There’s Nothing “Unfair” About Al Franken’s Resignation

Personal note: I’ve been mostly absent from blogging because I have cancer. Read all about it here.

[Content note: sexual violence]

Before I begin, I’d like to state for the record: it is Okay to have sad/upset/complicated feelings about the allegations against Al Franken and his subsequent decision to step down. That’s not what this is about. In fact, when it comes to me, it is Okay to have any feelings you want about anything. That’s my promise to you.

However, when we step outside of the realm of feelings and into the territory of attributions, ethical claims, moral reasoning, and outward behavior, it’s no longer anything-goes. Even if feelings underlie it.

I particularly disagree with claims that the political consequences Al Franken is now facing are “unfair.” It think this suggests some very skewed ideas about what fairness means, and under what conditions we can be expected to be our best selves.

In general, fairness means treating people and situations equally or equitably. If we would call upon a Republican with multiple credible allegations of sexual assault to resign, we should do the same to an equivalent Democrat. It would be unfair to call upon Roy Moore to resign, but not Al Franken. (Yes, the allegations against them differ in some significant ways, and sometimes this is important, but I don’t find it particularly important here. Assaulting adults is just as wrong as assaulting children.)

In some cases, fairness also means that if we have a contract with someone, spoken or unspoken, it would be unfair for one person to hold up their end of the contract and for the other to get out of having to do the same.

For instance, if it would be unfair to agree to a haircut at a salon and then refuse to pay even though the stylist has delivered the haircut promised. It would be unfair if you and your roommate have devised a chore schedule, but your roommate never does their share of the chores and you do. It would be unfair for a friend to expect me to listen to their problems, but when I have problems, they’re always mysteriously busy. (However, contrary to popular opinion, the way to make this situation fair is not to try to force the friend to listen to your problems. It’s to scale back or end the friendship until the situation feels fair to you. Consent is a thing.)

It’s weird to hear Al Franken’s resignation referred to as “unfair.” That implies that someone out there is not holding up their end of the bargain.

What people usually mean when they say this is that it’s unfair for Franken to “have” to resign when similar Republican politicians don’t. But rather than laying the blame for this unfairness solely onto Republicans and their constituents, they lay it much more directly onto the Democrats calling for Franken’s resignation even though his counterparts don’t “have” to resign.

To me, this is a backwards and morally bankrupt way of looking at things. It presumes that if Republicans had to resign when facing similar allegations, only then would it be fair for Democrats to have to do the same. Or, on the other hand, it would be fair if Franken’s resignation caused an equivalent Republican to resign as well.

But if you have used your position of power to take advantage of others, you deserve to lose that position—not in order to get anyone else to lose theirs too, and not as a goodwill concession towards those who already have, but because you have committed a crime, and you are not a fit or safe person to serve in this position. Sexual assault is a crime. Workplace sexual harassment is a crime. These things are also morally wrong. That’s why Franken should go. Republicans have nothing to do with it.

Sure, it admittedly does suck that Republicans rarely face consequences (or face them as seriously) as Democrats do in these situations. But that’s not “unfair.” There’s no “double standard.” The reason this pattern happens is because most Democratic voters don’t want to vote for confirmed sexual predators, whereas most Republicans are quite okay with this as long as he’s anti-choice and whatnot. That’s how you get Roy Moore.

I’ve heard folks say that they wouldn’t vote for Al Franken again because it would feel too icky, but they don’t want to see him “ousted.” But the fact that you wouldn’t vote for him again is exactly why he’s leaving.

So no, this isn’t a case of “they go low, we go high.” It’s not a double standard. It’s not “being better” than the Republicans. It’s not “eating our own.” It’s simply reading the fucking room, including the writing on the wall.

And if this is unfair, the only way for us as Democratic voters to make it fair is to commit to voting for candidates whose stance we support even if they are admitted/confirmed sexual predators. Then it would be “equal.”

So there’s no “unfairness” here, but there is an injustice—the injustice of conservative indifference to sexual violence and to human suffering in general. It’s the injustice of the just world fallacy, the injustice of harmful gendered thinking, the injustice of racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and everything else in that deplorable bucket.

And while I’m on this topic, I also disagree that Al Franken handled this any differently/better than your average powerful man accused of something terrible. Aside from his decision to resign (presumably for the reasons I discussed above), his response is typical. His resignation announcement comes with no apology, and it comes only after numerous credible accusations (including photographs) have been made. It wasn’t proactive. I don’t sense any genuine regret, remorse, or understanding from him. And I wouldn’t expect it—these men know that what they’re doing is wrong. A child knows it’s wrong.

I believe it’s utterly wrong for us to heap praise on people who have kept their intentional acts of harm towards those less powerful than them hidden for years or decades, continually deny them, deny the first accusations, and finally relent when “proof” appears and everyone clamors for resignation. This isn’t remorse, it’s not “learning and growing,” and it’s not accountability. It is, again, reading the room.

And when you consider the immense risk and labor that the accusers have to take on every single time one of these powerful men is brought down (and especially when they’re not), it’s even more unfair. Aside from surviving multiple incidents of sexual harassment and/or assault, these accusers risk their careers, relationships, privacy, and whatever healing they’ve managed to do every time they speak out. Many of them face serious consequences, much more severe than Al Franken or any other powerful sexual predator. Job loss, death threats, lost friends, reliving what happened to them.

I have yet to see a powerful predator “apologize” or oh-so-graciously decide to step down before detailed accounts of their behavior are posted all over the internet and in major media outlets; before the people whose opinions and bodies they actually respect start to get uncomfortable; before the petitions circulate. That’s because they don’t want to. Al Franken didn’t want to. He doesn’t want to be accountable. He has to, because his base demands it.

I refuse to call this pathetic attempt at faking empathy “remorse.” I do not respect Al Franken. I do not thank him for his “apology.”

Call me when a predator removes himself from a powerful position without dozens of survivors having to cut themselves open and bleed for our satisfaction first. Until then, frankly, I don’t give a damn.


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There’s Nothing “Unfair” About Al Franken’s Resignation
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“Sure, a woman can be President–just not that one.”

Throughout my years of dating polyamorously, I’ve observed that there are two types of monogamous people.

One type is direct and upfront about it. They choose monogamous relationships, and if they’re with someone who wants an open relationship, they’re clear about the fact that that won’t work for them. Either the couple agrees to stay monogamous, or they break up.

The other type will agree to “try” an open relationship with someone they’re really invested in who really wants it. With varying levels of enthusiasm, they’ll say that “I just want you to be happy” and “I’m okay with it if it’s important to you” or even “I want to do this too.”

But then you actually start trying to date other people, and…they just seem to have a lot of issues with the specific person. “He doesn’t seem like a good guy and I don’t think you should date him.” “Look, I’m fine with an open relationship, but you’re spending way too much time with her and I don’t like where this is going.” “I don’t think he respects our primary relationship, so I’m uncomfortable with this.” “I know this date is really important to you, but I’m just having a really bad night. Do you think you could stay home?” “Could you just see them on the nights when I’m unavailable?” “I’m concerned that you’re choosing partners who aren’t going to treat you right.” “I don’t want you to have sex with them in our special position, or have dinner with them at our special restaurant, or watch our special TV show with them, or…”

Obviously, any of these things could actually be true in any given situation. But after a while you realize that your partner has a problem with every poly situation you find yourselves in, and that maybe the problem isn’t those new partners, or you, or even them. Maybe the problem is that they just don’t want to be in an open relationship, and don’t want to say so.

That’s the weird thing I kind of flashed back to when I was reading this article about Elizabeth Warren. It seems that there’s a certain sort of liberal, progressive, or moderate who says, “Sure, there’s no reason a woman couldn’t be President–it’s not about gender,” and yet, like a controlling partner in a poly relationship with way too many “rules,” they keep vetoing every potential female candidate without even necessarily realizing why. She’s not radical enough. She’s married to a creep. She’s too angry. She’s too robotic. She’s just not “presidential.” She opposed single-payer. She didn’t support same-sex marriage until others in the party did. Her views on sex work are regressive. She has too much money, and gets paid too much for speeches. She doesn’t actually care about what she claims to care about.

Sometimes I imagine doing a research study in which I take Bernie Sanders’ entire biography and political history and create a fictional female candidate out of it, and see how she polls.

Of course, she’d poll way worse than Clinton. She’d be a shrieking old biddy, a crotchety grandma who won’t cooperate with anyone and is probably approaching senility. A crazy cat lady who belongs in a nursing home with her collection of knitting needles and old magazines. I can’t even imagine a woman that old coming anywhere near a presidential primary. I can’t imagine people cheering at rallies for a woman that old and angry. It doesn’t happen in our culture. And in our culture, a female politician with Sanders’ temperament and political beliefs would never present herself or do her work the way Sanders does. She can’t afford it.

(Or, for fun, imagine Bernie Sanders as a Black man. How would his remarks about labor and inequality go over then?)

Like the unwillingly poly partner who won’t use their words except to say, “No, not this one” and “No, not that one either” every time their partner tries to date someone, these totally-not-sexist voters have us all believing that somewhere out there is a woman they think is qualified to occupy the Oval Office. But just not this one. And not that one either.

Of course, my opening analogy only goes so far. There’s nothing wrong with preferring monogamy–and being open about it. There’s a lot wrong with preferring male presidential candidates.

But if you do, you might as well be open about it. Then the rest of us can stop wasting our time trying to generate the platonic ideal of a female candidate to get you to finally vote for one.

The worst thing about it is that Republicans are really great at using progressives’ values against them to erode support for otherwise-popular candidates. As Rebecca Traister writes in the piece I linked to:

The playbook that the right is running against Warren — seeding early criticism designed to weaken her from the left — is pretty ballsy, given that Warren has been a standard-bearer, the crusading, righteous politician who by many measures activated the American left in the years before Bernie Sanders mounted his presidential campaign. Warren is the candidate who many cited in 2016 as the anti-Clinton: the outspoken, uncompromisingly progressive woman they would have supported unreservedly had she only run. Yet now, as many hope and speculate that she might run in 2020, the right is investing in a story line about Warren that is practically indistinguishable from the one they peddled for years about Clinton. And even in these early days, some of that narrative is finding its way into mainstream coverage of Warren, and in lefty reactions to it.

This is something that the left rarely does to right-wing candidates, and when anyone tries, we rightly condemn them for promoting values we all despise. For instance, I strongly criticize any so-called liberal who tries to attack a male right-wing politician by accusing him of being secretly gay, or a female one for having an abortion. We’d never denounce Republicans for being insufficiently Christian.

But the right is constantly trying to play a game of “Gotcha!” with Democratic candidates, pointing out that they’re actually totally racist or corporate or whatever. They love it when a prominent male Democrat gets caught in a sex scandal because then they get to accuse anyone who continues to support him politically of excusing sexual harassment. (Because you know Republicans care so much about sexual harassment, considering who’s in the Oval Office.)

And as Traister explains, these talking points end up embedded in mainstream media and all over our progressive friends’ social media feeds.

Obviously, I’m not saying don’t criticize Democrats when they’re racist or corporate or whatever. Please do. Please do.

But I really want some of these folks to name me even one female politician they would vote for in a Presidential election.

I mean, sure, they’d probably name quite a few of them, right now in the relative safety of 2017. But drag any of these presumably-qualified candidates through our typical election media cycle and suddenly we’d be hearing a different story.

So, personally, I’ll believe that you believe a woman can be President when you actually vote for one, and not just because the alternative is Donald Trump.


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“Sure, a woman can be President–just not that one.”

“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!”

“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"