As Black Lives Matter became the defining social issue of 2020, leading to the largest-ever protest movement in the United States, I was stunned but not surprised by the nitpicked focus on rioting coming from white conservatives and moderates. Instead of engaging in an honest conversation about systemic racism or corruption within the justice system, many right-wingers decided that the evil of property destruction was the hill on which they wanted to die. They summarized BLM activities as riots, despite the vast majority of protests remaining peaceful, and many activists quite literally begging for protesters not to engage in violence.
This political pivoting is not new, and it is not an accident. For a more benign but equally illustrative issue, let’s take a look at the holidays.
I used to live in a relatively small mountain town on the outskirts of Silicon Valley. As is true of many South Bay parts of the Bay Area, it’s a fairly even mix of liberals and conservatives, though mostly white, and mostly wealthy. The biggest town conflict I can remember came one year around the holiday season on (drum roll please) Nextdoor.com, the official website of Karens nationwide.
On one edge of the busiest intersection in town was a creche, or Nativity scene. It came up every year, one of the inevitable Christmas decorations you’re bound to see in a town such as ours.
That year, a woman posted about it on Nextdoor. To paraphrase, she wrote, “I’m not Christian and I find it insensitive that there’s a blatantly religious symbol in the center of town.”
Whether or not the creche was worth fighting is up to interpretation. But the backlash this woman received from the majority of people who responded to her post, as well as my family in casual dinner-table conversation, was totally disproportionate to the post itself. She essentially said “hey, this makes me uncomfortable,” and was bombarded with anger and outrage in response.
To anyone who has paid attention to the conservative condemnation of PC culture, the creche fiasco probably isn’t too surprising. From the so-called “War on Christmas” to caricatures of blue-haired feminists who don’t shave their legs, it seems to me that conservatives are often more focused on being angry about “identity politics” than liberals are about enforcing these elements in the first place.
In a piece called “Poll: Conservatives most likely to be offended by holiday greetings,” Christopher Ingraham discusses this paradox further with Google Trends data measuring stats on Americans’ feelings toward holiday greetings. He found that while conservatives often caricature liberals as too quick to take offense over politically incorrect speech, people who described themselves as “very conservative” were more than twice as likely to be offended by “Happy Holidays” (21%) as “very liberal” respondents were to be offended by “Merry Christmas” (10%). In other words, inclusivity was more offensive to conservatives than prioritizing Christianity was to liberals.
And it goes a step further: this outrage at progressive ideas isn’t just silly, but a direct attempt to steer the conversation away from the core of issues that liberals are trying to right, be they religious tolerance, women’s rights, or more recently, the Black Lives Matter movement.
During the initial days of the recent Black Lives Matter protests, the conversation in centrist and conservative spaces—be it mainstream cable news or a Zoom call with your extended family—often trended toward how destructive looting and rioting was as opposed to the reasoning behind them: police brutality and systematic violence against Black Americans. But that’s an easier conversation to have, right? Pretending that the real problem here is some folks smashing windows instead of a system that was built to protect white people while oppressing everyone else?
Flipping the script in this way—taking the conversation from protecting Black lives to protecting property, or whatever other side issue is in at that moment—turns our attention away from the hard issues, the ones that require major upheaval of the systems that benefit us, to the ones that are easy to laugh off. It’s a lot easier to make jokes about a fictional trans person yelling at you for messing up their pronouns than to deal with the fact that as I write this, eleven Black trans women have been murdered this year. It’s harder to acknowledge that Christianity is always prioritized in our government despite a supposed separation of church and state than to say that liberals are snowflakes for including other belief systems. And clearly, it is easier to call Black people “thugs” and “dangerous” than to realize that if it wasn’t for your white skin, you might not be alive.
By Sheena Holt
Illustration by Lay Hoon