It’s plausible that a different Republican administration would still have produced a travel ban like the one that went into effect last week. During the Republican primaries, Ben Carson called for an investigation of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) for links to terrorist organizations. The evidence: unprovided. Around the same time, Jeb Bush stated that Syrian refugees should be able to come to the US, provided they were Christian. The reasoning for such discrimination: unclear. And Donald Trump—well, we all know what Donald Trump thought. His polemics against America’s assorted others (including, somehow, the 51% of women who urinate, menstruate and/or breastfeed) entertained and captivated the nation through the election cycle. It was mean, ugly, nasty shit. And with Trump’s election, it found purchase in the mainstream of modern politics.
It’s common knowledge by now that Donald Trump is just a manifestation of something larger. Trump was just the guy who came along and made a shrewd calculation1 that many people harbor sentiments that are not socially acceptable. He has, through his attacks on “political correctness,” his appeals to nativism, and his penchant for saying anything2, given implicit permission to others to disregard tact and respectfulness and to embrace their baser instincts. He is, as I heard a friend call him, America’s id.
Still, it is not Donald Trump that troubles me so much as the percentage of voters who embrace him because he gives voice to their inner fascist. People like those who attended a town hall meeting and shouted a Muslim-American man off the stage, stating, “Every one of you are terrorists” to applause. People like those in the militia that carried assault rifles outside a Dallas-area Islamic center in a not-so-veiled threat to Muslims in the community. People like the 30 percent of Iowa republicans who believe Islam should be banned.
This generic Islamophobia — now transmogrified into actual political policy with Trump’s travel ban — upsets me, and my instinct is to lash out against its supporters. But that strategy won’t work — in fact, that strategy is how we got to where we currently are.
Let me explain. Just because certain things are socially unacceptable to say doesn’t mean people don’t believe them. What it means is that much of society’s progress over the past 250 or so years — from a slave-dependent agrarian economy dominated by crusty white men to a multicultural, pan-gender superstate (still dominated by crusty white men) — has been pushed through not by consensus but by majority rules. This is an important point. The US does not have a proportional voting system. The party that gets the most votes wins; a candidate with 40% of the votes doesn’t get a 40% share of the representation. Embedded in our cultural and political institutions, then, is a belief that the winner takes all. And this system has left many people to languish on the wrong side of the cultural consensus, where they maintain the beliefs “modern” society has disregarded. Modern society hurriedly moves on, using the perceived marginality of the minority’s ideas as a pretext for disregarding them. We just think it’s plain silly to think women don’t deserve equal pay or that the children of immigrants should be deported to a country they’ve never been to. Or that freedom of religion excludes Muslims.
Our political system has left many people to languish on the wrong side of the cultural consensus, where they maintain the beliefs “modern” society has disregarded. Modern society hurriedly moves on, using the perceived marginality of the minority’s ideas as a pretext for disregarding them.
Yet the ideas persist. And so we must deal with them, regardless of whether we perceive them to have merit, because that is the only way to defeat an idea.3 Unfriending Donald Trump supporters on Facebook will not do that because it just creates more silos in which people are not talking to one another. And being snarky on social media will not do that either because it’s just a reflexive fallback to the thing conservatives hates about progressives: our superiority complex.
So what to do?
Well, yes, win the next election. But that’s just a temporary fix. America may go from slightly red to slightly blue in 2018 but nothing will have really changed. What we need to do is talk to each other. The key word being “other.” And not so much talk as ask good questions. Questions that don’t start with “How could you support…?” or put someone on the back foot. Questions that don’t suggest the asker holds a monopoly on the truth.
I find this difficult. But there are people who are better at it. Krista Tippett, host of On Being and author of Becoming Wise, is one of them. Tippett has a fantastic system for examining both the belief and the believer. She tries to gain a deeper understanding of each person she talks to by delving into their experience, which is by definition different from hers. She writes, “I can disagree with your opinion, it turns out, but I can’t disagree with your experience. And once I have a sense of your experience, you and I are in relationship, acknowledging the complexity in each other’s position, listening less guardedly.”
Ideas — even wrong ones — come from the minds of complicated human beings with world views we would sometimes rather parody than understand. Tippett explains how she gets to others’ experiences: “I’ve learned this: a question is a powerful thing, a mighty use of words. Questions elicit answers in their likeness…. It’s hard to transcend a combative question. But it’s hard to resist a generous question.”
Ideas — even wrong ones — come from the minds of complicated human beings with world views we would sometimes rather parody than understand.
Generous questions, not combative ones or pointed statements or (sigh) snarky blog posts, will move progressivism forward. For all the talk about safe spaces, we can be terrible at actually creating them. While it can be both reassuring and at times necessary to have physical locations where uncomfortable or objectionable ideas are off limits — sanctuaries from everyday hostilities — we also need places in our souls where we welcome others from different paths to explore their own attitudes and assumptions. Places where we agree to understand their experiences and promise to reevaluate how our own experiences have shaped our views. Only then can we all move forward together to a greater understanding of the world.
Only then can progressives truly win.
- Or had a dementia-induced brain fart. Your call. [↩]
- And not in a Lloyd Dobler with a boombox outside of Diane Court’s house sort of way. [↩]
- I’m not referring to silly yes/no debates on the merits of individual beliefs. If anything, the American concept of equal time has given the perception that all ideas are equally valid. That’s not true. You don’t need to bring on a white supremacist to give balance to a view that people shouldn’t be discriminated against on the basis of race. Instead, I’m referring to a political and cultural environment where everyone’s humanity is recognized as valid, if not every belief they espouse. [↩]