Some of my friends are mourning now, others are raging. A few are celebrating openly, and I’m watching carefully to better understand what has happened. I really hoped when I wrote this I would be wrong:
"President Trump" is why you don't feed trolls
— Mike Lewinski (@ikewinski) August 2, 2016
Nope. We just couldn’t help ourselves.
Earlier this summer the New Yorker funded an anthropological expedition to answer the question Who Are All These Trump Supporters?. The author quotes Norman Mailer:
Only a hero can capture the secret imagination of a people, and so be good for the vitality of his nation; a hero embodies the fantasy and so allows each private mind the liberty to consider its fantasy and find a way to grow. Each mind can become more conscious of its desire and waste less strength in hiding from itself.
That got me thinking about how important the leader of our tribe is. We like them to be real heroes with stories of courage who are called to serve some greater good. We also like the leaders of the other tribe to be real villains with a backstory to pit against our hero.
In this election the liberal tribe was rooting for a heroic feminist to stop the very dangerous, racist, and misogynist villain. In their minds she was destined to take her place as first woman president, succeeding the first black president, and showing the world How Far We’ve Come.
Meanwhile the conservative tribe was rooting for the heroic outsider to crush an elite which has been wrecking their country with political correctness and bad trade deals. He trolls social justice warriors like a pro. That makes him a hero to people who have been called racists for wanting secure borders.
I don’t know how much of a role this next sentiment played, but I wouldn’t underestimate it now.
I’m not interested in assigning blame as this person is, so ignore that part of the last paragraph. I am however interested in understanding causes so we can not have this kind of election ever again.
If a backlash against political correctness helped elect Trump, will calling him and his supporters racist or misogynist actually create more social justice? In the adaptive value of shame Charlie Glickman makes an insightful observation:
In my view, shame is a powerful medicine. At its most fundamental, it’s the emotion of disconnection: it causes and is caused by disconnection. That makes it a really effective tool for controlling people– if you don’t do what I want you to, I will disconnect from you. Of course, that only works to the degree that you want me to engage with you. If you don’t care what the Pope thinks, the fact that he’ll excommunicate you for your sexual choices is irrelevant.
But those emotions are also quite good at teaching people what our expectations for their behavior are. For example, I expect the folks in my life to demonstrate respect for other people, regardless of their sexual orientation, sexual practices, or gender expression. If you don’t, I will call you on it. If you persist in not changing your actions, I will disengage from you. To the degree that you want to be in connection with me, that can be a motivation to explore your ideas and beliefs and perhaps, change them.
I certainly understand that shame can easily become toxic. Sometimes, the rules that are being enforced are inconsistently applied, or relate to things that we can’t change (or at least, not without great cost to ourselves). Or perhaps the disconnection is disproportionate (such as when the we are triggered and overreact). When there isn’t a clear path to reconciliation and reconnection, unprocessed shame lingers and festers. And of course, when the rules simply don’t make sense or aren’t explained in ways that we can understand, the recipient has no clear way to change their actions. The difference between medicine and poison is the dose, the timing, and the individual reaction to it.
I know how tempting it is to lash out in anger and fear. And I’m with my friends and family in the struggle for social justice. I understand the problems with privilege, and my responsibility to use my maleness, whiteness, and cisgender heterosexuality to advocate for those who lack the same privileges. I also understand how the politics of shame–especially who gets to claim the victim card–have led to this outcome. People who believe they’ve been on the losing end of affirmative action are not interested in talking about institutional racism if it means they have to give up more, because they believe they haven’t done anything wrong. That idea offends their intrinsic sense of justice and ‘privilege’ is a non-starter.
The backlash to those grievances is now directly hurting the progressive cause and hurting real people. I don’t have the answer to fix that. I do know that progressives are going to need the help of conservative allies in standing up against it, and the bitterness I see breaking apart friends and families is hindering the cause of social justice. Judgment is a natural and understandable response right now, but probably not a useful one where people are fighting back against such judgments.
I originally ended this post with “Don’t feed the trolls”. That’s not enough, not by a long shot. We need to understand the wounds that lead to trolling and address those root causes.