“You’re the reason Trump got elected!”

[Content note: high sodium]

Existing around other progressives right now often feels like being back in elementary school. “You’re the reason Trump got elected!” “No, you’re the reason Trump got elected!” “Your mom‘s the reason Trump got elected!” (Ok, that last one may actually be true.)

Some people who were apparently personally responsible for Trump being elected: trans people who want to use the right bathrooms, anyone who objects to being called a slur, radical leftists, center-leftists, Hillary supporters, Bernie supporters, college students concerned about cultural appropriation and pronouns, people who don’t want to be friends with people who think they don’t deserve basic rights, people who won’t cut off their Republican relatives or scream at them at the dinner table, anyone who doesn’t want to “just give Trump a chance,” anyone who wasn’t ready to Burn Down The System and Start the Revolution on November 9, anyone who is gasp invested in political issues that affect them personally due to their social category, Meryl Streep, and Meryl Streep’s fans.

An Archer meme reading, "Do you want Trump? Because that's how you get Trump."
This is what y’all sound like.

For good measure, some Republicans have jumped into this infantile blame game, too, which is a tad bit rich considering that Donald Trump was the candidate they nominated and all.

We have got to stop abusing each other like this.

Because that’s what it is. It’s undeniably abusive to fling Trump’s election at someone to shut them (and their opinions/feelings/boundaries/activism) down. We are facing, at best, 4 or 8 really difficult years, especially for marginalized people. At worst, we’re facing partial or complete dissolution of our democracy and the creation of an autocratic state. How about think fucking twice before blaming anyone who didn’t vote for Trump for that.

Everyone’s hurting, and when people are hurting they often look for ways to blame themselves, ways to blame others, or both. That’s natural. But your need to blame someone else and my depressive guilt and self-loathing are a terrible combination. Stop.

First of all, I’m extremely skeptical of any explanation of Trump’s election that can fit into a tweet, and I think you should be too. Whenever I say this I get the usual assload of glib responses, but that belies the fact that necessary conditions aren’t always sufficient conditions. Trump won because of sexism. Trump won because of racism. Trump won because of fake news. Trump won because of gerrymandering. Trump won because of the electoral college. Trump won because of the steady erosion of voting rights by Republicans. Trump won because of that whole motherfucking “alt-right”/Gamergate/manosphere septic tank that’s been gradually filling up online. Trump won because people in the Rust Belt are losing jobs and they believe that liberals/immigrants/Jews are to blame. Trump won because a lot of people hate liberals and wanted to hurt them. Trump won because Bill Clinton has no self-control and this apparently reflects on his wife for some reason. Trump won because of The Russians. Trump won because of James Comey. I could keep going.

Unless you personally created all of these conditions, you literally cannot be “the reason Trump won.” And if you want to actually understand what the fuck happened, you can’t just choose one or two of these as The Ultimate Reason and ignore all the rest.

Second, many of these claims function to obscure the truth rather than reveal it. For instance, “Trump won because of trans people who want to use the right bathrooms.” Obviously, you shouldn’t blame Trump’s election on trans people and if you don’t understand why that’s wrong I don’t know how to convince you.

However, it would probably help us understand what happened if we view Trump’s election as part of a backlash of the sort often happens in response to social change. One example is the backlash against the feminist movement, which Susan Faludi describes in her appropriately-titled book, Backlash. Another is the possibility that Obama’s presidency has caused a racist backlash–not really because of any of his specific actions or policies, but because many white people are furious at the existence of a Black President.

There’s no reason to assume that other recent advances in social justice couldn’t have provoked similar backlashes–although, really, it’s all kind of the same one–and perhaps developments like national same-sex marriage and increased media attention on trans rights have functioned the same way.

This doesn’t mean trans people are “to blame,” though. Regressive backlashes may be inevitable. The only way to avoid them is to avoid social progress. So if you’re a well-meaning white liberal who is tempted to decry “identity politics” as the cause of the situation we’re currently in, think about what you’re actually advocating. You are advocating against social progress.

And if you want to be accurate, don’t say that Trump won because of trans people and bathrooms. Say that Trump won because many Americans are still that offended at the idea that trans people are people, among other things that shouldn’t be controversial.

Regressive backlashes may be inevitable, but that doesn’t mean that Trump’s election or his policies were inevitable. For instance, Comey could’ve actually done his fucking job. Or, we could’ve collectively taken GamerGate as the warning that it was and started taking steps to recognize and respond to this type of rhetoric years ago.

Who knows? What does it matter now? Our benchmark now shouldn’t be doing what would’ve prevented Trump from being elected if we’d done it ages ago; it’s doing what will keep the damage at a minimum, protect our institutions (flawed as they are), and ensure a fair election in four years that elects basically anyone else.

Finally, it’s pretty damn fallacious to blame Trump’s election on someone’s response to Trump’s election, which is what a lot of these comments come down to. Trump cannot have been elected because of people protesting his election, or people disengaging from politics because of his election, or people yelling at bigots because of his election, or people doing anything else because of his election.

Of course, that’s not what’s literally meant. What’s literally meant is, “Because of the sort of person that you are, and because of the way you’ve been acting, you deserve to have this happen to you.” That’s where the abusiveness of it really comes in. Anyone who’s ever lived with an abuser knows it. “I wouldn’t have to hit you if you weren’t so stubborn.” “I only yell at you because you won’t shut up and listen to me.”

In fact, it’s not just a certain type of liberal white man who reasons this way about Trump; many of his voters apparently did. As I discussed in a previous article, many of them chose to vote for him in order to punish liberals for such impudence as enacting healthcare reform. “If you’d just stop trying to pass laws that allow you to survive, I wouldn’t have to do this to you.”

This is abusive, and I’m not letting anyone get away with it anymore.

The truth is that we all bear some responsibility for what happened. We could’ve volunteered (more). We could’ve resisted racism and Islamophobia, a lot more. We could’ve donated more money–well, some of us. We could’ve gotten involved in local politics. We could’ve listened better to all the people of color who knew what the fuck they were talking about.

That’s not the same as saying that this was your–your, you specifically, you who is reading this right now–fault. That’s the beauty and the curse of collective responsibility. We should’ve tried harder, and now we’ll have to try even harder than that.

But anyone who tells you that this election happened because of you and the type of person that you are and the things you care about and the way you set your boundaries is not only literally wrong; they are manipulating you to be less like you and more like them. If we are to accomplish anything of what we need to in these coming years, that’s the type of manipulation we will have to resist.


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“You’re the reason Trump got elected!”
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“Hypocrisy” is Often Just Tribalism

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There’s been a lot of left-wing hand-wringing (say that five times fast) about alleged Republican/Trumpist “hypocrisy” lately. They mock our safe spaces, but they want their own! They accuse us of suppressing free speech when we boycott, yet they boycott companies for removing advertising from Breitbart and movies for having women and people of color in them! They don’t think poor people deserve health insurance and opposed the Affordable Care Act, but now they’re upset they might lose their Medicare!

I’m not saying these positions aren’t ridiculous and wrong. But I’m going to suggest that “hypocrisy” isn’t a helpful lens through which to try to understand them. Tribalism is.

I wrote in a previous post about Trump voters that we underestimated the importance of tribalism in this election outcome:

For white conservatives, things like opposing immigration (of non-white people), fearing Muslims, distrusting women, being disgusted by homosexuality, and believing that government programs and other institutions unfairly favor people of color aren’t just isolated opinions, like preferring summer to winter or liking a particular brand of frozen pizza.

Rather, those are strong markers of group identity. Even when presented with strong contrary evidence, you can’t just abandon them because then you’d be like Them, not like Us. And being like Them is unspeakably awful.

Tribalism is a feature of human group behavior in which loyalty to one’s group takes precedence over other values that we’d generally consider important, such as morality, empirical accuracy, thinking for one’s self, and so on. Obviously, tribalism exists for a reason and was probably once very adaptive, insert evopsych here, blah blah.

It’d be convenient if tribalism only applied to groups that have deep significance and importance for their members, such as religions, ethnicities, and political beliefs. That’d be difficult enough to manage, but unfortunately, tribes can develop over completely fucking random things. When research participants are randomly assigned to groups named after colors, they still somehow manage to develop a group identity around that and start to denigrate the other group. If you’ve played Pokemon Go, you’ve seen this firsthand. (Seriously, y’all. Those teams are totally fucking random. I just picked the one that looked prettiest.)

It’s not exactly a new or controversial opinion that tribalism has completely overtaken actual policy positions as the dominant force in American politics–if in fact it was ever the other way around. But I still see a lot of folks ignoring the implications of this and being really confused about why Trump supporters ask for their own safe spaces while denigrating ours, boycott companies and film franchises they don’t like while bashing progressives for doing the same, and receive government assistance while voting for politicians who repeatedly state an intent to limit that assistance.

It’s not because they oppose safe spaces, boycotts, or government assistance. It’s not because they’re confused or stupid. (I apologize for the ableist language, but it’s what progressives have been saying, so it’s what I’m refuting.) It’s not because they’re “hypocritical” in any meaningful sense of the word.

It’s because they think that they deserve safe spaces and government assistance, and we don’t. It’s because they think their boycotts are brave fights for justice, and ours are whiny, dangerous attempts to repress free speech. It’s because when we ask for safe spaces, we’re making mountains out of molehills and need to toughen up, whereas their needs are valid and urgent. It’s because they worked hard and deserve help from the government when they need it, but we’re lazy and that’s why we’re asking for help. It’s because if anyone’s actually oppressed around here, it’s white conservatives, especially men.

Obviously, factual reality defies these explanations, but what progressives call “factual reality” is just the liberal propaganda that the media is pushing, and they know it’s wrong because it’s liberal. As I said: Even when presented with strong contrary evidence, you can’t just abandon these beliefs because then you’d be like Them, not like Us. And being like Them is unspeakably awful.

Whenever I’ve pointed out a conservative’s apparent hypocrisy to them, I’ve gotten nowhere because they insisted that the two things I was comparing were completely different. Sometimes they will even go so far as to say something like, “Those people don’t deserve [help/respect/a living wage/political autonomy/representation/life] because they’re bad people. I’m not.” Other times they’ll utilize the just world fallacy to claim that those people are to blame for whatever bad thing is happening to them. This is how you get, for instance, Jews who lost loved ones in the Holocaust and now think that Israel should literally kill all Palestinians. It’s not that they actually think that sometimes killing innocent people is okay and sometimes it isn’t. It’s that they think that the people currently being killed are not innocent.

But Trumpists don’t just hate marginalized people; they also hate liberals/progressives. As Amanda Marcotte has pointed out, much of this election result can be attributed more to trying to get back at liberals for such insults as putting a Black man in the White House and legalizing same-sex marriage than to pursuing any particular policy agenda of their own. Supporters of Sanders and Clinton tended to celebrate the positive changes they hoped their candidates would bring about as President; supporters of Trump seemed much more excited about frustrating, angering, or even terrifying liberals.

That’s why even if you have a lot of privilege, you are unlikely to successfully convince a Trump voter of anything. Back when I used to argue with conservatives, the responses I most often got from them weren’t things like “You’re wrong about the facts” or “I disagree that those are important values” or even “What you’re suggesting isn’t practical”; it was “That’s just liberal bullshit.” And that’s why I stopped arguing. Anything I said was automatically classified as “liberal bullshit,” and by the way, this was the case whether I used “controversial” language like “white privilege” or not. Anything I said was liberal bullshit because I was a liberal. I was not Them.

How do you fight this type of thinking? I’m not sure, but it’s one of many reasons I don’t think patiently debating policy positions or the humanity of marginalized people will help. Because it’s not about the specific opinions. It’s about allegiance to your tribe.

In order to change your mind, you have to be willing to give up that allegiance first. And most people–left or right–aren’t.


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“Hypocrisy” is Often Just Tribalism

Trump’s Mental Health Diagnosis is Irrelevant

Donald Trump’s mental health diagnosis, if he even has one, is almost entirely irrelevant to any of the questions we are trying to answer about our future and is a pointless and dangerous distraction that we cannot afford.

I regularly diagnose people with mental illnesses. I am myself diagnosed with a mental illness. As far as I can tell, these diagnoses have a few main functions:

  1. Insurance billing. Your insurance company needs to see something from the doctor justifying the money they’re spending on you.
  2. Research. Participants in studies have to be systematically categorized somehow, because a treatment for depression symptoms may not work for eating disorder symptoms and we need to know which it works for.
  3. Treatment. You and your therapist or doctor can use diagnoses to figure out a course of treatment that’s most likely to be effective, and to know what to try next if that doesn’t work. You can also use it on your own to find books and other resources that might help you or a loved one with coping skills and self-acceptance.
  4. Community. When people know what their diagnoses are, they can use those labels to find others who have very similar issues and build solidarity with them.

Notice what’s not anywhere on that list? Predicting a stranger’s future behavior.

Suppose you know that Donald Trump qualifies for the DSM criteria for narcissistic personality disorder. What exactly does this knowledge change? How does it impact your predictions of Trump’s future behavior or your decisions about your own behavior? How is a world in which Trump technically fits those criteria different than a world in which he doesn’t technically fit those criteria?

The only halfway-reasonable answer I’ve ever seen anyone give to any of these questions is that maybe if a fancy doctor examines Trump and concludes that he fits the criteria for some or other mental disorder, then people will finally realize that he’s unfit to be president.

First of all, that’s just false. Trump has been accused of sexual violence by numerous women, saluted by actual Nazis, and implicated in numerous cases of fraud. A bunch of clinical jargon isn’t going to change anyone’s opinion on anything if none of those things have. And given what I’ve gathered from Trump supporters by actually listening to them, many of them don’t recognize the validity of psychiatry, the DSM, or mental healthcare in general.

Second, Donald Trump is going to become president on January 20, 2017. Do whatever you need to do to cope with that knowledge, but it’s going to happen no matter which billing codes his doctors send to his insurance company.

Third, if–after the sexual violence and the fraud and the nepotism and the tax evasion and the naked racism and the probable interference of Russia in the election–it’s mental illness that makes people finally see Trump as unfit for office, that is horrifying.

What that says is that our unjustified, irrational fear of people with mental illnesses is more powerful than the collective evidence of someone’s past behavior.

That being a person with a mental illness is worse than being a rapist.

Worse than stealing the labor of working class people who need that income to put food on the table.

Worse than threatening to imprison and deport innocent people, and having the power to actually do it.

Worse than pandering to Nazis and dictators.

What does that say about the millions of people who share Trump’s supposed diagnosis?

And as awkward as I find it to disagree with a bunch of Harvard psychiatrists with much more experience than I have, we don’t need an expert neuropsychiatric evaluation to tell us that Trump is unfit for office. We already know because he provides evidence of this daily and has been doing so since he first emerged in the public spotlight. We elected him anyway.

And there’s both the bad news and the good news. The bad news is that you can never predict with anywhere near-certainty what someone will do in the future, especially if it’s not someone you know personally. People surprise us every day. It would be nice if we could magically divine a complete catalog of the disasters that Trump will cause while in office, but we can’t. Knowing which DSM criteria he fits will not help with that, and it may even obfuscate it even further.

The good news is that there is one fairly effective way of predicting someone’s behavior, and that is by observing their current behavior and reflecting on their past behavior. Trump has a long and clearly-evident record of dishonesty, boundary violations, fraud, discrimination, nepotism, harassment of journalists and other critics, conservative politics, and other things that most of us generally dislike. It’s a safe assumption that he will continue to do these things in the future.

Mental health diagnoses, on the other hand, are very poor predictors of behavior because the causative link between mental illness symptoms and outward behaviors is much more complicated than simple cause-and-effect. Diagnoses mostly describe internal processes, such as feeling hopeless or thinking everyone’s out to get you, and not outward behavior (although outward behavior can help identify internal processes). Someone who really wishes they were dead may or may not ever attempt suicide or even self-harm. Someone who is scared of elevators may or may not choose to use them anyway for any number of reasons. Plenty of people with depression hide it perfectly even from people who know them well. Someone experiencing hallucinations that tell them to jump out a window may or may not realize that the voices are a symptom of psychosis, and may or may not be able to ignore them and stay away from windows.

Personality disorders, which is what people typically associate Trump with, are an even more complicated thing. For starters, many professionals are skeptical of their validity as diagnoses in the first place because they’re extremely subjective and based much more on local norms of social behavior than on what is actually harmful or distressing for the patient. Regardless, we typically do not diagnose something as a personality disorder unless it’s maladaptive for the individual being diagnosed or they’re unhappy with the way they are. That others are unhappy with the person’s behavior doesn’t count. Trump does not seem to be unhappy with his behavior and you could hardly argue with a straight face that it’s been maladaptive for him.

In any case, I work with individuals with personality disorders on a regular basis and while knowing their diagnosis certainly predicts some of their symptoms–that’s literally the point of a diagnosis–it doesn’t necessarily predict their outward behavior, especially not when it comes to complex roles like running a government. That’s because, as I wrote above, diagnoses mainly describe internal processes.

Having a few random experts declare that Trump officially has a mental illness will not remove him from office or undo any of the harms he has already done or will do by that time. If it could, then we’d have to have a difficult conversation to have about just how badly we want to fuck over ordinary people with mental illnesses for the sake of removing from office someone that we elected in the first place, because that would mean that nobody with a history of mental health treatment will ever be able to hold elected office in this country again.

But it won’t, so the conversation we should be having instead is whether or not we will continue to attribute everything we don’t like in ourselves to mental illness, or whether we will stop demonizing those of us who suffer from it and instead aim our arrows at the proper targets.


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Trump’s Mental Health Diagnosis is Irrelevant

The Importance of Naming Bigotry

Over and over again this conversation happens:

“Anyone who voted for Trump is racist and sexist.”

“Well, you’re never going to convince them of anything if you call them that.”

Leaving aside the fact that not everyone particularly cares at this point about convincing them of anything or thinks that’s even possible, this conversation is unproductive because the people in it are talking past each other.

The fact that we acknowledge that Trump voters are racist and sexist doesn’t mean we have to open a discussion with one of them by announcing that they are racist and sexist, and the fact that we may use different language to try to engage with Trump voters doesn’t mean that we have to abandon a potentially crucial theoretical framework in our own heads and spaces. You can think something without saying it out loud in a particular situation.

Personally, I don’t care a whole lot about which words we happen to call Trump voters; what we call them for the purposes of our own internal conversations doesn’t change what they do and what they believe. As I discussed in my last post, right-wingers have made their beliefs about various social groups abundantly clear, and whichever words you chose to use to describe those beliefs, they are still out there, and still affecting public policy and group behavior in measurable, observable, and harmful ways.

However, I think that words like “racist” and “sexist” are appropriate descriptors for Trump voters for two reasons: 1) the majority of them would endorse statements that easily fit the definitions of those words, such as “Black people are more dangerous than white people” and “Women aren’t fit to be president”; and 2) even those who would not endorse those statements still voted for the most openly bigoted presidential candidate in modern American history, who has stated an intent to harm marginalized people in multiple ways.

Racism and sexism aren’t just about beliefs. They’re also about behaviors. Someone who truly believes in racial equality but for whatever reason refuses to hire people of color to work at their company is acting in a racist way. Someone who doesn’t care one way or the other about race but helps elect someone who repeatedly states an intent to violate the civil rights of particular racial groups is also acting in a racist way. I get that it’s difficult to think of your actions as having consequences when elections are decided by millions of votes, but the fact that millions of people are equally responsible doesn’t mean you aren’t.

One of the few things I think that the edgy white liberal thinkpieces are getting right is that, indeed, screaming “You’re sexist!” at a Trump voter probably won’t make them change their minds about their sexism or about voting for Trump. Thankfully, nobody has seriously suggested that it would; believe it or not, the people of color and women who have been writing about this problem for years have much more nuanced suggestions than that.

The problem with screaming “You’re sexist!” at Trump voters is threefold: 1) screaming at people usually causes them to shut down and stop learning, which is why I don’t recommend it in any situation that is meant to be educational; 2) labeling someone’s behavior “sexist” doesn’t actually tell them what they did wrong or what you would like them to do differently; and 3) if you do use it as a jumping-off point to explain what exactly they did wrong and what you would like them to do differently, you probably won’t get anywhere because they probably disagree that those things are wrong.

For instance, I’ve been in arguments with conservatives about Black Lives Matter and our criminal justice system in which I would claim that the system is racist because it disproportionately targets people of color, especially Black men, as potential criminals and treats them more harshly than others. The conservative would respond that that’s because people of color, especially Black men, are much more likely to be criminals. I would point to data that show that there is overall no racial difference in criminal activity; that whites are actually more likely to commit certain crimes; that the data that shows that Black people are more likely to commit crimes is based on convictions and it’s also been shown that they are more likely to get accused and convicted (including falsely) in the first place and etc etc etc. And the conservative would say that that data is just liberal propaganda and that everyone obviously knows that Black people are simply more dangerous than white people, so I should be thanking our brave police forces for keeping me safe from them. I would point out that in our country it’s supposed to be unconstitutional to execute a criminal, actual or suspected, on the street without a trial. They shrug and say that sometimes bad things happen and I can’t let that get to me.

(These experiences, plus research about persuasion, have convinced me that there’s literally no point in arguing with someone by presenting them with factual evidence they disagree with.)

If you define “racism” to someone and they disagree that it’s a bad thing, then obviously you’re not going to get anywhere by telling them that they did something racist. If they do think it’s a bad thing, they’ll just waste your time arguing about how what they said or did isn’t actually racist and that they “don’t have a racist bone in their body.”

(While it’s plausible that calling Trump voters sexist and racist will just reinforce their belief that liberals look down on them and hate them, contrary to the thinkpiece du jour, I don’t think that this is what literally created the systems of sexism and racism in this country. I’m pretty sure the transatlantic slave trade predated Vox.com significantly.)

None of this means that we shouldn’t consider them sexist and racist. As I also discussed in my previous post, sugarcoating, euphemizing, or simply ignoring conservatives’ beliefs about various social groups is not going to be helpful in defeating their ideology. You may choose not to come at a Trump voter accusing them of hating women, but you need to keep in the back of your head the fact that they would probably endorse lots and lots and lots of sexist statements–or at least not be very bothered by them.

If we acknowledge that Trump supporters are racist and sexist and just about every other kind of -ist, that changes our behavior and predictions in a few ways. First of all, that informs us what Trump can and can’t get away with. Friends of mine have joked that after all of these allegations–sexual assault, fraud, tax evasion, and so on–the only thing Trump could do that would actually lose him a significant number of supporters is come out in support of Black Lives Matter. Obviously that’s not going to happen, and it’s also clear that just about anything he does to target marginalized people, no matter how flagrant, will be met with either tacit approval or open celebration by his supporters.

If we assume that Trump supporters endorse many bigoted beliefs, then we cannot appeal to their better natures to stop him. It seems that so far, Trump voters who regret their choice regret it mostly because he has not tried to imprison Hillary Clinton and because his fellow Republicans are hoping to dismantle Medicare.

Second, when it does come to engaging with Trump supporters, awareness of their bigotry can help you choose the best approach. Nothing he has said about women, people of color, or other marginalized people will be relevant. It won’t be like talking left-wingers out of supporting Hillary Clinton. You will have to show how Trump is a threat to the sorts of American values they do hold dear, such as free speech and relatively unregulated markets.

Third, acknowledging the bigotry of the Republican base is, honestly, a vital self-care tactic for marginalized people. Over and over we have been told that it’s not that, it’s that they love Jesus and want to spread his love, it’s that they’re worried about their taxes, it’s that they want to see their values reflected in our culture just like anyone else would, it’s that they want their jobs back, it’s that the Democrats have ignored their needs, it’s that globalism has shut down their factories so of course they’d be against trade agreements, it’s that some of these immigrants are probably bad people so naturally we should vet them carefully, it’s that the police have very stressful jobs so you can’t blame them for freaking out sometimes, it’s that Jesus was persecuted for his beliefs and so are they, it’s that marriage is supposed to be for procreation, it’s that if you work hard you won’t be poor or homeless, it’s that if you do something sinful like have premarital sex it’s only fair that you should have to face the consequences, it’s that fetuses are living babies, it’s that they miss the way things used to be when everyone knew their place and nobody asked for more than what they got, it’s anything but the fact that they simply believe that men are better than women, white people are better than non-white people, and LGBTQ people are disgusting abominations altogether.

And almost all of us, to a person, grew up with that awful buzzing voice in the backs of our minds: What if it’s me? What if I’m the problem? What if I’m disgusting, sinful, ugly, criminal, dangerous, lazy, stupid, sick? What if I’m a bitch, an outsider, a slut, an animal? What if I deserve everything they’ve done to me, and everything they still intend to do?

The reason marginalized people have been so adamant about naming Trump and his supporters for who they are isn’t because we still have much hope that they’ll feel even a twinge of shame, but because naming them for who they are is how we survive them.

Naming bigots as bigots allows us to stop blaming ourselves for our own oppression. And as soon as we’re able to direct blame outward rather than inward, we become able to fight it.


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The Importance of Naming Bigotry

Yes, We Did Fail to Empathize with Conservatives

Just not in the way you think.

One of the worst developments of this election season–after, that is, the fact that we’ve elected a proto-fascist sexual predator with the temper of a three-year-old denied candy–is that the Left appears to have collectively decided that the reason this happened is that we failed to empathize with conservatives and that we have been too concerned with making sure that trans people can use the right bathrooms.

I agree with part of this. No, not the bathroom part. We did fail to empathize with conservatives. But I mean that in a very different way than the thinkpiece du jour does.

Empathy means understanding what someone thinks and feels from their perspective. It doesn’t mean feeling bad for them–it’s not the same thing as sympathy. It doesn’t mean patiently debating life-or-death issues with them. It doesn’t mean coddling them or doing what they want you to. It doesn’t even mean accepting their distortions of sociopolitical reality as fact.

It just means understanding what they think and feel, from their perspective.

Overwhelmingly, white Americans–at least the ones who voted for Trump–think that people of color are the cause of their economic problems, and they feel afraid of them. They think that LGBTQ people are sinful and a threat to the proper order of things, and they feel disgusted by them. They think that women are asking for more than they deserve and that women are inherently deceitful and untrustworthy, and they feel threatened by them.

I know this because I listen to right-wingers and read what they write.

And because I have a relatively high empathic ability, which I train for hours each day in the course of my job, I can actually put myself right into a hypothetical conservative’s shoes and see why they’d feel what they feel given the beliefs that they have. If I had those beliefs, I would also feel (and vote) the way they do.

And when I put myself in the headspace of a white conservative, and run a simulation in my mind of their beliefs and values, their support for Trump and other Republicans makes complete sense to me. There is nothing hypocritical about it at all. There’s little evidence that they voted “against their interests,” because as much of a failure as Trump will be at improving their economic circumstances, that wasn’t the only interest they had. They were also very interested in reducing the number of people of color (especially Muslims) in the United States, maintaining Christianity as the dominant American value system, making sure that women don’t take what isn’t theirs, and preventing LGBTQ people from further corrupting American culture. They accomplished all of this and more by electing Trump.

Sure, many of them shot themselves in the foot economically in order to do that. But there’s nothing surprising about it. Psychological research (which I unfortunately can’t find right now, so feel free to take this with a grain of salt) suggests that people may willingly lose money in order to harm someone that they want to harm.

And sure, there are a lot more factors in this election outcome than just the specific beliefs I listed as examples. Those are some major ones, but there are others, such as “government-run programs are wasteful and harmful in general and should be reduced or eliminated” and “climate change is a hoax” and “I admire Donald Trump’s business successes and would want someone with those skills as president.” Yes, you can be a Trump supporter without being primarily concerned with, say, reducing the number and influence of people of color in America. But as others have pointed out, every Trump supporter has heard his rhetoric about people of color and women and decided that that is acceptable on some level. So yes, you’re all racist and sexist. Every last one of you.

The reason I think that lack of empathy–when “empathy” is properly defined–contributed to the Democrats’ loss is because they failed to understand what they were up against. Many liberals demonstrated a disturbing lack of critical reading skills when they insisted on taking statements like “I just want our jobs back” literally rather than interpreting and contextualizing them properly. When taken literally, this statement suggests that if Democrats want to capture more of the white vote, they need to address these voters’ presumably lost jobs. (Never mind that many of them are making six figures.)

But Clinton had a comprehensive jobs platform, and Obama is finishing his presidency with a strong record on jobs. While Clinton may have failed to adequately communicate her platform and the media certainly failed to adequately explain it to the public, I don’t think that the vast majority of these voters would ever have voted for her no matter how well she communicated. There are two reasons for that. One is that she’s a woman, and the majority of these voters do not believe that a woman can or should be president. The other is that they don’t simply want “their” jobs back; they believe that their jobs have been taken by immigrants and people of color. This belief is extremely strong, cemented by a cohesive in-group identity, and resistant to things like calm and reasoned presentation of facts to the contrary. Clinton supports immigrants and people of color, so she’s not going to have their vote. Neither is any other Democrat.

Of course, you could argue that if even a few people had responded positively to Clinton’s attempts to bring them into the fold, that might’ve tipped the election to her favor and she would’ve won. That’s a valid argument and I don’t disagree, but even in that case you’d be left with millions and millions of voters that Democrats have misunderstood and underestimated. Still a problem, especially given the long-term trajectory of right-wing populist movements. If Trump had lost this year, that would’ve prevented things from getting as bad as they’re going to get in the immediate future, but it wouldn’t have solved the problem.

So how do we stop misunderstanding and underestimating right-wingers? How do we have actual empathy towards them?

1. We take them seriously.

When someone tells you who they are, believe them. Trump has been telling us who he is for decades and people still won’t believe him. “Oh, he didn’t really mean that about grabbing those women.” “He didn’t literally mean that Mexican immigrants are rapists, just that there are probably some rapists among them, like any other group.” “He’ll probably surround himself with good people once he gets to the White House.” We’re now seeing how that’s turning out.

Same with Trump’s supporters. When they say that their jobs have been taken by immigrants, they mean that that’s what they believe. You are not going to win them over unless you either manage to convince them that this deeply-held, socioculturally-reinforced belief is false (good luck with that), or you tell them that you’re going to kick all the immigrants out so they can have their jobs back.

Many–not all–Trump voters have real economic concerns. But they have chosen a fundamentally racist way of explaining the origins of those problems, and they will not accept a solution that doesn’t get at what they see as the problem.

2. We learn to read and listen critically.

On the other hand, we can’t take people’s statements so literally and interpret them so shallowly that we fail to understand what they actually mean. When Trump supporters said that they want to get rid of all the elites in the federal government, they didn’t mean that they wanted the next president to be someone who grew up in a Rust Belt town with ordinary non-politician parents, built their own small business from the ground up, and knows what it’s like to struggle financially. When right-wingers use words like “elites,” what they typically mean is urban liberals and/or Jews. So nobody should be surprised that most Trump voters seem totally okay with his own elite status and that of the people he’s filling his administration with.

LIkewise, the language of racism is typically full of codewords and euphemisms that allow people to dodge away from the implications of what they’re saying. When white people say that they’re worried about the changing demographics of this country, they mean that their majority is on its way out. The only reason for a white person to be concerned about being the minority is that they hate or fear people of color.

Taking people’s words literally might seem like a necessary part of taking them seriously, but that’s only if you refuse to acknowledge that most people communicate indirectly. That’s especially the case when we have heavily stigmatized certain forms of direct communication. For instance, in most circles, people will make you feel very uncomfortable if you say something like, “Black people are lazy and I don’t like them.” (Yes, even if those other people believe that on some level themselves.) So instead, you learn to say things like, “I just think that a lot of these welfare programs are encouraging dependency and preventing people from getting out there and getting an actual job.”

Well-meaning liberals may respond to this person by pointing out that while fraudulent applications for food stamps do happen, most are genuine. They may point out that some of this person’s (white) relatives have been on government assistance. They might say that, actually, there are work requirements involved with food stamps and you can’t just take them and do nothing.

They won’t get anywhere because the person hasn’t said exactly what they mean.

3. We understand the powerful role of tribalism and identity.

Identity politics did cost Clinton this election. Specifically, identity politics won the election for Trump. This election was won by conservative white identity politics.

For white conservatives, things like opposing immigration (of non-white people), fearing Muslims, distrusting women, being disgusted by homosexuality, and believing that government programs and other institutions unfairly favor people of color aren’t just isolated opinions, like preferring summer to winter or liking a particular brand of frozen pizza.

Rather, those are strong markers of group identity. Even when presented with strong contrary evidence, you can’t just abandon them because then you’d be like Them, not like Us. And being like Them is unspeakably awful.

I’m not saying liberals don’t have their own versions of this, by the way. They sure do. But the point is that they underestimate the role this plays in our current political situation at their peril.

If you really want to convince someone that the pizza they like is shitty or that winter is obviously the superior season, you might succeed by presenting them with well-reasoned arguments and responding effectively to their rebuttals. (You probably won’t–they have those opinions for a reason–but you could.) That’s because they probably don’t really, really need to believe that their pizza is better or that summer is the best season.

When it’s a matter of group identity, that changes. Conservatives don’t simply believe that climate change is a hoax; they really, really need to believe that climate change is a hoax. If they stop believing that climate change is a hoax, they will lose part of their sense of who they are, not to mention cause conflict with their friends and family and also start fearing that we’re all literally going to die. That’s some powerful motivation to keep believing that climate change is a hoax. Avoiding cognitive dissonance is a much stronger drive than your calm and reasoned arguments can possibly provide.

So now that we know how to truly understand Trump supporters, what do we do with that?

Here’s where I’m not really a helpful source of advice, because I don’t actually think there’s anything to be done. I don’t think that being nice to them or debating calmly with them will change their minds. I don’t think creating progressive policy that addresses their economic concerns will help, for the reasons I’ve laid out. The way to get right-wingers to vote for you is to support the policies that they support, and you can’t do that as a Democrat or any other kind of liberal or progressive.

I think we can do two things:

1. Galvanize the left-wing base so that they turn the fuck up at the polls next time.

Stop with the “voting doesn’t really matter” fucking bullshit. We’re about to find out exactly how much it mattered. This is my main aim when I write and share things about Trump, about racism, about fascism, and so on. I’m not trying to convince conservatives. I’m trying to get progressives who can vote to get the fuck out there and vote. I fucking promise you there are progressives in Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and literally every other red and swing state who could have voted in this election and chose not to.

Because I don’t believe that we can convince conservatives to stop supporting Trump (or other relatively less awful but still awful politicians), I believe that our best option is to strengthen our own base so that it can defeat conservatives in elections. And not just elections, of course. I’ve just started hosting monthly letter-writing parties to get my friends and myself to write letters to our representatives and senators. Progressives need to start doing all of this kind of shit in much greater numbers and defeat conservatives with brute strength, not, ironically, brute reason.

I don’t like this. I wish we could all just rationally debate each other until the best ideas won, but that’s very clearly not how the world works. Progressives need to get more comfortable with relying on things like numbers and politics rather than on simply Being Right and feeling good about it.

2. Do our best to educate young people.

Of course, brute strength isn’t a perfect or sustainable solution. As I said, we could’ve avoided a Trump presidency and prevented a lot of harm that way, but the shitty ideas would still be out there, ready to strike at any time. Kinda like Obama being president didn’t end racism.

We need to keep trying to reach young people before they develop a strong tribal conservative identity. That’s very hard to do, because these identities can form early. My 14-year-old brother is a passionate Trump supporter and there’s nothing any of us can do to talk him out of it now. Maybe there could’ve been years ago. Maybe I should’ve tried. But I had no idea this was coming. Now I know exactly what can happen, and how quickly.

(Yeah, yeah, he might “grow out of it” or whatever. But that’s not going to happen through arguments with me. I already tried that.)

These are my two best ideas, but honestly, I’m feeling pretty depressed and cynical about the whole changing-minds project right now so I welcome disagreement on that.

What I’m much more certain of is that however we proceed, we need to do so with as accurate an understanding of conservatives’ perspectives as possible. That means acknowledging their opinions about women, people of color, immigrants, Muslims, LGBTQ people, and people with disabilities.

Pretending that these opinions do not exist and are not a major driver of conservatives’ political behavior isn’t going to do any good. It won’t convince conservatives that they should agree with us because we’re nice to them and don’t make them uncomfortable. It won’t make them vote for someone who wants to do things that they don’t want to happen, like protect abortion access and ensure equal pay for women.

Too much of the commentary about this election has been focused on whether or not Trump supporters are _____-ist, or whether or not you can support Trump without being _____-ist, or how it makes Trump supporters feel to be called _____-ist. For the purposes of this discussion, it doesn’t matter what you call them. They have made their opinions very clear. Are we going to listen?


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Yes, We Did Fail to Empathize with Conservatives

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

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

Antonin Scalia and the Ethics of "Celebrating Death"

[CN: Irreverent opinions about death]

With the sudden passing of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia this weekend, the Internet has filled up with sentiments about his death. Some people are cheering it, some are mourning it, and some are chastising the people who are cheering it because they find it inappropriate to be happy that someone is dead, regardless of who that person was or what they did.

Obviously, this is causing a lot of conflict, because the women, queer people, and other marginalized folks who are glad that Scalia’s no longer around to deny them civil rights don’t exactly appreciate being told they shouldn’t feel that way, and people who find it really inappropriate to “celebrate death” feel very uncomfortable.

Just to put this out there: I don’t feel any particular way about Scalia’s death. I think that it’ll have some interesting implications for the upcoming election, and I hope that this means that the Supreme Court will soon have a new justice who is liberal or at least moderate, but I don’t really feel anything. I didn’t celebrate his death. I didn’t mourn his death. I don’t have a lot of strong feelings about things that don’t impact me very very personally, and often I don’t even have any feelings about those things, and generally my writing and my activism is shaped by other processes besides my emotions. So. This is not an article about me and my feelings, and I’m not defending myself or my feelings here. I’m making an argument concerning ethics and I’m defending a broad group of people that I’m seeing get unfairly put down right now.

Death is never an easy subject to talk about no matter whose it is, and I think part of the problem is clashing social norms about responding to death. Some people are in the “never speak ill of the dead” camp; others are in the “you can criticize the actions of someone who has passed away but you shouldn’t be glad they’re gone” camp. The most controversial camp is the “I get to feel however the fuck I want about someone’s death and I get to say so on my Facebook page” camp.

I’m not much for relativism in general, but I think it’s worth noting that these different social norms exist and that they are not inevitable or universal. There is no intrinsic reason why saying mean things about someone who has died is wrong. You can claim that it’s bad because it hurts their surviving loved ones, but what if there’s no chance of them hearing those mean things? You can claim that it’s bad because saying mean things about people is just always bad, but then every single one of us is bad and there’s no point in calling the kettle black. You can claim that it’s bad because death itself is intrinsically bad, but the problem is that not everyone sees it that way either.

Personally, I think that life and death are both morally neutral. I think that human life in general does a lot of good and a lot of bad. I think that individual lives can cause a lot of good in the world and a lot of bad, too. I think that individual lives can cause a lot of good for the other lives they touch, but they can also cause a lot of bad. For each person whose death is terribly mourned, there’s probably a person whose death brings relief to those they have abused or otherwise hurt.

As uncomfortable as it is for some people to acknowledge that some deaths come as a relief to those who knew the deceased, there is no one better than that person’s victims to judge the moral value of their lives. Even more uncomfortable to acknowledge is the fact that some deaths bring comfort to the dying themselves. Life is morally neutral; some lives are so full of pain and suffering that death feels like a net good and as horrible as that is for me to contemplate, who am I to invalidate that?

No one in the broad “do not rejoice at death” camp has yet given me a good argument for why rejoicing at death is ethically wrong. They say it makes them look down on the rejoicers, but if you look down on people for their feelings about their oppression, that says more about you than about them. They say it “brings out the worst in people,” with no specifics about what “the worst” is. (Really? Being happy that someone is dead is worse than systematically denying civil rights to millions of people?) They say that death is intrinsically bad so it’s intrinsically wrong to be happy about it, but again, these are not universal values. If you view death as intrinsically bad, that’s a good argument for you to do your best to avoid death and celebrate life. It’s not a good argument for other people to have different feelings.

My own ethical orientation makes it difficult for me to view an action that doesn’t do harm to anyone as unethical, and making someone annoyed or uncomfortable or even a little upset isn’t necessarily the same as doing harm to them. (If it were, it would be unethical for gay couples to hold hands in public places.) The “don’t rejoice at death” camp ends up making a circular argument: rejoicing at death is wrong because it upsets people and it upsets people because rejoicing at death is wrong.

Here someone often argues that Scalia’s family is in mourning and would be very upset at the things that some people are saying. That’s quite possible, although it seems highly unlikely that any of Scalia’s family members are spending this time browsing the social media feeds of random unknowns like my friends and me. (Also, many of us keep our feeds private.) The likelihood of Scalia’s loved ones stumbling on my friends’ Facebook pages seems so low that expecting them to tailor their feeds with this possibility in mind is pretty unreasonable.

I’ve also been hearing a lot of sentiments like, “Well, you get to feel however you feel about his death, but remember that he was also a human being who had people who loved him.” That’s certainly a nice thought; I always try to remember that people I strongly dislike or disagree with are human beings, and maybe that’s why I don’t actually feel happy about his death. (Again, I don’t feel sad about it either.) In general, I agree with the idea that it’s good to humanize people.

But it’s just another one of those vaguely positive and obvious statements that nobody seriously disagrees with. Of course it’s nice to remember that people are human beings, just as it’s generally nice to say “please” and “thank you” and to hold doors for people carrying large objects and to learn about the views of people who disagree with you and to stop and let a car out even when you have right of way because otherwise they’d be waiting to make their turn forever and that would suck for them. It’s just that these things are not always the most important thing for you to do in that moment, and they’re not always accessible for everyone to do, and (I would argue) they’re not ethical imperatives, just nice things to try to do as much as you can.

Notably, Scalia belongs to a category of human being that is least in need of humanizing, because people like Scalia are the least dehumanized people. Unlike those most impacted by his jurisprudence, Scalia has never been dehumanized on the basis of his race, gender, sexual orientation, ability, or other category of privilege or oppression. So, sure, humanize Scalia, but all these condescending exhortations for others to do so sound a little #AllLivesMatter-y to me, especially when directed at those most directly harmed by Scalia himself.

Whenever I keep seeing something described as “crass,” “in poor taste,” “inappropriate,” and so on, I always get curious about what’s really going on, because these phrases actually say very little except “a critical mass of people disapproves of this; it’s not just me.” But what do they actually disapprove of, and why?

Most of the types of people who would appear in my social media feeds don’t actually believe that it’s wrong to have certain emotions, but many of them think it’s wrong to express those emotions at certain times (or ever). In this case, a private glee at Scalia’s death might seem petty to them, but it’s expressing the glee publicly (or semi-publicly, as Facebook often is) that’s really “crass” and “in poor taste.”

Unable to produce an argument for why being glad that someone who did terrible, terrible harm has died is actually harmful, they resort to phrases like “celebrating death” that are intended to make the targets of their ire look either like callous, spiteful children or else some sort of Satanic cult. But one person’s “celebrating death” is another person’s “feeling relieved or ecstatic that someone who has done them terrible harm can no longer do so.” And sure, if I got to choose, I’d have chosen for Scalia to retire rather than die, but nobody asked me.

I’m sure there’s a lot of personal satisfaction in taking the perceived high road and deciding that, even though you belong to a group of people harmed by Antonin Scalia, you personally will not celebrate his death and will mourn it (or be neutral towards it) instead. But I’m uncomfortable with any ethical system that’s based on having or not having–or expressing or not expressing–certain emotions. The only place I see that leading is lots of shaming yourself and policing others for automatic brain things that are mostly outside of our immediate control (and for wanting to share some of those automatic brain things with other people).

I also wish that rather than rushing to condemn perceived “crassness” or “poor taste,” folks would cultivate some curiosity about where these strong emotions are coming from.

~~~

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Antonin Scalia and the Ethics of "Celebrating Death"

The Importance of Self-Awareness for Men in Feminism

As I wrote recently, an inevitable consequence of certain communities or movements becoming more accepted and popular is that people will join them in order to feel accepted and popular. Having a sense of belonging is probably a primary motivation for joining all sorts of groups, and it makes sense that whenever someone is feeling lonely, we often advise them to join some sort of group that fits their interests.

Of course, most groups have goals other than “make people feel a sense of belonging.” Those goals may be “discuss books,” “put on a play,” “practice dance,” “critique each other’s writing,” “organize board game nights,” and so on. Even if someone is very invested in that explicit goal, their main motivation to join may still be that implicit goal of having a community.

Feminism–both as “a movement” and as individual organizations and friend groups–is no different. It has certain political goals (which vary from group to group) and it can also be a source of social/emotional support for its members. It can be a source of pride, too.

But feminism (and other progressive movements) differs from other types of groups in that its explicitly stated goals are sometimes in conflict with the goal of making its members feel welcome and accepted. Challenging injustice requires taking a long, critical look not just at society, but at yourself. Sometimes that means that others will be looking at us critically, too.

Self-criticism is never easy or pleasant, but what complicates matters is that people are not always aware of their motivations for doing things. I do believe that the vast majority of people involved somehow in [insert progressive movement here] are involved primarily because they believe in the cause and want to help make it happen. But for many of them, there’s a secondary motivation lurking in the background–they want to have friends. They want to feel liked and respected. They want a sense of purpose. They want community.

These are all normal and okay things to want; most of us want them. I wouldn’t even say that it’s wrong to seek those things from political groups and movements.

But you have to be aware that you’re doing that. If you’re not aware you’re doing it, you won’t be able to accurately interpret the negative emotions you might experience as an unavoidable part of this sort of work.

And that, I believe, is a big part of the difficulties we often have with male feminists and other types of “allies.”

I came across a piece by Mychal Denzel Smith about male feminists recently. In it, he wrote:

If you’re not going to challenge yourself to do better, why claim feminism? 

In part, it’s because there’s a seductive aspect to identifying as a male feminist. Kiese Laymon touched on this in an essay for Gawker last year. Remembering an encounter he had with a colleague, he wrote: “It feels so good to walk away from this woman, believing not only that she thinks I’m slightly dope, but that she also thinks I’m unlike all those other men when it comes to spitting game.” That you’re just out to get laid is one of the most common accusations lobbed at men who identify as feminists, and while I don’t think that’s true for all or even most, it’s definitely true for some. Enough so that my homegirl calls it predatory. That’s a scary thought. And even if you’re not out here attempting to use feminist politics to spit game and get laid, there’s this tendency to feel such pride about wearing that Scarlet F on your chest that you completely miss the ways you’re reinforcing the same oppressive dynamics you claim to stand against. You like the attention being considered “different” affords, but you’re not always up to the task of living those differences.

This resonates a lot with my experiences with men in feminism. While I doubt that most straight cis men join feminist communities primarily to find sex partners, I do think that most of them are hoping for some sort of approval and acceptance. Their opinions and values may make it difficult to fit in not only with other men, but with women who have more traditional views on gender. They may also be facing a lot of cultural pressure telling them that they’re not “real men” and nobody will ever want them. I don’t think it’s necessary or helpful to compare this with the isolation felt by women, queer people, and gender-nonconforming people. It exists.

When you feel like you don’t fit in anywhere because you’re too progressive, and you finally find a social group that shares your values, and suddenly they’re telling you that you’re still not Progressive Enough, it can be very painful. It can feel like rejection. And if you don’t have a conscious awareness of your motivations–of the fact that you feel rejected because you were really searching for belonging–you may interpret these negative feelings as resulting from other people’s behavior, not from your own (legitimate) unmet needs. You may be tempted, then, to lash out and accuse the person of being “mean” or “angry,” to warn them that they’re “just pushing loyal allies away,” to assert to them that you’re “a feminist” and couldn’t possibly have done what they said you’ve done or meant what they feel you meant, and so on.

Meanwhile, the person who called you out gets really confused. They thought you were here because you wanted to learn, to improve as a person, and to get shit done. And here you’re telling them that merely being asked to reconsider your opinions or behavior is enough for you to want to quit the whole thing. It would be like showing up at the hair salon and then getting furious when the stylist assumes you’d like to change your hairstyle.

No wonder many of us assume that many male feminists aren’t really that interested in feminism.

(While this dynamic seems much more pronounced for male feminists for a number of reasons I won’t derail with here, it definitely happens around issues like race, ability, etc as well.)

This isn’t even touching on blatantly abusive behavior, which men sometimes deny or excuse with claims of being feminists. Some male feminists do seem to hope that merely self-identifying that way, or make the cursory pro-equality gestures, will be enough to earn them the social acceptance they’re looking for. Sometimes it is.

But just like feminists are not obligated (and, in fact, are not qualified) to serve as therapists to men with serious issues pertaining to women, feminist spaces are not obligated to prioritize making everyone feel comfortable and included over doing the work that they were set up to do. Activist communities do have many overlapping (and, at times, conflicting) goals, but it’s not unreasonable for groups that were not set up to help men to prioritize people other than men.

(I would love for there to be more male-oriented feminist groups, but from what I have seen, they tend to dissolve into lots of mutual back-patting and not much personal change or action.)

I would like to see more male feminists move away from using the feminist label as a way to seek social acceptance and towards creating some separation between their politics and their search for belonging. It’s not that political affiliations can’t provide that–it’s that it’s dangerous to rely on them for it. It means you can never really question yourself and your beliefs, and you’ll have a lot of trouble accepting criticism (no matter how constructive) from others.

More broadly, I would like for male feminists to get more comfortable with becoming aware of their motivations, needs, and feelings. I would like for them to consciously notice that pleasant rush they feel when women “like” their Facebook posts about feminism, and to appreciate that feeling for what it is without prioritizing that feeling over everything else. I would like for them to recognize the unmet needs for community and acceptance that they have, and to be cognizant of the extent to which they ask (or simply expect) others to satisfy those needs for them. I would like for them to learn to notice these things without immediately rushing to judge them and shame themselves for them, because that’s not the way forward.

As for me personally, I no longer feel any increased trust or warmth towards men who declare themselves feminists. It does almost nothing for me. I need to see actual evidence that they are able to respect my boundaries, accept feedback from me, and generally act in accordance with their stated values. Many of the men I’m closest to have never explicitly identified themselves as feminists to me, but their every interaction with me exemplifies the traits that I look for in people.

By all means, call yourselves feminists to other men–it can open up useful conversations and upend established norms–or in order to filter people out of your life that you know you don’t want in it. But don’t expect a word to speak louder than your actions.

~~~

Caveats:

1. A lot of what I wrote here applies quite a lot to just about everyone, including feminist women. I know this. I focused on feminist men because this issue is particularly pronounced with them.

2. #NotAllFeministMen have such legitimate and good intentions as the ones I’m writing about. But I specifically wanted to write about the ones with the legitimate and good intentions.

For another example of how being aware of your own needs and motivations can make you a better, more effective person, see my previous post.

The Importance of Self-Awareness for Men in Feminism

A Probably-Popular Opinion on Unpopular Opinions

I read a piece on xoJane today that I felt compelled to share on Facebook:

Screenshot 2014-10-07 14.30.57

 

After my friends fisked this silliness capably, the conversation moved on to the concept of an “unpopular opinion.” My friend Sam said, “I would love it if we as a society could stop framing things as ‘unpopular opinions.’ It’s almost never accurate – for example, I can tell there are TONS of people who don’t care about students in debt because, y’know, we haven’t fixed student debt yet. Something like ‘controversial opinion’ would be more on-point and less reflexively defensive.” He later added, “Reverse-appeal-to democracy is an quick and dirty way to make yourself look like an edgy truth-teller.”

This made me really think about the “unpopular opinion” thing seriously. I think there are a number of things going on when someone refers to an opinion they’re about to share as “unpopular.”

First of all, though, as Sam said, this opinion is not unpopular in our country. Here’s the main idea, from the article:

I can’t pretend I completely understand how these people feel after the fun is over and the repayments begin, but I can say that I really don’t feel bad for them.

Why not? Because I worked hard to avoid taking out loans. My wonderful parents and grandmother helped me pay for my education, but in the end, it was a few decisions I made that saved me the burden of borrowing money I would never have been able to pay back. Unlike the majority of my friends who went to schools less than an hour from their parents’ homes and chose to live on campus rather than commute, my college roommates were named Mom and Dad. I chose state schools that were half, sometimes one-quarter, of the cost of the schools my friends were attending and worked a part-time on-campus scholarship job in addition to full-time hours at my retail job. I spent the four years of my life designed for partying essentially reliving my high school years. And yes, it was awful.

Is this an unpopular thing to say? Here are some very similar sentiments:

In America this idea of competition – it works! …don’t just go to the [college] that has the highest price, go to one that has a little lower price where you can get a good education and hopefully you’ll find that and don’t take on too much debt and don’t expect the government to forgive the debt that you take on. I know it would be popular for me to stand up and say I’m going to give you government money to make sure to pay for your college but I’m not going to promise that.

Or:

Take a shot, go for it, take a risk, get the education, borrow money if you have to from your parents, start a business.

Believing that people should not attend anything but the cheapest college in the cheapest way, and that they have only themselves to blame if they’re stuck in debt, is a belief that you can openly profess and come within four percentage points of being the President of the United States. 60,771,703 people voted for Mitt Romney in the last presidential election. Does that look like “unpopular” to you?

And sure, maybe not all of them were aware of his views on rising tuition and student loans, or maybe they disagreed with him on that but voted for him for other reasons. Maybe some of those voters did think that Romney is ridiculously out of touch for assuming that everyone has parents who are able and willing to help them out financially. In any case, “unpopular” conjures up images of someone sitting alone at a lunch table or getting picked last for the kickball team–images that, I will argue, it might be the writer’s intent to conjure up. Many, many people picked Mitt Romney for their team.

So, when people call something an “unpopular opinion,” what do they mean?

Sometimes they seem to mean that it’s a controversial opinion, which isn’t the same as an unpopular one. If people are split 50-50 on a given issue, that’s a controversy. But you can’t really call either side an “unpopular” opinion if half the group agrees with you. I’d say that 40-60 and 30-70 splits are also pretty controversial, because even in a relatively small group of random people, you’re very likely to encounter dissent no matter which side you’re on.

Of course, because our social groups tend to be so homogenous in all sorts of ways, we aren’t actually all that likely to encounter strong dissent on political topics, even ones where the overall split is about 50-50. For instance, I don’t think I’m actually friends with anyone who thinks that same-sex marriage or abortion should be illegal–at least not close enough friends to be aware of this political difference. (And, by the way, I’m absolutely fine with it staying that way.) Yet same-sex marriage and abortion are controversial issues today, even though they’re steadily becoming less so.

But even within a relatively politically homogenous social group, there will be strong disagreements–and therefore controversies. In a feminist group, a critical take on Emma Watson’s recent U.N. speech might be very controversial. In an atheist group, a critical take on Richard Dawkins’ opinions on gender might be very controversial. That doesn’t necessarily mean that anyone on any side of these issues is presenting an opinion that’s “unpopular.”

Which brings me to my next point. Sometimes, when people declare their opinion “unpopular,” sometimes they mean, “unpopular with my target audience/social circle/a group of people whose approval I care about.”

Of course, social (dis)approval is a pretty powerful force. Even people with tons and tons of privilege may feel very hurt by social disapproval, which is perhaps why some people claim that perceived “attacks” on men or white people or what have you are “just as bad” as sexism, racism, et cetera.

Even then, though, perceptions aren’t always reality. We’ve probably all seen articles like, “UNPOPULAR OPINION: I am a strong feminist woman who still wants to marry a man and have babies.” While some people may disagree with this, to whatever extent you can “disagree” with someone’s desires and self-identification, this is not even remotely unpopular among most feminists.

Other times, it might be the case that a particular opinion that someone has places them in an extreme minority in their social group. In that case, declaring the opinion “unpopular” before it’s even stated might serve several functions:

  1. Deflecting expectations to defend the opinion. “Well, it’s unpopular, so I guess you’re just going to disagree with it.”
  2. Giving the audience a “spoiler” so that they aren’t as shocked by the presumed unorthodoxy of the opinion.
  3. Cultivating sympathy for the speaker’s presumed alienation or isolation due to their minority opinion.
  4. Showing the audience that the speaker is aware of the opinion’s unpopularity, making disagreement almost unnecessary.
  5. Inspiring respect for the speaker for their presumed bravery in stating such an opinion.

A confession: I used to sometimes label things as “unpopular opinions,” and there’s still a category on this blog for that reason. I did this for a mix of reasons, chief among them the fact that I was deeply insecure about my opinions–not in the sense that I wasn’t confident in them, but that I felt like I would never be accepted by people because of them. I think that was sometimes a little accurate–I really did get a lot of shit in college from people who disagreed with my writing, and I really do get harassed online sometimes for it. I did lose friends. I did fear people finding it and reading it and deciding that I’m a horrible, mean person because of it, because sometimes that actually happened. But mostly, it was a matter of me needing to come into my own a little bit and meet people who affirmed my thoughts and opinions–even if they don’t always agree!

I don’t think that calling opinions “unpopular” really helped me lessen their potential negative impact, though. Most people see through this gambit even if they can’t necessarily articulate why. Defensiveness, especially preemptive defensiveness, is probably never a good look. And personally, I have heard “This is an unpopular opinion, but” followed with meanness and ignorance so many times that hearing it now biases me against the forthcoming opinion by default. I’d imagine many people feel the same way.

Even if you don’t have that sort of association with it, though, calling an opinion “unpopular” probably predisposes the listener to disagree with it. Why would you want to do that? Unless you are, for instance, just trolling and wasting everyone’s time?

In the case of this particular xoJane piece, Slizewski does not specify who her opinion might be unpopular with, or why. I’m not sure if she thinks she’s speaking to her presumably irresponsible friends (one of whom is referenced, extremely flippantly, at the beginning of the piece), or to xoJane’s presumably progressive readership, or to high school seniors currently applying to college. The way Slizewski imagines “the stereotypical college experience” may be instructive:

Imagine the stereotypical American college experience. You pick some private university in the middle of a cornfield with a tuition price of about $36,000 a year, plus room and board, party it up every night since you’ve finally escaped the teenage hellhole known as your family’s home, and stumble into your Symbolism in Harry Potter seminar at 11 a.m. still half-drunk and probably reeking of Icehouse. You join a sorority, get vomit in your hair more times than you’re willing to admit publicly, and spend half the day on whatever flavor-of-the-week social media site the guy you currently like is active on.

This doesn’t sound like the college experience of me or any of my friends who went to private universities, but the hypothetical person who seeks this sort of experience is, presumably, the sort of person with whom Slizewski’s opinion would be “unpopular.”

But because she doesn’t specify, it comes across like she thinks the opinion is just, well, globally unpopular. It’s not. As I noted, you can come very close to becoming the President while expressing this opinion. If that’s not a popularity contest, I don’t know what is.

What are some truly unpopular opinions in this country? That women literally shouldn’t even have the right to vote. That the military and the police are inherently oppressive, corrupt, violent institutions that should be disbanded immediately. That roads should be privately funded. That men are all individually evil. That atheism should be criminalized.

Certainly there are people, even plenty of people, in this country who believe these things, but those people are probably a very small minority. And notice the dearth of articles titled “UNPOPULAR OPINION: The 19th Amendment Should Be Repealed.”

Most of the time, I think, “unpopular opinion” is really just code for, “an opinion that will hurt people.” Calling it “unpopular” rather than “hurtful” is quite a convenient way to take the responsibility for causing hurt off of yourself.

A Probably-Popular Opinion on Unpopular Opinions