A lot of my American friends are grieving the election of Donald Trump. I don’t want to disrupt that grief – I have tremendous sympathy for it. So if you’re not ready to hear about what I think needs to change if things are going to get better, don’t read on. Instead read my previous post, let it soothe your soul, and then move on.
I’ll leave a little space to make that easier….
Okay, so I want to talk about one of the big problems in liberal culture that I think contributed massively to Trump’s win. For several months before the election, I noticed that there was an increasingly vitriolic tone to a lot of what liberals were saying about Trump supporters. Racist, sexist, privileged, stupid white men. Clinton really did voice how a lot of liberals feel about these people in her unfortunate turn of phrase: “deplorables.”
I’ve seen this term reclaimed by some of the people that it was meant to describe, and there’s no doubt about how it was taken. It’s not just that these people’s views are problematic; the people themselves, their culture, their traditions, their beliefs, their backgrounds, and their very lives are seen as deplorable.
The conservative white male has become the victim of cultural stereotyping, and the stereotypes are not flattering. In many cases, they’re outright dehumanizing. If the conservative male has a regional accent that isn’t from a predominately Blue state, the stereotypes get worse. Worse again if he’s poor, rural or working class. If he’s also uneducated, and especially if he’s a fundamentalist Christian, he’s practically slime.
During the course the electoral season, I saw this stereotype grow more and more rigid, and I saw the contempt associated with it become sharper and sharper. I don’t know what exactly, the cause of this was. Probably it was a lot of things: legitimate anger about increasing racial violence, a sense of overconfident triumphalism after Obergefell, a feeling that Trump had set the tone and that it was only fair, exhaustion at the insanely drawn out electoral process. There are lots of possibilities. I think, though, that it’s important to acknowledge that what we saw was not the development of a prejudice, but a sharpening of one that was already there and already fairly deeply entrenched.
Basically what happened is that in a thousand different ways, both obvious and subtle, the left made it increasingly clear that able-bodied, neurotypical, cisgender, heterosexual white men (and in some circles even white women) were increasingly unwelcome to contribute. Men were told that they could not have opinions on abortion – unless they were pro-choice. The phrase “check your privilege” became a means of automatically silencing any objections raised by members of a majority group. It became an insult to call someone a “basic white girl.” Within liberal discourses, I honestly can’t count the number of times that I’ve seen people either dismiss an interlocutor, block him, answer him rudely, or ridicule him to their friends, because he was white and male and did not immediately agree with liberal talking points.
Now, it could be argued that all of this is fair. That the privileged people are just starting to get a little taste of what everybody else has been putting up with for centuries. It might feel like justice. But this election should serve as a very grim reminder that this kind of justice comes as a very steep price. The majority are the majority, and in a democracy you cannot effectively bring about long-term change if you feel entitled to alienate the majority.
More to the point, it’s not actually just. Turnabout is not fair play – it doesn’t actually produce repentance, self-knowledge or reparation, it just reproduces in the other the same kind of rancour and resentment that motivates vengeance in the first place. The role that this kind of rancour played in the success of Trump’s campaign strategy is too painfully obvious to belabour.
For the left, it’s crucial to avoid punitive strategies. The right is not hypocritical when it talks tough, metes out harsh justice, or shows contempt for the plight of people who are suffering. A right-winger who behaves this way may be odious, but he is at least odious in a way that is consistent with his beliefs. When the left adopts a contemptuous or snarky attitude, justifies punitive forms of rage against those who are perceived to be oppressors, and shows contempt towards white folks who are actually, in many cases, living in conditions of grinding poverty in the Red states, it is hypocritical. It undermines any claim to moral authority: a politics of reconciliation, compassion, peace, listening, caring, and universal respect for human diversity cannot succeed if it excludes the people whose hearts most need to change.
Real, long-term transformation of the culture is impossible unless we’re all willing to reach out and recognize the full humanity of those who seem to be our enemies in the culture wars. This means that white, right-wing males have to be treated with exactly the same kind of patience, love and consideration that is offered to minority groups.
This means, among other things, something that’s really difficult for many liberals to accept: the need for gradualism. It’s a principle that the left understands really well when it comes to reducing harm for drug addicts, healing intergenerational wounds in indigenous communities, or helping victims of abuse to reclaim their dignity. These are slow processes. People cannot just change themselves overnight. They need to be accompanied; progress takes time; there will be setbacks; scolding, shaming, yelling, and stigmatizing make things worse, not better. We know, in these cases, that love must be both patient and kind.
It’s much harder to accept that exactly the same thing is true of people who are addicted to money, or power, or privilege. Or of people whose racism and misogyny is a result of intergenerational poverty or cycles of domestic abuse. Those people are supposed to change right now, immediately, and if they don’t they are scolded, shamed and stigmatized.
I know all of the arguments that justify this. I know that a lot of people are probably rolling their eyes and thinking, “Oh yes. We have to feel real sorry for all those racist white misogynists. Give me a break.” You can think that way if you like – this has been the overwhelming attitude of the left going back a very long time – but understand that its fruit is this present election: an openly sexist, racist white strong-man in the White house with Congress and the Senate both painted Red.
When too much is demanded too quickly, too caustically, and with too great a sense of moral superiority and cultural entitlement, you get kickback. It doesn’t matter how just the cause is, or how much people’s lives would improve if the changes happened right away. Approaches that alienate and anger the people who have to actually do the changing are always going to be counter-productive. They offer an immediate emotional pay-off in the form of feelings of righteous anger and ideological purity, but they create massive set-backs in terms of actual progress towards social justice.
Over the next four years, we will almost certainly see those set-backs played out. Real people really will suffer. And the left will have a choice to make: nurture a grudge, blame the right, and feed the politics of anger and division that brought Trump to power in the first place; or try to actually reach out, listen to understand rather than to condemn, build bridges, seek reconciliation, and love our enemies as ourselves.
Images courtesy of Pixabay.
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