As a civil rights attorney, I deal with all kinds of prejudice and discrimination. Since my work involves systems change, I frequently post on social media as a way to influence those who follow me to engage in systems change to improve our world. Some of these posts are controversial and therefore, if some disagree or push back, as long as they are civil, I do not mind, as those social media conversations often result in educating people, and occasionally people change their minds.
I also like to post photos of nature and other interesting things that are simply feel good posts because we all need opportunities to feel good about our often troubling world. Yesterday, as I was battling invasive black locust trees on my property in rural Adams County, in Central Wisconsin, I happen to see a couple of Amish horse and buggy carts go by. This surprised me, as although we have owned our property here for almost 29 years and we have been living here full time for over a year, I have never seen an Amish horse and buggy cart trot by even though I know Amish people live in the area. As I do with almost everyone who drives by, I waved, and they waved back.
Later that afternoon, I posted the photo and friendly interaction on my Facebook page, without any contemplation that a controversy would ensue. In the under 24 hours since I posted it, there have already been 53 comments. The only good news about the controversy is that it provides a very clear demonstration of prejudice and stereotyping, which seems appropriate to use as a teaching tool.
I am keeping commenters’ names out of this post, and I have changed the post settings from public to friends, so as to keep those who want to fuel more controversy off of that Facebook post. Commenters to this post are, as always, welcome.
The controversy started quickly, with a friend posting as follows
“I don’t want to start anything but are you aware of their puppy milling and selling horses to the kill pens? Please understand that I am very aware that not all Amish people are involved in these horrific activities. However, I feel confident they know about the money making activities which go on in their closed community. I am guessing that the majority of these people don’t see any problem with figs living on the wire, in unheated, no air conditioning, no electricity barns for their entire lives being bred tine after time snd then hit over the head once their purpose is served (no longer able to breed). They have acquired the most spectacular breed of horse on this earth, the American Saddlebred. They have run their horses into the ground and many are shipped to Canada and Mexico for slaughter. The lucky ones end up in Saddlebred rescue and believe me, the shape they are in would make you cry. I guess my point is that there is a very dark side to this community and when I see them I do not wave. Instead I feel anger and so much sadness for their animals. I’m not making this stuff up and I’m not over exaggerating. It’s all well documented. I won’t even get started in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.”
I responded as follows:
“I’ve never heard these things. Everyone I know around here has positive things to say about them. They help with construction and make very fine furniture. I am not saying that your concerns have no validity. However, there is no way of knowing whether any passing stranger is friendly and a good person. I wave to every passing stranger and in the country, most people wave back.“
While I recognized the obvious prejudice and stereotyping, I had hoped that would end the discussion on this post, which was simply meant as a friendly and neighborly photo. However, another commenter asked her if she had any documentation of her accusations, and she said, “Hold on. I’ll get some.” Shortly, thereafter, she apologized and said that she was “tech impaired” and could not get the links she wanted to share to copy and paste onto the thread. Another commenter, came to her defense based on his knowledge of dog breeders, but he too failed to provide any documentation.
Another friend pushed back, stating:
“If he gave a friendly wave to a bunch of people from any other group, would you feel compelled to point out travesties committed by people associated with some members of their affiliation? Yeah, puppy mills suck, and there are appropriate ways to bring this to people’s attention and address the issue. . . but seriously. . . What should he have done. . . Flipped them the bird? Given them a lecture? Diversity is not just a river in Egypt, or something like that. And I’m pretty certain that their footprint on the environment is gentler than just about anyone’s here online.“
Yet another friend asked the anti-Amish commenters if they knew the people whom I waved to, which of course, they did not.
Since the controversy was proceeding without documentation, I thought I would do the research the anti-Amish commenters had not done. I found what appeared to be the best article on the issue and posted it along with the following comment.
“Here is what appears to be the most thorough article on this issue. Lots of correlation, not a lot of causation. It names 3 Amish puppy mills in Wisconsin. My best guess is that these folks who trotted by were not one of these 3 couples.“
Instead of ending the controversy, two more friends posted anti-Amish comments. Then, the original commenter, who had said she was done with this, popped back in with this comment.
“But they abuse animals. This is unforgivable in my eyes and I tend to be a forgiving person.“
I responded, “Who is they? All Amish? The article I posted names 3 Amish puppy mills in Wisconsin. That’s it, out of thousands of Amish who live here.“
Another friend pushed back on the anti-Amish comments by stating:
“It’s gossip, or slander, unless there is documented proof that this is a problem throughout that community. An entire culture is being judged on the actions of a few. Actually, you’re right. It’s not just gossip, or slander. It’s straight up bigotry.“
This prompted yet another anti-Amish puppy mill comment.
The original commenter returned with this comment:
“I do think that ALL Amish know that this goes on across the United States. If they aren’t willing to police their own and if they believe that treating animals in this manner is ok (by not taking action to stop it), THEY are guilty by association. Anyone in the world of dogs and/or horses is VERY aware of this issue. Are all puppymillers Amish? OF COURSE NOT and you can bet I would never support them or their businesses either! I am against puppy mills. I am against running horses into the ground and selling them at auction and kill pens. Period! I seriously request that anyone who doubts what I have told you to do your research (more than a quick google related to Amish miller’s in Wisconsin) and then please tell me what you think.“
At this point, my patience with blatant prejudice on my page was wearing thin, so I clearly stated:
“I did the research. You haven’t. You now accuse a whole group for a few bad actors. Stop it. Not on my page.“
Another friend pushed back again on the anti-Amish prejudice, as follows:
“You seem to think that it is our responsibility to research this. It’s not. If you are making accusations, it is your responsibility to prove it. That’s all. Otherwise, you are acting out of ignorance and bigotry. You are also accusing people of guilt by association. You say you’re sure they know. You don’t know. You have no proof. And worse, you are accusing people in a forum that they have no voice in. If you are spreading this kind of thing, you should be ashamed.”
The original commenter stood her ground, stating:
“Your research isn’t very extensive if this is what you came up with. I stand by my comments. I’m done with this. The sky is blue. Shall I research that too? I owe you nothing.”
Yet another anti-Amish commenter said that I should ask people in a different county which does not even neighbor Adams County.
Finally, another friend checked Snopes and debunked the anti-Amish puppy mill myth.
Sadly, that just resulted in one of the anti-Amish commenters defending herself with a very revealing comment:
“No one is writing a thesis here so I am not going to post “documentation.” I am speaking from experience. I am not making blanket statements about a group of people, nor are some others on this thread. Those of us familiar with rescue animals are speaking from experience.”
As a Jew, I am very familiar with stereotypes and how they can lead to hate, murder and genocide. Bernie Madoff is a famously bad man who happens to be Jewish. Sadly, because his financial wrongdoing fits into a common stereotype of Jews controlling money and ripping people off, his misbehavior feeds this prejudice.
Almost all prejudice and stereotypes come from either a personal experience or a rumor or possibly even a true story, that gets magnified from one person or a small number of people doing one or more bad things, to labeling all people “like them” as having the same negative attribute. The Nazis used this technique very well to kill 6 million Jews. Our previous President used it frequently to vilify Mexicans as “rapists.” Mainstream media often applies the word “thugs” to Black people who commit crime, without ever using that word to describe White criminals. Of course, the list goes on.
In the end, I have no idea whether the Amish people who drove their horse and buggy by and gave me a friendly wave, have committed any bad acts, whether to puppies or otherwise. Based on the research I have done, the odds are very low that they may have done so. As I posted on my page, when I see strangers, I will generally wave to them, as a gesture of human friendliness. In fact, waving to strangers in rural Wisconsin is the norm.
I assume the best in people until proven otherwise. Our world would clearly be a better place if more people did the same.
For more information on how I can help you accomplish progressive, effective systems change, contact me, Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting my web site: Systems Change Consulting.