“If you don’t regret voting for that monster, then go ahead and unfriend me now because I can’t believe how anyone could do such a thing…”
It’s funny, I cannot recall once seeing any of my Christian friends post something like, “If you cannot confess that Jesus is the Lord and Savior, then we can’t be friends…” Although I am sure my readers have seen it before, we have to admit: this kind of cherry-picking of friends and the information we gather based solely on whether or not we already agree is especially problematic for the Left. Conservatives feel the self-righteousness of lecturing about the virtues of diversity then demanding that they better do the same. Conservatives see the hypocrisy in demanding that everyone has a voice and then shouting down those that we fail to try to even understand. Right now, Conservatives are literally laughing at our pain.
Now is a time for critical self-reflection. It would be a stretch to argue that our demand for political correctness created the conditions for this unsettling present, however, it certainly led to the nauseating shock that we are all feeling. We should have seen it coming. Instead of trying to understand those that we disagree with, we called them morons and hit “unfriend.” After being called stupid and deplorable and misled by pundits and politicians for their whole lives, Trump voters lied to the pollsters and then, veiled behind the cloak of the poll booth, chose chaos over further suffocation. Lefties need to critically understand our own role in this story, past, present, and future.
If we truly value curiosity, independence, and considerateness, we need to start listening to, and taking seriously, opinions of which we don’t understand. We have got to drop the smugness and start paying attention. Here are some ideas on how to break free from our echo chamber.
The election of Donald Trump is like an ugly divorce in American politics, except, dammit, we’re not moving out and we shouldn’t expect anything else from those that think differently. We need a mediator.
Mediation requires listening, not just to the spoken word but also to the subtext. Interest-based conflict resolution probes deeper than a stated position to uncover one’s interest in a particular outcome. As one practitioner writes, “Interests lie underneath what we say we want – and reveal our hopes, needs, values, beliefs, and expectations.” The idea is that while our positions may vary wildly, it is likely that they are underpinned by shared hopes and values. So, for example, we might respond to shouts of “Lock her up!” with “We don’t jail political opponents, stupid!” Is there any room for constructive conversation within this framework? Why do Trump supporters want Hillary locked up? If we get past the arcane facts and procedures of FBI investigations and private email servers, we might discover that the interest behind this provocative position really is this: equal protection and application of the law. Trump supporters don’t want to live in a political landscape resembling North Korea; they want to live in a place where regardless of material wealth and political connections, illegal acts don’t go un-punished. I think the Left shares in this interest. Perhaps by continuing to listen and ask questions, we could come to agree that formal equality of the laws rarely exists when material inequality is so vast. At that point, maybe, just maybe, both you and your conservative uncle will stop pointing fingers and start discussing how to improve our political and justice systems. The key is: listening first to understand; asking second to clarify, and, then, discussing shared values.
I am sorry Liberals, but we are not some form of post-homo sapiens sapiens who has evolved past the inherent tribalism of humanity and no longer approaches otherness with caution. Hogwash. We have implicit bias just like the outwardly racist. We see race and also act differently towards people of different color and background. We prejudge someone with a confederate flag jacket as quickly and harshly as they might judge a woman wearing a hijab. Who knows? Maybe the guy in the confederate jacket never even gave a damn about the hijab because he’s too worried about making his check stretch to the end of the month. We’re just as tribal as the Right each time we click “unfriend” or demand that a certain speaker doesn’t come to our campus. This is what we can do to help.
First, we need to acknowledge that fear of otherness is a very real and motivating emotion that functions toward human survival. We should no longer deny the existence of this trait within others and especially ourselves. Instead of calling someone a racist for having this very human reaction to otherness, let’s talk through that fear with the one holding it. Let’s ask questions to understand where that fear comes from and why it’s targeted towards one particular set of “others.” These six steps to speaking out against hate are a good start for how we ought to respond to fear of otherness. We’re not going to change all hearts and minds (who even appointed Liberals to that post?) but we might better understand the people that we have to live, work, and govern with.
Second, it’s time to realize that wanting a secure border doesn’t necessarily make someone racist. An effective border ensures accountability in our system of self-governance. Conservatives want to make sure that people follow the rules for joining our club because then it’s more likely that the rules of being in the club will actually be followed. No cutting in line; no free rides; everyone pays taxes.
True, we Liberals see the border as something entirely imaginary and arbitrarily drawn through might rather than right, making it all the more difficult for us to understand the other side. Yet, if we do not listen to the Conservative viewpoint, we can’t expect them to listen to us. We’ll never have an ear to explain that Central American migration is a human rights problem resulting from the same globalizing forces of Neoliberalism that we too are highly critical of. If we can’t acknowledge that everyone ought to pay taxes, we shouldn’t expect Uncle Bill to realize that maybe blaming immigrants, instead of billionaires, for his misfortune isn’t the best idea. Conservatives will never realize that Brown People are fleeing failed states where rule of law does not exist, largely due to US intervention, if we cannot first admit that wanting a secure border doesn’t make one racist.
Leftist activists today are iconoclasts. We sue the Redskins. We stop pipelines and halt interstate traffic. And we force university officials to resign. Conservatism is inherently critical and uneasy with the uncertainty of upending institutions, and for good reason.
When college kids force the resignation of a professor for writing an email discussing Halloween costumes, Conservatives see bratty proto-fascists tearing down the career of one of their most loyal advocates. Let’s take a look at the words that got Professor Erika Christakis into so much trouble:
Nicholas says, if you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are the hallmarks of a free and open society. But – again, speaking as a child development specialist – I think there might be something missing in our discourse about the exercise of free speech (including how we dress ourselves) on campus, and it is this: What does this debate about Halloween costumes say about our view of young adults, of their strength and judgment? In other words: Whose business is it to control the forms of costumes of young people? It’s not mine, I know that.
Principled conservativism is skeptical of centralized power and that is why they often quote both Thoreau and Orwell. Has the Left grown so naive that we have forgotten that if we initiate a precedent of silencing nonconformist expression we, in the end, are most at risk of reaping what we sow? Do we realize that, almost invariably, the Left has always been the target of authoritarian governments? Do we really want to start giving our civic institutions the power, and most importantly, the expectation, that they should start dictating what is considered appropriate speech?
When young Liberals see a victory against hate speech, Conservatives see a Brave New World. Those on the Right fear a slippery slope from political correctness to thought police. It is our job to marshal our curiosity to find out why someone targets a particular set of “others” with distrust; perhaps then both parties might learn something. Although prejudicial thought may lead to offensive behavior and then to physical harm, and the three exist on a spectrum, we must appreciate the distinction between the all. The first is intellectually lazy and the latter two are morally wrong. Yet only one should be censured by our civic institutions. It is important that individuals and organizations speak out for tolerance and against hate speech, not try to stomp out the uncomfortable through institutional power.
Most Americans’ only exposure to leftist activists is when they see us marching in the streets, blocking traffic, or on the Great Plains shutting down pipelines. Perhaps we have stirred the Silent Majority to ask: “Do they not use our interstates? Do they not also need oil to get to the grocery store and work? Do they even work, or do they have nothing better to do than cause mischief?” Part of this is the sensationalism inherent to a capitalist media framework. Yet even with social media, those are the stories we tend to share and comment on rather than how Standing Rock has its own schools. The Silent Majority sees spoiled radicals battering down the very things that make their privileged existence possible. The uncertainty and ambiguity of this imaginary world is made all the more troubling when average Americans see no tangible replacement. We must start complementing our direct actions negating the status quo with positive demonstrations of how beautiful the world looks when we place people and planet over profit. The dialectic needs both a negative and a positive.
“Words,” Trump creepily whispered into the mic, “they’re just words, people.” I shuttered to that statement as I drove down a dark highway listening to the last Presidential debate on AM radio. At that moment it became clear who the President-Elect was speaking to: all of the people who had grown weary of our obsession with wordsmithing and want action to relieve them of their economic suffering and social isolation. Action. Plain and simple action. No more dancing around the boardroom trying not to offend anyone but real, tangible (yes that’s a tautology) action. Maybe this mouth-breathing crotch-grabber was the one to do it.
Trump voters are not one-dimensional. Polling in the Rust Belt suggests that a large portion of voters pulled the lever for Obama and then Trump. Before the election, Michael Moore warned:
do not discount the electorate’s ability to be mischievous or underestimate how any millions fancy themselves as closet anarchists once they draw the curtain and are all alone in the voting booth…There are no rules. And because of that, and the anger that so many have toward a broken political system, millions are going to vote for Trump not because they agree with him, not because they like his bigotry or ego, but just because they can. It appears that even a quarter of Latinos in Florida grew tired of the rules of a corrupt politics. The Clinton campaign seems to have attempted to quantify and categorize human complexity at its own peril. It is now up to us to walk the tight rope between condemning bigotry and reaching out to those we have forgotten.
On the Future
In a post-fact world there may be an opening for greater focus on values and power structures. Values are ambiguous, fuzzy and often in tension. Values make us think: what are they? Where do values come from? How do they connect with our shared experience? We want security and freedom; knowledge and curiosity; and obedience and independence. And we hope to get them all in equal measures. Holding fast the tension between these values is the fabric of power, expanding, contracting and, sometimes, breaking. In a word: the dialectic. We should no longer fear the dialectic; it’s time to dive right into it. We need to start paying attention. For better or worse, we are bound up in this pendulum of our American Democracy together.
Reaching out to those that voted Trump doesn’t mean that we accept bigotry. Far from it; we won’t compromise with hate. If Trump crosses that line from hate speech to physical harm then, goddamnit, we’re all Illegal, Gay, Muslim, Female, Mexican, Liberal, Rosie O’Donnells, and we will be his worst nightmare. Let’s wake up from this bad dream and try to get to understand our neighbors before this shit gets out of hand.