By Patrick Shelley
I imagine by now, dear reader, that you have heard, read, or seen a video of every man, woman, and child’s opinion on the 2016 election and why the result was the way it was. I also imagine, however, that few of them took the same tact I will. Let me first start with a piece of unconventional wisdom:
For straight white men, the searing anger of being lumped together as racists, sexists, and bigots shouldn’t be cause to make their blood boil: it should be the greatest cause of their empathy. The feeling of being seen not as a nuanced individual but as an interchangeable and faceless ‘other’ is the first lash of the whip that women and racial minorities have borne on their shoulders for centuries. The fact that our circle of empathy has expanded so broadly that the global hegemons now know what the whip feels like is a great victory for the slow march on of tolerance and compassion. It is however, also the greatest potential cause of disunity and division. Pushing those most unaccustomed to control too fast and too hard is likely to have them misunderstand the message, to not see the fault in their own controlling ways but to project their pain onto others and respond in turn. Many joined the ranks of Trump supporters not because they wholeheartedly believed his rhetoric, but because they appreciated the uncensored and unfettered way in which he spoke. His rallies fostered an environment in which otherwise well-meaning yet disenchanted people the ability to wrestle with difficult and challenging political opinions without immediately being lambasted for holding an unagreeable one. As anyone who has gone from being among a group of bellicose objectors to among a group of supportive likemindeds can attest, this is an incredibly liberating feeling. This is even more pronounced given that the majority of Trump supporters, and their contemporaries in similar populist right-wing movements the world over, are poor, rural, and without university educations—leaving them especially unequipped to deal with the newer intellectual movements that usually find their advents in cosmopolitan cities. They started several laps behind and when we castigated them for not being fast enough to catch up to us, they responded through the ballot box.
When Columbus and Cortez first came to the Americas, there wasn’t a peaceful sharing of cultures or an acknowledgement of how the other experienced the human condition—there was violence and subjugation and an assault on Native Americans who were unprepared and unaccustomed to life outside their own. Their worlds changed too quickly for them to know how to respond and they lost their way of life. Although dramatic, the arrival of ‘Old World’ Europeans and their impact on the ‘New World’ Native Americans is an apt metaphor for the phenomenon this election has brought about. The Trump side feels as if their otherwise comfortable and free way of life is being taken from them, while the Hillary side seeks to have them see that this comfort and freedom is a privilege denied to many, and in many cases, comes at the expense and freedom of others. This is bitter pill for any hegemon to swallow. Being told that the fruits of one’s labour or their place in the societal hierarchy is as much due to their own toil as it is to unearned variables like race, gender, or birthplace is a powerful checker to even the most secure of egos. What we saw this election was that we were perhaps overzealous; we were met with intolerant ad hominem and responded with our own. Perhaps too, those minorities, who have tasted the whip for far too long, felt as if sharing its punishment was justified vindication. I don’t know. I don’t have the answer and it’s detrimental to think that there is one clean simple answer to be had.
For those of us that supported Bernie or Hillary, the next four years will likely be incredibly difficult—even more so for the racial or religious minorities in the United States. But perhaps too, a Trump presidency for the next four years will be what was required to wake us up—like a diabetes diagnosis that forces one to improve their diet. One unceremonious shove to wake us up from complacency. Perhaps it will help draw people together to form a bulwark against intolerance. Perhaps it will prompt us to seek out and understand the causes for dissatisfaction in others. Perhaps. But that will only happen if we don’t return intolerance with intolerance. That said, I don’t intend for this to have been some apologist piece either; many Trump supporters do hold racist, misogynist, or homophobic views, and their intolerance or abuse towards others should not go unchallenged or unprosecuted. They are, however, just regular people like you or me, trying to make sense and do good in a world as seen through their own unique moral lens. Perhaps it’s time for us to try and see what life must be like looking through that lens. In the sage words of Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor: “Try to listen; find out what’s troubling them; stop condemning.” Only then can we start to heal the wounds that this election has caused.