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Cyberbullies, Drones, and the Golden Rule

Being a victim of cyber-bullying is far less painful than being a victim of racism.

Nevertheless, my recent online experience defending Calvin Trillin, a regular contributor to the New Yorker since his 1963 essay about the desegregation of the University of Georgia, catapulted me into a strangely hostile learning experience.

I had noticed an online group of poets castigating Trillin about his poem “Have They Run out of Provinces Yet?” Surprised to see him being called a racist, I said of course he’s not! As a fellow writer from Kansas City, I had long admired Trillin’s books and essays about culture and cuisine. I mentioned his earlier writings on race issues, his long history as a food writer. But the angry commenters were not to be dissuaded from their take-down of Trillin.

So I went to read the poem to see why they were so hostile. In my reading of lines like “Long ago, there was just Cantonese./(Long ago, we were easy to please.)/But then food from Szechuan came our way,/Making Cantonese strictly passé,” Trillin was poking fun at foodies who struggle to stay au courant. He had written about various types of Chinese food for decades and had done much to introduce this Midwesterner and many others to regional foods.

But the poets on this thread didn’t seem to know or care about that. Even if they were familiar with his work, as a few were, they still judged the poem harshly. Naively, I continued to defend Trillin, admitting the poem was far from great writing, that Trillin was known more for nonfiction and a particular type of doggerel poetry. As I looked at the commenters’ photos, I realized I was probably the oldest person commenting. This was confirmed when one young poet wrote, “I hope when I’m old and out of it, I have someone around to tell me what the fuck is going on.”

My response was “Whoa. Are you talking to me?”

The rudeness escalated from there.

In quick order, I was called a racist troll and told to apologize. My offense was defending an 80-year-old white poet who, according to many, was racially tone-deaf and far from worthy of space in the New Yorker’s highly valued pages. I figured the magazine had published the poem out of loyalty to the man. As I scrolled through the continuing angry conversation, I found unfamiliar rhetoric. One woman said “I no longer make whiteness the center of my praxis.” Many talked about “derailing the conversation.” A few commenters chastising me were thoughtful, explaining the problem in a less harsh tone and sending me helpful links to read. One sarcastic little gem, Derailing for Dummies: A Guide to Derailing Conversations is “a step by step guide to derailing an awkward conversation by dismissing or trivializing your opponent's perspective and experience.”

And I admit that some of the lessons thrown at me were helpful. I experienced in a new, visceral way how my inability to see why an Asian-American might be hurt by Trillin’s poem stemmed from my automatic assumption of white privilege. I said as much in the online conversation and one poet applauded the soul-searching that had demanded.

But when I naively tried to continue to justify myself by explaining that I publish a multi-faith literary journal to promote tolerance – to prove I was NOT the enemy they thought I was – I was attacked again for “derailing the conversation.” I left the group. One person followed me to my personal Facebook page and noted how there were no POC (people of color) in my friends’ list. Actually, there was one that she missed but it was of a Ghanan family a (white, Jewish) friend of mine had adopted as her own.

Weeks later, I asked to rejoin the group since I had used it to promote my own publications and my magazine’s calls for submissions. I was told to wait, to “let things cool down.” I haven’t approached them again.

Before I start sounding self-righteous, let me say that the experience was very complicated. I felt frightened, vulnerable, ashamed. The shame came from my realization that I have, all my life, lived a life of privilege. I have never once experienced what countless others experience every day in this country. While my father is Jewish and was once not allowed to build a home in a Midwestern suburb years ago, I have not experienced much in the way of prejudice, and certainly not of bias-based violence.

So in some ways my calling out led to a good look at how much I take for granted. Even though I’ve always considered myself liberal and progressive, I saw how much the color of my skin allowed me to take those stands easily.

But here’s the problem: the cyber bullies called me a racist because my reaction to the Trillin poem was different than their own. The problem with this approach is that it is a mirror image of the prejudicial bullying they want to stop. The message is the same: If you’re not on my side, you’re the enemy.

Shortly after my experience, a well-known poet posted a Chinese menu on his Facebook page. It had typos that led to mistakes like “Roast Pork Puns.” He was also virulently attacked. When he apologized, the attackers made him rewrite his apology.

One young woman commented that she could hardly wait for the old (white) vanguard in publishing and academia to be replaced. It inevitably will be. The old will die, the young come to power, then they too will be overthrown. If our planet lasts that long. Every generation consists of founding fathers and mothers trying to break away from King George.

Shortly after my online scuffle, I read an article profiling six people whose lives and families have been destroyed by American military drones. That evening, as I sat on my deck in the woods, a plane flew overhead. I looked up and tried to imagine what it would feel like to live in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, or Somalia and know that a noise overhead could mean death.

This is a far, far higher level of anxiety than that provoked in me by cyberbullying. But we all need to think more about how we attack “the other.” And who exactly we’re attacking.

An article last year in Huffington Post stated that nearly 90 percent of people killed in recent drone strikes by the United States were not the target. I’m not sure that attacking Trillin’s doggerel poetry—or me as a 65-year-old, white fan of his—is the smartest way to bring about change.

One phrase repeated in the online attacks was “Impact is more important than intent.” Those who are trying to educate whites about privilege should take that statement to heart as well. The poets’ intent was to open my mind to see how much I depend on my white privilege. It worked. But the impact of their hurtful words made me defensive and angry and, at least for the moment, less likely to hear what they were trying to say.

One of the problems these days is that we seem to have given humanity license to thwart the Golden Rule, a basic tenet of all major religions. Without being face-to-face, it’s easy to drop word bombs. Or real bombs. My own belief is that the only way humanity will survive is if we each individually do the hard work of seeing the other as ourselves.

--Donna Baier Stein


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