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Alyssa Milano Wants to Move #ForwardTogether

Do we have the strength and courage to forgive?

In a pair of uncharacteristic tweets, actress and left-wing activist, Alyssa Milano recently asked her 3.7 million followers to join her in extending an “olive branch” to Trump supporters — people she’s previously claimed “don’t care about your family or helping you put food on the table. All they care about is power and money.”

Twitter screenshot/Pamela Paresky
Source: Twitter screenshot/Pamela Paresky

From both sides of the aisle, responses to her outreach have been mixed at best. “You deserve the same amount of crazy and hate you've contributed to the world” reads one. “I would like to extend a big FU to trump supporters. I will never be ready to move on” reads another.

After years of tweeting things like “F*ck Republicans” and “The entire @GOP should be tried for treason,” Milano maintains that “we’re going to need a lot of humility and compassion right now. Anger and triumphalism is less helpful.”

She’s right, of course. Forgiveness and a focus on our common humanity can help heal our fractured democracy while resentment and a focus on ideological purity cannot. Coming from the victor in a metaphorically bloody battle, her sentiment can ring hollow. But it’s essential nonetheless.

In the aftermath of the 2016 election, a headline in the Washington Post read, “Stay angry. That’s the only way to uphold principles in Trump’s America.” After that ugly, divisive, and in many ways shocking election, the author got his wish. The Pew Research Center found that by 2019, partisans on both sides felt angry when thinking about our country. Pew also found that by 2019, partisan antipathy was more intense and more personal than it had been in 2016. More than one out of seven Republicans and one out of five Democrats believed that the country would be better off if large numbers of opposing partisans “just died.” When we are angry, we use what psychologists Yoel Inbar and David Pizarro refer to as “cognitive shortcuts” such as stereotypes. In other words, to uphold principles, anger is exactly the wrong tool.

In advance of the 2020 election, the non-profit organization Braver Angels began offering a different tool. Modeled on the sentiment of Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, the With Malice Toward None initiative encourages people to take the following pledge, which I invited others to sign:

Regardless of how the election turns out, I will not hold hate, disdain, or ridicule for those who voted differently from me. Whether I am pleased or upset about the outcome, I will seek to understand the concerns and aspirations of those who voted differently and look for opportunities to work with people with whom I disagree.

The pushback ranged from charitable rejection, to accusing me of being an apologist for evil, to likening me to a Nazi sympathizer. (In a Facebook higher education group, the reaction was even less civil and more aggressive.)

Too many people are certain that only those who voted as they did are on the side of the True and the Good, and that all those who voted the other way are evil (or perhaps more charitably: ignorant, stupid, or crazy). And too many appear to believe that anyone unwilling to hate those who voted the wrong way are just as bad as those who voted the wrong way. Given how each side paints the other, perhaps before asking people to “seek to understand the concerns and aspirations of those who voted differently,” as the Braver Angels pledge does, we should first ask people to see those who voted differently as human beings.

Twitter screenshot/Pamela Paresky
Source: Twitter screenshot/Pamela Paresky

If this sounds hyperbolic, you’re probably not on Twitter. Boston Globe opinion columnist Renee Graham recently posted two photographs side-by-side: On the left, a parade of cars and trucks sporting American and pro-Trump flags. On the right, a visually similar brigade displaying ISIS flags. “See the difference?” her Tweet asked. “Me neither,” she answered.

The next day, Twitter-verified blogger Daryush Valizadeh (known as “Roosh”) approvingly posted a (now apparently deleted) video of a pickup truck decorated with pro-Trump flags and slogans. Attached to the front was a mannequin wearing a shirt reading “PORTLAND ANTIFA,” creating the illusion that the truck had slammed into a protester. Extremists on each side seem to provide all the evidence anyone needs to hate their opposition.

Certainly social media exacerbates these tendencies, but even offline we have created a paradigm in which “every group feels attacked [and] pitted against other groups,” explained law professor, Amy Chua, in her book, Political Tribes, “not just for jobs and spoils but for the right to define the nation’s identity.” This increasing emphasis on group membership for defining identity, and the attendant categorization of members of each group as either an “ally” or “enemy,” encourages the habits of mind necessary for tribalism and war, not democracy and discourse.

When we refuse to engage with people whose views we dislike, our ability to accurately comprehend those views suffers. Trust for those who hold those views erodes. And our own views tend to become more extreme. This not only exacerbates polarization, it makes us more likely to dehumanize our political opposition.

In our hyperpolarized moment, when the strength of our convictions is signaled by the viciousness of our attacks on dissenters, it is unsurprising that friends have been lost and families torn apart over political disagreement. To people we see as hateful, we behave hatefully.

Achieving what Lincoln called “a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves” requires developing habits of a free mind. These are habits of mind that allow us to define an American “us” the way civil rights activist Pauli Murray did: “When my brothers try to draw a circle to exclude me,” she said, “I shall draw a larger circle to include them. Where they speak out for the privileges of a puny group, I shall shout for the rights of all mankind.”

These are mental habits that loosen our attachment to tribal demands; habits that free us from certitude, and contempt; habits that free us to have compassion for those who voted differently than we would have liked; habits that free us to forgive. But especially in our climate of resentment and resistance, this requires courage and strength of character. According to Mahatma Gandhi, “forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”

Rabbi David Wolpe recently mused that “what you believe is judged in part by what your beliefs have made of you.” After four bitter years of anger and division, what have our beliefs made of us? And after the inauguration, who will we be? Will we stay angry and perpetuate outrage and division? Or will we have the strength to forgive?

“One cannot forgive too much,” Gandhi once said.

We don’t seem at any risk of that. But can we forgive just a little?

Pamela Paresky, PhD, is Visiting Senior Research Associate at the Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge at the University of Chicago, Senior Scholar at the Network Contagion Research Institute, and the author of the guided journal, A Year of Kindness. Dr. Paresky's opinions are her own and should not be considered official positions of any organization with which she is affiliated. Follow her on Twitter @PamelaParesky

References

Murray, P. (1945). An American Credo. Common Ground 5 (2), 24.

The Mind of Mahatma Gandhi, compiled by R. K. Prabhu and U. R. Rao. Published by Oxford University Press, London, in March 1945. (Also found in Gandhi, Mohandas Karamchand . All Men Are Brothers: Life & thoughts of Mahatma Gandhi as told in his own words. Navajivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad.)

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