The Toxicity of Revenge Culture

Every time something tragic happens – particularly when it’s heightened by racial tension, like the murder of George Floyd – it seems the worst of humanity comes out of the woodwork. Alongside news of protests, police brutality and burning buildings are countless streams of people – usually white – caught on camera being aggressively racist, inciting or causing violence, and all-round being essentially despicable pieces of human garbage.

It isn’t clear whether this seems to happen more during times of public outrage because racists are fighting what they see as a threat to their way of life, or if it’s just that the rest of us pay more attention at these times, but from calling cops on non-threatening black men to assualting young girls trying to stand up for Black Lives Matter, there has been no end to the instances of hate directed at the people who are trying desperately to fight for their freedom and equality.

The good news, of course, is that in today’s society of smart phones and everywhere-cameras, it’s become increasingly difficult to act like a bigot in public without being caught. And in the instances where these outrageous performances are recorded and uploaded to the internet, they often go viral – a swift dose of karma to the perpetrators.

And karma feels good. It’s undeniably satisfying to see a racist cut down to size; it feels good to watch as someone unbearably proud of their whiteness is ripped apart on social media.

The problem is that this isn’t an answer to racism. It isn’t an answer to intolerance, or bigotry, because the people who were initially the agressors become victims of hate themselves, and even if it feels like they deserve it, many of these people’s lives are destroyed by their acts of intolerance. What happens then is that these people, who clearly believe in their own superiority, don’t learn not to be a bigot; they learn to hide it. They don’t learn to change; they learn instead that they were right all along, and that the people they hated deserve that hate.

Nearly every one of these stories I’ve seen of people abusing others from a delusional position of authority has ended with them losing their jobs, their homes, and at times even their families. Corporate sponsors cut ties, employers fire them, and they’re left with no means to live – and worse, the stain of being branded forever a racist indelible on their reputation.

Now, I’m not advocating that these people ‘deserve’ better; I don’t believe in judging others without knowing them, and an individual act of racism does not a racist make – just like being wrong once doesn’t make you wrong all the time. But what happens is that the internet allows people, from the relative safety of their online anonymity, to pass judgement nonetheless on people they’ve never met and know nothing about.

But what I do believe is that the answer to racism doesn’t lie in avenging the victims, or in destroying the establishment. By taking everything away from someone who made a racist remark or acted out against another person because of their inherently misplaced beliefs, we’re only reinforcing the notion that the ‘others’ are indeed bad people, and that they’ll be punished for speaking out. It fosters a false victim mentality, and breeds a culture that actually causes racism to fester and grow. Rather than looking to themselves to ask why this happened, these people will simply blame the oppressed for oppressing them.

No – the answer to racism lies in education. I believe strongly in the inherent goodness of humanity – the idea that people are good at heart (at least to some degree), and their upbringing and education is what shapes their personalities. As you navigate life, growing older day by day, it’s likely that you’ll end up choosing paths that fit in line with your taught beliefs naturally, which only reinforces those notions and ideas that, for many of us, remain subconscious all our lives. It’s easy to teach a four-year-old to play nice with others; it’s much harder to change the outlook of a forty-year-old.

And some people, of course, are taught so poorly in their childhood, and live a life that so strongly reinforces their negative beliefs, that they quickly become irredeemable. This happens in all walks of life, of course, but since we live in a society that has always favored white men over all others, it allows for those immutable personalities to rise to power more easily than those with more open minds, which allows them to make the rules and define the society we live in to their own liking … leaving room to grow for the systemic racism and misogyny that has rotted the heart of this country for centuries.

But these people – these truly ‘bad apples’ – are generally few and far between. Most people, I think, have the capacity to relearn their world-view in the face of new information, so long as it’s presented in a way that doesn’t uproot everything they’ve ever known. People fear change, and will cling desperately to unfamiliarity. By wreaking revenge on people who are outwardly racist, we’re only causing further damage to the idea of peaceful equality. You can’t build yourself up by tearing others down.

So what I suggest is this: next time you see a story on Facebook or Twitter about a racist being put in their place, ask yourself – am I really so different? Have I never laughed at a racist joke, or worried more about passing through a black neighborhood than a white one? Anyone can say the wrong thing at the wrong time, and whilst many of the acts making the rounds truly are deplorable, who are we to decide their fate? Getting someone fired for poor behavior when they aren’t even working is akin to vigilante justice, which is a dangerous thing to throw around.

I’ve heard it said that racism isn’t black people’s problem – it’s white people’s. In that context, I think it’s as important to listen to the racists as it is to listen to the oppressed. If we actually give everyone a forum to speak intelligently – rather than forcing people into acts of aggression because they feel their voices are unheard – I think there would be a much better opportunity to help those people with racial biases to actually understand themselves better, gain insight, and perhaps – just perhaps – grow and change.

I suppose what I’m really trying to say is that we shouldn’t celebrate vengence on those who would oppress others. That doesn’t make anyone a better person. Instead, we should focus on celebrating those people who are willing and able to change. Celebrate those who can learn to love, not those who have only learned to hate.

Who have you seen grow or change in the past few months? Who can you celebrate?

Fifteen Years Young

My son turned fifteen this weekend. Fifteen. That’s five-and-half thousand days he’s walked this earth (well, walked and crawled), and with a few small exceptions I’ve been there with him for every single one of them. This doesn’t by necessity make us close, but it makes us … well, something.

There’s no connection in my mind between the helpless, crying, infantile baby that came into the world fifteen years ago and the moody, sarcastic, increasingly self-aware teenager that thinks swearing is cool but doesn’t quite know when it’s appropriate. These are two different entities, and frankly I’m not sure I really know either.

My memory of his life is sporadic – fleeting moments in time, stuck in my mind like a photograph without context. I know he was once six – and twelve, and many other ages – but I don’t seem to be able to draw a line connecting these moments to each other. Like each memory is of a different person, one who no longer quite exists.

At the risk of being a cliché, it makes me wonder what I was like when I was fifteen. Where was I? What was I doing? What did I think? Fifteen was my sophomore year of high school; it was a summer of forgetful abandon. It was a year of adventure, of climbing and mountaineering, of school and exams and friends and excitement.

It was also my last year of happiness.

The following year, my junior year of high school, was the first year I learned depression, and I’ve never forgotten it since. By the summer of sixteen, I was catatonic in my room, drinking with my goth friends, staying up all night with candles, and cutting my arms. And it only got worse from there.

To some extent, I wonder what fate awaits my son. Will this be his last year of happiness? Will he succumb to the deep, numb despair of depression? I really can’t say, of course – the future is the future, and I’ve never really been good at predicting it. But I can see that he is, in many ways, a stronger person than I was at his age. He cooks, he cleans, he reminds me to take my meds, and he can’t stand how dirty I let my car get. He’s responsible, has a girlfriend, and frankly doesn’t get into much trouble at all. These are all things that were not true of me.

In fact, reflecting on that past fifteen years of my own life, he’s more of an adult now than I ever was – and more so than I am today. While I mope in bed and struggle to get through each and every day, leaving dishes and laundry to pile up, he actually takes care of things around the house. He doesn’t enjoy it, but it does it nonetheless.

Fifteen years ago, I was a scared, naive, miserably depressed kid who didn’t see a path forward in the world. Not that many young adults do, but for me, the end was visibly near. I was on a speeding train of mental turmoil, rushing headlong toward the abyss with no bridge and no brakes. What I’m trying to say is that without my son, I may well have tried to kill myself.

But I didn’t. And whilst I’m certainly not ‘better’, I survived. I mean, that’s probably as much as I can say for myself, really – I survived. It’s up for debate if that was worth it or not, but the point is, I’m likely alive because of my son. So there’s something.

We share interests – a love of movies, Lord of the Rings and heavy metal music, for starters – and we talk. I’ve never been secretive about my mental health with him, and I hope he doesn’t resent me for it; he talks to me (on occasion) about the things that trouble him, and I hope he continues to.

What I see when I look at him is no longer my child. He is no longer helpless. I mean, I may never have really come to terms with a person in the world being my descendant, but the point is that he is a young man, whole and independent, with thoughts and opinions that are not mine. He is a good person, and whether through my actions – or lack thereof – or not, I believe he will become a good adult. I have faith he will become a hard-working, functional member of society. And I guess I really couldn’t ask for more.

What I see is simple: my son is a better person than I am.

I couldn’t be more proud.