In the recent months, I’ve noticed an increase in violent, divisive attitudes on social media and in political news. Don’t get me wrong, the bitter tribalism of our modern political discourse is by no means only a few months old. Maybe I’m just reading more into it, and obviously all anecdotal evidence is rife with selection bias, but I don’t think I’m totally off in noticing an increase in support for political violence, the eradication of nuance, and overall just stronger and more hard-headed reactions from both major sides of the aisle. It feels as though we are at an historically important point, as though the fever pitch of partisanship in this current period is something we haven’t seen before for a long time.
One phenomenon resulting from the 2016 election and Trump’s presidency, which is immediately evident, is that people are paying much closer attention to politics. This is clear in scrolling through your news feed, watching the nightly news, overhearing conversations at work and in public. Lately it seems like everyone is talking about politics. Not only that, but they are talking past each other, over each other. Nobody is hearing what anyone else is saying. Now when I scroll down my news feed a solid 70% of the posts I see are “hot takes” on how long Trump shook someone’s hand or making inane comparisons between groups and standards. You might hear the argument that you need to be spending more and more time “resisting” Trump instead of just focusing on your life and enriching it in a way that government will never be able to do. These arguments are from people who are wholly dedicated to hating our president, who have allowed their activism to become helplessly intertwined with their identity. People also make the argument that we should just approach Trump’s tweeting or increasingly unstable staffing and policy changes with a nihilistic bent, as though somehow they don’t matter and…MAGA MAGA MAGA! These are people who are wholly dedicated to supporting the president, despite the fact that conservatives even at higher levels are beginning to become disenchanted with Trump’s ineffectiveness.
I’ve heard this argued from both sides (that this increasing involvement in politics is a good thing, or a bad thing). Part of the arguments for it being negative: Our situations are more polarized, people are more strung out, ready to go off on a hairpin trigger, and in a more philosophical sense, this much of our lives isn’t supposed to be dominated by politics. Politics is a part of life insofar as government is a part of the social contract. However, in the same way that the government shouldn’t be in charge of every aspect of our life, politics should not infuse every interaction or experience we have on the daily.
On the positive side, people are more informed and fired up about what is going on in their country. Or, are they? To hear it entirely from Fox news or Breitbart: “Trump! Trannies! Triggered!” To hear it entirely from MSNBC (or my newsfeed): “How the forecasted colder winter this year is entirely Trump’s fault and PROVES he is the genetic mutant (+5 hate genes) baby of Hitler and people who put pineapple on pizza”.
It seems that we’ve substituted volume of information for quality of information. The whole reason people listen to a specific set of mainstream outlets is so that they don’t have to deal with the cognitive load of processing an opposing idea. We have set up land mines to go off as soon as our comfort levels are remotely pushed. Instead of dealing with ideas, we immediately switch to character attacks, to accusations of hating vets, hating trans people, hating black people, wanting to burn the constitution, etc.
All of these intense reactions to everything from minor wording choices to literal white supremacists walking through American streets does two deleterious things. First, a cry-wolf situation is set up which diminishes credibility of whoever is raising outrage. Why should someone, especially on the “other side” listen to you when you’ve been calling them personally racist, sexist, bigoted, etc. for years? When you call out the entire NFL leadership and coaches as “white supremacists” (just an example), but then turn around and point at people chanting “Jews will not replace us” and flying Nazi flags and also call them white supremacists, you are hurting your cause because people on the fence don’t see your assessment of who is and isn’t a white supremacist to be credible.
The second issue is an offshoot of crying wolf and deals with not just being turned up to 11 at all times, but with broadening definitions and being careless with accusations of otherwise incredibly serious flaws. You see articles or infographics flying around online like “ways that all white people are actually white supremacists”, with incredibly broad bullet points or characteristics which encompass pretty much everyone except the most venerated high-priests of the religion of leftism. This is harmful. White supremacy is a very specific thing. It is a horrible, morally reprehensible thing that everyone needs to condemn. By broadening the definition, you allow white supremacists and white nationalists to co-opt huge groups of people. You can have some issues (and I think there is an interesting discussion to be had) regarding someone saying “we should all just ignore race” or the “colorblind” argument. However if you now go the next step and say “Well saying you are colorblind is a form of white supremacy”, you’ve now turned millions of people into white supremacists. Not actual white supremacists, mind you, but you are lending huge credibility to the movement. Now everyone who doesn’t “study race” in an ivory tower is somehow awful.
There are a couple factors at play here and I think it is important for us to understand when we are acting (sometimes unwittingly) as agents of a broad political agenda. By making white supremacists seem like a larger group than they are, and by defining mundane things as white supremacy, those making the argument for suppression of speech or who excuse political violence have a stronger case. It seems like a huge problem, and huge problems need to be addressed. Politicians who come out against the scourge of white nationalism gain tons of political capital and media coverage, and the importance of their re-election becomes divorced from how solid their policy suggestions are.
We see the consequences of broadening definitions like this play out on the other side of the conflict as well. While leftists are happy to drastically inflate the influence of white supremacist groups, the white supremacist groups are also ecstatic that their importance is being elevated from a couple thousand hateful dudes to a matter of absolutely obsessive media coverage. People who with a certain amount of internet savvy understand that there are essentially two groups called the “alt-right”. The first is a very specific movement which espouses the belief that western culture and values are inseparable from actual white ethnic groups, which is clearly a racist viewpoint. The second group is way larger and includes people who like to shitpost frog memes and “trigger” SJWs. They make racist jokes online and overall just act like immature boys with stunted social skills. Most of these people aren’t even necessarily right leaning in terms of politics and many are just “trolling”. So why are both of these groups “alt-right?” Because if the actual alt-right, white nationalist groups absorb other aspects of culture (dank memes, offensive jokes, irreverent humor, disenfranchised or isolated young men), then all of the people who are in these groups, but don’t have actual racist views, get co-opted too. Now when someone says “Fuck the alt-right”, both Nazis and online trolls are clearly alienated from their cause, and let me tell you, the online troll community is way the fuck larger than the Nazi community. For further evidence of this we need not look any further than the fact that Hillary Clinton took time out of a campaign speech to address pepe the frog. Absolutely clueless as to the distinction between people who just find pepe funny and Nazis (somehow), she played directly into the hand of the white nationalists. She drove the masses of online trolls and dank memeologists into the arms of an actual hateful and dangerous ideology. She gave the alt-right a huge boost!
Not to keep kicking Hillary while she’s down (and hopefully for democrats, out) but this phenomenon seemed so clear to me when she made her “basket of deplorables” comment. Is there a subset of Trump voters who are deplorable? Duh, probably the same subset who are actually alt-right. However, now anyone who was leaning toward Trump is clearly against Hillary. She thinks they are deplorable, and now instead of realizing that Trump has basically zero tenable policy plans, they cheered on Trump because he was “triggering SJWs” or “bashing Hillary”. They had a common enemy. Indeed, even now, there is a huge portion of Trump’s base who really don’t care how many utter policy failures he has presided over, they just want to see him lash out against leftists. In this way, staunch partisanship lacking nuance is a self-perpetuating phenomenon.
So how can we avoid this? How can we turn it around? How can the cycle of othering and attacking be broken?
I think part of it is to understand the forces at play, to understand that there are people who stand to benefit a lot from your blind hatred of others based on simple aspects of their personality. Sure, you know how dire it is to stop trans people from using the bathroom they want, but did you know we’re at war in Yemen? Could you point to Yemen on a map? Because whether you can or can’t, bombs paid for with your money are being dropped on innocent people. Sure, you feel good about yourself because you knocked over a statue, but how do you feel about the fact that our country is facing an opioid epidemic? Did you know that vehicle fatalities due to drug overdose are skyrocketing? I don’t say this to belittle the trans bathroom or confederate statue issues. All I’m saying is, maybe you’re angry about trans bathrooms because that type of anger is easy and utilitarian. Maybe you aren’t angry about Yemen because there’s less to be gained from your anger there.
The second part of working against this partisan noise and the widening chasm in American political discourse is to turn the other cheek. As someone who has been accused of many character flaws for espousing certain political beliefs, I understand how easy it is to direct hate and vitriol at those who are making what you believe to be unfair character arguments against you. I’m not going to get all “Jesus is love” over here, but by allowing hatred directed at you to become hatred which is multiplied outward, you continue the cycle of name calling and insubstantial argumentation.
It can be hard and honestly, sometimes it feels totally wrong to just say. “Alright, that dude just called me racist, but I’m not going to fling any character arguments back.” It can feel like “backing down” or “letting hate win”. And maybe hate wins that battle, but by taking that hate and lack of nuance and then projecting it back, we will ensure that hate wins the war.