Last night, a 16 year old Caucasian girl tweeted, “Someone needs to assassinate Obama… like ASAP #DieYouPieceOfShit”.
For this, according to the Daily Kos, she gained a lot of new followers and 300 retweets before her account was closed today. She also got her fair share of hate directed back at her.
Alyssa’s tweet is but a microcosm of what’s wrong with the modern day conservative movement. It’s indicative of what President Clinton said in his DNC speech, “I may often disagree with Republicans, but I never hated them, unlike the hatred displayed by extreme right wing activists towards President Obama.” The relentless hate directed at this President has been out of control from the beginning, led by Sarah Palin during the 2008 election and now being carried out by birther adjacent Mitt Romney, whose constant lies about Obama are meant to drive exactly the kind of racial animus displayed in Alyssa’s tweet.
After all, what reason could a 16 year old have for wanting a man she doesn’t know and whose policies she surely doesn’t know anything about to die? Yes, I can say with some confidence that she knows nothing of his policies, because I have yet to talk to any conservative – not one – who can accurately portray Obama’s policy stances. Even the most allegedly intellectually astute pundits on the Right are tainted with Foxian distortions and conspiracy theories of his intentions – intentions not reflected in his actual policies. In other words, they are running on fear, and fear is being driven to stir hate, and hate is being used to get out the vote for Republicans who can’t discuss their policies with even a modicum of honesty this go around.
The problems here are manifest. We have conservative Republicans who are out of control with their hate speech as a regular course of business. We have Democrats whose policy of tolerance and love for free speech confuses them into not setting appropriate boundaries against hate speech or recognizing the dangers of hate speech. And we have a nation of people who are so fed up with the hate and the failure of any mainstream outlet to report on it honestly or even call it out that they are enraged. Many of these people are not loyal Democrats—we’re talking Independents who voted for Obama in 2008 just because they didn’t want to associate with the hate in the Republican Party.
So we have hate on the Right being met with passivity and not enough tough love by the Left and also being met with an anger that’s been simmering since 2008 against the relentless hate of the Right. People are fed up.
We have a President who has met hate and threats with tolerance and erred on the side of respect for protesters, even when armed. To this end, the Secret Service has been more than tolerant of the death threats aimed at Obama.
But what these folks don’t seem to understand is that while yes, valuing the right to hate is part of valuing free speech, when it crosses over into violence and calls for assassinations, it must be dealt with swiftly and firmly. The Right’s authoritarian complex does not understand tolerance and turning the other cheek. They mistake Obama’s kindness for weakness, because they don’t value kindness. They only value power.
Why does this matter? Because it’s not just the President. The hate directed at him is also aimed at average citizens who may or may not support him. It can be aimed at African Americans purely for their skin color, and when calls for violence against the President are ignored, it signals to the juvenile mind of the reactionary cult member that it’s okay to be violent against citizens.
The violence is also aimed at citizens who support this President. I have first hand experience with this – having been told by a white male Republican dressed in khakis and a button down shirt that he hoped I died with the President for being a “ni**er lover”. On another occasion, as I was crossing the street to enter the Obama headquarters in 2008, a pick up truck with McCain Palin sticker on it picked up speed and swerved toward me so that I had to run to avoid being hit. That was four years ago.
Things are only worse now.
So how do we solve a problem like Alyssa?
Shame is an under-utilized tool of Democrats. Shame is a tool designed to keep order in society, without resorting to legislating morality. But this is a young girl. Clearly she requires adult guidance and supervision from folks who are interested in raising a moral, responsible citizen.
I’m reminded of Representative John Lewis’ message from his speech yesterday. He responded to hate with love.
Are we big enough to do that? And what does love look like in these circumstances?
I suspect, though I am hardly of the character of Mr. Lewis and am indeed fighting my own first instincts, that love in these circumstances looks like grace. So we can love Alyssa as the lost young person she is, and yet we must also have clear boundaries about what society will and will not tolerate. The consequences must be and probably will be tough.
Alyssa will forever be known as “that girl”; the girl who tweeted a demand for the assassination of the President of her country. If we get past the horror, she is stuck wearing the mantle of the young fool who knew nothing and talked too much.
Most likely, Alyssa didn’t mean what she wrote. But that’s where the teachable moment comes in. Words have consequences. Words drove Alyssa to hate as she did. Someone told her endless lies about this President, and she responded with the immature reaction of a child, sadly mimicking her Republican leaders.
In order for us to show grace, we must also stop behaving as if it’s okay to violently target people we disagree with. We can’t do that if we are threatening Alyssa.
So if we are to walk our talk, we follow John Lewis’ example. We forgive Alyssa, but we don’t forget. We show through our actions what we value. She is free to disagree with anyone, including the President. She is also free to educate herself about hate speech and the horrific consequences of it. And we are free to shame her behavior via publicly shunning it.
This country needs to get with the program regarding hate speech before it’s too late. We can’t docilely mistake passivity for tolerance and we can’t wait for the hate to envelope us all until we are down on their level. We must stand up for tolerance and justice at the same time. We must be firm in what is acceptable and we must demand that the calls to violence be dealt with swiftly and in a manner meant to discourage further calls for violence.
My heart goes out to this young girl, who most likely knows not what she did. But she is on the verge of becoming an adult, and we don’t want a society full of Alyssas. We can’t have that if we are to thrive, if we are to be an example of freedom and opportunity.
And if you haven’t noticed, as the election draws nearer, we are being surrounded by hate, assaulted by it from all directions – hate aimed at gays, immigrants, women, minorities, union members, teachers, and more. The mainstream media like CNN condones this hate and their failure to even respond to it when it comes from their own pundits only sanctions it as acceptable.
This is happening because the Republican Party has nothing else, and they are losing their grip on the narrative. In the past, they were able to fool voters and drive the narrative with silly accusations and distractions. But those tactics are only working on the minority who watch Fox News now, and the trickle down water cooler effect of Fox News watchers. It’s not enough to win a national election.
So they double down on hate. We must be prepared. And most of all, we must not forget who we are and what we stand for. Free speech must not be falsely equated with hate speech coupled with calls for violence. And while we don’t want to legislate against hate speech in order to protect the larger value of free speech, we have the tool of all societies – shaming – at our disposal.
The shaming of Alyssa’s behavior did commence immediately on Twitter, but let us not confuse her behavior with her person and let us not return fire with fire. We must always remember to offer a demonstration of a better way and we can’t do that if we allow ourselves to be consumed by the fire of hate. We hope Alyssa gets the help she needs, and we hope responsible adults can open her mind and heart.
I would say to Alyssa that if she’s lucky enough to be forgiven (and surely due to her age alone, she will be), she might remember to show the same grace to those with whom she disagrees. I would say that the ugly tweets she’s getting are a mirror of her own sentiment, and ask her how that feels, and ask her if she thinks that strangers on Twitter can judge her accurately based on one Tweet. If not, what does that say about her judgment of the President? If she wants us to look deeper into her soul and find the good, she must also be willing to return that compassion to others. After all, with even a hint of compassion, Alyssa would no longer be able to parrot the hate of the Right.
If Alyssa, as a micro representation of the Right, fails to learn these lessons, she and they are doomed to continue a small-minded worldview that will only bring them the same harsh, unyielding and inaccurate judgment of their behavior from others. This is not the direction we want to take our country, and it’s up to us to drive it forward.
Ms. Jones is the co-founder/ editor-in-chief of PoliticusUSA and a member of the White House press pool.
Sarah hosts Politicus News and co-hosts Politicus Radio. Her analysis has been featured on several national radio, television news programs and talk shows, and print outlets including Stateside with David Shuster, as well as The Washington Post, The Atlantic Wire, CNN, MSNBC, The Week, The Hollywood Reporter, and more.
Sarah is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists.