As the editor of Viewpoints, our opinion section, I err on the side of inclusion and free speech. So when Matt Baron wrote a letter to the editor, recently, criticizing someone on Facebook for calling Village Trustee Dan Moroney a “white supremacist,” it caused an uproar because he compared the Facebook post to an act of terror. Since Baron was referring to someone on social media, I assumed that person was a typical online troll, someone with extreme views and axes to grind. I don’t have a lot of respect for online trolls or social media. You have to be pretty well armored to enter that minefield, and I rarely do. It is not a place for the faint of heart.
My first inclination — and top priority — as Viewpoints editor is to give readers their say. I recently pulled a letter because I knew it was factually incorrect and that inaccuracy was integral to everything else in the letter, so there was no way to “fix it.” But that doesn’t happen very often.
Sometimes, though, my passion for letting people have their passionate say gets me in trouble. If I had known the target of this letter’s criticism was a Muslim woman, my red flag would have gone up over the terrorism references. Even without knowing that, however, I should have stopped and run the letter by another “set of eyes” for discussion as I often do, then contacted Baron to see if he wanted to revise it. And then find out who made the original comment online.
Instead, swept away by the myriad details of a Monday-Tuesday deadline, I didn’t find out till the following Monday that the person who called Moroney out was Muslim. And from what I’ve learned since, she doesn’t sound like a well-armored internet troll. I acknowledged my mistake in last week’s column, but as several people pointed out, I didn’t apologize.
And from what I hear, my compounded mistake caused this Oak Parker suffering, which is never acceptable. This is a time of great uncertainty and insecurity, especially among people of color, especially after the last four years of Trump’s assaults on Muslims.
My mistake caused her pain and fear of further harm during a volatile time. For that, I apologize. It was an error in judgment, and I will try to do better in the future. I will try to learn from this mistake.
First and foremost, I learned that comparisons between online comments and terrorism should never go public without very careful consideration. That sounds pretty obvious … in retrospect. Should have been obvious to me at the time.
But there was a deeper mistake that I need to acknowledge. It has to do with dehumanization, which is at the heart of this incident, and also at the heart of a society based on inequity and unfairness, on superiority and inferiority, a society that can fairly be characterized by the controversial term “white supremacy.”
Dehumanization is likewise at the heart of what is so wrong with so much of social media — and our politics of polarization, and so much else in a culture that makes it so easy to dehumanize one another.
In this particular case, Baron wrote his outraged letter because he believed the Facebook comment dehumanized Moroney by unfairly labeling him a “white supremacist.” The person who posted the original comment, along with others on social media, clearly feel that Moroney, through some of his past statements and actions, dehumanizes people of color. But in criticizing the commenter, who is Muslim, and comparing her post to an act of terror, Baron dehumanized her.
I printed the letter because I assumed the person making the offending comment was “just another internet troll.” In doing so, I dehumanized her as well. The ensuing uproar, meanwhile, definitely felt dehumanizing and confirmed my worst assessment of social media. I’m sick of the warfare of mutual disrespect we wage online, assuming the worst about people we disagree with or who disagree with us. It has to stop.
I’m guilty of it, too, and I’m sorry for every time I came at people as if they were disembodied ideologies instead of fallible human beings who make mistakes just like me.
Last Thursday, one of the supporters of this woman contacted me directly. She not only humanized her friend but also acknowledged my humanity while asking me to repair the situation. That enabled me, finally, to apologize to this fellow resident (whose name I don’t mention because she fears retaliation) and to start working on this public apology.
I see this entire episode as a clinic on how easy it is to dehumanize one another. Our society, in fact, seems set up to do just that, making all of us perpetrators or victims, and sometimes both. Which is why it’s essential that we all start working together to change the system, starting by examining ourselves.
Opposing dehumanization is not enough. We also need to practice re-humanizing. I’m grateful to the friend who contacted me. She managed to re-humanize me by communicating how much her friend was suffering because of my mistake.
Sometimes, yes, we need to be shown the way.
I’ve been preaching the new paradigm of antiracism for some time now, but I knew it was going to take more than mere words to be part of an actual groundswell for change. You have to live it — and that means making mistakes and then making amends.
Errors in judgment are going to happen, no matter how well intentioned we are. We have to accept that and keep moving forward. It’s our responsibility — white people in particular — to change this system of human inhumanity to humans, especially to people of color, but not only to people of color. And if, in our efforts we come up short, we need to set aside our egos and check our tendency to get defensive. And when we hurt someone, we need to apologize.
Take it from one very imperfect white guy who screws up plenty.