Wow! It’s been a hell of a week, and if you’re like me, you’re feeling pretty damn raw and emotional.
There are many people who are scared, angry, grieving, etc. over the events that happened in Charlottesville.
Many are calling for measures to suppress free speech, seeing it as inextricably linked with the violence of the previous weekend. There are others arguing that we should go around and punch Nazis, harass them, send them threats, and “make them afraid” to show their faces in public.
I get it. I do.
But I can’t help but cringe at how these responses merely contribute to the problem. We’re dealing with extremism, and we have to be smart about how we deal with extremism. I believe, from what I’ve seen, that it’s safe to say that these white supremacist movements qualify as cults and that they have a very deliberate recruitment program.
And you getting pissed off enough to punch someone in the face for their ideology is part of that plan!
You getting pissed off enough to dox someone online or harass someone or prevent them from speaking at a college event is part of that plan.
Because they really want to convince angry, scared, and vulnerable people that they are being persecuted…and the more that you can give evidence of that, the better for their recruitment agenda.
But I also get that some of this extreme response to extremism stems from a very legitimate place of fear.
Judith Herman in Trauma and Recovery writes about how revenge fantasies are not uncommon in response to trauma because they offer the illusion of rebalancing the trauma. People desire resolution, and sometimes the idea of becoming the big bad aggressor who makes the oppressor afraid the way they have been afraid seems like the only or the best way to go about resolving the trauma and regaining a sense of safety.
It doesn’t work though.
Perpetuating violence against others can actually compound trauma. That’s part of the reason why soldiers can get PTSD—it’s not just the threat to their own lives; it’s the memories of what they’ve done to others that can haunt them, even if that “other” was an “enemy.” (Edit to add: based on feedback from others, I’d like to clarify that I’m not condemning self-defense or protecting others and that those can be healthy responses to physical threat–they can also result in trauma, but not necessarily).
But we’re feeling helpless, and we need somewhere to turn, something to do.
So here’s a list of five ways that you can resist extremism and white supremacy that I think have a better chance of being effective than lashing out.
- Self-care. No seriously! Self-care is super important right now. Burnout and secondary traumatic stress (basically becoming traumatized from witnessing or hearing about trauma) are major risks, especially when there is very graphic footage that is being virally shared from last weekend.The symptoms of burnout and secondary trauma can compound the unhelpful aspects of this situation and interfere with your ability to think about and do things to help you and your communities heal.
So, make sure you take breaks, get rest, meet your physical and emotional needs, do things that are pleasant, comforting, and hopeful.
And if you notice yourself having nightmares, being hypervigilant, having intrusive thoughts or memories (or flashbacks), experiencing extreme mood swings, or other symptoms of trauma, consider seeing a professional and getting some extra support.
You can read more about self-care after tragedies at this post. There are also some great resources on the Orlando Grief Care Project website for dealing with grief and stress that I would recommend you check out.
- Donate to Life After Hate, the Southern Poverty Law Center, or some other group that is working to counter the violence, racism, and extremism of our current times. I mention these groups specifically because they specifically focus on resistance without oppression.Life After Hate reaches out to people who have become embroiled in the cult of the alt-right. They are working specifically to help people leave these ideologies…which is way more effective than trying to silence the ideologies.
It might seem like a slower approach, but every person that chooses to walk away from that movement is one less person at those rallies and one more person with connections to others and the ability to influence others who might be going to those rallies.
The SPLC has released a handbook outlining how people can effectively counter white supremacists coming to campus without damaging the right to speech. I get that free speech doesn’t seem as valuable to many right now in the face of neo-Nazis, but if we are really up against a group that wants to implement fascism and we already have someone sympathetic to their cause in office, we definitely don’t need to help break down the protections of citizens. Once we start dismantling free speech for others, it’s only a matter of time before that gets used against us (see my post about Pussy Riot for a deeper discussion here).
- Learn some ways that you yourself can engage with cults and totalistic forces that are likely to be more productive than force.It’s important to understand why people get involved in cultic groups. They often don’t start out as radical as they seem after they join. Many join because they’re scared and angry and confused. Transitional/stressful times make people more vulnerable to cultic influence because cults promise to solve people’s problems and provide a simple worldview that clarifies all of the complexity that makes life scary.
Cults offer certainty in a world of seeming chaos, and they subtly manipulate people’s emotions and beliefs in ways that most don’t recognize at first, sometimes leading to actions that baffle the rest of the world with their violence—the Manson murders and Jonestown being very prominent examples.
But the good news is that there are ways of reaching people even while they are in a cult. Megan Phelps-Roper has a lovely Ted Talk about how she was able to break out of Westboro Baptist Church due to the compassionate but worldview-challenging dialogue that others offered her, and she offers some great tips on how individuals can engage with others in some of those difficult conversations. Her Ted Talk often reminds me that dialogue is the first line of defense against extremism.
I also recommend reading the following for a better understanding of what we may be facing right now. These inform much of my own approach. Having the knowledge of how extremism and totalism work can go a long way in knowing how to reach out to those influenced by it.
Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism by Robert Lifton
On Tyrrany: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder
Combatting Cult Mind Control by Steve Hassan
Cults in our Midst by Margaret Thaler Singer
The Lucifer Effect by Phillip Zimbardo
- Do healing activities with your own communities and connections.It is healing to get together to sing and dance. It is healing to spend time with loved ones. It is healing to engage in comforting touch like hugs and hand-holding. While organizing or participating in events that involve art or music or dance or other touchy-feely activities may seem so far removed from the issues at hand, it can be just as important as self-care.
Healing trauma for an individual often involves a dance between dealing with the painful issues and doing comforting or pleasurable things. And healing as a society from collective trauma, societal trauma, and historic trauma needs the same thing. Peter Levine calls it the healing vortex and describes how it can counter the vortex of trauma that tries to pull you into a repetitive, unhealthy cycle of avoidance, re-enactment, and re-traumatization.
If you’re involved in activism, give attention to community healing. It doesn’t have to wait until racism seems to be conquered—it can’t wait until then!
At a social justice conference I attended this year, I was struck by an observation made from someone who was an activist originally from a different culture. They said that Americans are too serious about our activism. We don’t learn how to laugh and have fun even while we are fighting oppression. This person had come from a war-torn region and talked about how dancing and laughing were essential in keeping the work going, essential to not being overwhelmed with despair.
That message stuck with me, especially because my training in helping people with trauma as individuals also highlights that need for pleasure, comfort, and joy. In fact, it’s the foundation. Every trauma model I have studied begins with a foundation of creating a sense of internal safety and strengths through connecting to happy memories or doing positive activities.
Activism that is, at heart, dealing with collective trauma from injustice needs to be grounded in a trauma model, which means we need to have opportunities for our communities, divided though they may be, to come together in these ways.
- Explore your own relationship to and feelings about racial issues. I’m assuming that most of the people reading this would identify as people sensitive to social justice issues, but I also think that everyone’s journey is different. SO…It’s okay to need space to explore these issues even if you feel you strongly disagree with “SJWs” or if you have negative feelings towards the left. You don’t have to be wholly aligned with the most liberal stance in order to explore these issues.
It’s okay to have questions or make mistakes in your attempt to talk about these issues. Be willing to make mistakes because that’s part of growth, but also be willing to own up to and apologize if you make a mistake because that’s also part of growth.
It’s okay to want to feel safe and respected while you struggle with examining your worldview, and I understand that those qualities tend to be lacking in many spaces. Call-out culture has become pretty scary and toxic, but that’s not how everyone operates. There are many lovely activists, advocates, and social justice ambassadors (my new term for differentiating from the more antagonistic ilk) who don’t resort to shame and aggression to control.
Of course, also be willing to feel uncomfortable. Discomfort is not the same as lacking safety…and it’s good to know how to differentiate between those. Talking about racial issues is uncomfortable. Challenging your worldview is uncomfortable. You shouldn’t expect yourself to tolerate feeling completely unsafe, but if you aren’t at least tolerating a little discomfort, you are probably not anywhere close to the growth edge.
If you have a supportive group where you can feel safe to explore but still be challenged around racial issues, great! In person connections with people you know are always better for these tough conversations.
You might be able to create a community yourself if you don’t know of one—but make sure it includes people who are respectful and compassionate as well as willing to challenge your thinking and allow you to challenge theirs. I’m currently in love with the deliberate dialogue movements that have sprung up and the idea that it is in the spot with the most tension that the solution ultimately lives.
Just…don’t create yet another echo chamber. Make sure you’re not just talking to people who agree with you and validate your feelings (and for those who identify as more liberal, this might mean challenging yourself to talk with and explore a more conservative viewpoint. You help no one by insulating entirely.)
Therapists are also a great place to go if you need a space that is confidential and non-judgmental but hella challenging. Therapists can help you explore your own assumptions and beliefs in a warm, compassionate way, supporting you towards the changes you want to make in your thinking. Generally, they also don’t let you off the hook of doing hard work (or they shouldn’t).
There are also online groups, though I hesitate to recommend them because the Internet tends to be one of the more vitriolic spaces one can go right now. However, Authentic Allyship is an online group that seeks to provide a space specifically for white people to explore the emotions that come up around being white, including anger and the trauma of being part of oppression.
It’s designed to be a safe space for “white emotions,” and from what I can tell, the person who runs it (who is, incidentally, a therapist) seems genuinely compassionate and highly principled about the work they’re trying to do. What I’ve read aligns a lot with the mindfulness-based, compassion-based, and non-violent activism towards which I tend to gravitate.
Bonus (because there’s never just five): Get to know the local groups already active in your area. This is something I am challenging myself on more as well. Online activity has always been where I most engage with difficult conversations because it brings me in contact with so many people all over the place. It’s also where I found my greatest supports in exploring my sexual orientation and exiting and recovering from cult life. But online has become more and more toxic lately, and I’ve started wondering if social media is exacerbating the problems we face. I want to give a social media detox a go, get to know more ways to be active “in real life” (which isn’t to say online isn’t important or real, just virtual), and test out other ways of staying informed that don’t involve being bombarded with catastrophic images and articles ALL THE TIME! So, I encourage you to do the same. As always, if you get involved in any group (online or otherwise) that starts to exhibit red flags for cultic or totalistic practices, it’s probably healthiest if you leave, even if you really like the cause they espouse.