You’ve probably seen these memes – “Stop Bigotry” emblazoned with Donald Trump’s profile. While the “Stop Bigotry” moniker is well-intentioned, such a campaign is unlikely to do much to, well, stop bigotry.
The “Stop Bigotry” meme likely works well as fundraiser, which is its function. For those who are against Trump (count me in), the meme is attractive: It gives me the impression that I can fight bigotry by voting Trump out of office. Indeed, if Trump is voted out of office, we will have fought bigotry at the highest level of government. But while “Fight Bigotry” and related slogans are likely to energize the bases – that is, people who are already convinced of its message – they are unlikely to make much inroad to actually solving the problems of bigotry, hatred, prejudice, racism and all of the other isms that many people care about.
In fact, they are likely to have the opposite effect. A person who is classified as a bigot, a hater, a racist, a sexist ,or the like is unlikely to change his or her heart or mind by being “called out." In fact, it is likely to increase his or her feelings of bigotry, hatred, or racism.
The reason is simple and obvious. To call someone a bigot is to insult, shame, and humiliate them. The most natural reactions to being insulted, shamed and humiliated are anger and rage. When we are shamed, our very sense of personhood becomes spoiled in the eyes of others. The natural reaction is hostility toward the person who is doing the humiliating. The person classified as bigoted, racist and sexist becomes resentful and goes underground. The anger and resentment seethes – and comes out in a virulent form when the opportunity arises. (See Conway, Repke & Houck, 2017.)
Trump, of course, has provided a sense of legitimacy for the airing of bigoted sentiments. But while it is natural to attack the views of people who one sees as espousing morally repugnant views, people’s don’t change by being attacked. People influence each other through their capacity for deep engagement. For example, gay and lesbian rights have flourished in recent decades. They have done so at a pace that is astonishing. Gays and lesbians are legally able to marry – an idea that would have been unspeakable in mainstream politics even 15 years ago. How did attitudes change so fast? It was not because people who have been called “homophobes” have realized the error of their ways. It is because people who hold anti-gay and lesbian sentiments came to be aware that family members, friends, colleagues and other loved ones were gay and lesbian.
In such situations, it becomes difficult, but not impossible – many parents still disown their homosexual children — to hate a person we have loved. By extension, it often becomes possible for those holding anti-gay/lesbian sentiment to see that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans individuals are inconsistent with their prejudices: My goodness, gays and lesbians are people -- just like me.
This is how bigotry is fought, not with humiliation and moral derision, but instead with what might be called guarded engagement. Both terms — guarded and engagement — are important here.
Let’s start with guarded. Persons who has been marginalized or socially disadvantaged lack social power. In situations involving a power imbalance, it would be foolish to think that the less powerful party can engage with the more powerful party one equal terms. I am not suggesting a form of “reasoning” with the Other here. I am also not suggesting passivity, cajoling or pleading with the more powerful other. No, the person who has been affronted must protect the self from the more powerful other. The oppressed other must be able to say “No, you can’t do this to me anymore." The marginalized group should indeed rise up as a group; there is strength in numbers. And of course, it is important for marginalized groups to forge ties with like-minded members of dominant groups, as this fortifies a group's strength still further.
Having resolved not to “give in” to the dominant group, the next step is engagement with the opposition. This requires deep strength, deeper strength than it takes to rise up and declare war against the opposition. Engagement is born of curiosity and a desire to understand the other. Yes, curiosity and a desire to understand the person one considers to be a bigot, racist, sexist or the like. It requires putting aside for now – never forgetting – one’s sense of hurt. It involves checking one’s sense of moral superiority long enough to really listen, even if we disagree and feel disgust for the positions espoused by the other.
In her enormously important book, Strangers in Their Own Land, sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild studied the sentiments of people who voted for Trump in the 2016 elections. Her quest was born of curiosity and a desire to understand, not moral judgment. What she found was a deep sense among many whites of being held back. The people that Hochschild interviewed expressed a narrative of a thwarted American Dream. It was their sense that if they worked hard and played by the rules, they would earn their part in the American Dream. Many such individuals report that, after having had played by the rules, the dream was taken away from them. And not only was the dream taken away from them, in their experience, the federal government was allowing other groups (e.g., minorities, women, etc.) to cut the line leading to the American Dream. Not only that, but there is a feeling among such individuals that educated elites in American universities look down on them as racist, sexist, bigoted, and homophobic.
One need not agree with the sentiments expressed by people who see themselves as Strangers in their Own Land in order to understand and even sympathize with their experience. Some might argue that the plight of working and middle class whites is a product of economic shifts beyond anyone’s control. Others might argue that programs designed to hasten the economic status of marginalized groups is an essential and welcome outcome.
But agreement or disagreement is beside the point. The point is that it possible to understand the other even through disagreement. Is it possible to put aside moral certainty long enough to listen to the other’s experience, and to see if there might be something there that one can at least understand if not embrace. (There are exceptions to this rule. I would not encourage the tasks of seeking to engage President Trump. I would very much encourage Democrats to engage those who have supported President Trump. I would encourage supporters of President Trump to seek to engage liberal Democrats.)
The responsible choice for a political party seeking unity is not to disparage and denigrate those with whom they disagree, but instead to reach out and seek out the humanity in the other, to seek to identify and meet their human needs. This can be done while simultaneously seeking to protect and meet the needs of traditionally marginalized groups. Guarded engagement seeks engagement without giving up one’s moral convictions. This is possible, and a sign of moral strength, not weakness.
If we want to get rid of the isms, we must find ways to engage each other through our disagreement. In a political discussion, perhaps the biggest obstacle in doing so is our own sense of moral superiority. If we see the other as racist, sexist or bigoted, we fear that engaging that person makes us racist, sexist or bigoted as well. We feel that the morally correct thing to do is to declare the moral failing of the other, “call out” the other, and shame the other. But it is possible to disagree vehemently with another’s moral position while still seeking to understand, listen, and even learn from them. It is only when we have the courage to truly engage each other – without giving in on our own moral convictions – that we can make genuine progress in transforming social relations.
This post was inspired by Duncan Cox and Barbara Jo Krieger.
Conway, L. G., III, Repke, M. A., & Houck, S. C. (2017). Donald Trump as a cultural revolt against perceived communication restriction: Priming political correctness norms causes more Trump support. Journal of Social and Political Psychology, 5, 244–259.