“Regarding that Facebook post…” Part 2: Teaching the Holocaust for 10 years changed my life

“Hi Brianna, I wanted to take a minute to privately address your post on Facebook regarding the President. It hurt my feelings.”

In a moment of distilled anger, I posted a 260-word explosion on Facebook. After reading about the Trump administration’s policy on separating parents and children of undocumented immigrants at our southern border, I saw red and rather than posting one more article where I relied on someone else to articulate my feelings, I simply made a statement about my personal struggle with family, friends, and acquaintances who continued to support an administration that was wrecking havoc on the lives of the most vulnerable in our society. A bold call-out. One that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about, answering for, and defending. But, for all its problems, an honest post.

This post went on to garner 99 comments, many of which were my own as I was committed to replying to everyone who took the time to respond. But one person decided to respond privately, share his hurt, and invite me to a larger conversation about the post what I had hoped to accomplish. I gladly accepted.

It was summer time, and I met him at a popular bar around 1:00 PM on a Sunday afternoon. Not sure what this conversation would hold, I was nervous–my stomach clenching and unclenching as I locked my bike and headed inside. I knew for a fact that this person voted for Trump because I remember learning it and being incredulous that someone I knew, liked, and respected could be convinced to make this decision. I recognized this was, and continues to be, a naive reaction.

As we ordered our beer, we took some time to reconnect and catch up on each other’s lives, getting the niceties of conversation out of the way before to tackled the reason we were there. He brought it up, and I took a deep breath to dive in.

First, I thanked him for both taking the time to reach out to me privately and taking the time to meet with me in person. He responded by sharing a story about a woman who he simply couldn’t interact with on social media due to her aggressive posts and tone, but who, in person, enjoyed very much. He had never put me into that category, affirming that although he didn’t agree with many points of view that I had espoused, he also appreciated that I didn’t engage in “personal attacks.” But my recent post felt different.

And I affirmed that it was. Clarifying that I didn’t say I hated or couldn’t be friends with people who supported the current administration, I did reiterate that I was being honest when I stated that I had lost respect for them. Again, to his credit, he did not get defensive, but continued to ask questions and seek to understand.

Eventually we got to the heart of why I had posted this and why, against the advice of many, I continue to remain confrontational and political on both digital platforms and face-to-face. It’s partially because I taught the Holocaust for 10 years of my life.

Before I explain this, I want to clarify that my actions are simply my way of moving through the world the best I know how. I am not making an argument that to take a stand for justice, you have to even have a social media account or that you have to use it to post anything. I’m using social media as a vehicle for a larger picture in my life because the conversation it sparked had me questioning why I did it and interrogating myself about if my reason was good enough. All of that reflection and conversation helped me to get to the foundational reason I do and say all kinds of things on and offline.

In teaching the Holocaust for 10 years, I read Elie Wiesel’s memoir 10 times, each time supporting my students to deconstruct a timeline of HOW and WHY this happened to millions of Jews and other people who were targeted by the Nazi regime for persecution and extermination. Additionally, I visited the United States Holocaust Museum 9 times, reviewing the first floor which provides the more global picture for how the conditions following World War I primed Germany for the rise of Hitler and anti-Semitism. Genocide does not happen like a freak storm. It happens as a pattern over and over again in history. And I feel personally responsible for calling out any actions that fall on a spectrum of dehumanization and government-sanctioned marginalization of groups of people.

When we track genocides throughout history including the Holocaust, we can see that this pattern starts by politicians and government agents speaking from powerful pulpits and creating policies that denigrate groups of people. The pattern starts with large swaths of citizens turning a blind eye to the persecution and marginalization of others. Genocide is possible because of bystanders.

I mentioned in part 1 some of the key questions that I felt were important when teaching about this horrific time in our history.

How does the Holocaust happen in a society that previously lived peacefully with its neighbors? 

It happens when we don’t advocate for our neighbors who experience marginalization. Even if we don’t know people personally, if we can see an abuse of power by the government and we can see people being treated inhumanely, and we do nothing to speak up against it, we can become a silent supporter of injustice.

Where does hatred start?

It starts by thinking about other people as dangerous, “dirty,” less moral, less worthy, less deserving than us. It starts by shrugging our shoulders when people use degrading language to describe other humans. It starts when people who are desperate for food, shelter, or safety are treated as dangerous criminals rather than fellow humans who have more desperate circumstances than we currently face and should be treated with dignity and our support.

How does it progress to genocide?

It progresses when the government sanctions marginalization or dehumanization as acceptable. When people’s freedoms are stripped from them, and finally when those who are weak and unable to defend themselves are killed. There are so many nuances and actions along a spectrum and progression, but simplified it goes from marginalization to dehumanization to violence to killing.

Why do good people allow this to happen in their towns and turn a blind eye or stay silent?

Because they are afraid of this happening to them. They feel powerless to change something perpetuated by their government. They believe that victims have done something to deserve their treatment. They are indoctrinated by leaders they trust in the community, in churches, in government to remain passive or even become accomplices to dehumanizing, harming, or killing other people.

Who is the most to blame for the Holocaust?

I have come to believe that the only people who are NOT to blame for the Holocaust are 1) the victims of persecution and 2) those who took subversive action against the systematic dehumanization of people. Anyone who was complicit through action or silence is partially to blame for this history. Leaders carry a greater burden, as that role demands.

Did I really go through all of this in the summer of 2018 sitting at a bar with a friend over a beer? Well, yes, in some version what what I just typed out, I explained how in teaching the Holocaust, I have come to form deep beliefs about my role in the pledge “Never again.” One of those beliefs is rooted in a civic duty to act if I see someone in need. Another is to speak out when I see injustice–especially injustice perpetrated or ignored by the government.

And that informs how I move through this world and prioritize actions or inactions. It doesn’t mean I actually get it right and it doesn’t mean that my choices are always effective. It means that I would rather mess up in speaking up than mess up by staying silent about any injustice. I have to be willing to accept the consequences of that priority structure which include people not agreeing with me, choosing to disconnect from me, becoming angry with me, or thinking badly of me in general. I think all of those are a small price to pay in the larger picture, and I choose to trust that those who care enough, will engage further rather than walk away.

But I also welcome when I’m challenged. I’m still not 100% sure that my Facebook post was an effective way to actualize my beliefs about speaking up and taking action. I’ve examined the criticism of social media “outrage” and calling people out for political decisions that were made from a complex soup of reasons and rationales. I’ve engaged with those who’ve challenged me and often thanked the for doing so. I’ve tried to never stoop to becoming what I claim to stand against–dehumanizing language or personal attacks on character.

And I haven’t deleted that post.

Here’s what matters: how each of us choose to take a stand against harm to those in our society who are being ignored, persecuted, silenced and harmed by the government and by those with more power and resources. Many do this through volunteering; some do it through marches and protests; others choose to support organizations and individuals doing direct work. Social media is one small slice of a larger picture of activism and speaking out against injustice, and I don’t pretend it’s always the best choice or even a particularly effective one.

Since I’m engaged there for part of my days, I also feel the need to speak up there. I may change my mind. For now, my answer to “Why do you post that stuff?” will continue to be because I think it matters and it’s one small way I can speak up against ways that people are experiencing injustice. It’s one way I can live the lessons I learned from teaching the Holocaust to high school freshman, and practice the lessons I worked so hard to encourage them to learn. Despite not doing it perfectly or even well at times, I hope overall I cause people to think, question, and decide for themselves the best actions each of us can take to fight injustice when we see it, and to never choose silence when we have a voice to stand up for another human.

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