I PROMISED MYSELF I wouldn’t, but I scrolled through my cousin’s Facebook wall the other day. This cousin is Arab, as am I, and we used to be very close—until he moved to Texas for university. He was born in the U.S., something I sort of envied, but not terribly. When he told me this, I was too young to grasp fully what it meant. So, what I found on his wall were the usual reposts of trending memes and phrases, then the odd alt-right media nugget. I had to resist the urge to slap corrections on the comments after these posts, for ignoring someone in cyberspace is as easy as ignoring Syrian refugees. It is a click away.
Seeking to appease my Messiah complex, I set out to understand how an Arab could court right-wing propaganda. What I know about this cousin is that he is a conformist. He can befriend anyone. It is admirable: seeking friendship and good relations with the neighbors is part of our heritage. But popularity is a double-edged sword, and with him it had drawn his own blood. He used to be friendly and approachable to his family but has grown aloof, less enthusiastic about life, more sober, cynical, like a child who has discovered a magician’s tricks. Now, his profile picture is him standing strong, as if you’d just insulted him or stepped on his lawn. His frequently shared phrases include things like “sorry not sorry” and “I do X. Respect that!”
I dug deeper to further understand his social circle. I found his “likes” on his friends’ neo-conservative posts, but not a peep when they posted things demeaning Arabs or Muslims or presenting mistruths about us as facts. I can hardly imagine him discouraging or disagreeing with those who would seek further war and bloodshed in the Middle East. In short, he has become the token conservative Arab friend, insulting liberals along with the misinformed and remaining quiet when his allies discuss his own people, including the violent ones.
The On-line Jungle
One certainty is that nobody will allow anyone to get the best of them on Facebook. Facebook is about saving face. It is about showing the best side of yourself to everyone in your life, and even when you nag or complain or seek help, the end result is to serve you. It is your own territory in cyberspace and you can be as totalitarian or democratic as you please. If you post something and someone corrects you, it can be rather embarrassing, because this correction will serve as a record of your fallibility, and it is not going anywhere unless you delete it, concede with poise, or respond. Then, if your response is responded to and you are again corrected, you relive the humiliation until one side lets it go. How many times have you seen “Oh, you’re right” or “I stand corrected” on Facebook? It is not a place where humans concede any ground, perhaps because there is no real ground to concede.
This dynamic is a symptom of our times. We come to battle armed with arguments given to us by our media outlets of choice, and the more stubborn the other side is, the more they become a nuisance to us, an enemy of the proper functioning of society, an obstacle to our personal utopia. The other becomes an idiot, a buffoon, a snowflake, a “libtard,” a bigot, a moron, a racist, a homophobe who needs to have their mind purged. We cocoon ourselves in the news of the world that satisfies our paradigms, and we fuse our worldview with this new information, ready to emerge as a pawn of its source—“us”—and prepared to ravage the enemy colony.
This is why I try to keep an open mind and dip into right-wing waters. I comment with corrections, and in come the trolls. I don’t read their responses. It is understandable to me why I receive them, though. Counterarguments pop up in our minds because refuting the other has become a staple of the internet’s news outlets. All the talking-points are on the tips of our tongues and fingers, and it’s easy to type them out. We’ve memorized them. In contrast, it is redundant to elaborate on why someone’s comment is valid or insightful. A simple thumbs-up will do.
In this post-truth era, anything we don’t agree with is labeled as “fake news,” whether it comes from an established media source or some upstart sensationalist who profits off fear-mongering, intolerance, and semantic distractions. Even when commenting within our own ideological orbit, step outside the prevailing opinion on some issue and we’re likely to be called an “idiot” or some insult. Thus are we whipped—disciplined—into agreeing. If we say that this person is being too aggressive, then we are weak or stupid. There is something convincing about forcefulness. Public events in the U.S. are aggressive affairs. You will never hear an American crowd cheering for a calm Jesus over a charismatic Lucifer. “Keep fighting” is a favorite watchword, which makes sense when your side is that of absolute righteousness.
There’s a Whole World Out There
I live in Japan. Here, manliness is about production, not machismo. Here, righteousness is gentle. A loud voice does not show strength but betrays foolishness. Here, charisma is a dish of mellow spices. It has been magnificent to live in such a peaceful and industrious place. I have met Thais and Bhutanese and Koreans and Chinese and Vietnamese and Filipinos. They have their own ways of thinking, of going about things, their own vices and virtues, and codes for judging what act falls into which of those two categories. It is different from the West, and it puts me at ease. No matter how great the problems in the West, the Far East is significant economically and politically. Trump wants the U.S. out of the pivotal Paris Climate Agreement. Meanwhile, China is planning to invest billions in renewable energy. The U.S. is a superpower, but not the only significant country on the planet.
I am Lebanese, part of the Arab tapestry, a tapestry soaking in blood and oil. I feel that I must change minds through correct information before it’s too late. But who am I? I am nobody yet. As a sociologist, I firmly believe in Max Weber’s faith in the agency of the individual, but because of our short attention spans and media becoming flashier and dumbed down, this agency has been undermined. I guiltily admit that I’ve found myself immersed in all kinds of sweet distractions (RuPaul’s Drag Race) because thinking about the real world makes me feel powerless, makes me lose sleep.
If Americans only knew how desperately people like me long to vote in their elections. In the midst of all this frustration is the dream of the secular Arab Left. Our best weapon against hardliners and theocrats is a West to admire, not one to abhor—a benevolent West that upholds human rights everywhere, without double standards, and prosecutes anyone who breaches them. We want to bring LGBT rights, women’s equality, and environmental sustainability to our countries, but without having these imports tainted by Western greed and injustice. But it remains a dream.
In Lebanon, we recently held our annual Beirut Pride week, and for the first time we received a threat from hardline Islamists. This still did not hamper the event, which simply relocated to another indoor venue discreetly and went on to receive unprecedented media coverage, thus scoring us a victory over the short-sighted strategy of the biased and the pious.
The situation is as ridiculous as it is serious: I am an Arab homosexual. I have a rough beard and it digs out moan after moan when grazing the asses of my lovers. In my native country, I am queer and flirting with danger. Sure, we have our laughs, our transvestite prostitute friends—bless them—our days with eyeliner and not a care in the world. We are simply the queers that most people are too busy to do something about. A sharp quip gets giggles from rough-looking strangers on the corner. First they smirk, then they expect us, then they anticipate us, and finally we become the highlight of their difficult blue-collar workweek. We make a few strides of progress—but then something explodes.
When something explodes, all the West is put under scrutiny: Trump eclipses the glory of democracy, civilian blood stains the Declaration of Human Rights, women’s emancipation becomes blasphemy, and homosexuality becomes treasonous blasphemy. Now we are told that by being gay we are “copying a Western trend.” Your options are to stay and wear what your neighbors wear, speak as your father speaks, refrain from clubbing, and wait for the smoke to clear, or to emigrate.
To be sure, being gay is easier in Europe, in North America, or in Australia, but being Arab is not. I am no longer the default in these lands; I am the wretched. There, I cannot simply wear what my neighbor wears. And will the smoke ever clear? So one waits, but what does one do? Go to work, go on dates, and go on living? Or does one’s heart ache with the injustice that life has dealt and that one wishes to do something about? Peacefully, of course. Jihad, as interpreted by its most notorious practitioners, promises upwards of seventy maidens in heaven. What the hell would I do with them? Choreograph a music video for God?
Let me tell you a little story here about a couple that fate damned me to meet. The two women were struggling artists, they stuffed themselves with candy and had other bad habits, and they were rather rude to people. To each their own, of course, and they looked cute together. One half of the couple was my roommate.
She was awful to live with. We shared a bedroom and she insisted on keeping the cat’s litterbox in it. When I complained about it—the stench, the effects on our health, the unsightliness of cat shit first thing in the morning—in came my roommate’s partner and they united against me. They were not bothered by that “faint” odor—I could always crack open a window—and what kind of weirdo looks at the cat’s litterbox anyway? I was “being too sensitive.” Besides, since each of them paid a quarter of the rent, both were my de facto roommates. Democracy meant cat shit stayed in the room.
As for their relationship, suffice it to say that I once went away for a week and returned to find bruises on their faces. They’d had another of their fights. Then I realized that what they had for each other was not love. They merely found someone who put up with the other’s unreasonable side. They united against something, but not for love. Thus when there was nothing to unite against, nature took its course, as it will in all toxic relationships.
Let this couple serve as a metaphor for Trump and his supporters. His most ardent supporters are Caucasians without a college degree. Their lives are difficult, as in the “free market” only the qualified get ahead. Socialized to hate the socialist policies that would even the playing field and make education more attainable, including for them and their families, they nevertheless hailed their savior, who declared, “I love the poorly educated.” They fell for Trump, in both senses of that lovely expression, who himself was not that well educated but appeared to be successful. Indeed, he made it seem that it was no fault of their own that they were downtrodden, but rather that of a sinister system that was rigged against them.
It turns out—surprise!—Trump’s policies, ranging from a budget that suffocates Meals on Wheels to scrapping Obamacare, harm most citizens and especially his own giddy flock. But when I, a liberal, criticize Trump, I am throwing fuel on the fire. Liberals already hate Trump. The strategy is to get conservatives to dump him, and right now conservatives are not too impressed by what liberals have to say. There are gas station workers and arms dealers in the Bible Belt who call gasoline “liberal tears.” For them, enraging liberals is pleasurable in its own right, regardless of the issue or its consequences.
There are many reasons why part of Trump’s base is not dumping him as quickly as they should. But the main reason is undoubtedly the fear of falling into the shark tank of “I told you so” inhabited by educated liberals. Some would rather save face and defend their choice to their last breath of life than face the truth. This is why I believe that side-by-side with our unwavering activism and political advocacy, we must provide a less hostile left for those on the right whose faith is starting to crumble. Indeed, we must provide a safe space (ironically) to receive without judgment and ridicule our brothers and sisters who made the human error of trusting a man who used charity money to buy a six-foot portrait of himself.
As an outsider, I view the current American government as a ravaging blob that somehow grows stronger if sliced by liberal rage. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, and this is why some Trump supporters will not proactively take measures to hamper the current administration’s efforts. Anything that enrages liberals is ipso facto worth supporting. Just like the toxic couple I knew, their bond is only strengthened by our disapproval; they will have to break up organically, on their own.
As LGBT people, we know what it means to be demonized. As easy and as tempting as it is to label all Trump supporters as stupid, subhuman, bigoted troglodytes, we must view them as individuals with hopes and dreams, loves and fears, just like us. So please hold back the insults, the slurs, the judgment. Lead by example, not by opinion, and remember to love your Texan cousins. You know as well as I do that those who voted for Trump may regret it, but let them know that it’s all right to be fallible. Let them know that they will not be judged as stupid, moronic, idiotic, deranged, or deplorable if they admit that it was a mistake, if they begin to waver from showing him fealty just for the sake of saving face. If you argue, be gentle, because being right is not about loudness or charisma or force. But do not sit idly by.
Intesar Toufic (a pen name) is a Lebanese man studying international relations in Japan.