Friends Who Are Mourning, Take Heart
Photo by Jamie Street | CC 0.0
On Tuesday night, I joined some friends in Seattle to watch the election returns. We met up at a neighborhood pub packed to the gills with left-leaning folks ready to pop bottles of champagne. But, of course, as the night wore on and the map on the television gradually became blanketed in red, the mood of the crowd around us shifted. It went from excited to uncertain to nail-bitingly anxious to flat-out depressed.
By 9 p.m., the place had emptied.
Like most Americans, I think, I’ve tended to spend the evenings of presidential elections in the presence of a politically homogenous crowd. Perhaps unlike many, though, I’ve spent them amidst both breeds of homogeneity; in 2004, I watched the election in the midst of primarily conservative classmates in Kansas. In 2008, I watched the election in the midst of primarily liberal classmates at Oberlin.
Here are three things that I want to share with my friends who are mourning this week.
1. For the Most Part, Trump Voters Aren’t Who You Think They Are
I keep hearing people saying, “I just can’t believe that half our country is full of so much hate.”
Newsflash: it’s not. For starters, 18.8 percent (not 50 percent) is the amount of Americans who voted for Trump. Far more importantly, of those, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say the vast majority of them are not full of hate.
These days, so many of us rarely communicate directly, let alone compassionately, with those who disagree with us. Instead, we read the media’s portrayal or watch its selective representation of them. We grow angry and more self-righteous. We engage in inflammatory arguments in online spaces and comment fields (which, regardless of subject matter, are rarely a ripe field for fostering patience, understanding or a resounding faith in humanity). We reward one another for the cruelty of our derision toward those who disagree with us by clicking on and sharing “funny” headlines like “So-and-So Is a Repugnant Asshat,” or “liking” such statements on social media.
We paint those who disagree with us with a broad brush. In doing so, we cannot really see, let alone understand, them. It is the broad brush that makes many “Trump-era conservatives” believe (erroneously) that all liberals are wealthy elites, that all members of Black Lives Matter are violent, that a refugee of Muslim faith is any more of a terrorism risk than a white, American-born high-school student, that all immigrants are a drain on our jobs and economy, that pro-choice activists don’t believe in the sanctity of human life.
On the flipside, it is the very same brush that makes many modern liberals believe (erroneously) that anyone who isn’t well versed in politically correct speech is a bigot, that pro-lifers inherently don’t respect women’s rights, that those who oppose Obamacare or government welfare programs are heartless people who don’t care about the disadvantaged in our society, that all (or even most) of Trump supporters are hateful, racist, misogynistic xenophobes.
On both sides of the spectrum, believing such faulty stereotypes is wildly dangerous to our democracy—not to mention, I find, emotionally devastating to one’s own soul.
I really believe this lack of openhearted, cross-political conversation is at the heart of why and how Trump got elected. It happened because a sizable group of Americans felt that no one cared how they felt or what they thought (because, indeed, no one did, repeatedly writing them off as uneducated idiots). As a result, their collective voice has quietly gathered steam and anger, the way the voice of any other group that feels disenfranchised has also done throughout history. Meanwhile, liberal America stuck its fingers in its ears and said, “La la la, I’m not listening to you!”
But when we put ourselves in the echo chamber—by choosing to live or go to school in a politically homogenous place (I’m preaching to myself here, too!), by getting our news solely from biased establishment media (and yes, my lefty friends, The New York Times is as biased liberally as Fox News is conservatively—and programs like The Daily Show, while fun to watch, do not count as “news” sources), by only reading and sharing articles that reinforce our own entrenched belief systems, by defriending everyone on Facebook who supports a candidate or ideas we can’t stomach, by simply losing the fundamentally human skill of listening to one another, a principle so valuable that our own country was essentially founded on its tenets—it throws fuel on that fire.
I’m not talking about enduring hate speech. I’m talking about recognizing the difference between hate speech and speech that simply disagrees with your own belief systems. I’m talking about not being able to hear the reasons why decent humans who disagree with us hold the beliefs that they do. (Or worse, not recognizing that those people are decent humans to begin with).
While it should not be anyone’s individual burden to leave whatever “safe spaces” and homogenized belief systems we may have burrowed into for the sake of our own mental health, it sure would help us all—both individually, and as a society—if we did so more often, and with open hearts. Having grown up in Kansas with family all over the Midwest and the South, and having made a number of conservative friends when I took a part-time job in nearby Elyria, Ohio during my final year in school at Oberlin College, I know many of the people who helped vote Trump into office this week. None of the people I know resemble in any way the stereotypes of the hate-mongering, racist xenophobes that are flooding media channels right now and causing so many of my liberal friends to despair that “half our country” is full of hatred.
I may disagree strongly with the vote cast by Trump supporters this week, but I also know that the vast majority of them are not “deplorables” for their decision; they had reasons for their vote every bit as valid, educated and informed as those who voted for Clinton or any other candidate. (If you’d like to better understand why perfectly sane, good humans cast their votes for candidates other than Clinton, I recommend this very insightful piece of analysis Glenn Greenwald provided over at The Intercept this week.)
2. Let This Be the Wake-up Call It Needs to Be
All that said, let’s now talk about the ugly reality of the (small, I believe) segment of Americans who are full of hate, and have felt emboldened this week in their hatred by Trump’s success.
Sometimes when I was younger, I resented having grown up in a place like the one I did. It was not always easy, even for someone as privileged as I am. I (like to) think many things have already shifted generationally and society-wide since I was in school, but still, some of those childhood recollections sting.
I have memories of helping get a gay-straight alliance off the ground at my high school, and classmates defacing our posters with the word “faggot.” I have memories of a film crew coming to shoot a commercial at my tae kwon do school, and excluding me from footage because they said only boys could be in the video. I have memories of teasing I endured at not having the expensive, name-brand clothing so many of my peers wore. I have countless memories of Christian classmates telling me I’d wind up in hell because my family didn’t attend church like theirs did.
(It’s worth stating that these were generally isolated occasions, not representative of all, or even the vast majority of, my memories of where I grew up. If you’ve never spent much time in the Midwest, do not judge it by my mention of these individual incidents. For the record, there were many, many good things about where I grew up, too, including wonderful friends and a set of phenomenal public-school teachers who helped shape my life in beautiful ways. But that’s another entry for another time.)
Nonetheless, such moments were more common in my hometown than in any of the places I’ve opted to live since. As eager as I was to run off to Liberal Never-Never Land—aka Oberlin College, followed by Seattle, followed by left-leaning Colorado mountain towns—there are a lot of downsides to placing oneself in a politically homogenous bubble. On the societal level, there is the afore-mentioned “echo-chamber effect,” the ever widening chasm between our nation’s political camps. On an individual level, there is feeling shocked and confused by Trump’s success in securing the presidency.
Running away from xenophobia and racism and sexism, as I admit I often have, doesn’t eradicate them. Nor does it erase their votes in our political system, as liberals learned on Tuesday. And it definitely doesn’t prevent others—often less privileged, more vulnerable members of society than ourselves—from still having to confront oppressive belief systems.
When I visited Seattle last August, I hung out with a great group of women, most of whom were in their forties. Conversation turned to how far our society had come since their childhoods. (And it has!) They were saying, no doubt a bit tongue-in-cheek, “What is there left to fight for anymore?! Gay marriage is legal, we have our first black president, and transgender kids these days feel comfortable being themselves in elementary school already.”
If there’s anything I’m grateful for about Trump getting elected, it’s the wake-up call to those of us complacently living in liberal bubbles that the struggle is still very real elsewhere in our country. That vulnerable communities all over America still need our love and support.
Let’s ask how we can be of better service to one another.
3. If This Is Hell, Let’s Build Paradise
If this week has left you feeling depressed, scared or hopeless, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of A Paradise Built in Hell, by one of my favorite authors, Rebecca Solnit. Its uplifting premise is that exceptional communities emerge from “disaster” scenarios; in contrast to the media’s appetite for sensational stories that paint apocalyptic pictures of how humanity reacts in the face of crisis, in fact, people often come together like never before. When shit hits the fan, most people feel compelled to dig deep within themselves to find untapped reserves of kindness, strength and generosity. I’m reminded, too, of Max Ehrmann’s prose poem, “Desiderata,” written in the 1920s, in which he wrote, “Everywhere life is full of heroism.”
While Solnit’s book is focused on more traditional concepts of disaster—the 1906 earthquake and fires in San Francisco, Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, etc.—I believe many of its concepts are just as applicable to the apocalyptic sense of doomsday that many of my liberal friends have felt this week.
Articles like the now-viral “Day 1 in Trump’s America” are no doubt alarming, and it’s good we pay attention to them on some level so we can feel motivated to rally behind love and support for one another. At the same time, I can’t help but think that the more we share these images and Tweets (particularly of hate speech), the more power we grant to these repulsive messages. Instead of photographing swastikas and making them go viral on the Internet where millions more will feel the reverberations of their hatred, let’s get cans of paint to show our love by covering them up. (Again, please recognize the distinction I’m trying to make between genuine hate speech—which I believe should be ignored to that extent that’s possible—and ideas that simply contradict your own belief systems—which I believe should actually be paid more attention than those that reinforce what we already believe.)
In her book, Solnit writes, “Horrible in itself, disaster is sometimes a door back into paradise, that paradise at least in which we are who we hope to be, do the work we desire, and are each our sister’s and brother’s keeper.”
Let’s focus on ways we can help youth today continue moving down a more diverse, inclusive path that honors our country’s heritage as a land of immigrants. Let’s reach out to our Muslim neighbors, our Latino and Latina friends, our LGBTQ communities to show our love, strength and commitment, not just our panic.
I see it happening already. This week, I’ve seen people reaching out across racial, religious and socioeconomic divides, to support one another. I see friends of mine committing to making monthly donations to organizations likely to need more direct support from citizens in the coming years if Trump makes good on all his promises. I see people losing their private, comfortable complacency, mobilized to action in a way that I don’t think would have happened had this election gone differently.
Let us be heartened and encouraged by this, and grateful for the catalyst that reminds us of the possibility of this path.
Let us find meaning and purpose in the work that lies ahead for all of us.