Stuck in the Middle with You

20 08 17

Below is an archived edition of Ctrl Alt Right Delete, a weekly email newsletter. This edition was published on 08/20/2017. Members of Factual Democracy Project have access to past editions. Subscribe to Ctrl Alt Right Delete

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Getting Un-Stuck in the Middle

By Sabrina Joy Stevens

By now, you’ve probably seen this cartoon, but in case you haven’t: There’s a great little comic circulating on social media that depicts an angry mob of Klan members on one side holding a burning cross and a sign that says, “WE WANT TO KILL BLACK PEOPLE.” Opposite them is a crowd of Black people, holding a sign that says “We want civil rights.” In the middle stands a white guy holding a sign that says “Compromise?” The cartoon, by illustrator, & comic book author Kasia Babis originally appeared in The Nib and was shared widely on social media this week. A lot of shares of it also include copy along the lines of “Don’t be the asshole in the middle.”

credit: Kasia Babis, The NibLike the progress-blocking white moderates Dr. King lamented, this guy represents every “nice” person who hates conflict and clings to the idea that the right answer in every political debate lies in the middle, no matter how egregious the situation. I can’t say for sure, but my guess is these people think taking this position makes them seem nicer or more reasonable, more “objective” or dispassionate than those of us who choose a side and keep a firmer grip on our views.

I’ve been thinking about people like this a lot over the last few years, but especially since the election. Every time something terrible happens — like the latest video depicting horrific police brutality and misconduct or a new executive order or piece of legislation chipping away at marginalized people’s freedom or economic security or what have you — I’m always galled by the number of people who are not only willing to overlook blatantly awful things, but who cannot seem to tell the difference between right and blatantly wrong. Their votes, their inaction, and the policy landscape that results often reflect that confusion.

So how did we get to a place where we’re actually having arguments about whether or not what happened in Charlottesville is primarily an issue of “free speech?” How are people being duped into thinking Black Lives Matter is the same as the Klan? Put simply, it’s because of “the asshole in the middle.”

We’re here because people stuck in the middle have taught the Right over the years that there’s no penalty for taking more and more extreme positions — or for bigger and bigger lies to defend them — when a sizable percentage of the American public won’t check the facts, and are committed to the idea that the truth always lies in between two equally credible (or more often, fallible) sides. It’s the old Overton window again; as the majority of conservatives move briskly to the furthest rightward extremes of their imaginations while their opponents balk at their outrageous stance, large swaths of the public continue to split the difference between the two, shifting the overall orientation of our public conversations rightward, too.

That’s why Trump, like other right wing operatives before and beside him, is so willing to publicly blather about how “both sides” are at fault when a group of armed racists hurt and even kill people who assemble to stand up for equality. They know it takes only a little bit of confusion to keep a lot of people on the fence, busy looking for a way to compromise rather than choosing the righteous side and fighting for it, which would often mean fighting against them. A small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world, sure, but it’d be a hell of a lot easier and faster if our group was larger. We need at least some of these people off the fence and onto the field.

Those of us who realize how many millions, even billions, of people suffer as a result of those compromises have an important imperative to break this pattern. We have to help those stuck in the middle realize that sometimes, even often, there’s a clear right side and a clear wrong side, and the truth is not always the result of a compromise. We have to remind them that things can be much better than they are now, and that we don’t have to settle for fools’ bargains with people who want to normalize evil. And we have to remind them that passively forfeiting the opportunity to do the right thing can be just as damaging as proactively doing the wrong thing.

Folks stuck in the middle can pulled along with the momentum of a winning side. So it’s up to us to be that winning side. We have to be prouder, louder, and more visible than people who promote hate and injustice. That means taking every opportunity to vocally proclaim the truth, our values, and the importance of actually doing something to make wrongs right. If the middle serves to shield the right from the consequences of making and defending unjust policy choices, then we need to make sure there are social incentives for folks in the middle to stop playing that role, or social consequences for those who continue.

Sabrina Joy Stevens is a writer, organizer, and progressive strategist based in Washington, D.C. She is a founding member of EduColor, a leaderful collective working toward education for liberation by elevating the perspectives and influence of people of color and other marginalized groups in education policy and practice.

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A Few Thoughts and an Ask

People often ask me how I can stand to look at this stuff week after week. The truth is that most of the time I find it oddly soothing. The more I understand about what the other side is doing, the better I’m able to cope with it. For the most part I’m not scared of Frogs and the people who love them. Because I know what makes them tick.

Here’s what scares the hell out of me: their impact. I’m terrified at how quickly they’ve radicalized so much of the conservative movement. This week, the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard released their full report on just how much right wing, polarized media impacted overall media coverage leading up to the election. I’ve covered their work before, and by now, you’ve probably seen the visualization they put together, but it is a scary thing to look at. There’s an equally terrifying studyfrom the University of Amsterdam’s Alt-Right Open Intelligence Initiative, which analyzed thousands of social media posts across the Frog Squad and found that rather than splintering, they’re forming a “cohesive group identity.”

credit: Berkman Klein Center, Harvard University

In the wake of Charlottesville, the impact of the so-called Alt-Right is impossible to ignore. The Frog-In-Chief doubled down on his “on many sides” rhetoric and the pro-Trump media took an immediate and celebratory victory lap. By excusing the behavior of Nazis at a white power rally, Trump gave his supporters all the cover they needed to decry “both sides.” Axios reported a new poll from Survey Monkey where 64% of Republicans believed that protesters and counter-protesters were equally responsible (both sides!) for the violence in Charlottesville.

Via Axios

As I wrote in the Progressive earlier this week, hate groups are a constituency group of Trump’s. He sent them all the right signals and they’ve been basking in his approval all week. Now we have a situation where a large section of the public is tolerating the behavior of violent white nationalists because “both sides” and a significant portion of the American population are happy to turn a blind eye entirely.

Personally, I’m rattled. I can’t say that anything surprised me this week but it certainly exhausted me. This is going to get worse before it gets better and I don’t see any easy way out.

Running the final week of the Factual Democracy Kickstarter Campaign is my therapy. This week reinforced my belief that we can’t beat an enemy we don’t understand, and we still have a long way to go. Everyone needs a working knowledge of disinformation, how hate groups organize, and influence operations. Helping others gain that knowledge is my passion, and the best way I know how to fight against Trump and for democracy. I’m excited to create that space with Factual Democracy Project.

Right now we’re 86% to goal — all thanks to the incredible support of Ctrl Alt Right Delete readers. You’ve backed the Kickstarter, shared it on social media, reached out to organizations about sponsorships, and volunteered your services. We’ve created some real buzz including a write-up in NiemanLab’s daily newsletter and a Facebook Live with Campaigns & Elections. Kickstarter even featured Factual Democracy on their homepage as a “project we love” on Thursday evening.

Memes by MicheálI can’t thank you enough for your help. Here are my final two asks:

There are just 42 hours left to get funded. This is the final countdown. Thank you for all of your support. I’m humbled by it, especially this week.

That’s all from me this week. Thank you to the fabulous Nicole Belle for copy editing!


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