Responding to Hate

As a civil rights attorney, I have spent over 3 decades using the tools of my trade to respond to hate that has been unleashed upon my clients. However, until recently, society has generally supported victims of hate and vilified the hate mongers. Sadly, the campaign and subsequent election of our president-elect has resulted in something I had hoped I would never see in my lifetime-the legitimization of hate.

Even a casual news observer cannot help but notice the daily occurrences of swastika graffiti, beatings and even killings of Muslims, and shaming of schoolchildren of color. On the Saturday night before this past Halloween, I went to see friends who perform in a local band at a nearby neighborhood club. Many were dressed up in a wide variety of costumes. Before the show, a complete stranger sitting next to me wearing a long Pinocchio nose, apparently thought it was completely ok to tell me a vile anti-semitic joke. Whether he knew I was Jewish does not matter. What was most disturbing was that he felt completely free to spew his hate in public to a total stranger.

Though I consider myself a strong advocate, I was so stunned when that stranger shared his anti-semitism with me that I failed to respond. I have been thinking about this incident ever since to try to understand my failure to respond. Beyond just being in shock, I also did not want to cause a scene at an otherwise festive public affair. But after I posted this incident on Facebook and a number of friends said they would have responded strongly, I realized 2 important things:

  • Never judge how someone responds to a crisis because you never know how you will respond if confronted with the very same crisis; and
  • It is often easier to respond on behalf of someone else than to actually defend yourself.

Sadly, once the election was over, the president-elect moved quickly to make sure the world understood that he would continue to legitimize hate when he appointed a purveyor of hateful prejudice, Steve Bannon, as his Chief Strategist, a position in the White House that has never previously existed. For those who are unaware, Bannon was the editor of before joining the president-elect’s campaign. In that capacity, he regularly denigrated Jews, Muslims, homosexuals, people of color and women, and he did so in vile and hateful language. Until recently, such a man would not be accepted in civil society, but since the president-elect has normalized hate and prejudice, he has now welcomed it, through Bannon’s appointment, to the highest level of his White House.


Fortunately, yesterday, I was given a chance to respond belatedly to the anti-semitism I experienced, when a local TV news reporter called me in my role as President of my synagogue, Shaarei Shamayim, to ask if I would be willing to publicly respond to my Congressman Mark Pocan’s call that the president-elect withdraw Bannon’s appointment. I gladly agreed to do so and you can watch my interview at this link.

During this interview, I was able to convey the following in response to Bannon’s appointment and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s acceptance of it:

“Our president-elect has chosen to legitimize hate within his own administration. We had a big Bat Mitzvah this past weekend (and) people are worried. They’re very worried. He has an opportunity – Speaker Ryan – to say directly to the President of the United States – hate does not belong in the White House. I understand that he was just renominated as Speaker of the House, but that’s not leadership to duck a question like that.”

This TV news story not only provide me with the opportunity to delegitimize hate, but as the story has been shared widely, local leaders have approached me to work with them to strategize on an organized local response. I look forward to doing so in the days and weeks to come. Unfortunately, given the results of our recent election, this will just be the first of many battles which good people simply cannot shy away from. The timing and manner of each of our responses to hate will vary, but respond we must.


For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.


3 thoughts on “Responding to Hate


    The Obama administration was forced to withdraw or dismiss nominees and appointees such as Lani Guinier and Van Jones for concerns that in no way approached the level of concern about Bannon.

    The Republicans have long gotten away with appointing people whose ideological extremism should have disqualified them.

    One of the worst who did incredible harm to our country was Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan. He was heavily influenced by Ayn Rand and her cruel philosophy of Objectivism.

    Near the end of his term he revealed that he had been making economic decisions that were among the causes of the recession based on right wing libertarian extremist ideology (the self-correcting power of free markets) rather than the scholarly research on economics.


    Paul Ryan has chosen opportunism over leadership in his response to Bannon.

    Ryan is also heavily influenced by Ayn Rand’s cruel philosophy of Objectivism. He is making decisions based on right wing libertarian free market ideology.

    Among the reasons Ryan may be supporting Bannon is not only to remain Speaker of the House but also to obtain Trump’s support for Ryan’s goal of privatizing Medicare.


    Jeff is absolutely right that we should “Never judge how someone responds to a crisis”.

    In a crisis such as a stranger making a bigoted remark assessment is necessary.

    1. Is the person impaired? The person Jeff described may have been impaired by alcohol or drugs which may have suppressed their inhibitions and impaired their judgment.

    When dealing with impaired people a fundamental rule is that you cannot deal with them while they are impaired.

    Also, impairment does not make someone a bigot. Impairment suppresses inhibitions which makes easier a bigot’s public expression of their bigotry.

    When they are not impaired, their behaviors while impaired can be described to them. Then they can be told that suggests that their drug or alcohol use may not be recreational but may be a problem for which they need help. In addition to a problem with their use of substances, they also have a problem with bigotry which they need to address.

    2. Is the person a threat to your or others’ safety? The person has already engaged in verbally aggressive behavior. Their judgment and inhibitions may be impaired by drugs or alcohol. When challenged they may be quick to become very defensive and angry which can escalate to physical aggression.

    Our first responsibility is to our own physical safety and the safety of those with us.

    Challenging the bigotry of a possibly impaired person in the audience at a concert may not be feasible. The best and most appropriate response may be to move to a safe space or ask the assistance of the facility’s staff or security personnel.

    Sadly we’ll have plenty of other opportunities to challenge bigotry in spaces where we personally are safer such as at family gatherings, workplaces, or drug and alcohol free community events.

    On a personal note I have not figured out how to keep the anger out of my voice when I challenge bigotry. What follows is the bigot quickly deflects my challenge back on to me into by turning it into a discussion of “why am I so angry”. I find that so confusing and disarming that I am unable to proceed.

    Until I can figure out how to get the anger out of my voice I try to find behind the scenes ways to support others who are more skilled at confronting bigotry.

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