cares if he was?!) and other lame conspiracies. I promised I would get better at ignoring the noise of the trolls in the background, whose efforts will be forgotten while Shaun’s endure.
In fact, I now volunteer for Shaun King. I refuse to become jaded as I age, and if anything, I would rather increase the number of causes that I care about, rather than stop caring altogether.
That means scrolling past trolls. It means not writing articles about attention seekers. It means not paying any mind to things that don’t better the world, and not caring if things you uncover in your quest make people, even those you thought were friends, angry at you.
You see, while your goal is your cause, the only goal of the professional troll is to derail you from your activism by making you second guess yourself or keeping you caught up in a meaningless conversation about semantics and wasting your time. They are sea-lioning. They don’t genuinely want dialog. The kindest emotion you should allow yourself to feel for them is pity, before you continue on your merry way.
Don’t stop fighting for what you believe in. Whether it’s standing up to police brutality, caring for animals, or raising awareness about cancer — whatever it is, stay focused. There will always be naysayers, but you must ignore these people. They are not worth the time of day.