The Danger–and Necessity–of Normalizing Our New Political Reality

A lot of folks have been asking, “How do we protect our own emotional health without normalizing what’s going on?”

They’re speaking to the tension between being horrified, terrified, and disgusted by what’s happening and what’s about to happen politically, and yet still being able to get up in the morning and go to work or do whatever it is you do and function as if life is, well, normal.

To be honest, I don’t know. And to be honest, I really feel the temptation to just assimilate this into my model of the world and go on with my life as if it’s no big deal.

Of course, doing so is dangerous because it breeds complacency. If this is normal and no big deal, why fight against it? If it’s normal for our country’s leadership to casually throw around ideas like Muslim registries and internment camps, what can be done anyway? If swastikas all over everything is just a thing that happens now, why bother?

So we must retain our capacity for horror, even as it drags on year after year and threatens to feel less and less horrifying.

On the other hand, I also know this: no living thing is meant to live with unrelenting stress. Our stress response evolved to help us escape life-threatening but temporary situations. It spurs us to action that quickly burns through our reserves of energy but is meant to get us to a place where we can safely rest.

One of the ways in which mental illness can develop is that this physiological response is fired up constantly due to trauma, abuse, adverse life events, overly stressful jobs, and so on, to the point where we never have relief. It’s not meant to work that way, and depression and anxiety result.

That sort of constant stress can also lead to physical health problems, and it’s one reason (along with healthcare disparities and so on) why marginalized people tend to have worse health outcomes. The added stress of constant racism or other forms of bigotry takes both a physical and a psychological toll.

The reason so many of us are feeling such a strong urge to just accept our new political reality and move on isn’t just because activism is hard or because we’re lazy or whatever. It’s because, unfortunately for progressive politics, that’s actually the psychologically adaptive response. You’re not a bad person or a bad activist if it feels like your brain is urging you to move on.

This isn’t to shame anyone who can’t move on. Many people aren’t anywhere near feeling “normal” about this election because of preexisting trauma, mental illness, or any number of other factors that prevent them from “getting used to it.” That can make it even harder for them to go on with their lives, but that’s not their fault.

But if you are fighting the impulse to normalize, know that you’re to some extent fighting with biology. That doesn’t make you wrong and biology right–we fight and control our instincts all the time, often for our (and others’) greater good. That just means that you shouldn’t blame yourself if it’s hard and you sometimes fail.

As I said, I’m not sure where I’m at with this myself. I’m still very much in the place I was in my previous post, and I’m still dedicated to giving myself space to move through my own feelings rather than shoving them aside for others’ sake. The thing is, if I don’t normalize at all, I’m going to burn out. And not only is that horrible for me, and for all the friends and family and partners who depend on me, and for my parents who cosigned on my $160,000 of student loans and will have to pay them if I become too depressed to work, and for my clients who depend on me to provide them with mental healthcare–it will also be ultimately bad for any sort of activism or organizing that I was supposed to be involved in, because then I won’t be doing it at all.

And if I were going to give any actual advice in this post, it would be this: be on guard for the possibility of burnout, and know that you owe it to yourself to do what you need to do to protect your own health. And the people who depend on you need you in good health, too. But more importantly, so do you.

The struggle against normalization also belies the fact that, unfortunately, what’s happening right now actually is kind of normal on a global and historical scale. It may be relatively abnormal in the United States, but many people have already lived through it. The fact that I was raised by such people might by why I’m simultaneously so triggered and so resilient–triggered because unlike them, I don’t yet have the confidence that I can survive it, but resilient because I’ve learned some of their coping skills. No matter how bad things get, my parents spend time with their loved ones, do “silly” things like watch bad crime shows to relax, invest in their work, take care of their health, and do things they enjoy. Oppressive governments are entirely normalized to them, and they survive. To some extent, they’ve passed that down to me. It’s hard for me not to feel like this is just the way of things.

That said, we don’t have to conflate normalization with acceptance. That swastikas and casual references to mass internment may be normal here right now doesn’t mean we have to let them remain normal forever. We can’t let them remain normal forever.

That means that we may have to look beyond emotional reactions to motivate our activism. If your main motivator is the anger you feel when you witness bigotry or when Trump opens his mouth (so, when you witness bigotry), you may stop acting when the anger stops coming. And for many of us, it will, because our brains can’t sustain that level of emotional response for four-plus years.

Since I’ve never really been motivated by negative emotions–for me it’s more about the satisfaction of doing something that I think is meaningful and effective–I’m not actually that concerned that I’ll stop doing things once the pain of this election outcome stops feeling so raw. Actually, I’ll probably be doing more things because I won’t be so fucking overwhelmed with despair.

And if you think about it, many of the things we fight against–racism, sexism, homophobia, and so on–have always seemed “normal” to us because we grew up steeped in them. That didn’t stop us from fighting. The threat we face now is of a different type and a different degree, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t feel both normal and unacceptable at the same time.

Something I’m going to try to do to maintain both my sanity and my outrage is to set aside times for doing political things and times where I’m going to keep political things out of my head and out of the conversation. Sometimes I’ll sit down for an hour or two to read the news and write a letter to my representative and feel angry and worked up during that time, but then I need other times where I am free to not think about that stuff at all, to not give a fuck about it. Not everyone is able to achieve that sort of compartmentalization–it’s something that comes easy to me after a lifetime of necessity–but if you can, it might help you.

So I suppose my final answer to the question I opened with is that, for the most part, you cannot maintain your mental health without doing some amount of normalizing, or whatever else it takes to gradually reduce your stress response so that you can function rather than sobbing for days on end like I did right after the election.

But it matters how you normalize–what language you use, and what you do in response. “Trump’s not that bad I guess” combined with no action is disastrous if enough people adopt it; “It is currently normal in our country to advocate mass internment and I must act against it” would be a very beneficial attitude for people to take, even though it doesn’t necessarily involve getting your blood pressure up at each mention of mass internment.

Unfortunately, the people who most need to resist their urge to accept this are the people least likely to be reading this article or worrying about normalizing horrible things to begin with. If you’re worried that this will become normal to you and you’ll stop caring, I’d predict that you probably won’t stop caring. But, of course, you know yourself best.

And again, if you cannot normalize, you don’t have to, and I hope you can find a way to be okay without it. But if you can, that’s not a personal failure; that’s your brain trying to protect you. You don’t have to let it, but you’re also allowed to put your own oxygen mask on first.


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The Danger–and Necessity–of Normalizing Our New Political Reality
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Things Will Neither Be as Good as You Hope, Nor as Bad as You Fear

I. Comfort

As the days went by and nothing anyone said could comfort me, I realized I would have to comfort myself.

This is what I would’ve liked to hear in the days following the election. To that end, it’s extremely personal even though it discusses a political event. It may not be true, but it can’t really be said to be false, either, because this is what keeps me wanting to keep living. I hope that by writing it and putting it out into the world, as a real, living, breathing thing, I can be comforted.

There’s a saying I kind of live by, and it goes: “Things will neither be as good as you hope, nor as bad as you fear.” I don’t remember where I first heard it or who I could possibly credit it to. I like it because it reminds me not to overinvest myself in fantastical possibilities, positive or negative.

I’ve had plenty of each this past week. First I thought it was literally just a mistake. A part of me expected to wake up on Wednesday morning–I didn’t stay up quite late enough to see the actual concession–and check my phone and see that Clinton won. Things were obviously not as good as that particular hope.

Then I hoped even more irrationally that Someone Would Do Something–what?–and reverse the election results. Can’t anyone do something? Isn’t he literally currently on trial for child rape? But no, nobody was going to do something; the time for doing something was November 8 and we did not do it.

Now I hope for other too-good things. That it was all just a big funny troll and he’ll turn out to be a liberal. That he’ll at least leave the ACA and abortion rights and LGBTQ rights and a ton of other things alone and focus on his money. That he’ll die or resign or be impeached and then so will Pence and literally everyone else on down until I don’t know what. That it’ll be like Harry Potter or Star Wars or other great stories that I love in which the rebels win in the end and not all that many people die.

And then there were the fears. As soon as the election was over I discovered in myself a seemingly unstoppable well of intergenerational trauma that paralyzed me with visions of forced labor camps, gas chambers, Secret Police, interrogations, mass graves, yellow stars on clothing, armed men kicking down the door in the middle of the night. While there are many valid reasons to fear that Trump will inexorably damage our democracy, these particular fears are not, I don’t think, coming from any actual evidence. They are an inevitable result of trauma, even trauma that you haven’t personally witnessed. They are a part of my story nonetheless.

Things will neither be as good as you hope, nor as bad as you fear.

II. Surviving

“We survived Reagan,” they said. “We survived Bush. We’ll survive this.” Others responded, angrily and rightfully so: “Many of us didn’t.”

Some won’t survive Trump. Of those that do, many will probably be changed in ways they never wanted to change, ways that you can’t necessarily turn into silver linings. There’s no point papering over that ugly writing on the wall.

You may not survive Trump. Your loved ones may not survive Trump. I’m so sorry we didn’t do better by you. We failed in many ways not just on November 8 but in the weeks and months leading up to it, but many people are already doing that postmortem analysis and that’s not my aim here.

It is a small but significant comfort, though, that human ingenuity and empathy will survive, and most likely so will our democracy, and that for every Trump there are dozens of people who enrich the lives of the people around them. If only our political system were set up to uplift these people. But it’s not, so instead it’s up to us to uplift them, now more than ever.

III. Privilege

As someone who has often written about privilege as a helpful lens through which to understand our society, I was surprised to find that in the days after the election, personally, I found this lens unhelpful and even harmful.

Just to get this out of the way first–I don’t mean we shouldn’t be talking about privilege right now. We should be talking about it more than ever. I mean that in my own emotional process, it didn’t help at all.

Something that I kept hearing a lot was that certain people have “nothing to worry about” in the coming years and are therefore obligated to put themselves on the line for others. I guess I don’t think anyone is ever “obligated” to do anything but treat others like human beings, but aside from that, I don’t know who I could possibly identify that I personally know (so, not a member of Trump’s family or cabinet) who has “nothing to worry about.”

A straight cis white man who loses health insurance because the ACA is repealed and then develops a fatal condition is just as dead as anyone else. Does he have “nothing to worry about”?

When climate change continues unabated thanks to Trump’s denialism and all of us suffer, do any of us have “nothing to worry about”?

And I think back to those horrible images I keep seeing, and I think about who had “nothing to worry about” then. In the Soviet Union, being straight, cis, white, and male may have afforded you some amount of protection–I’m not sure exactly what the social dynamics there were–but if someone informed on you (usually falsely, usually in order to save themselves or their family or to get back at you or to get something you had), off you go to the camps like anyone else.

Some people are in more danger than others, and we must speak up and stand up for those people. But I’m tired of the gaslighty claims that relatively privileged people are wrong in their own fears. None of us are actually safe now.

I’m also not sure where I stand in this hypothetical privilege ladder now that white supremacists are in power, because Jews are not white to them. Jewish whiteness has always been somewhat conditional, not just on time but also on place. There are many parts of the country–the types of parts that voted heavily for Trump, in fact–where Jews have never been white. My family fled a country where Jews were not white. Anti-Semitism has always trafficked in racial stereotypes. All of you who claim that Jewishness is just a religion and nothing more must not have ever heard all the jokes about big ugly noses and frizzy ugly hair, and inferior genes and physical weakness and illness. There’s a long legacy of visual representations to that effect, too.

So, in the context of that and in the context of swastikas getting spray-painted all over everything and in the context of this has happened to us numerous times already, I don’t really appreciate being told that I have “nothing to worry about.”

IV. Organizing

So what now? Now, apparently, we’re supposed to “organize.”

“Don’t mourn, organize,” say actual posts on my actual Facebook feed, as if anyone has the fucking right to tell me how to feel right now.

I’m aware that immediately jumping to action is some people’s coping strategy, and I don’t knock that. But the proliferation of these posts within hours of the election’s conclusion was, if not exactly triggering, at the very least deeply invalidating. I feel like I’m grieving the loss of a loved one as people stand around and command me to “take action” and “use your privilege” and “do something about it.” What am I supposed to do? It’s dead. You want me to bring a corpse back to life now? No amount of privilege is going to make that happen.

Which brings me to the deeper part of this, which is that I don’t feel like I can trust anyone enough to organize with them.

I know this will upset some of you to hear, but this is the part that I feel like I have to say before anything else can come out of my chest. Progressives who voted third party in swing states (or didn’t vote at all) because Clinton wasn’t progressive enough make me feel like a hostage in a negotiation. “Give me a better Democratic candidate, or the girl gets it.” Well, they called your bluff, I’m shot and bleeding, and none of us are better off for it. Most of these progressives are white and non-Jewish; some aren’t, but even those are responsible for bargaining with others’ lives as if those lives are theirs to bargain with.

Now I am being told to “organize” with my fellow progressives because this is the only way to stop Trump. Leaving aside the fact that the only realistic way to stop Trump given the conditions we had was to vote for Clinton, I wouldn’t organize so much as a desk drawer with people who so cavalierly threw me and all other marginalized people onto the negotiating table.

I’m aware that third-party voters and nonvoters don’t see it that way. You see it as a matter of conscience, of standing up for what’s right. That may be true for you, but I feel that my life, health, and safety have been put on the line without my consent and I can’t trust people who do that to me.

Maybe eventually I’ll come around and forgive and stop feeling so unsafe and compromised, but for now, just leave me alone to write and call my representative in peace. I don’t want to organize anything besides my Thanksgiving party.

V. Grief

The past week has definitely felt like grieving. I experienced that odd narrowing of focus, that sense that literally nothing else matters, not even the things I cared deeply about before. I remember looking at photos of my outfit from election night and feeling sort of numbly confused as to why I would care about putting together an outfit. I can still barely write anything that isn’t this, because I don’t see why anything else would matter.

I’m grieving for a future that isn’t one of various shades of total fucking shitshow. I’m grieving for all the people who will get hurt. I’m grieving for the fact that there will probably not be a female president in my lifetime; after this we will assume that a woman couldn’t possibly win an election even against an incompetent, impulsive, hateful rapist and fraud. I’m grieving for the hope I had felt about my own future. I’m grieving for my parents and all the other survivors of authoritarian and fascist regimes who came here thinking they would never have to go through that again. I’m grieving, utterly bizarrely and misplacedly, for Hillary Clinton and the hope that she must’ve had that the world was finally ready for her, and it wasn’t. I’m even grieving, against all reason, for the people who thought this would save them and who might never realize just how much it’s going to destroy them.

I am grieving and I feel too numb to care, too apathetic to organize, too betrayed to trust, and too overwhelmed to move forward.

I’m told, if not in these exact words, that that’s a personal failure because it means I’m wallowing in my own feelings rather than Organizing or whatever. Look–first of all, I don’t owe anyone shit. The way I see it right now, my family came to this country because y’all told us this can’t happen here, so as it turns out, you lied. You broke it, you pay for it.

But that’s my immediate, raging, grieving self. That’s the sort of thing I have to move past in order to be of any use to myself or anyone else. And I can’t move past it without taking the time and space to move through it.

When I moved to New York–and again when I moved back from New York–I had a really, really hard time with those transitions. Those were radically different sorts of events than this is–for one, they were not literally national-scale disasters and for another, I got to fucking choose those things. But what I learned was that as silly and petty and childish as my feelings seemed to me, I needed to be gentle and caring with myself in order to be able to move forward.

I think that applies to this as much as it does to any other grief I will ever experience, and for that reason I feel absolutely zero guilt for indulging those feelings for now and just letting myself feel them all the way through. There’s no moral value to this because it’s simply what needs to be done.

I am grieving, but the final stage of this grieving process isn’t acceptance. It’s anger.


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Things Will Neither Be as Good as You Hope, Nor as Bad as You Fear

If You Voted for Trump Today

If you voted for Trump today, I will continue to treat you with the basic respect and dignity that I believe all human beings deserve, even if you don’t believe the same.

I won’t call you names or weaponize your marginalizations against you–and yes, plenty of Trump voters have them, despite the fact that he hates people like you.

I will continue to fight for your rights whenever I see them eroded or denied, even though you left mine lying in the gutter.

I will seek to understand your experiences and motivations, just like I do everyone else’s, because I’m curious about people and also because that’s how I’m going to keep the rest of us safe from your hatred.

If you come to me as a client for counseling, I will provide you with the same ethical, evidence-based, compassionate care I give everyone else who walks into my office, even though you voted to destroy the programs that fund these life-saving services for yourself and everyone else.

If I have to interact with you at a party or a checkout line, I’ll do it politely. There’s no point in adding even more misery to the world.

Now that that’s clear, here’s what I won’t do.

I won’t go back to not knowing that you–every single one of you with the yard signs and bumper stickers and baseball caps–voted for someone who, if given a chance, would sexually assault me. I’m not going to just pretend you didn’t look at that man’s name on your ballot and, having seen those headlines splashed all over your social media, went ahead and selected it.

If I loved you before, I will not–I cannot–continue to love you now, no matter how many tacky posts I see on Facebook about “loving each other no matter what happens today.” I don’t make a habit of loving people who love hatred. If you wanted my love, you should’ve valued it enough not to love someone who sees me as a piece of meat.

I will not tolerate intolerance. I won’t see you as monsters or animals, but I will see you as exactly what you are–human beings who are to various extents comfortable with or actively supportive of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, ableism, xenophobia, and other forms of harmful biased thinking. Even if you were uncomfortable with some of it, you were not uncomfortable enough to refrain from voting for the most openly bigoted presidential candidate in modern history. Nobody forced you to do that.

I will not “forgive.” Forgiveness is for people who have acknowledged the harm they’ve done, apologized sincerely, and done what they can to repair the damage. Our culture of obligatory forgiveness is bullshit, and “forgiving” people who haven’t changed a single thing about themselves is just another way to say that we’ll smile and pretend their actions have no consequences and insulate them from those consequences. I fucking refuse. I will forgive any Trump voter only if and when they understand they were wrong, apologize, and commit themselves to working to undo what they helped unleash.

Because even if Trump loses tonight, even if he loses by a historical landslide, the damage is done, and those millions of us that he and his supporters have directly targeted will not forget. The acts of violence he has inspired still happened, and people are still hurting from them.

If you voted for Trump today, I’ll remember.


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If You Voted for Trump Today

On Ending Friendships Over Politics

After the election last week, I saw exactly three reactions to Obama’s victory in my Facebook newsfeed.

The majority were shouts of glee and sighs of relief, whether because Obama was elected or because Romney was not. Count me among those.

A tiny minority were pictures of crying Statues of Liberty, Bible verses, and promises to move to another country. (Which one? I’m guessing not any of the ones with socialized healthcare.)

A slightly larger minority were the ones ruing the “divisiveness” of politics and the “hurtful discourse” and the fact that “friendships end” over the “bitter comment wars” on Facebook. Laments like these are usually uttered by the sort of holier-than-thou moderates whose numbers, for better or worse, seem to be shrinking with each election cycle.

Here’s the thing. True friendships can withstand lots of things, including things more severe and “divisive” than a few debates over Facebook. If your friendship ends because you argued about who has better ideas for fixing our economy or whatever, the problem was probably not the argument. It was probably the friendship.

I’ve gotten into some pretty heated arguments with friends before, about politics and about other stuff. In the end, if I really care about that friend–and usually I do–I try to smooth things over by telling them that I still respect them as a person, and, usually, that I still respect their opinions even though I disagree. I make sure they’re not personally hurt by anything I said. And the friendship goes on.

If instead I find myself reaching for the “unfriend” button, it’s probably because I just didn’t care about that friendship enough. But that said, this happens very rarely.

Furthermore, you might be surprised to know that some of us don’t want friends who think we should be forced to carry a rapist’s baby to term, or that we shouldn’t have the right to marry who we want because “marriage is sacred.” These things aren’t just political anymore. They’re personal.

A person who not only believes these things but actually tells them to me despite how hurtful and alienating they are probably isn’t someone I want to keep as a friend. I’m not interested in being friends with people who consider me a second-class citizen.

On that note, it’s surprising sometimes how personal our political issues have become. I would never end a friendship over a disagreement about, say, economics or foreign policy, but I would absolutely end it over racism, sexism, or homophobia. Now that “-isms” play such a big part in political affiliation, an argument that starts out about the Affordable Care Act can turn into an argument about whether or not women should “just keep their legs closed.” By the way, if you think women should “just keep their legs closed,” you’re no friend of mine.

Finally, I don’t see how ending a friendship over significant political differences is any worse or less legitimate than ending it because you hate each other’s sense of humor or lifestyle, or whatever other reasons people have for ending friendships. If you don’t feel close to someone anymore and don’t want to be their friend, you shouldn’t have to be. You don’t owe friendship to anyone. I get that it sucks if someone you considered a good friend suddenly wants nothing to do with you just because you disagreed with them, but it’s even worse to have to pretend to be someone’s friend for the sake of not being “divisive.”

Stephanie Zvan wrote something very wise about this:

If you’re talking about reconciling relationships, however, ask yourself what you’re doing. Are you gearing up to apologize to someone who you feel was arguing from a good place when you got a bit testy with them? Are you mending family bonds that are important to the kids in the connection? Are you letting back into your life someone who’s spent the last several months telling the world that your rights matter less than theirs? Are you accepting one more apology from someone who gets abusive every time you discuss something you disagree on?

The differences matter. Not everyone is someone who should be in your life if you want a decent life. Sometimes strife is freedom.

 

Truth is, there are a lot of potential friends out there. While it’s important to expose yourself to different perspectives and opinions, there is absolutely no reason you should have to remain friends with someone whose politics you find deplorable.

I’d much rather be “divisive” than have to see bigoted crap all over my Facebook, which I consider my online “home.” Just as I don’t have to have bigots over for dinner, I don’t have to have them in my newsfeed.

On Ending Friendships Over Politics

No, Obama and Romney Are Not "The Same"

I disagree with this, by the way.

Some people seem to think that Republicans and Democrats are basically identical policy-wise, that Obama and Romney they’re both evil, and that it doesn’t matter which one of them becomes our next president because they’re basically “the same.”

On some issues, of course, they are. Neither is willing to substantially decrease the United States’ meddling in other countries’ affairs and/or killing innocent civilians in those countries. Neither seems interested in removing corporate interests from our political system, or reforming it to allow third parties to have more influence. Both have remained infuriatingly silent on the subject of climate change. Both support violating civil liberties as part of the war on terrorism.

However, these are not the only the only issues that matter. The fact that Obama and Romney are aligned on some issues does not mean they are aligned on all of them.

There’s a reason I only ever see straight white dudes making this argument, and that reason is this: it’s easy not to see the difference between Obama and Romney when it’s not your rights that one of them is trying to take away, and the other is trying to protect.

If Romney becomes president, it’s not you who may lose the right to marry who you want, to visit the person you love when they’re hospitalized and to adopt a child with them. It’s not you who will lose your right to bodily autonomy when a newly-conservative Supreme Court overturns Roe v Wade. It’s not you who’s getting disenfranchised. It’s not you who may be forced to carry your rapist’s baby to term. It’s not you who could get deported. It’s not you who may lose access to the entitlement programs that allow you to have food and housing. It’s (probably) not you who will be denied health insurance due to a preexisting condition. It goes on and on.

You can argue that Obama has actually done little to advance the rights of women, LGBT people, and racial minorities (though I would still disagree). But you cannot argue that this makes him equivalent to Romney, who fights to take those rights away. These things are just not the same. And I would still take a president who says pretty words but does little over one who actively does things that harm already-marginalized people. In a heartbeat.

I frankly have little respect for people who refuse to vote out of protest. Don’t vote for Obama if you hate him so much. Vote for a third party candidate. Write in Jon Stewart on the ballot. Do something. You might claim that not voting is an act of protest, but guess what–protests only work when they’re noticed. Nobody’s going to notice you smugly sitting on your sofa, just as nobody can hear you being silent.

Besides, you might be surprised to know that the rest of us aren’t willing to give up our rights for the sake of your act of protest.

Ideally, of course, we would have a vibrant multi-party democracy, and people who are mostly concerned with individual freedoms could vote for Libertarian candidates, whereas people who are mostly concerned with equality and progress could vote for Green Party or Socialist candidates. But right now, we don’t have that. We have two choices right now: Obama and Romney.

I say we should elect the lesser of two evils.

Many people don’t like that. They protest that the lesser of two evils is still evil and that we shouldn’t have to compromise–but it’s politics. Of course we do.

Besides, when you refuse to choose the lesser of two evils, you stand aside for the greater evil.

If you’re still unsure, go hang out on Romney’s website for a while. And consider this:

No, Obama and Romney Are Not "The Same"

[In Brief] Romney's Abortion Flip-flop

In 1994, one of our current presidential candidates said the following:

I have my own beliefs, and those beliefs are very dear to me. One of them is that I do not impose my beliefs on other people. Many, many years ago, I had a dear, close family relative that was very close to me who passed away from an illegal abortion. It is since that time that my mother and my family have been committed to the belief that we can believe as we want, but we will not force our beliefs on others on that matter. And you will not see me wavering on that.

One guess which candidate this was. And here’s a hint: it wasn’t Obama.

That same year, according to the Daily Kos post I linked to, Romney and his wife Ann attended a Planned Parenthood event, and Ann donated $150 to the organization. But in 2007, Romney claimed to have “no recollection” of that, and said that “[Ann’s] positions are not terribly relevant for my campaign.”

This last statement is in itself a lie. Romney claims that Ann “reports to me regularly” about women’s issues.

It doesn’t surprise me that politicians flip-flop on hot-button issues. Of course they do. And not only that, but people can and do genuinely change their minds about things (take it from me; I used to believe that abortion should be illegal in almost all cases).

But this isn’t just a change in politics; it’s a change in values. Romney did not say, “I believe that the government has no authority to ban abortion.” He did not say, “I believe that in a just society, women should have the right to choose.” He said that “we can believe as we want, but we will not force our beliefs on others on that matter.”

What changed in 18 years that forcing one’s beliefs on others suddenly became acceptable to Romney?

This is yet more evidence that the Republican Party we have today is nothing like the Republican Party of two decades ago. Not that I would’ve been a huge fan of that one, either.

[In Brief] Romney's Abortion Flip-flop

Empathy and Leadership: Why Romney Would be a Terrible President

What do we look for in a presidential candidate? Political experience, intelligence, charisma, and confidence are probably high up on the list. Good looks and an adherence to Christianity clearly don’t hurt either.

But what about empathy?

What terrifies me the most about the scant possibility of a Romney presidency is not the fact that I disagree with his political ideology. Rather, it’s Romney’s seemingly complete lack of empathy.

This thought first occurred to me back when the “Seamus incident” made the news a few months ago. But one can easily argue that the incident doesn’t exactly prove that Romney is a heartless robot–after all, the victim in question was a dog, not a human, and who really knows how the dog felt anyway?

Slightly less ambiguous is this new bit of insight into Romney’s past:

Friedemann entered Stevens Hall off the school’s collegiate quad to find Romney marching out of his own room ahead of a prep school posse shouting about their plan to cut Lauber’s hair. Friedemann followed them to a nearby room where they came upon Lauber, tackled him and pinned him to the ground. As Lauber, his eyes filling with tears, screamed for help, Romney repeatedly clipped his hair with a pair of scissors.

This is what Mitt Romney did to a classmate at his boarding school when he was a senior. The classmate, John Lauber, was presumed to be gay and wore his bleached-blond hair long–at least, until Romney decided to do something about it.

According to the Washington Post, this story was remembered and corroborated independently by five of Romney’s former classmates. Romney’s response:

“Back in high school, I did some dumb things and if anybody was hurt by that or offended, obviously I apologize for that…I don’t remember that incident,” Romney said, laughing. “I certainly don’t believe that I thought the fellow was homosexual. That was the furthest thing from our minds back in the 1960s, so that was not the case.”

I think it’s interesting that, despite claiming not to remember this incident, Romney nevertheless seems to file it into that large category of Dumb Things Teenagers Do. We all have those things, of course. For me, it was writing bad poetry and crushing on unattainable guys. For more typical teenagers, it’s probably something like getting really drunk when their parents are out of town and throwing up all over the Persian rug.

For the teenage Romney, though, it’s assaulting a fellow student because he’s (ostensibly) gay.

(Incidentally, Romney’s campaign has apparently been trying to get other former classmates of his to speak up in support of him. Good luck with that.)

It’s easy to make the argument that this happened decades ago and that Romney is probably a Completely Different Person now. Perhaps. But one writer on Mother Jones, discussing what “Romney the teenager” can tell us about “Romney the man,” says:

Romney the man has denied, and repeatedly denied yesterday, even remembering this incident. Sure, it was half a century ago, but he led a posse of his friends, tackled John Lauber in a hallway, dragged him into a bathroom, and then chopped off his hair while he struggled in terror. Even if you grant that this kind of extreme behavior was more common in a 1960s prep school than it is today, it’s really not the kind of thing you’d forget.

 

At least, you shouldn’t. So either Romney has done this kind of thing so often that the Lauber incident just blends into all the others, which suggests a far more vicious childhood than he’s owned up to, or else he remembers it just fine and is simply lying about it.

Furthermore, Romney has made his position on LGBT people clear more recently, too. As Governor of Massachusetts, he abolished a group looking into the issue of bullying and suicide in LGBT teenagers. One of his spokespeople outed a transgender woman running for political office in the same state, ending her career. Romney has also signed the National Organization for Marriage’s pledge, stating that he would support a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman, and donated $10,000 to that organization to support Proposition 8 in California. Of his stance on gay marriage as governor of Massachusetts, Romney has said, “On my watch, we fought hard and prevented Massachusetts from becoming the Las Vegas of gay marriage.”

So, while we can be reasonably sure that Romney wouldn’t physically bully anyone these days, I’m not so sure that his ability to empathize with people different from him has evolved at all.

Unfortunately for us–if Romney gets elected–empathy is essential for good leadership. (A U.S. Army Colonel makes that case very persuasively in this Washington Post column.) By definition, leaders are in a place of privilege compared to those they lead, so if they want to know how best to serve the people who elected them, they must be able to understand them and their lives.

For instance, take bullying. It’s one thing to take a stand against bullying because you were once bullied yourself, and another thing entirely to understand the harm that bullying does to individuals, families, communities, and society as a whole, without having experienced it firsthand. Since presidential candidates tend to be male, white, wealthy, Christian, straight, cisgender, able-bodied, and so on, they are unlikely to have experienced things like bullying firsthand. That is why having empathy is essential if they are to understand this increasingly politicized issue.

For a politician, being empathic doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be a bleeding-heart liberal; it just means you have to be able to understand how people different from you actually think, feel, and choose. You could still, for instance, choose to limit government spending for economic reasons while acknowledging and genuinely regretting the fact that your choices may hurt some people. You could propose and support ways of solving issues like social inequality without increasing government spending.You could understand that poor people are not always to blame for their own predicament, even if you don’t think that bringing them out of it is the government’s job.

You could recognize that you disagree with gay marriage because of your religious beliefs, but understand that not everyone shares your beliefs and not everyone should have to live by them. You could disagree with gay marriage because of your religious beliefs, but realize that gay and lesbian teenagers still deserve protection from bullying.

You could, in other words, be a Republican with a heart.

In short, having empathy doesn’t mean being politically liberal. There are plenty of liberals who seem to lack empathy, and there are–hopefully–conservatives who have it. But Romney isn’t one of them. And that, much more so than his politics, is why I really hope he’ll never be President.

Empathy and Leadership: Why Romney Would be a Terrible President