We Need Thoughtful Resistance During the Trump Presidency

"Whatever small power you have to curb injustice you witness in your everyday life, you must exercise it."

Jan 20 2017, 8:00pm

Header courtesy of Bernd Schwabe

Is it weird to be numb? Donald Trump is being inaugurated as President of the United States of America. A man who has threatened nuclear re-escalation, flirted with the forced registration of all Muslim Americans, and considered banning the White House Press Corp from the White  House is in control of a country with a bigger military than the next eight countries combined. Why aren't more of us panicking?

There isn't a whole lot I can remember about the last two months; it's been a haze of anxiety and brief stabs of crippling fear. But I do remember how sure my Spanish teacher's smile was the morning after the election.

She had to keep emotions in check that were only a couple degrees removed from explosive. A couple of students—myself included—were visibly distraught. We had our heads on our desks; we weren't contributing to class. We were statues. And my teacher smiled at us and told us that everything would be okay.

She just  knew that everything would be alright. She didn't doubt for a single second that it would never get  that bad. I was almost jealous of how calm she was because as a queer and nonbinary person, I was all too aware how  not okay things could get.

My emotional defenses broke down. I started crying. I asked her if she knew about Mike Pence's anti-LGBT record or his support of gay conversion therapy or how those practices are psychological torture that result in suicides for so many youths who are forced to enter these programs. My teacher was a foreign grad student; it was reasonable to think that she hadn't been exposed to these facts. But, before she could respond, a Trump supporter in the class gleefully boasted about Trump's victory. I turned, looked at him, and felt a deep and  violent hatred that I'm still ashamed of, and something inside of me shut off that didn't turn back on til a couple weeks ago.

One of the reasons that this kid's response sent me into such a depressive spiral was that I genuinely liked him.

We had bonded at the beginning of the semester over a shared love of video games. I'm 27 which makes me a little bit older than most of my 18-22 year old classmates, but games transcend age groups. Plus, the fact that I write about them for a living gives me an icebreaker at the beginning of semesters so that I don't seem like a horribly old, complete weirdo… just like a sort of old, kind of weirdo.

That kid and I would talk about what games we were currently obsessed with, what we were looking forward to, the games we'd loved when we were kids. He was proudly the stereotypical Appalachian, constantly in camo and with a thick mountain drawl. Because of my queerness, I could never fully feel like I was part of this culture, but that doesn't take away from the fact that I grew up in a doublewide trailer at the mouth of a holler in rural West Virginia. "Rednecks," "hillbillies," or whatever other pejoratives the rest of the country comes up with were the heart of the communities I called home. And games, I'd hoped, would help me overcome the distance between me and those in my community.

If you can't tell, I've thought about that moment a lot. Trump's inauguration makes it feel the most real it has since it happened. This inauguration, the inauguration of an alleged sexual assaulter with a remarkably flippant attitude to reports of his potentially incriminating ties to foreign powers, seems impossible. But it's very possible. What we can take hope in is that there are things we can do about it.

Hannah Arendt on a German stamp.

Hannah Arendt, one of the key political theorists of the 20th century, could explain better than most precisely how possible our current situation is. Arendt came from a German Jewish family that had to flee Europe in advance of the Holocaust. They eventually spent time in a French prison camp after the fall of France's Third Republic before being pardoned (for the crime of being Jewish) and allowed to emigrate to America. Her family was one of the last group of Europeans Jews the Nazis permitted to leave the continent alive.

Arendt witnessed the near collapse of Western civilization, and she wanted to know exactly what allowed this catastrophe to occur. And, one of her conclusions was that "thought" and "thoughtlessness" were two of  the cornerstones of blame.

At the beginning of her book, The Human Condition, Arendt defines "thoughtlessness" as "the heedless recklessness or hopeless confusion or complacent repetition of 'truths' which have become trivial and empty." Arendt believed that modern society had built itself around efficiency and progress… often at the cost of the people who lived in that society. Societies ultimately reflect their values back on their inhabitants, and Arendt felt that the horrors of World War II had proven modern man utterly disinterested in considerations of the basic humanity of his peers.

Thoughtlessness was so dangerous to Arendt because a just democracy (or peace between great military powers) can only be preserved when all parties accept the humanity of the other and, so doing, agree to consider the consequences of their actions for others. The Holocaust occurred, she argues, not because most Germans were as virulently anti-Semitic as the Nazis. Instead, it was because they were anti-Semitic enough to feel that it wasn't their personal responsibility to care about the human rights of Europe's Jewish population.

Someone who commits "thoughtless" behavior isn't absolved of moral responsibility for their actions, and I'm not implying that they don't have the tools to understand the consequences of their actions. They either choose or are socialized not to care enough to try. And, so, their decisions can and often do have catastrophic consequences.

Protests from Czechoslavakia's "Velvet Revolution" which peacefully overthrew Soviet occupation. Photo by Peter Turnley, public domain

A person can claim to care about people of color and women and the queer/trans community but if they voted for Donald Trump, their actions show that even if they're telling the truth, they put no thought into what a vote for Trump would mean for people of color, women, and the queer/trans. Their vote has the same consequence as that of a vocal bigot—and right now, we need to be focused on consequences as much as, if not more than, intentions.

I hate the phrase "alt-right." I firmly believe that when you're talking about organized, financed abusers with ideological roots deep in white supremacy, you should call them what they are. And abusers love "thoughtlessness" precisely because converting others to their cause isn't necessary for the achievement of their goals.

The Breitbart wing of the Republican party—the wing of the party that doesn't deal in racist dog whistles but rather straight up racism and which currently holds sway in the White House through Steve Bannon—doesn't need Paul Ryan to vocally support white supremacy; they just need him to care more about cutting Medicare than protecting the rights of minorities. He hasn't let them down.

When GamerGate waged its terror campaign against anyone that didn't fit their heterosexual white male purity tests, GamerGate didn't need everyone to be as virulently misogynistic as them. They just needed enough institutions in gaming—devs, publishers, journalists—to turn a blind eye as it all happened because at least it wasn't happening them. And they did.

Why did the kid in my Spanish class boast about Trump's victory? Was he explicitly expressing hate for women and people of color and queer folks? If so, who radicalized him? Or, more likely, were his actions "thoughtless?" Had he limited the scope of his reasoning to how his actions would affect himself and folks like him but no one else? Did the distinction matter if the consequences were devastating either way? How do you convince those who are blinded by their privilege of the harm that their actions can have for others? How do you convince the radicalized that the Others are human beings, just like them?

The distinction matters because a clear solution exists to counter "thoughtlessness." Thought.

Arendt didn't conceive of "thought" as specific knowledge, but instead as a mode of being. To Arendt, "thought" was simply the recognition that you are an individual living inside a society of individuals and for this reason, you must always try to be as aware as humanly possible of what the consequences for any of your social (in)actions are. You can never know for sure what the consequences will be, and this fact will make you particularly vigilant about not causing harm. The capacity for ethical decision making and doing what is right can never begin anywhere than within yourself.

Nelson Mandela challenged and brought down an entire system predicated on denying his humanity. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

If you accept that you are a being capable of "thought," then you accept that you are a being responsible for the social consequences of your actions. And accepting responsibility for the role you play in a social system means accepting that you as an individual must be willing to do work in the struggle against injustice.

Facing a resurgence of hyper-nationalism, militarism, and politics of exclusion in America means articulating precisely what is fueling these fires in our society and working both within and outside our cultural comfort zones to confront these injustices wherever they occur and not leaving this resistance to others but taking resistance upon ourselves as our new mantle of personal social responsibility.

Find voices in the gaming community that challenge you, that have different lived experiences than you, that make you uncomfortable because what they're saying is so radical that it implicates you in some of the injustices of modern life. Find groups who are sincerely committed to resistance and whose resistance extends past obvious figureheads and down to the very marrow of society's most cancerous ills. Whatever small power you have to curb injustice you witness in your everyday life, you must exercise it. Whatever small power you have to point loved ones in the direction of their own social/economic justice education is power you must use.

When outrage over the almost weekly murder of unarmed black citizens by the police had reached its most simmering boil, Ta-Nehisi Coates tweeted that one of the most defining moral questions a person could answer for themselves was whether or not they were willing to do the right thing even if there was no guarantee that they would succeed.

Coates was challenging the notion that history has a natural arc which bends towards progress. Social progress occurs because large swaths of people are willing to speak truth to power and resist power's unjust application. But, sometimes, power is so entrenched that there are no guarantees that mass resistance will achieve its goals.

To paraphrase French philosopher Albert Camus, even when it seems impossible, even when you feel suffocated by the oppressive power of modern life, the overwhelming absurdity of life "requires revolt."