"Assume good faith" -- ancient liberal proverb
"Treat every poisoned word as a promise." -- Liel Leibovitz, "What to Do About Trump? The Same Thing My Grandfather Did in 1930s Vienna" (2016-11-14)"Should I encourage my employer to take a public stand against creating a Muslim registry? I don't know. Of course I wouldn't knowingly participate in the creation of a registry. But Trump wouldn't really do that, would he? Sure, he said he would, but it's such a ridiculous plan. Doesn't he know that? He must. He must have only said that to get votes; surely he couldn't really want or intend to do it."
This is what some of my fellow workers in the tech industry have been saying. Sure, everybody thinks the idea of creating a Muslim registry (or substitute any one of a number of other seemingly-ridiculous Trump campaign promises) is abhorrent, but we also think it's silly and impractical. Why bother taking a public stand in favor of something that's not going to happen?
"Assume good faith" is something that gets taught to white, middle-class Americans. Not all white, middle-class Americans internalize the message, and we're not the only ones who absorb it. But it's most present in those who have enough privilege to be able to suspend vigilance temporarily, while lacking the privilege needed to suspend vigilance for good. We are taught to assume the most charitable interpretation: when interacting with our family members, partners, co-workers, friends, or neighbors, we're taught to not jump to assuming the worst, to assume the other person means well and that if you perceive them acting in a way that's threatening or hostile towards you, to question your own assessment before you take defensive action. If your roommate never takes out the compost, maybe it's because you've never told them that you prefer the compost not to pile up in the kitchen -- to greet them when they get home from work one day with a cry of "Take out the goddamn pile of rot!!" would be unfair. If you get left off an email about a meeting to discuss the project you're leading at work, assume it was a typo rather than a plan to exclude you. And so on.
And in interpersonal relationships, that's often a good principle. That is, assuming good faith, as a personal practice, is a good principle; telling other people when they should assume good faith is a bad one (more about that in future work). The reason is that to the extent that you can choose who to live with, work with, and sleep with, it's a good idea to choose people you can trust. If you trust people, then it's not helpful to assume that they're out to get you. And if you don't trust the people in your life, you have to either work on your own ability to trust or get them out of your life, depending, before you level accusations. That's just common sense, right?
But "assume good faith" is very bad advice when dealing with fascist dictators. If your neighbor says something that sounds offensive or threatening to you, it's probably a good idea to at least make sure you heard them right before you call your lawyer. When a fascist dictator -- someone who's both inclined towards using violence to get what they want, and who has the power to act on that inclination -- says something that sounds offensive or threatening, it's a safe bet to assume that whatever the worst possible interpretation of their words is, that reflects the dictator's intent. That might be a bad way to operate in your close relationships, but is a good way to protect yourself and prepare for violence.
Treat every poisoned word as a promise. When a bigoted blusterer tells you he intends to force members of a religious minority to register with the authorities—much like those friends and family of Siegfried’s who stayed behind were forced to do before their horizon grew darker—believe him. Don’t try to be clever. Don’t lean on political intricacies or legislative minutia or historical precedents for comfort. Don’t write it off as propaganda, or explain it away as just an empty proclamation meant simply to pave the path to power. Take the haters at their word, and assume the worst is imminent.
-- Liel Leibovitz (ibid)
"That's just ridiculous." This is a comforting thing to tell yourself and others. Denial is one of the most powerful tools humans have for tolerating the intolerable. If you think the worst might happen, saying it won't happen will protect you against it, right? It's worked up until now, right?
"That's just ridiculous." Overreacting runs the risk of shame: of being told "you're too sensitive" or, worse, "you showed insufficient chill in the face of something that turned out to be no biggie." We face two possible futures. In one, we're all still alive and I've lived to be seen as someone who overreacted to the threat of a violent, xenophobic rapist with access to nuclear weapons. In the other, we're all dead, but my gravestone says "He had enough chill." I prefer the first one.
"That's just ridiculous." The more you call an idea ridiculous, the more ridiculous it will be, and the less likely it will be that anyone will act on it, right? Kids regulate each other's behavior with words like "you're being silly" -- the same strategy should work when we as citizens level it against a tyrant-in-waiting, right?
It's not ridiculous. It is scary. It's hard to face fear. No one who has power to do so is stopping a fascist from taking control over the United States. That's a scary situation to be in.
Many people associate this kind of fear with childhood, and remember when their parents or other adults would step in and let them know the monsters under the bed aren't going to eat them. Now that we're adults, it's comforting to assume that some benevolent authority figure is going to step in and tell the fascists they have to respect the rule of law. But there are no adults, except us. Denial, shame-avoidance, and dismissal are tools for surviving a situation in which you're powerless. But we still have power.
It's psychologically safer to laugh things off than to admit you're scared. But if you're so concerned with saving face, with protecting your self-image as a chill person who doesn't freak out over nothing, that you put up no resistance in the face of a violent, repressive regime, then how do you think you'll be remembered -- assuming there's anyone left to remember you?