Let’s be honest shall we. There are no heroes in the Kyle Rittenhouse story. If we believe the best about Rittenhouse, then it was self defense. But it was also a 17 year old kid who decided to go to Kenosha to beat back the hordes of rioters. He had no business being there but he came ready for action. And his action took the lives of two men and crippled a third. If we believe the best about his victims then they are victims but not heroes. They too came from outside the city and looking for action. I have talked with people who really want to protest police violence. They are disgusted by this type of violence. These men ran to the violence and had no business doing that.
So there are no heroes. But the issue is even deeper than that. If you have been paying the slightest attention to all that is occurring right now then you have a sense of the emotions driving all of this. This is clearly being driven by the demonization of other Americans. For example, why did Rittenhouse feel a desire to insert himself into Kenosha. His stated reason was to protect businesses from being burned down. If you listen to right wing media you quickly find out that there is an image of the rioters, as opposed to peaceful protestors, being hordes of animals who are threatening to tear down society. I am not going to defend the actions of the rioters. How can I defend stuff like this, this and this? But this image indicates that this is all these rioters are. Just a bunch of animals.
On the other hand, why are individuals traveling to Wisconsin to not merely protest but also to engage in violence. Well if you listen to left-wing media there is rampant racism that must be confronted and defeated. Those ugly racists have to be put in their place and thus we can excuse techniques that are less than perfect. Once again I cannot deny the racism in our society and I have talked about it. We need to find reforms that can reduce unwarranted police shootings. But now we have an image that reduces police, and Trump voters, into savage racists who deserve whatever pain we can give them. Do you really think it was an accident that one such supporter was recently killed in Portland?
I want to put a different perspective on what happened in Kenosha and by extension in all the other sites of unrest. What happened was not merely a series of shootings. What happened was a microcosm of the polarization that has continued unabated in our society. It represents a step away from merely culture war and towards the possibility of actual violent combat. Both sides came to Kenosha ready for a fight. One side killed members of the other side this time. The next time it might be the other way around. If this citizen-on-citizen violence does not scare you, then you either want to see such a war take place or you have not fully thought through what is happening in our society. We are entering a cycle of dehumanization of those with whom we disagree. And the end point of this cycle can produce frightening results.
My friend Andy Steiger recently wrote a book called Reclaimed. I had the honor to talk to him about dehumanization before his book came out. He points out that we cannot mistreat humans. What he means is that before we mistreat someone, then we must dehumanize them. If we think of them as something other than human, then we can do unspeakable things to them. When I first heard the argument, I felt he went a little too far. I felt it was possible to mistreat people even if we do think of them as humans. But as time has gone on, I am believing more than ever that our ability to mistreat others is tied to our ability to dehumanize them. If that is true then the dehumanization we have for each other can eventually have, and has already had, fatal consequences.
And if we do not step back from this, then the consequences are not going to stop in Kenosha, Portland and Chicago. The process of dehumanization occurred before Kenosha and it will continue after Kenosha. President Donald Trump did not start this process, but he has accelerated it. The same can be said for AntiFa. Those on both the left and the right are building on the blocks of dehumanization that have been set before them. And things can get worse very fast.
Do you remember that we have a presidential election coming up? How can you forget about that? Given the way we dehumanize our ideological opponents, I have little question that no matter who wins, the situation will get worse. If Trump wins, the Republicans will learn that having a bully and divisive president can lead to political power. They will have little incentive to seek out compromise and work with progressives. On the other hand, the rhetoric we have seen from Democrats is that democracy is at stake in this election. To lose the election is unthinkable. If you think you have seen protests, you will not have seen anything yet if Trump wins. Both sides will continue to demonize the other.
On the other hand, if Biden wins then the Democrats will have learned that they can obtain political power by dehumanizing their ideological opponents. Charges of racism and bigotry will be sufficient for them to gain political power. And they can use that power to serve their own group at the expense of other groups. The Republicans have been running a campaign stating that if Democrats win then it is open season on the civil rights of the “Deplorables.” They fear that if Democrats gain power that it will be used to punish them. So to lose the election is unthinkable. The outcry will be great, and they will resist all efforts put forth by the Democrats. I fear that some of this resistance will be violence.
In one way it really does not matter if Trump or Biden wins the presidency. Either way you will have a substantial percentage of individuals who will feel displaced. They will be tempted to create an us versus them mentality in which they can envision the election victors as enemies of the state who must be defeated at all costs. The humanity of those ideological opponents will not be considered. And those who win will also perceive those they defeated as rebels and troublemakers. It will be a rebellion that they will put significant amounts of energy into crushing. Rather than being seen as humans from a different perspective, they will be seen as rebels who seek to tear down all we have built up. Other human qualities that these rebels have will be forgotten. The only thing that matters is their willingness to challenge the particular political perspective of the winners. This is the type of dehumanization that is bipartisan and tearing the country apart.
I know many of you reading this are eager to point out the ways your ideological opponents engage in such dehumanization. That is a mistake. Of course many on “the other side” engage in dehumanization. But the same can be said for those who support the ideas that you like. The ability to dehumanize others is not limited to one political party or the other. The sooner we realize this then the sooner we can begin to address the dehumanization dynamics in our society. Indeed there is a real danger when individuals fail to recognize how members of in their in-group will dehumanize others. Once we believe that we are innocent, then we tend to be blinded to the fact that people that we support engage in practices that are clearly over the line. We make excuses for their mistreatment of others and often begin to believe those lies. One day we can wake up and see the damage their blindness has done. But by then it is too late and dehumanization has become an important part of our society.
Some people talk about being on the “right side of history.” I am certain that the first Nazis did not envision a system that would kill millions of Jews. The first communists were not thinking of placing millions into gulags. The first European-Americans had no idea that their actions would result in the elimination of Native American tribes. But here we are. And if we start down this path, then that right side of history may be your support of an oppressive society that is intellectually eviscerated by future historians. And to some degree, if you do not speak up about dehumanizing patterns among those whom you see as allies, you will deserve the image of supporting an oppressive society.
I am not confident that we can completely derail this train heading towards us. It may already be too late to turn this ship around. But if we do nothing, then we will continue to have the type of confrontations that cost the lives of two men and badly crippled a third in Kenosha as well and several more in other cities. If we are willing to call out dehumanizing attitudes among our ideological friends, then we have a chance to escape this cycle. My pessimism is that I do not think that today we have the strength to do that.