Like a lot of people, I’m feeling disheartened, worried, and unsure of what to do after our Presidential election.
For the first two weeks, I was binging on articles diving into the reasons for the election result. People continue to have all kinds of suggestions for who to blame, either to prevent a repeat of this in the future or just to say, “I told you so.” People have suggested a lot of different remedies: taking to the streets, hoping that absentee and provisional ballots or recounts will reverse the result, keeping money and business out of states that supported Trump.
The only thing I’m sure of is that anyone who tells you the election result is attributable to just one issue, or that there’s only one proper response, is wrong.
One thing I keep coming back to again and again, though, is the idea that Trump is not alone; whether he’ll follow through on his promises to them or not, he’s gotten the support of a whole lot of people. If he were blocked from taking office—say, by the Electoral College—and was out of the picture, all the people who voted to elect him would still be here, feeling more disenfranchised and angry than before. As much as I might relish the notion of preventing Trump from taking office, or impeaching him after he’s there, it won’t change the fact that so many people wanted him there, and will heartily support others like him in the future.
One message I’ve seen over and over on social media is: “If you voted Trump, unfriend me now.” This isn’t anything new; people have been using a variation of this ever since social media became a thing. The threat of banishment is a common way to let people know that some behavior won’t be tolerated, and it’s grown in popularity as an option. This isn’t “give me space”, or “I’m taking a break from you”, it’s the nuclear option. The end.
“If you support HB2 (the anti-trans ‘bathroom bill’), unfriend me now.”
“If you voted for Prop 8 (the California anti-marriage-equality referendum), unfriend me now.”
“If all you’ve got is ‘All Lives Matter’, unfriend me now.”
“If you listen to Nickelback, unfriend me now.” (Is it still okay to make jokes? I’m not sure.)
Now, compared to the real world, Facebook is a piss-poor place to have a meaningful conversation, probably a silver medal behind Twitter in the Olympics of Shittiness. But it is a place where people share stuff that matters to them—news, art and culture—and provide updates on their lives.
My problem with the “unfriend me” move is that it asserts that nothing will ever bridge the gap between you and someone else. If that weren’t true before, it becomes true; once you shut them out, there’s no chance of influencing someone’s thinking. After seeing a lot of messages like these go by, I posted the following on Facebook in response:
Just a thought: if you have Trump voters in your friends list on here, consider not unfriending them.
Making your lives invisible to these people means they won’t see how their vote is going to impact you and your loved ones. Try and chalk their votes up to ignorance, if at all possible, and hope that they’ll learn from you.
(But if you want to “unfollow” for your own sanity, by all means…)
I’m a very trusting and optimistic person, but I’m also a realist. This is not an entreaty to “give Trump a chance” or gloss over the ugliness of his campaign. If I take Trump at his word, his Presidency will be more hostile to gays, trans people, racial and religious minorities, and journalists than any in recent memory. It’s hard to imagine any scenario where he earns my respect.
No, this is an attempt to shift the focus away from Trump and onto the people who supported and elected him. It’s an appeal to do the hardest type of political activism: talking to your opponents.
In a world of snarky political memes and late-night comedy monologues, this is hands-down the most unsatisfying, most frustrating course to take. It requires lots of patience. It doesn’t often pay off. It can alienate purists on “your side” who consider even speaking to someone an endorsement of their views.
To do work like this, you have to step out of your bubble, where the people who validate and support you live, and open yourself up to someone who may well respond with hostility. It’s emotionally exhausting, and it’s not something you can do all the time. It’s not something everyone is in a position to do.
“Yeah, I’ll ‘ratchet down the rhetoric’ while someone comes at me with a bat.”
No, this isn’t the path we take with the considerable number of people out there who’ve made it their mission to cause us real, unambiguous harm. The people who are coming out of the woodwork in anecdotes on social media, harassing racial and religious minorities, vandalizing churches, assaulting gay and trans people. The Klu Klux Klan, planning victory rallies. White supremacist groups feeling emboldened as their chosen candidate takes power. They’re not in the majority, but their numbers are still legion. We’re not going to sit down for a cup of tea with these people. As stated eloquently by @SonofBaldwin:
“We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”
I do believe, though, there are a lot of people out there whose disdain for people unlike themselves is shallow, and rooted in ignorance. They don’t understand why someone would want to terminate a pregnancy. They don’t see themselves in someone fleeing from war and needing sanctuary. They can’t compare a loving relationship between two women or two men to their own. They don’t recognize the biases that black and brown people face, because they don’t know any people who experience them.
Ignorance is everywhere, and inside each and every one of us. The most enlightened people have their blind spots. We’re not “good people” and “bad people” so much as we are varying collections of good and bad ideas, words, and actions. Nobody is filled up entirely with bad or good; everyone is a mix. Some people are filled with way too much hate and ignorance.
But ignorance can be curable. And engaging people in this way can work, if we see our opportunities and take them.
I think back to someone I consider one of the most vile politicians this country has ever had—a true political enemy of me and mine if ever there was one—and his unlikely alliance in 2002 with the frontman of my onetime-favorite band.
Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina was a homophobe and racist who viciously attacked funding for AIDS programs because they benefitted “perverts.” He filibustered against making the birthday of Martin Luther King a national holiday. He was anti-choice and his “Helms Amendment” from 1973 still bars any foreign aid from being used directly or indirectly for abortion, as tens of thousands of women die each year from unsafe procedures.
This was also the man who was entreated by Bono, lead singer of U2, to promote debt relief in Africa, which led to a $5 billion increase in foreign aid under George W. Bush.
“We knew we had to get both sides,” [Bono] explains. “So we got Billy Graham and the Pope and I went to people like Jesse Helms, who had been very tough on the the concept of foreign assistance and very bleak on AIDS. He’s a religious man so I told him that 2103 verses of scripture pertain to the poor and Jesus speaks of judgment only once—and it’s not about being gay or sexual morality, but about poverty. I quoted that verse of Matthew chapter 25: ‘I was naked and you clothed me.’ He was really moved. He was in tears. Later he publicly acknowledged that he was ashamed…”
Jesse Helms was undoubtedly “the enemy” in so many ways, but was able to see that he didn’t need to be an enemy on that particular issue. They found a common language and communicated. Bono kept the end goal in mind—the lives of countless people who could be helped—and did the unglamorous, messy, complicated thing. He got a lot of shit for doing so. He didn’t do it to endorse Helms’ racism, or homophobia, or misogyny; he wanted to give Helms the opportunity to do a good thing. Helms’ stance on this issue carried a lot of weight with the people in his party, and made a lot of difference. They didn’t arrive at a perfect solution, but it was a departure from the past and a significant step forward.
So now, I’m going to be a Debbie Downer and remind you that in the coming years, we are going to have to fight.
We will have to be firm and not waver on our most fundamental moral beliefs. We will have to stand up and resist the erosion of the progress we’ve made, with every obstructionist trick that the Republicans used to slow us down. We will have to push back hard against people who want to surrender others’ rights in order to make gains “for all”. We will have to say NO, loud and clear, over and over again. And we’ll have to fight harder than ever against gerrymandering and vote suppression. If I had to name just one cause for Republican domination of our political system, that would definitely be at the top.
But in the midst of all that, we’ll also sometimes see the opportunity to get through to someone. Even though you and I probably won’t reach rock star levels of success, when we see it, it could be worth a try.
Maybe we only get one out of a hundred people to decide to support trans and gay rights “on principle”, even though they’re personally “grossed out”. Or to agree that contraception drastically reduces abortion and should be widely available. Or to admit that racism is “still a thing”, and that maybe they benefit from it. Or to see that the extremist factions of any religion can’t represent it as a whole.
Maybe those ideas spur one out of a hundred people to consider a different oval on their ballot.
Maybe we help make big changes for our future by, in small part, coming together instead of drifting apart.