I once worked among fifty thousand students and twenty-five thousand faculty and staff on the campus of a major university. The church where I worked was the only non-university building on campus. You would think, with the crush of thousands constantly circulating around us, communicating would be a cinch.
In those pre-internet days, kiosks every couple of blocks fluttered with fliers stapled over one another in a constant struggle for attention. Every store had posters taped on windows while bundles of the campus newspapers were left everywhere. Grabbing anyone’s attention was frustratingly difficult. We were right on campus yet gaining the attention of those hard living students was nearly impossible.
There were a few sidewalk preachers who stood in the central quad and yelled at people. As far as I could tell that was even less effective than a lonely flier on a light pole flapping in the wind.
There was so much noise in the air no one could hear, and so much clutter in the field of vision no one could see. I equate it to watching television with copious commercials, the same ones repeated over and over again in the marketer’s hope that they pop-up in our brains the next time we go shopping. Or on the internet where countless ads populate our peripheral vision or jump out as annoying pop-ups. But all that effort just seems to me like the feeling of being invisible on campus in the middle of seventy-five thousand people.
Now enter angry, violent, foul-mouthed internet memes, or worse, large banners in front of private residences berating the President with the F-word. Unfortunately such things catch our attention. They pierce the chattering fray in which we are all adrift and cause us to notice them. That is their strategy: be so aggressive, so belligerent, so threatening that they cannot be ignored, plus it makes them seem more prevalent than they actually are.
This has been a strategy of anti-democratic movements from pre-war Italy and Germany, to late century Argentina, El Salvador, and Chile. Paramilitary gangs, both loosely organized or centrally regimented, composed of toughs, bullies, and disaffected army veterans, use aggressiveness and violence to intimidate political opponents into silence and withdrawal. Their presence at town hall meetings and street demonstrations raised their visibility beyond their numbers. That strategy worked then, it must not now.
I see a parallel here to groups like the Proud Boys and others who crush civility at public meetings, who use bullying tactics online to drown out other voices by spewing horrid diatribes of hatred, who use ferocious threats to public officials who vote their conscience, and huge banners with vulgar and violent language against elected leaders. To defeat this small outnumbered fringe, instead of allowing the cancer to take over, the rest of us must stand up to them everywhere and assert boundaries on their behavior. Where they break the law we must insist they be prosecuted to the fullest extent. Where they cross the line with nasty, crude, and violent speech on social media or in public meetings, we need them to be banned.
It is painfully clear what this bullying behavior is seeking to do, and the historical precedents from which it is derived. We must not allow it to work here or now.