Pretty People and Verbal Violence

My partner is Russian, not Russian-American. His primary residence is Moscow. Because I spend half of my life in the company of a Russian who loves his country and is proud of its culture, I have an interest in news stories about Russia and perhaps a slightly different perspective on them than Americans who do not spend most of their time with Russians.

Global Voices today ran a story about Lena Klimova, the founder of an online support network for LGBT teens in Russia. Running such an organization puts her on the wrong side of Russian propaganda laws and as you would imagine she receives a lot of ugly messages online.

Klimova responded by taking photos the trolls had publicly posted on their social networks and coupling them with their violent rants. Here is an example.

t_YS3rk8Nzk-599x600Translation: “Aisha: I, for one, think you’re a stupid bitch. You think you’re helping anything with this holy crusade?? Go and fucking kill yourself before they come for you!!! People like you should be locked up!”

There is something quite powerful and arresting about the juxtaposition of these everyday images of perfectly nice-looking people and the vitriol they spew.

You have to wonder if they would be so bold speaking to someone they knew in life, or if the seeming anonymity of the internet allows them to strike out at a character on the screen as if she were not human.

The “othering” that allows the bully to see her target as less-than-human works in two directions. When we fail to recognize the human faces of our critics they become monsters, which gives them extra power. The angry voices seem to come from everywhere and nowhere. They speak as though they represent multitudes.

Most of the comments on the Global Voices piece talked about how terrible it is in Russia, about how angry Russians are and how “totalitarian” they are in their thinking, with at least one commenter wishing out loud that he could rescue Klimova and take her to California.

I do not know anything about Klimova, but I suspect that she does not want to be rescued from her country. She loves it enough to want to make it a better place.

There is an aspect of Russia’s “gay propaganda” laws that is not widely discussed. They are, in part, a reaction to U.S. cultural dominance. When the Soviet Union collapsed and Western cultural products became available in the new spirit of openness, Russians initially embraced the once-forbidden English and American pop music, Hollywood films, McDonalds and Budweiser beer. It happened quickly. And after a decade or so, a lot of Russians became concerned that their own distinct culture might be threatened by all of these imports. LGBT rights, pride parades, same sex marriage became symbols of the intrusion of foreign culture. In the U.S. those who are against gay rights tend to view it as a symptom of the erosion of religion in public life. In Russia, the gay rights movement is viewed as an outside force trying to mold Russia and change its culture. Those are the kinds of fears that give the backlash its power and ferocity. It is not just that you want to live differently from me– you want to change my world.

The context is important, of course. But making this photographic statement all about Russians, and then saying “isn’t it terrible over there” misses a larger point. Nice respectable people have the capacity for this kind of verbal violence. The bully is not a monster, she is a girl holding flowers. Recognizing this poses a lot of questions. To the bully it asks “Are you proud of what you said? Do you stand by it when it is associated with your face and your identity? Is this how you want to present yourself?” To the rest of us it asks “Could the bully be your sister? If it was, would you laugh it off and look the other way? Could the bully be you? Are there times when you are so certain of your correctness that you forget to notice someone else’s humanity?”

This kind of behavior exists all over the world. In fact, after I finished reading the Global Voices article another article passed through my newsfeed.  Just last week a group of Pennsylvania students, the Stranger reports, decided to hold their own “Anti-Gay” day in response to the national “Day of Silence” organized by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.

This prompted the group of students to ask classmates to wear flannel shirts and write “anti-gay” on their hands on Thursday, April 16, in protest, according to WPXI-TV. In addition, participants posted Bible verses on the lockers of students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT), the news station noted. Meanwhile, some encounters between students who participated and those who didn’t even got physical, The Advocate pointed out, and snapshots of the flannel-clad group appeared on social media.

“We came into school on Thursday and found a lot of people wearing flannel and we couldn’t figure out why,” Zoe Johnson, a 16-year-old McGuffey High School who identifies as bisexual, told BuzzFeed’s David Mack. “People started getting pushed and notes were left on people’s lockers. …I got called a dyke, a faggot. They were calling us every horrible name you can think of.”

 More troubling still was an alleged “lynch list,” which the group was reported to have circulated around the school.

I came across an older post today on how Ijeoma Oluo responded to a racist troll on twitter.  She never allowed herself to lash out at him or to lose sight of his humanity and in the end he gets tired of trolling and it turns out the troll is allegedly a 14 year old who has recently lost his mother. Who knows if this is true, but as Daily Kos said, “It is hard to say whether or not this Dildo Baggins person really is a 14-year-old kid working through the pain of losing his mother. It is hard to say whether the person behind this moniker really did learn something here. I would like to believe that this was the case, but it really isn’t the point. Ijeoma Oluo’s boundless capacity for love and wisdom is the point.”

The bullies look like perfectly nice people. Most of the time they probably are. That is the point.

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