I wrote an essay about Trump, saying, essentially, that I hated his personality and philosophy but wasn’t terrified of his time in office, and didn’t think he’d turn out to be nearly as bad as Hitler. Since I wrote it for Hevria, a Jewish publication, it had a Jewish slant, focusing on anti-Semitism and related issues. The mere fact that freedom from utter terror and severe personal distress over Trump seemed a worthy essay topic suggests the emotional climate among many of my friends, contacts, and colleagues: I was comparing myself to reactions much more intense than mine.
I knew I’d likely have some push-back and that many would likely take issue with my approach, but I never would have predicted that I’d find myself in the midst of… I’m honestly not sure what to call it. I suppose “left-wing authoritarian community of angry women” captures it with some accuracy. It was chilling and intense. Careers were threatened. Valiant attempts at censorship raged. Expressions of individual desires were stomped on and ridiculed.
Even as I write, a few people in my circles are buzzing because Trump’s senior adviser and campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, apparently warned about “consequences” for people who criticize her boss. A horrifying possibility of squelched freedom of speech, no doubt, but this sort of thing is not limited to Trump supporters. I observed threats of professional repercussion for supporting my essay. For expressing that it might be OK not to become completely frantic about politics at this particular time.
Readers must be wondering where on this crazy earth I encountered these responses, but I’m afraid to say. It’s an online community with a guideline not to publicize its conversations beyond the group, and I’m not one to break rules with my published writing.
I’ll divulge this: it’s a large, diverse, intellectually-oriented group of women. I posted my essay there and said I was curious to hear what people thought. And I truly was. People question the conclusions and thoughts in my writing all the time, and, usually, I’m ready to learn. Needless to say, I prefer when people enjoy and appreciate the piece. But often, whether they like the work or not, readers have suggestions and ideas that get me rethinking, and that can be a mind-expanding adventure.
The women in this group didn’t like the piece for the most part, but they did get me thinking — mostly about issues like political correctness and bullying. Many shared their reasons for being very afraid of the upcoming administration, and that aspect could have been extremely edifying. Much of it was personal: the kind of vulnerability that usually grabs me and arouses my desire for connection. But there was a mood of ganging up. I was called selfish, immature, racist, stupid, and — most horrifying to me in the moment — repulsive. People wondered how I could possibly teach my university classes with any measure of compassion. Every calm response I tried to offer was deemed defensive and a glaring sign of privilege. They mocked me again and again for the croissants I mentioned in the essay: the two-dollar indulgence that allows me entire afternoons of pleasure in cafés.
These earnest ladies demanded a retraction, a sign that I was taking their stories to heart and becoming more worried about our country’s fate. I shared that their stories surely would have moved me if their tone and energy had been more conducive to learning. They demanded: how dare I, a privileged white person, police their tone? I said I wasn’t policing anyone — they of course had every right to express any idea they wanted to share, in any tone they chose. But, since they kept expressing a desire for me to change my opinions, I thought they might want to know that I don’t tend to commune with people’s thoughts when their tone seems abrasive and harsh, and when I sense an energy of ganging up.
Well, they said, this is a symptom of my white fragility. I had wounded them: my essay perpetrated violence against them because they were more vulnerable than I was to Trump’s policies and I didn’t show empathy for their struggles. When you upset people as forcefully as I did, you need to take note when you find out, in whatever tone the message might come. I was shocked and horrified that my seemingly innocuous essay had caused that level of pain. I told them I was sincerely sorry if I had hurt anyone, and they said they could tell I wasn’t actually sorry.
A few of my sister writers shared the notes they had written to my editor at Hevria, asking him to remove my essay from Hevria’s site. He told them the essay would stay, and they were deeply dismayed that my dangerous thoughts would continue to exist in the public domain.
I pointed out that my essay clearly came out against Donald Trump; it’s not like I voted for him or admired him. I said I could tell that a piece in favor of Trump would be roundly attacked for the sake of it, and probably not even allowed in the group, despite the fact that this group was not political at all, at least in theory. “Good,” one of the women replied, and most seemed to agree that any possible essay in favor of a man chosen by almost half of U.S. voters should be banned from an ostensibly non-political group.
In the midst of this hullabaloo, one of these impassioned citizens found my personal Facebook page and copied a comment I had made during a discussion with my friends into the new thread in this online group. I won’t include the quotation because it could lead some to find the online group I’m discussing, but it came from my usual stark honesty: I expressed that I wouldn’t endanger my safety or comfort if I didn’t have to, even if other groups were forced to. I clarified that I didn’t think I deserved any more rights than any other category of people, but I always considered my own safety first. Horrible, the women opined when the out-of-context quotation appeared in their thread. Now we really have a sense for Stephanie’s character: no wonder she wrote this essay.
A few women made sincere and heartfelt attempts to support the article and explain why they thought the majority opinion in the thread was misguided, but almost all of their comments, and the responses they inspired, got deleted. This removal makes perfect sense. During the discussion, one of the women who didn’t like the article tagged the people who were defending it, and threatened to harm their writing careers. She was going to contact relevant editors, agents, and others, so they’d know that these women had defended an essay describing a lack of extreme anxiety over Trump’s upcoming presidency.
Another of the defenders, whose thoughts I never even got to see because she posted and deleted them during a stretch of time when I wasn’t online, was harassed on her own Facebook page. I don’t want to share what happened because of privacy issues, but let’s just say deleting her comments and getting out of that discussion was the only viable option for her. I’ve spoken to her, and she’s a very reasonable person with extremely sane and insightful views. But she didn’t support the prevailing opinion among the women in the thread, so someone unleashed her disgust in a very public way.
These women who kept pleading for me to fear Trump with the appropriate force — who accused me again and again of lacking empathy because any truly empathetic soul would be distraught about her fellow human beings who were likely to suffer under the new administration — were cruel, abusive, and callous towards fellow group members, just because their views on some issues diverged from what seemed proper. They kept extolling the virtue of compassion towards and desire to help all your fellow humans, but clearly those who are not frantic about Trump are exempt from this consideration.
I’ve now had several days to calm down from this experience, but I’ve retained my visceral distaste. These women sought to strong-arm me and others into agreeing with them, and, when those tactics failed, they shifted to attempted censorship of ideas they didn’t like. They tried to fight perceived fascism with left-wing authoritarianism, complete with abuse and harassment of dissenters, and loss of freedom of expression. Granted, an authoritarian online group is not remotely as scary as a fascist nation, but the drive towards control, conformity, and cruelty feels all too similar.
This was far from the first time I’d sensed this tendency towards silencing those whose views verge from some generally acknowledged ethical understanding: a kind of PC tyranny. My years studying and teaching in universities have brought home a need for constant care along these lines, to ensure that I don’t run into trouble with students or colleagues.
The experience spurred by my Trump article was by far my most alarming encounter with this sort of thing. It’s a real shame, because some of the women had valid points which I would have considered deeply if I hadn’t felt abused, bullied, and silenced. There certainly are people who may feel more at risk from Trump and his colleagues than I do, and I am very open to hearing their perspectives. Someone from the online group contacted me privately to share her fears about healthcare, race relations, LGBT rights, and other issues, and I read and pondered her concerns with concentration and care, with an eye towards re-evaluating some of my thoughts.
To a point, I understand the frenzied reaction some had to my essay. Many are terrified of very particular possibilities that feel likely to them. They’re immersed in their fears, and it pained them to hear from someone who talked about joyfully snuggling into bed and savoring croissants despite Trump’s victory. I didn’t mean it that way; I hoped to calm people, not provoke them. But I did try as hard as I could to learn from some of the comments despite the overall energy of the thread, and I see how some became enraged and agitated.
Still, I know that some with similar struggles voted for Trump, like my good friend’s hardworking handyman, who passionately hopes this administration will implement some policies that assuage his grinding economic stress (he holds a full-time job in addition to the odd jobs he does for people like my friend, but can never manage to save any money). I’ll make the apparently radical claim that this guy should be able to express his opinions in writing, though I doubt he’d want to. I don’t think he should be censored or bullied for his beliefs, though I do disagree with them.
Treat me like a human being with basic dignity, and I will approach you with warmth, respect, and a desire to grow. Gang up on me and abuse me and those who try to defend me, and I’ll lose all interest in dialogue with you, or in learning from your life and thoughts. If this comes from a place of privilege, then I will say, with absolute conviction, that we should imbue each other — every single one of us — with that privilege, because we all deserve it as a basic right of human interaction.
It’s a universal right we should be emphasizing now more than ever. Passions are intense. Opinions rage. Disagreements fester. If we bully or abuse people because they think a bit differently from us or espouse a somewhat different value system, before long, fury will reign in many places where kindness could have won. We’ll never have sameness of opinion, no matter how sure you are that your perspective represents the highest good. Despite the tensions, can we build a form of peace? Please, everyone, let’s try.
Stephanie Wellen Levine is the author of Mystics, Mavericks, And Merrymakers: An Intimate Journey Among Hasidic Girls: winner of Moment Magazine’s 2004 Emerging Writer Book Award. Currently, Stephanie is on a spiritual quest as she completes a second book and teaches at Tufts University.