Tuesday, July 30, 2019

When They Go Low: On Being Civil to Trump Supporters

Mr M Evison / CC BY-SA 2.0
Over the last three years, as liberals and moderates struggle to find a way to respond to the Trump phenomenon, one of the big debates has been how to how to talk to Trump supporters. Should we be civil to people to support a man who is quite clearly a liar and racist? A man who has bragged about committing sexual assault, and lied more than any politician in recent memory?

Some say no. They say there's no reason to be civil to people supporting those things. After all, they are awful things--why mince words? Others have argued that we should try to respond to their hatefulness by rising above it, and not adding hate to hate. This was Michelle Obama's argument when she famously said, "When they go low, we go high."

Here's a longer quotation from that speech, for a little more context:
That is what Barack and I think about every day as we try to guide and protect our girls through the challenges of this unusual life in the spotlight, how we urge them to ignore those who question their father’s citizenship or faith. How we insist that the hateful language they hear from public figures on TV does not represent the true spirit of this country. How we explain that when someone is cruel or acts like a bully, you don’t stoop to their level. No, our motto is, when they go low, we go high.
So who's right? Should we go high when they go low, or will that just let the Trump train roll over us? That's one of the questions I've agonized about in the years since Trump won. What I've finally concluded is that I'm with Michelle Obama. Or at least I try to be. I do think we should try to stay civil and calm when talking to Trump supporters--at least whenever it's possible (and as some of you may have seen, I haven't always found it possible).

But why even try to be civil? Why be calm and or speak respectfully to someone who's OK with a man who says Latino judges can't make fair decisions on immigration, who brags about groping women, who mocks the disabled, who...well, the list goes on and on. Why do people supporting (or turning a blind eye to) such things deserve our civility? The short answer is that it's not about what they deserve. It's about strategy. It's about not making a bad situation worse. And it's about defeating Trumpism.

Before I explain why I believe that, though, I need to make clear what I mean by "civility". I've noticed that when people call for civility to Trump supporters, others assume they mean we should be puppy-dog friendly to them, or find a middle ground with them, or say that what they're doing is OK, or fail to oppose them. But civility doesn't mean any of those things. Of course we shouldn't seek a middle ground between racism and non-racism. Of course supporting a man like Trump is not OK, and of course we should oppose the people who do. But it's possible to do all those things in a calm, controlled, rational way, while avoiding insults and hate. That's what I mean by civility. We don't have to hug them and say everything is OK. Everything is not OK.

Now, here are my reasons for saying we should be civil to Trump supporters when possible. Please pardon my numbering system--it helps me think straight.

1. This country is so divided now that I think it could tear itself apart. I honestly believe the insults and ill will on both sides could spiral out of control and turn into real, widespread violence. Even if it doesn't get that bad, it could weaken the country beyond recovery. While I do think Trump and Trumpism pose an existential threat to the country and the world (the man who can't control his Twitter fingers has control of the nuke buttons), I also think the threat of the country tearing itself apart with escalating partisan hatred is just as dangerous.

It's important to remember that the Russian government didn't just try to get Trump elected because they thought he would be more pliable and friendly to their interests.* They also thought his election would divide and weaken the country. Division been one of the main aims of their disinformation/active measures campaigns ever since KGB days. The goal is to drive wedges into cultural fault lines to make the United States weaker. Putin is a former KGB agent, after all. He's well-trained in these things, and he doesn't need our help.

2. I think it's important to try to oppose Trump supporters in a calm, civil manner because I think it's our best chance of beating them. I think it's how we can use judo and reverse-psychology--instead of eye-gauging and bridge-burning--to get past a dangerous moment in history with minimal damage. Civility can be good strategy, for a few reasons.

As I said above, the reason for civility isn't so much about respect as it is about strategy. I believe some Trump supporters deserve a degree of respect, and others don't. I'm from the rural south, and almost everyone I grew up around (who still lives there) is either pro-Trump or thinks he's not so bad and will vote Republican no matter what. And I know that many of them are decent people in a lot ways. They work hard, they try to help the people they know, and try to do the right thing as they see it. And there are others who truly are nasty, hateful people who deserve no respect at all.

But I still think it can make sense to treat them with a degree of respect, for a few reasons:

A. We should try our best to persuade people not to follow a man like Trump, and it's impossible to persuade someone by insulting and talking down to them. That's just not how human nature works. That's how you ensure that someone will never see things your way. Of course, many will respond that it's practically impossible to persuade them anyway, so why bother? Yes, it's true that it's almost impossible to persuade people to change their views. But it does occasionally happen. I grew up around people who were virulent racists and homophobes when we were young, and now they aren't. Something made them change their mind, and that's why I don't think we should give up on persuasion entirely.

And even when it really is impossible to persuade them, it still makes sense not to spin the cycle of hate further. The Trump movement is driven in large part by people wanting to stick it to the liberals. That's something liberals need to realize. They just don't like us. They enjoy it when we're outraged. They figure it’s a sign they’re doing something right, so do more of it. That's why being uncivil can actually cause them to do more of the things we don’t want them to do. It’s counterproductive. Hurling insults may feel good, but it's bad strategy. It just throws gas on a fire that's almost out of control already.

B. Hurling insults is also, in most cases, bad logic. If someone is making an argument, you generally can't logically oppose it by calling them names. That's committing the ad hominem fallacy. If the arguments are sound, they're sound--even if the person making them is the most ignorant, nasty character you've ever met. Their personal traits are irrelevant. So, if we want to be the rational ones (and we do, don't we?) we need to try to attack their arguments, not their character or intelligence. The exception to this is when a person's character is actually relevant to the argument being made. If I argue that Trump is a threat to the country because he has a bad character, that isn't a fallacious ad hominem argument. In that case, character is relevant.

C. Being uncivil to Trump supporters gives them an excuse to use a "you too" argument that a lot of people find convincing. You know how those go: "How can you complain about us being hateful when you're so hateful to us?" Of course, that's a logical fallacy--the fact that liberals have called them names doesn't justify their support for a man who uses terms like "rat infested" when talking about his political opponents. And there's a big difference between saying someone is bad because of their skin color, sex, or religion, and saying someone is bad for being racist, sexist, or xenophobic. But the fact remains that if we're hateful to them, they'll say that justifies their hatefulness, and a lot of people will find that argument convincing whether it's fallacious or not. And honestly, there is something irrational about saying, "I hate you because you hate people!"

D. Finally, hate and vitriol are bad for us. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, "hate distorts the personality of the hater. We usually think of what hate does for the individual hated or the individuals hated or the groups hated. But it is even more tragic, it is even more ruinous and injurious to the individual who hates. You just begin hating somebody, and you will begin to do irrational things. You can’t see straight when you hate. You can’t walk straight when you hate. You can’t stand upright. Your vision is distorted. There is nothing more tragic than to see an individual whose heart is filled with hate. He comes to the point that he becomes a pathological case."

Or as Kurt Vonnegut put it, "In the end, hate is about as nourishing as cyanide." What's actually nourishing, though, is opposing hatefulness with firm civility. It makes us look like the adult in the room; like the stronger one. And because it's so hard to do, we are the stronger one. There is power in civility and self-control. There really is.

Martin Luther King's thinking brings us back to my very first reason for civility: somebody has to be the one to break cycles of hate and vitriol, or they can spiral out off control and destroy whole societies. King illustrated this with a brilliant metaphor:
...sometime ago my brother and I were driving one evening to Chattanooga, Tennessee, from Atlanta. He was driving the car. And for some reason the drivers were very discourteous that night. They didn’t dim their lights; hardly any driver that passed by dimmed his lights. And I remember very vividly, my brother A. D. looked over and in a tone of anger said: "I know what I’m going to do. The next car that comes along here and refuses to dim the lights, I’m going to fail to dim mine and pour them on in all of their power." And I looked at him right quick and said: "Oh no, don’t do that. There’d be too much light on this highway, and it will end up in mutual destruction for all. Somebody got to have some sense on this highway.
Those of us who oppose Trump need to the ones with some sense on this highway. And again, that doesn't mean we're not opposing him or his supporters. As King himself said later in that same sermon, "non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good." King's resistance was non-violent, but there was nothing passive about it.

Now, I can imagine some objections you may have as you read this. The first is, "Who is this white, straight, middle-class guy to be invoking Martin Luther King to say we should be civil to Trump supporters? Easy for him to say!" That's true. It is easy for me to say. But I would invite you to look at that from the other direction. If people like Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and other practitioners of non-violent resistance could face levels of hate and violence that I can barely imagine, and still have the strength not to yield to hatefulness, surely I can too? I mean, should I be more hateful because I have less reason to be? That doesn't make sense to me.

The other question I can see people asking as they read this is, "What are the limits?" An argument can be made that at some point hateful people have to face social consequences. After all, shouldn't people like neo-Nazis, Klan members, and the misogynists you find in online "incel" communities be excluded from decent society? Yes, probably. There's a point where people simply have to be shown the door. But it's worth remembering that a good bouncer can escort people out with professionalism. He doesn't have to be as nasty as they are.

So where is the line where we should stop engaging with people and start shunning them? I don't know. I do know that once you kick them out the door it's harder to see what they're up to, and easier to be unpleasantly surprised when they return in greater force. We saw that happen in the last election. But at the same time, there's a level of hatefulness that simply can't be tolerated. It's a hard line to draw. Living in the Trump era is full of conundrums, and I suspect there are no easy answers.

We're walking on a knife-edge here. On one side is the threat of Trumpism growing increasingly ugly, xenophobic, and authoritarian, and repeating some of history's ugliest moments. One the other is the threat of the escalating partisan resentment tearing the country apart. I doubt that anybody knows the best way to get through the next few years without falling into either abyss. But I don't think reacting to hate with more hate, and to incivility with more incivility, is the way to do it. We have to be smarter and have more self-control than that. And we also have to speak out and oppose Trumpism and everything it stands for. As for myself, I hope I have to strength and judgement to strike the right balance. It's not going to be easy.


* Whether you believe Trump conspired in Russia's influence campaign or not, what's beyond debate is that Russia did run such a campaign, with twin goals of getting Trump elected and widening political divisions within the United States.

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