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Power Over Others or Power Over Yourself?
For years now, Twitter has been a cesspool for me to navigate. The peak was three years ago when a conservative journalist put me on blast. Within minutes, my feed was flooded with death threats against me and my children, threats to rape me, to come to my home with a gun– all manner of obscene violence simply because I had voiced an opinion.
Despite every effort to stop the onslaught, the journalist continued to target me. He has done so twice more since then, because there’s no consequences on Twitter for harm.
This may be the most egregious example of what I’ve encountered in one event on social media, but I can’t minimize the daily impact of the daily harm I have to navigate.
As someone with a following in excess of 130,000 people, every day there are folks in my comments, regardless of the topic of a given tweet, who opine on my body, my looks, my intellect, my identity, my education, my family, my status as a single mother, and all manner of what they would like to do to me in various ways. Every day there are folks who insult my intelligence and throw around viciousness because they can.
And that’s the actual people. The bots add another layer of harm. Recently, the swarms on my feed in response to comments on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine caused me to close comments on every tweet related to it, simply because hiding comments and blocking would have taken me all day otherwise.
Yesterday, there was a straw that broke the camel’s back, on a benign post. What it was doesn’t matter, but it upset me, and stuck with me, and stayed there as I parented my kids and took them to the farmer’s market and played with them on our living room floor. This is so far from the first time this has happened that I can’t remember what it felt like to NOT have some stranger’s insult or threat kicking around my brain on the weekends when I should be present to my kids and my family and myself.
That recognition brought me to the point of observing that I actually prefer Twitter when I close comments on my threads– when only people who I follow (which is a limited universe of people I actually know or have been in conversation with on social, with few exceptions) can comment on what I write. I have done this more often than usual lately, because the bot and troll traffic has been too much to manage on even benign, non-viral posts.
And so that led me to suggest last night on Twitter that I might close comments for good. Then, I went about living my life— making dinner for my kids, playing matchbox cars and building sets with them, watching some TV, and putting them to bed.
I did not close comments on that thread, which I now realize was a grave mistake.
What happened while I was attending to my family, and what I discovered the next time I opened my phone, was a fascinating study in entitlement: hundreds of (it must be noted) mostly white women objected loudly to the idea that I would close comments on my feed, claiming that because they followed me, or had followed me for a long time, or simply because they had joined Twitter, I was obligated to leave comments open, or follow them back if I did not so that they could have access to me.
Notably, quite a number of these posts came with personal insults. While I was hanging out with my kids on a Sunday night, my comments filled up with, again, mostly white women, calling me selfish, self-absorbed, only interested in my own thoughts, greedy, and on and on it went. “I will unfollow you if you do this!” came the threat, in dozens upon dozens of posts. “I have followed you for years! You should follow me back if you care!” came dozens more. “I SUBSCRIBE TO YOU,” was a big one, as if paying for content means I am obligated to more than providing content.
There is much to be said about the demand for access to folks that didn’t exist even twenty years ago, to the idea that writing or commenting on current events somehow also obligates the author to engagement with strangers, and to the idea that capitalism has seeded in us that paying a few bucks (or nothing) to read someone’s commentary means you buy a piece of them that entitles you to their attention for all time.
I’ll leave it at this instead for now: bullying never works on me. It makes me want to run and never look back.
The deep irony of when this went down, however, is why I am writing about this.
Over this past weekend, I spent about five hours hanging out with some incredible teachers (a few are linked below), in an environment where I was one of only two or three white people in attendance out of dozens. This is a not-infrequent occurrence in my life these days as I continue the work of decolonizing my own indoctrination into white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism. I hang out with these teachers in community a lot, and my mind always gets opened in the best way.
The dominant topic of conversation over the course of this weekend’s teaching was this: when you as a marginalized person align yourself with power over others (as white supremacy, patriarchy and capitalism are constantly inviting you to do), when you answer the siren call of power to be entitled to decide how others live and express themselves, you trade power over yourself in exchange.
In other words, and let me say it plainly: in this system in which we all live, unless you are a rich white cisgender able-bodied heterosexual man, you can’t exercise power over others without sacrificing power over yourself.
(and even then, those men are sacrificing themselves as well, but that’s for another time.)
Let’s take another, much more serious example of how this works from ongoing current events.
In many states right now, trans kids are under attack. Conservative politicians have been passing legislation that keeps trans kids out of sports, that denies trans kids healthcare, that prevents trans kids from even saying they’re trans until they’re adults. Some locations and governing bodies are suggesting genital exams for athletes, and enforcing testosterone testing for female-identifying athletes across the board.
The messaging around this from the far right to cis mothers about this has been insidious. “Your daughters deserve a fair chance to compete in sports!” has been one line we’ve seen bandied about. This has led mothers who otherwise might identify as feminist (this spawns another topic too broad for this essay; again, another time) to take up the invitation to persecute trans kids in the name of saving their “daughters” and thereby themselves.
But a curious thing has happened in the devolution of this: cis female athletes have been denied the right to compete after their natural testosterone levels were found to be “too high.” In other words, cisgender female athletes have actually been persecuted under the exercise of power that has been claimed to be necessary for their “protection.”
And just for the sake of playing out the way this works a bit further: it’s worth noting that among the healthcare that has been denied trans kids is hormonal medical care. What else constitutes hormonal medical care? Numerous forms of birth control, for which many first wave feminists fought to have broad access in the 1970s, and menopause-related treatment to which many now seek access.
Let’s go even further, this time on the topic of naming. Let’s not forget that it wasn’t until after I was born (in 1971) that women in America could not open a bank account, get a car loan or a mortgage in their own names– they could not identify as women and have access to money, and therefore to their means of survival under capitalism.
It doesn’t take much to see how the dominoes fall here, both forward and backward, when we consent to be policed on the basis of gender identity.
When you answer the call to exercise power over others, you sacrifice power over yourself.
Another example for your consideration: police violence. A few days ago, video of a Grand Rapids police officer executing Patrick Lyoyo, a Black man, at point blank range with a gunshot to the back of the head, was released by local officials. Black activists and allies got loud, and fast, noting how little has changed in the time since George Floyd’s murder two years ago, and reinvigorating the idea of defunding the police in favor of new, more effective models of community engagement and social intervention.
The response from far too many white liberals, again, was that the slogan “Defund the Police” is bad messaging. Just give the police more money for training! goes the line. Just give the police more money for diversity and inclusion recruitment!, as if that hasn’t been the line for decades now, to no avail.
But here’s the thing: if police forces are given a pass for execution, for routine surveillance, for recruiting white supremacists into their ranks, and then armed to the teeth like military units heading into war, what protects any of us from their use of violence to enforce the power of the state and those who run it?
Let me say it again: you can’t consent to the exercise of power over others without giving up power over yourself.
Now, just to make it abundantly clear, I am not suggesting that the choice to close my Twitter comments to avoid abuse is equivalent to the persecution of trans and non-binary kids by the state, or to being victimized by police violence.
It is the impulse to exercise power over another, the belief in our entitlement to exercise power over another, that demands our investigation.
Because from our very earliest days, white supremacy, patriarchy and capitalism are teaching us that we have the right to decide how others live.
And the invitation to do it is relentless, particularly for those that are marginalized by those systems of power.
Why? Because white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, are counting on those they harm to enforce the norms that it requires to stay in power.
Being powerless is traumatic. Knowing that at any moment, you could be beaten, exploited, murdered, raped, executed, simply for being who you are is a hell of a way to live.
When we are powerless, we become desperate. We see the threat everywhere. And for many of us, we become convinced that anything we do to live into power will give us more power over ourselves. That if we assent to whiteness, patriarchy, gender normativity, that if we remind others of how they are supposed to act to please power, it will be easier for us.
We get tempted by the idea that proximity to power will save us.
That, my friends, is a lie.
To quote Brittany Packnett Cunningham, “your whiteness will not save you from what patriarchy has in store for you.”
I do not get to decide if you are trans or non-binary or cis or anything else.
I do not get to decide how you express your gender identity.
I do not get to decide what you do in your own bedroom with your partner(s).
I do not get to exercise control over someone else’s identity and expression because I pay them, or follow them, or live next to them, or share a home with them, or live in the same country with them, or on the same planet.
I do not get to decide how you use your voice or your body or your heart or your gifts for your own divine self-expression.
Because the minute I do that, I subject myself to the same exercise of power.
Now is a moment, and a gravely historical one at that, for choosing what you want.
Do you want to have power over yourself? Do you believe you have the inherent, divine ability to decide how you dress, love, speak, dance, play, how you live your whole life? Do you want that freedom? Do you want it for others?
Can you imagine, even for a second, how glorious it would be to be that free?
One of my teachers said this weekend that “we all get free together.”
It’s one or the other. It’s freedom for all or freedom for none.
The next time the siren song of “I have a right to say how this person chooses to live their life because of x” tempts you to enforce its power, consider how high the cost, to all of us, of the moment you opt in. Consider whether it is worth your own liberation.
Because we all get free together.