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Abandoning Outrage

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BY KELLY COGSWELL | I’ve been thinking about outrage lately, and how inadequate it is when it comes to Americans and Trump. Maybe the problem is that outrage requires some level of surprise, and, at this point, surprise seems false, even bizarre, in the face of a president who revealed himself clearly in all his pre-election conspiracy tweets and unsavory deeds: from boasts about grabbing pussy to KKK-filled rallies to asking why we couldn’t just nuke undesirable people or countries.

Yep, he was pretty clear up front about his goal to take us back to the good old days when a man, a white man, could buy a home with a good blue collar salary. And the women and the blacks and browns and gays and dangerous foreigners all knew their third-class place.

The outrage seems especially false when it comes from a Sanders-embracing Democratic Party who share certain goals with Trump — the delusional return of heavy industry, the retreat from international agreements, the rescue of an idealized working class, which is somehow always defined as white and male. They’re still salivating over the mythical Trump voters, no matter that study after study proves poor whites — like poor people of color — actually voted for Clinton. That it was mostly middle and upper class white folks characterized by pathological bigotry that voted for Trump.

PERSPECTIVE: A Dyke Abroad

Instead of trying to rise and resist fueled by outrage — and a good dose of righteousness — why not lie down and concede? Who has the time or energy to think past Trump?

Me, I no longer have the skills. I invested so many years in outrage that there are only ashes left where my brain once was. Outrage, after all, was what mobilized me as a Lesbian Avenger. It was what I’d try to inspire in you with my writing, imagining you’d be forced to act if you felt the same horror and anger I did at queers getting beaten and killed. Or cops gunning down some man raising his wallet in a black hand because they were afraid — and never paying for it. At elections being stolen. War declared for no reason. Prisoners tortured. I’d even offer tips for action. Tell my newly furious readers to call this representative. Write that senator. Think about this law.

I gradually discovered outrage really only works to elicit more outrage. Real action — not so much. Outraged people might send an email, or go to a couple demos, or vent on Facebook, but real change demands a lot more. It is sometimes boring, and always slow, and actually requires a suspension of the anger that got you involved in the first place.

After all, change needs wide support, and to get it, you can’t just tell people something is right — or wrong — you have to persuade them of it. And that requires making arguments. And effective arguments require getting to know someone and finding common ground, at least on that one issue, and accepting that on others you might remain impossibly far apart. Which means you also have to refuse purity, refuse hate, agree to listen more than speak.

Not everyone is cut out for this. Fewer and fewer even try. We’ve replaced analysis with censorship. We have forgotten how to be wrong. We’ve also forgotten how to be right. On Facebook, last week, I noticed that people can’t tell anymore when somebody is trolling them or agreeing with them. Last week on two different pages and two different threads I saw people get blocked in fury because they restated their agreement in different language or wondered what happened if you took the same train of thought a little further.

We’ve all lost our damn minds.

Lately, I’ve started to wonder what would happen here if somebody tried to build a movement in the mold of Macron’s successful En Marche in France. There, they did two important things. They divided campaigns by neighborhood. So whomever you talked to from En Marche probably only lived two or three streets away. Right away you had something in common.

And during training, all the volunteers were told to remain pleasant no matter what. To listen. To never dismiss. Never harangue. Even if somebody was offensive. My girlfriend went out to canvas voters and decided to follow instructions even though she was extremely skeptical. And every night she’d come back after handing out flyers or going door-to-door marveling that in divided, combative, bitterly sectarian France something so simple worked time after time — if not to win a vote, at least to open an honest dialogue among citizens. A dialogue free of hate and outrage that, if sustained, might in time change things much more than an election, though they pulled off the win, too.

Kelly Cogswell is the author of “Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger,” from the University of Minnesota Press.

Updated 5:14 pm, July 20, 2018
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