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.

13 Responses so far.

  1. Lisa Peyton says:

    GREAT post Julie. I really appreciate your suggestions on ways to frame this difficult conversation.

  2. Bill Say says:

    Dear Julie

    What a great issue you address here.
    I certainly want to spread it around


  3. Robert says:

    Thank you for this text Julie.
    How about including non-consensus reality levels? If “Attacks are part of a conversation trying to and needing to happen.” in what ways this conversation is already happening and who is talking wiyh whom (thinking also about the Essence level) ?

    • juliediamond says:

      Hi Robert, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it. Sounds like you’ve already thought a bit about it?

      • Robert says:

        Yes Julie, as a leader in several groups (during lifetime) I experience many times more or less righteus attacks including painfull false accusations as a way of emerging new leadership through harsh critic. So I’m still learning how to cope with that (hope in more and more skilfull way :)

        • juliediamond says:

          Hi Robert, me too. And it also inhibits me from stepping forward more, at times. To your question about non-consensus reality levels, I often see debate, dialogue, even or perhaps especially when it’s rather vicious, as part of an historical conversation that’s been going on for centuries. So the statements or attacks zinging back and forth are not just meant for the person in the moment, but for the people and groups historically that have been having this debate for centuries. Unfinished business. But in a sense there really is no finishing business when that business concerns values and beliefs about how we are meant to live together. I have to admit I am partial to considering the historical perspective not only because it gives me the detachment I need to stay in the heat.


  4. Rho Sandberg says:

    Love the article and loving this discussion. As an Australian woman its been an amazing thing to experience. Interesting that just prior to her response two things happened – her Dad died, so in some ways I feel she spoke from a freedom within herself that belongs to and was beyond death.
    Also there was a huge FB led outrage by women and men, who defended her from a very low attack by a radio announcer. As you say, Julie there was a sense of number behind her and that helped.
    Robert, I love what you say about the challenges as a leader of supporting emerging leaders. Her real relationship about showing the impact of insensitivity on her, rather than only absorbing it was incredible, after watching her ‘take it’ publically for years. I see now how hurt I was by my own silence around it.
    Sorry to be so long winded – a fascinating thing for me to witness – a little more one-sided perhaps than ‘A More Perfect Union’. And I like that too.

  5. Alexandra Vassiliou says:

    Thought provoking post Julie!
    The values and beliefs of how we are meant to live together in our communities, countries, are in the forefront of the discussions happening all around me these days. Publicly and privately. That is a good sign. The toll is high though. Living in Greece and knowing first hand some of the attack you are writing about, your post gave me some insight on psychological-first-aid for those moments. I agree, there are historical dialogues needing and begging to happen.

    • juliediamond says:

      The scale of attack that you refer to in Greece is way past heated verbal exchange or slander. It’s painful and hard to know how to manage it. I like how you frame this “psychological first aid.” I’d love to know, from your experiences Alexandra, what you’d add here.

  6. Alexandra Vassiliou says:

    I am thinking of all the attacks of the fascist far right here in Greece and the vocal agreement of some and silent agreement of many for their tactics. It seems that direct violence has been ‘legalized’ in the minds of some people as an understandable reaction to the political and social crisis. At the same time, there is a large anti-fascist grass roots movement that is emerging. The danger is that the two sides start to use the same rhetoric; ‘exterminate immigrants, homosexuals, etc’ on the one side, ‘exterminate fascism (but this becomes ‘fascists’)’ on the other side. Both sides justify their violence as defense to the other side’s life-threatening attack.

    When dealing with such directs attacks to your identity (and actual life) the fight-or-flight mechanism kicks in and conscious thinking becomes less accessible. Bruce Lipton describes this well in his article “How Your Beliefs Control Your Biology”. He writes:

    “…. there is another factor of stress that I refer to as “adding-insult-to-injury.” Stress hormones cause the blood vessels in the fore-brain to constrict, forcing the blood to the hind-brain to nourish the high-speed reflex center used in stressful conditions. Basically, constricting the blood vessels in the fore-brain shuts down consciousness and intelligence. So an interesting and unwanted aspect of the stress response is that we become less intelligent when we are under stress.”

    When I used the term ‘psychological-first-aid’ I was thinking of how understanding the points you make on a deep level and integrating them as core beliefs would add some intelligence to my ‘fight or flight’ moments.

    On a different level, a question I am pondering is how I can separate a person from his or her beliefs and challenge the beliefs without exterminating the person. I can theoretically understand this and truly believe it, but how do we transform this into an actual intervention / interaction in the streets, in the heated moments of conflict?

    • juliediamond says:

      Hi Al, Definitely, stress makes us less intelligent in the sense that it constricts thinking to a strict ‘flight/fight’ analysis. Throughout history, severe economic conditions has always been accompanied by reactionary and fascist movements and tendencies. In a sense, one can almost see “reactionary” as synonymous to ‘fight/flight’ thinking.

      As for separating the person from his or her beliefs to challenge the beliefs without exterminating the person, difficult, maybe impossible! I wrote in another post, that beliefs don’t change via facts to the contrary; in fact they even strengthen beliefs. Beliefs are derived from deep feelings and values, and are often shaped by important relationships we are loyal too. I don’t know if I have the answer but I do know that any form of direct encounter, dialogue, etc., that allows for something beyond facts, and serves to develop some form of relationship would probably have more impact. Having said that, it’s not as a substitute to legal and political interventions protecting human rights and curtailing violence.

  7. Annahid says:

    Great post! Thanks for naming and framing it so succintly. I do agree with your last statement- that although leaders need to show strength and boundary, there is also a place to name the impact of receiving such vitriol. When I hear the anti-Obama rhetoric, I literally feel the pain physically in my chest– I hope he has well worked out strategies for dealing with it all (as you point out, any person in the public eye NEEDS to have on some level). Aaaaaah… it was helpful for me to remember that such conflict is part of the overall purpose of being able to advance our culture.

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