What if we could start talking from the premise that all of us believe we are fundamentallly good people?

By   /   December 3, 2016  /   4 Comments

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The US is facing at least two major problems at the moment. One is that Donald Trump doesn’t care about the fact that he has persistently been blatantly disrespectful to Muslims, immigrants, the LGBTIQ community, women, people with disabilities, and other minority groups.

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The US is facing at least two major problems at the moment. One is that Donald Trump doesn’t care about the fact that he has persistently been blatantly disrespectful to Muslims, immigrants, the LGBTIQ community, women, people with disabilities, and other minority groups. Problem number two is that a considerable proportion of anti-Trump America is showing a similar level of disrespect to any and all Trump voters.

Take this recent Huffington Post article, for instance, which none-too-subtly likens Trump supporters to Nazis. Even if we were to accept the 1930s Germany comparisons for a moment, there is no conceivable way 62 million Americans would have any remote desire to associate themselves with what Naziism has come to stand for. So what good, exactly, will talking about these people in neo-Nazi terms do when you’re sending a message that sounds like “watch out for your evil, minority-hating, generally deplorable fellow Americans?”

This is, of course, just one playing-out of how easy it is to litter our speech, our Facebook posts, our media stories, our research–with more and less obvious signs of separation between “me”/”us” and “them” or “the other”. Not only do we disagree with the other, not only do we have a different background, but  –and herein lies the problem – we are clearly better, more deserving, human beings than this other set of human beings. Instead of making their ideas or practices stand up to scrutiny by explaining why our alternatives work better, we directly attack the person or group behind the problem.

This dehumanizing contravenes my own values, but it is also tactically unproductive. Former Jihadist Manwar Ali explains in this TED talk that when he identified with the radical form of jihad advocated by groups like Isis:

I tried to right wrongs through power and aggression. I had deep concerns for the suffering of others and a strong desire to help and bring relief to them. I thought violent jihad was noble, chivalrous and the best way to help.

… What have I learned [since defecting]? That people who engage in violent jihadism, that people who are drawn to these types of extremisms, are not that different to everyone else.

And how did the former young leader of the white nationalist movement in the US Derek Black come to change his views? That was a gradual process, which had a lot to do with some of his university acquaintences deciding to talk to him rather than ostricize him – which is what they had initially done upon finding out Derek’s identity. Defecting was not an easy decision, not least because Derek knew he would likely be ostricized in a similar way by his own family  –and indeed he was. But even his father Don had to admit he was surprised when, on the one occasion severl years later that he was talking to Derek:

Derek still had his dry sense of humor. He still made smart observations about politics and history. “Same old Derek,” Don concluded, after a few hours.

If the decisions that Manwar and Derek had to make were painfully difficult, it is safe to say the othering that they were subjected to, one as a violent jihadist and the other as (more accurately) a white supremacist, will, if anything, have only reinforced their conviction that they both needed to keep fighting the enemy. As George Lakoff, professor of Cognative Science and Linguistics at UC Berkeley reminds us:

…conservatives believe deeply that they are morally right, that they and other conservatives are operating from the right moral principles. They don’t believe that they are immoral, and they don’t believe that right and wrong don’t matter.

It’s time that progressives started listening to Lakoff by framing our values rather than working on the offensive to ostricize the Other, or quash their values. Because until lots of us can look the former versions of Manwar and Derek in the eye and articulate our worldview and why it matters, and continue to imagine and describe what the world we want to live in looks and sounds and feels like… The people leading groups with conflicting ideology to ours will be louder and clearer. They will be better at recruiting. They will organize.

Theoretically the best thing about democracy is that everyone gets a voice. But we need to make sure that we use ours strategically, and that we remember that practically everyone believes they are fundamentally good, moral human beings.

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4 Comments

  1. Helena says:

    A very good article. Thank you. It cautions us (or me anyway) to explore our (my) dark side. Tolerance, compassion win, win.

  2. Mike in Auckland says:

    Oh yeah, Trump is a lovely darling, and Key is a charming heartthrob, give me a break, thanks.

  3. Sheepdog says:

    Aine, this is very good, as a starting point. There are just a few more aspects to this which might help flesh out your analysis;

    Your support of free speech is excellent; depriving people of their voice because you disagree with them is a form of repression. No-platforming can be cathartic, in the moment, but it’s a recipe for eventual violence.

    Second, Identity Politics is counter-productive, and it’s a doomed strategy. As you appear to realise, if alienating the majority by our labeling of others is counter-productive, then Identity Politics, which is almost entirely about labeling can’t possibly succeed, unless inflaming fascism is your goal.

    Not only does Identity Politics inflame its own opposition, it puts its adherents in the weakest possible position; by aligning against the majority, and relying entirely on ordinary human tolerance, we set ourselves up for political annihilation.

    Only by returning to Class Struggle do we find ourselves both on the side of justice, and aligned with the majority of the people. Workers vastly outnumber the bourgeoisie, and while we are united, we are more than capable of bringing about the creation of a good and just society. But while we are fragmented, and fight worker against worker, emphasising our differences and not the things we have in common, the elites have free rein.

    This is the actual lesson of the recent US election, and you appear to perceive it; by first shattering our solidarity through Identity Politics, and then trying to stitch together a Frankenstein monster of special minority interests, the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton doomed Americans not only to 4 years of a right-wing Republican President, but a House and Senate of same.

    The Republicans understood one thing if nothing else; if you want to win in politics, you need to find common cause with the majority of the population. It is wrong to think that this was a white-people-only result – it was American workers of all races and creeds reacting against 30 years Neo-liberal austerity and manipulation by slick Democratic carpet-baggers.

    Class Struggle is real. It is time now to abandon Identity Politics and address the real issues of economic and political inequality which affect the vast majority of all people if we are to have any chance of surviving the next 8 years.

    • Strypey says:

      Aine and Sheepdog sum it up nicely, as does Jonathon Pie’s epic rant on the subject of discussion and debate being both more ethical and more effective than guilt-tripping and silencing. It simply proves his point when people respond to him (and those who agree with his post-Trump-win rant like me) with yet more of the same patronising psychobabble and dumb strawman arguments, eg implying that because he is criticising certain styles of identity politics, it means he doesn’t support liberation for oppressed minorities. Bollocks.

      His point is that if the left wants to be effective in our solidarity with oppressed groups, we are clearly going about it the wrong way, and Brexit and Trump are the proof. Perhaps there will always be a handful of screeching, piss-throwing identitarians, because like the pseudo-Stalinist groups splinter groups that persisted up to and beyond the fall of the Soviet Union, they are that bloody-minded. But they are clearly not the future of the left, any more than Hilary fucking Clinton was.