I’m finally telling this story after all these years because I have been seeing a lot of Trump supporters and apologists who believe that the epidemic of hate crimes against minorities right now is mostly invented.
What people often don’t understand is how hate crimes actually function and how the victims are just as likely to hide the incident as the perpetrators. This makes them very easy for conservatives to deny and ignore. But these things do happen. They can happen to anyone and they can be committed by anyone.
So this is how my experience went down. I’m not proud of it but I think talking about it is the right thing to to.
It was 1990. I was in sixth grade in a little rural town north of Seattle. One day the teacher from the other class called an emergency meeting, pulling his entire class into mine. He then went on an infuriated rant about two boys who had been caught naked, fooling around in the bushes. This teacher could barely contain his rage, though he repeatedly said that it had nothing to do with it being two boys. It was their youth that made it horrible and wrong, not their gender. He insisted it was not homophobic and that it’s just as evil for straight children to do this kind of thing.
I don’t remember what he said or what explanation he gave for why this incident was so horrible while kids who violently assaulted each other were dealt with in a much more calm and dignified manner.
This teacher also did something sneaky: he did not reveal the identity of the students, but instead told us that the two students were not in the room. He was well aware that as sixth graders we could do the basic math of looking around to see who was missing. It took us only moments to figure out who the two boys were and I think that was the teacher’s intent.
He also said that we were all going to be watched more closely during recess, and implied that everyone was guilty in some small way for allowing this to happen. Maybe I’m assigning intent where there is none, but I do feel like he was deliberately trying to get us riled up and angry.
The next day during recess I saw a mob forming at the edge of the field. The teachers seemed aware and slightly concerned, but for some reason were unwilling to walk out there and see what was happening. Instead they simply watched from a distance, which seemed very abnormal to me.
So I walked out to the mob to find what looked like a scene from some after-school special. The two boys were lying in the mud in the center of the mob, clinging to each other, sobbing and begging for mercy while everyone else kicked and spat on them. Two baseball bats were passed around, both boys and girls taking swings at them. The mob screamed obscenities, calling them homos and fags and repeated things our teacher had said in his rant.
Looking back, it’s still hard to understand my feelings and why I was okay with this. I can see the scene so vividly in my mind and recognize that I should have been horrified. A good person would have fought back and tried to stop the violence. But I did not. In fact, I joined in, or at least attempted to.
I do not remember if I ever actually hit the boys with a baseball bat. It doesn’t matter though because I do remember asking for a turn. If I did not hit them, I had every intention of doing so.
But the funny thing is that I wasn’t anti-gay. During this same time I was passionately supportive of gay marriage and equal rights for all LGBTQ people (which wasn’t even an acronym yet). I was grossed out by the idea of gay sex, as many straight guys are (I was straight back then), but in no way did I feel like it was wrong.
So what was I thinking?
The other thing that bothers me is that I’ve never felt guilty. I can recognize that it was horrible and wrong, but my emotions never punished me for my behavior the way they normally do. This raises the question, if a liberal, gay-rights supporter can do something like this and not feel guilty, what hope do we have of convincing conservatives to care when most of them aren’t even seeing the suffering with their own eyes?
I have, however, spent a great deal of time thinking about this. I think a lot of different factors went into this.
First, it made me feel safe. I was normally the victim of bullies. I had to spend every recess just avoiding them and planning my strategies to reduce the possibility of getting beat up myself. It was such a relief to have someone else at the receiving end that I think my survival instincts kicked in and I decided to promote the thing that made me feel safe. My instincts simply didn’t care that I was making someone suffer worse than the bullies had ever done to me.
I think my sense of safety may be a metaphor for the safety that conservatives feel when they oppress minorities. When you’re convinced your safety is at risk, your morals go out the window, even if you’re in no real danger.
The second motivator I believe was my dedication to rules and order. They had broken a serious rule and I felt that rule-breakers needed to be punished. This is a concept that adults and media had drilled into me my whole life. I knew logically that what we were doing was worse, but that didn’t matter. When you’re dedicated to rules the way I was, you don’t concern yourself with what’s actually more or less damaging to society. It’s the principle that matters.
But there I was a hypocrite too. I broke the rules from time to time and was usually able to get away with it. I was still dedicated to the rules and looked down on anyone who violated them, but ignored my own infractions. This tendency is fascinating and I see it in so many adults and everywhere in politics, government and public opinion. Somehow when you are dedicated to the rules, it’s justifiable to break them in order to enforce them.
There were other factors, but I think those were the two major ones.
That teacher did get us totally riled up and I doubt this would have happened without his angry rant. I can’t say for sure that he deliberately tried to incite violence. In the same way I can’t be certain Trump is deliberately trying to promote violence, but it certainly seems that way.
So after the violence was over, the surprising thing was that everything just went back to normal. No one got in trouble. No one mentioned either incident again. The two boys moved on and kept showing up for class. I wouldn’t be surprised if they never told anyone about it. It all just kind of disappeared and everyone went on pretending none of it ever happened. I even sort of became friends with one of the two boys a couple years later.
I think one thing that both liberals and conservatives need to understand is that frequently, when you are the victim of a hate-crime — or any kind of violence — it’s just easier to forgive and forget. You don’t want to make them more angry so they’ll hurt you worse a second time. You imagine your attackers feel some shame at what they did and you hold on to that and decide it’s better to just move on. You don’t want to remember what happened. You don’t want to have to describe it and show your bruises. You just want to push it down and pretend it didn’t happen. Usually your attackers are more than willing to go along with that.
So I wonder if this is what’s happening. Victims make a couple social media posts, a few going viral, but most won’t officially report it because they don’t need the satisfaction of vengeance and don’t want the humiliation of reliving the event. Then Trump supporters jump on this and use it to deny that anything is wrong. Unfortunately, all my thinking about this incident has not provided me any ideas for solutions.