It’s one thing to have your policies criticized. To be condemned by your political opponents. To be second guessed by pundits. But it’s another to have pornographic or racist cartoons and bumper stickers, as well as fabricated stories about you circulating freely in the media and on the internet.

That’s what both the Prime Minister of Australia, Julia Gillard, and President Barack Obama are putting up with. In Gillard’s case, even though Australians are used to a bare-knuckle style of Parliamentary debate, the vulgar, misogynist attack on Gillard goes way beyond even the most salacious rant. And the racist attacks on Obama, as well as challenges to his nationality, education, and religion are far out of line from simple political disagreement.

Both Gillard and Obama are firsts. They broke through a glass ceiling, And in both cases, right after their election, their countries basked in a post-election glow that quickly dissipated in the wake of reactionary and vicious attacks.

Can they defend themselves?

Gillard just did in a video clip going viral here in America, reported in a New Yorker article entitled, What Obama Could Learn from Julia Gillard’s Speech on Australian Misogyny?

But the title belies the fact that that at least 50% of the Australian public is comprised of women. To defend yourself, knowing you are also defending a sizeable segment of the population is different from defending yourself as a part of a smaller minority. And while conversations about gender and race are difficult, in America, real conversations about race are almost nonexistent.

Barack Obama is a Jackie Robinson for  the 21st century. There’s nothing for him to do but be the best he can be.

Or is there?

What can one do when the attack is not only personal, but an attack on one’s social or racial or gender group?

This is not just about Obama or Gillard. It’s about everyone. We all have a social identity and stepping up in the public eye, in our current cultural climate means our social identity is fair game. If we actually make it past the stigma and get elected, or in the workplace, rise to a place of prominence, then we have to endure attacks, bullying, and in some cases, sabotage.

So what can we do when we are attacked not just for our policies, but for our social identity? There is nothing simple about this. There is no solution to this, no five easy steps for managing it. One reason it’s not so simple is because it’s a collective responsibility, not just the individual being attacked. It’s a cultural problem and requires a cultural solution. Here are some attitudes and frameworks I find helpful.

  • When you are a member of a marginalized group, you are a symbol and a trigger for a cultural conversation. This means it takes a special kind of person to be a ‘first.’ Not everyone has it in them. Nor should everyone. Deciding to put yourself in the spotlight, open to abuse, should be very carefully considered. Because it doesn’t just hurt feelings, it takes a toll on bodies and health. Being the target of abuse, no matter how high up you are, can be lethal.
  • Attacks are part of a conversation trying to and needing to happen. Culture evolves through conflict and painful as it is, it’s how culture changes. This means it doesn’t have to do with us personally. And that awareness alone can be protective. In some way allowing for the conversation to happen, or helping it go beyond vilification and surface stereotypes can help it move forward, and move off of you, and onto the issues needing to be discussed. During the 2008 campaign Obama’s speech, A More Perfect Union, in response to controversial remarks made by his former pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright is such an example of moving the conversation forward, and off of the person.
  •  Culture changes only when tolerance levels change. Tolerance doesn’t mean open-mindedness or acceptance. Tolerance means endurance. When we tough it out, we send the message that we can take it. We’re not affected. But unless people see the pain and suffering societal sadism causes, it keeps going. Bullying is now a conversation because, unfortunately, of suicide. Perhaps it’s not possible for leaders to show they suffer from attacks. Our society might not be able to appreciate that. But strength and power, while necessary for setting boundaries, sometimes needs to be complemented by an awareness of the impact of the attack. We need to humanize ourselves by recognizing and even showing the toll these attacks take in order for cultural tolerance levels to shift.