A few weeks ago, I wrote an article about how I was done trying to understand Trump supporters after having spent four years at it. While I try to only write things I am proud of, I occasionally write something that doesn't sit well with me after it's published. This is one of those times.
I have messages in my inbox from people thanking me for that piece, saying it helped them understand their loved ones better, so I know some people found some parts of it helpful. But ultimately, I would take it back if I could. Please bear with me while I try to explain why.
My goal as a writer is to put stories and ideas out into the world that will, in some small way, help humanity progress toward a better future. Sometimes that means writing something positive that lifts people's spirits and gives them hope. Sometimes it means writing about injustices and hardships that need to be brought into the light and better understood. Sometimes it means challenging the status quo and helping people see things in a different way.
It also means avoiding things that I think are ultimately counterproductive to progress. While I don't shy away from tackling issues, I avoid writing about partisan politics because I see our two-party system as inherently divisive. I try to avoid writing about specific politicians as well, unless they've done something praiseworthy. There are more than enough political pundits putting out hot takes these days, and I have no desire to add my voice to that fray.
These past four years, however, have tested my convictions on these fronts, both internally and externally.
Issues that should not be considered partisan or divisive have become so in the eyes of many, making it nearly impossible to have a conversation that doesn't devolve into labels and generalizations and assumptions. When I write about racism or climate change or human rights—even basic public health at this point—I'm automatically placed into a political box, despite having never aligned myself with any political party. Even if I write about objective reality and verifiable fact, I'm placed into a political box, despite that making no sense whatsoever.
Labeling and categorizing is a natural tendency that's easy to slip into, especially in our current climate. But all it does is create an "us vs. them" filter on everything we discuss. I think that's the point of most political rhetoric, actually. "Us vs. them" is the simplest way to gain political power. Demonizing and "othering" make it easy to maintain.
The sneaky thing is that once that tendency takes hold, it starts to feel not just right, but righteous to "other" the people we see as on the wrong side of history or democracy or justice. It can even feel necessary and truthful to put them in the "other" category. Then it starts to feel okay to state the truth about them more and more harshly. Then we throw some potshots in, because those people deserve it. It so easily escalates from "they're wrong" to "they're insane" to "they're evil."
That's literally how everyone justifies division, on every "side," in every political system. But where does that lead us in the long run?
Whenever divisions seem intractable, I like to zoom out and look at the big picture. It's not like we haven't seen what we're seeing now in various times and places throughout history, from toxic partisanship to populist demagoguery. So the real root of the problem isn't the individual people or politics we keep arguing and complaining about, but something more fundamental.
In my opinion, the root cause of nearly all of our issues is people's inability or unwillingness to recognize that we are all "us." The lack of recognition of our essential oneness as human beings is manifested in all kinds of "othering"—racism, sexism, xenophobia, religious prejudice, political party prejudices, and so on and so on. But no matter the form, the root of most human problems is the "othering" of a group of people. My group = good. Other group = bad. So simple, but so wrong, every time.
I talked in my Trump supporters post about people wanting problems and solutions to be simple, but I should have been clearer that none of us is immune to that pull. We are all tempted to jump down the "us vs. them" hole because problems are simpler down there. It's easier to think in dichotomous groups and "sides" than to wade through complex ideas and nuanced beliefs on an individual level. Everything in our political discourse is designed to draw us into that hole.
And I allowed myself to fall in when I wrote that piece. I made Trump supporters a "them," and by doing so, perpetuated the very thing I see as the root of the problem. I fed the beast I was fighting while trying to fight it.
In the big picture, the beast isn't one individual with power or one political party or the people who support both of those things, no matter how it may appear in this era. The beast is the human tendency towards prejudice—a tendency that we have to overcome in ourselves and convince others to overcome in themselves.
How to get people to understand this is the challenge. But I know that categorizing a group of people in a way that they feel belittles or insults them isn't going to get us where we need to go, no matter how justified it feels. It's just not.
Cynicism about the redeemability of our fellow Americans won't get us where we want to go, and writing off millions of human beings will just have us living in perpetual limbo. Lasting solutions to our problems aren't going to be found in political boxes, and they aren't going to be found down an "us vs. them" hole, either.
We all have to decide how we are going to use our voice and how we're going to contribute to humanity's progress. I'd rather focus on the universal truths at the heart of the issues we face and work toward solutions in that way, rather than analysis of the political labels and ideological "sides" that only serve to divide us further.
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