“...when you meet folks who think they know all the answers because they’ve never heard any other viewpoints, it’s up to you to help them see things differently.”
First Lady, Michelle Obama
Writer Leon Wieseltier wants half of America to “Stay angry.” He claims this is the only way to uphold principles in Trump’s America. “Maintain [your] disgust,” he insists, which apparently sounds like a good idea to many Clinton supporters. Columnists urge, “don't play nice with the racist, sexist, misogynist Trump voters,” and “There’s No Such Thing as a Good Trump Voter… They don’t deserve your empathy.”
Peruse any Facebook page and you’re sure to find plenty of anger and disgust there, too. Some Clinton supporters are “unfriending” Trump voters. Others proclaim they are no longer speaking to friends who voted for Trump. It’s not uncommon for people to explicitly state that they have no desire or intention to “come together” with nor even “have compassion” for anyone who voted for Trump.
The hostility is not all one-sided, of course. Isolation from those with different political ideas combined with aggressive political rhetoric has created the sense in people on both sides that "hostility directed at the opposition is acceptable, even appropriate. Partisans therefore feel free to express animus and engage in discriminatory behavior toward opposing partisans," explain political scientists Iyengar and Westwood. After so many years of feeling trampled, belittled and maligned, for angry Trump voters, one Presidential victory does not clean the slate. Across the country, anger and disgust burn with righteous fervor. But anger eventually consumes everything in its path. Angry people create angry homes, angry spouses, angry children, and eventually find it hard to maintain their relationships and careers. Contrary to Wieseltier’s advice, being angry is a fairly reliable way to become less principled. We need only recall the last thing we said in anger to recognize that it is a rare instance in which principles are more likely to be upheld with anger than with equanimity.
Emotions not only impact the things we say and do, they also have a way of influencing judgment. Increasingly researchers are able to see precisely how. According to psychologists Yoel Inbar and David Pizarro, anger “seems to encourage the use of cognitive ‘shortcuts’ such as stereotypes,” so especially for those committed to combatting bigotry, anger is hardly the right tool. Adding disgust to the mix is even more destructive. Psychologists Buckels and Trapnell found that disgust “appears to have the unique capacity to foster the social-cognitive dehumanization of outgroup members.”
History provides plenty of examples. Given recent concerns regarding a potential Muslim registration requirement, here is a relevant one: After the attack on Pearl Harbor, anger, resentment, and fear fueled stereotypes of Japanese Americans as being akin to animals and insects. “At the simplest level,” writes historian John Dower, Americans “dehumanized the Japanese and enlarged the chasm between 'us' and 'them' to the point where it was perceived to be virtually unbridgeable." In 1942, Executive Order 9066 made it possible for over 100,000 people of Japanese descent to be incarcerated in Japanese internment camps.
Resentment, as Wieselteir rightly appreciates, “even when it has a basis in experience, is one of the ugliest political emotions and it has been the source of horrors.” Resentment is closely related to contempt. Contempt between married couples is the single best predictor of divorce, and is destructive in other relationships, too. In examining speeches given prior to major events by leaders of extreme political groups, psychologist David Matsumoto and his colleagues discovered that anger, contempt, and disgust work together to create devaluing of the other group, and to motivate action against and even the elimination of their members. When leaders speak using these three emotions, they can succeed in generating violence against others—in other words, anger, contempt, and disgust are a dangerous and deadly combination.
Today, we have many more platforms from which to dehumanize. Susan Benesch, founder of the Dangerous Speech Project and faculty associate at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, worries about the “online disinhibition effect.” Online discourse norms are becoming coarser and more aggressive, and while it's easy to see that people seem less inhibited in their online interactions than they are in person, Benesch says behavior norms are probably not far behind. “When people think it’s increasingly O.K. to describe a group of people as subhuman or vermin, those same people are likely to think that it’s O.K. to hurt those people.”
This kind of danger, both online and off, continues to be faced by people every day as a result of hatred based on race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and myriad other identities. They face bullying, abuse, trauma, and suffer from mental health and addiction issues. While we have a long way to go, thankfully, Americans on the whole are vocal and active in protecting others from mistreatment and violence targeting people who identify in the above mentioned groups. At the same time, partisan animus in America now exceeds racial hostility.
There is a danger of a single story. Australian psychologist Nick Haslan discovered that without contravening pressure, the ways in which we define categories of harm tends to undergo a semantic shift known as “concept creep,” broadening and expanding what counts as harmful. Specifically, a lessening of the criteria for evidence of harm along with a heightened sensitivity to it alters the ways in which we define, describe, and label people and their actions, and influences how we come to understand morality, each other, and ourselves. This becomes particularly problematic when there is a lack of consensus regarding these expanding definitions, or not everyone is proceeding at the same pace. Even when we use the same words, we often don’t mean the same thing.
Still, we allow for only a single story, and there seem to be only two options for how we interact with people who tell a different one. We can teach them; or if they are unwilling to learn, we can oppose them. The one thing we seem unwilling to do is to listen. We have somehow come to believe that when we have strong views, listening is something we do only when a person’s perspective is one we share, or while formulating arguments to convince people they are wrong—and then we must believe they can be convinced. Otherwise, not only do we avoid conversation, more and more we seem to experience a righteous combination of anger, contempt, and disgust; a poison that propels us to perform the same kind of dehumanization we work so hard to prevent. For instance, Bill Maher asked, “What the f*ck’ does Trump have to do before GOP voters recoil from him and act like humans?” (Emphasis mine.)
Perhaps because at its core, listening is an act of love, we are unwilling to listen to the people we would rather hate. “An enemy is one whose story we have not heard,” contends international peacemaker, Gene Knudsen Hoffman. Rabbi Phillip Bentley, who spent time with Israelis and Palestinians as part of the Compassionate Listening Project founded by Hoffman, discovered, “those who have sympathy for only one side in a conflict become part of the conflict.”
Catholic philosopher, Jacques Maritain, writing in the 1950s understood the tendency of all of us to be intolerant. And yet, he rejected the thinking that we must have no firmly held views of our own in order to listen to other points of view. “If it were true that whoever knows or claims to know truth or justice cannot admit the possibility of a view different from his own,” he wrote, “and is bound to impose his true view on other people by violence, then the rational animal would be the most dangerous of beasts.” The grave mistake made by those “who would like to impose truth by coercion,” Maritain maintained, comes from conflating an error in thinking with the person who errs, so people believe that “man, when he is in error, has no rights of his own and should be banished from human fellowship.”
Among the problems with the paradigm of tolerance, while we have expanded the people we tolerate on the one side, we have contracted our tolerance on the other. Unlike the social divides in which social norms constrain behavior and attitudes toward people of different races, genders, and sexual orientations...etc., there are no corresponding norms or standards that encourage empathy or even restrain open hostility toward people whose political views we don't share. And though we may still “tolerate” those for whom we have no empathy, we see them as forever the “other.” Unless this changes, it will not be long before we have no tolerance for them left.
George Washington, as long ago as 1790, understood that we “tolerate” people we see as different and even somehow lesser than we are. In his letter to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island, assuring them that they were part of the American “us,” he wrote, “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens."
Tolerance is no longer an appropriate paradigm for the 21st century. Perhaps fellowship is the aspirational paradigm for our time. “…the word fellowship,” explained Maritain, “connotes something positive—positive and elementary—in human relationships. It conjures up the image of traveling companions, who meet here below by chance and journey through life—however fundamental their differences may be—good humoredly, in cordial solidarity and human agreement, or better to say, friendly and cooperative disagreement.”
The openness of our hearts is the measure of our willingness to embrace a multitude of stories. Politically and culturally, we must listen not because some groups are more important than others in the makeup of our country, but because they are also important; not because some people matter more, but because they matter, too. It is not that people must be more like us to become less like a “them," it is exactly the reverse. The more we are able to include people in our “us,” the less like a “them” they become.
Unless we reach out with radically compassionate listening, and engage in civil dialogue with all our fellow Americans across our many divides and disagreements, the demise of our country will not be a result of electing a President; we, ourselves, will do the job. Beware of righteous anger, contempt, and disgust toward those we say are wrong. It is a combination that risks turning us into the very thing we hate—the most dangerous of beasts.
“I've spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don't know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.”
President Ronald Reagan, Farewell Address to the Nation
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