This fall, I left video-game-related Facebook group because the administrators posted that anyone who had voted for former President Trump were not welcome and were invited to leave. The declaration was decorated with colorful language and name-calling.
Two of my oldest friends, both liberals, have recently done something similar– demanded to be unfriended by anyone who supports former President Trump.
In another social media conversation, in response to the breaking news on January 6 that there was one dead in the Capitol riots, the top comment from a left wing liberal was, “Was it one of them? If so, who gives a f***?”
Look, I understand. I’m angry too…. No, scratch that. I am so filled with fury and grief and disbelief at the actions of Trump and his political supporters that I burst into tears for no reason almost every day. I am at a loss for how to proceed, because half the world seems to be operating in a reality unhinged from the facts as I know them.
And that, my friends, is the problem. Because of the news we consume, we don’t agree on the facts of a situation. We aren’t operating within a cohesive cultural understanding of the world. If we can’t even agree on reality, how can we ever agree on rules by which we can live and work together? This way lies civil war.
Civil war won’t even solve the root problem; the Union asserted their policy by force, not by persuasion or compromise. The reality of the Confederates lives on in cultural institutions all over the country.
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One way that I have found to be helpful in parsing the problem is to return to our 7 principles—in particular, considering the First Principle “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” and the Second Principle “justice, equity and compassion in human relations.” If everyone deserves dignity and compassion, then even the wrongiest wrong people on the face of the earth deserves those things. And just because the other side is not compassionate back, we are not off the hook for our responsibility. So Martin Luther King Jr., Jesus, Ghandi, and countless of our heroes and mentors keep telling us.
And as we are taught as young humans in schools across America, compassion begins when we can put ourselves in the other person’s shoes in order to understand them. If you cannot imagine a world or a situation in which you would support former President Trump, then you have not a chance of understanding half the country. Important note: Understanding and agreement are totally different. Understanding and forgiveness are totally different. You don’t have to agree and you don’t even have to forgive. But until we understand, we are never going to be able to solve our problems without war, declared or otherwise.
So here is one of my imagining of how and why I could have voted for former President Trump. (NOTE: THIS IS IMAGINARY. I grew up in a military family, but not an authoritarian one):
Perhaps I was reared in an authoritarian household where my mother ruled with an iron fist, and my siblings and I fell into line. Her way of solving problems worked, too– as long as we did our part (even if we didn’t like it), the household functioned smoothly.
However, failure in duty resulted in physical punishment and there was never any excuses for failure. It was good for us, I thought, as it taught us discipline and respect. No one in our family got into drugs or crime, probably because of this discipline, I thought. Family was paramount; as members of an active military family, we moved around so much that making relationships with communities was difficult. So social ties within the family trumped (hah!) any social ties outside of it. My parents generally didn’t pay much attention to politics, and like most military in the 1980s, my father voted Republican. My mother rarely bothered to vote at all.
So I grew up and married a military man very much like my father, and I behave very much like my mother. I am tough, able to cope with what life throws at me, and I want my children to be the same way. When one of my children get out of line, I punish them– no ifs, ands, or buts. I am always right, because I am the adult. My husband is away for months at a time, so I rule the household and I make it function through decree. I don’t pay much attention to the news, but when I do, I listen to the same things that my parents and my neighbors on base listen to.
People I trust say that our problems as a nation are because there are those who aren’t pulling their weight, doing their part, like immigrants and poor people and Black people. Well, that is unacceptable in our family, so it should also be unacceptable in American society, so those people should be punished and made to do the work– just like I had to, just like my children have to. Donald Trump says he will do it. He will get those people in line and solve that problem for once and for all. The other side wants to coddle those who aren’t contributing. Good. I vote and move on to the next problem of what to do about the church potluck because now we have the stupid rules about social distancing when no one I know has been more than mildly sick from COVID.
My imaginary self above isn’t evil; she just assumes authoritarianism is the most effective way of solving problems, she’s not particularly civic minded outside of her tiny group, and as a practical person, isn’t really interested in the self-reflection needed to break free of her values that she has had since childhood. I see a lot of myself in her– and anyone who knows me can probably see it, too. Pushing her out of a video game Facebook group because of her vote isn’t going to change her mind; it just pushes her towards the other people who already think like her. Inviting her in and challenging her world view without attacking her personally — in other words, being a friend — will change her, as she listens to people she trusts (as do we all) and absorbs the values of the people around her (as do we all).
One caveat: Being friends with someone who spouts racist, divisive rhetoric is very hard, and I acknowledge that many times that work is not worth it and that cutting toxic people out of your life is necessary. But let’s be cautious about this banishment, doing so only after much conversation and only to individuals, not groups.
As President Biden said in his inaugural address, “We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal. We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts. If we show a little tolerance and humility. If we’re willing to stand in the other person’s shoes just for a moment.”
I invite you today to take a step in acknowledging the humanity of people you disagree with– to imagine a way in which you might have voted the other way, taken part in a protest for the other side, posted a meme supporting the other point of view. You don’t have to agree. You don’t have to forgive. Just try to understand.