I understand that many of us feel hurt, scared and angry. This is especially true for the many among my friends and family who are religious minorities, racial minorities, LGBTQ+, or women: people who have felt personally targeted by Trump’s words, actions, and those of some of his supporters. I understand that the natural reaction to this anger is to want to connect with others that feel as we do, to unite and fight back against those who seem to support anti-Black racism, Islamophobia, homophobia and misogyny, or those who turned a blind eye to these elements displayed by Trump and some of his supporters.
If only we (the elites, the privileged) spoke out more strongly against these forms of bigotry and did so with more unity, right? But we have to pause to consider that we just tried this strategy, achieving remarkable unity. This election (like Brexit) featured the greatest extent of unity amongst elites, and amongst people who have a public voice (both Democrat and Republican), ever seen in a US election. Trump was repudiated by many of the top people in his own party (including a majority of Republican congresswomen). Nearly every major newspaper endorsed Clinton, as did most major media outlets. Even conservative talk radio (a common target of our elite ire, which we blame for supporting bigotry), in several of the states Trump took by surprise, had disavowed him. Hollywood spoke out in unified opposition to Trump, as did Silicon Valley, with even large campaigns to shame, disown, and fire the very few who dissented (in itself, a remarkable occurrence in a liberal democracy). In fact, there were so few media and tech celebrities supporting Trump that I can almost name them all (Peter Thiel and Sean Hannity, and a handful of Hollywood celebrities). It is hard to see how we could get more unified opposition to an idea or a candidate from nearly everyone that has a public voice. Moreover, this taking place after Brexit, we had the benefit of seeing this movie play out before, and we had the opportunity of learning from that experience. Never have people with power in America been more united and had the time to be more prepared for an initiative like this. And we failed. We failed miserably. And we have to take responsibility for this.
We have to try something different. I think this requires us to look inward and acknowledge some hard truths. While it is not my intention to offend or personally hurt anyone, I am going to need to be a bit politically incorrect here to make the point. If you don’t want to hear this and/or don’t want to participate in this self-reflective dialogue right now, I encourage you to stop reading, although I strongly implore (i.e. beg) you to consider re-engaging in this type of discussion once things have had time to settle in. Retreating to our echo chamber is not going to solve the problem. We just tried that, remember? I also, of course welcome constructive criticism.
1. Trump was brought to power by a coalition of (some, not all) marginalized communities, not the powerful.
This repudiation did not come primarily from people who are privileged, who have much individual power, or who have much or any of a voice in our culture or public discourse. In fact, they are so invisible to our public discourse that even polls did not register their numbers or the strength of their sentiment, let alone why they voted the way they did. Had their authentic voices regularly appeared anywhere on our radar (as distinct from our caricatures of their voices, which we are exposed to all the time), we certainly would not have been so surprised, and we might have even had a shot at convincing them to be With Her more effectively.
As I watched these results come in, I kept coming back to the observation that I don’t personally know a single Trump supporter, and yet they evidently make up about half the population. That is remarkable. Here is a demographic group of tremendous size, and I can’t personally name a single one of them, and I suspect a lot of my college-educated liberal or leftist friends would say the same. I can name almost any other demographic group (race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc.), and even restricting the pool to just Americans eligible to vote in the election (I am Canadian), I can name one or two people I know identifying with that group. If we really care about diversity and we really oppose segregation, we should be astonished by an observation like this. No wonder politics are so polarized.
2. We are hypocrites when it comes to prejudice, bigotry, and privilege
While still in a state of happy denial on my drive home from work last night, still believing that Hillary was going to win and it wouldn’t be close (like most pundits believed), I noticed a billboard on a bus shelter. The ad featured the picture below, with a school-aged girl holding up a sign saying “The world needs equality, not disparity”. Next to it in very small print it says “Girls can do anything” and in larger print beside the picture it states: “Send your daughter to BSS. The world needs her” (BSS stands for Bishop Strachan School, one of the most prestigious and expensive private schools for girls in the country, the sister school of Upper Canada College). Our business and political leadership certainly has a shortage of women and this is school provides a great education and network for girls, one that prepares them for leadership roles. The more we correct this (gender) disparity, the more we move the world toward equality. Sounds like an inspiring message, right? Can you see anything that someone would find odd about this message, one that might come off as hypocritical or anti-equality? I drove by it hundreds of times and never noticed anything, until someone I know who had a very humble (dare I say ‘underprivileged’) upbringing put forward the following alternative interpretation: “Want to make the world a more equal place? Take your child out of the public school system and send them to an exclusive, expensive private school.” Reading it this way, I can see how anyone who is unable to afford to send their kids (girls or boys) to BSS might resent the use of the word “equality” on that billboard. Furthermore, I can see how that person might now become even more dismissive or suspicious of any later “pro-equality” initiatives they encounter that are run by people who have had an elite educational upbringing (i.e. most of our favorite academics, writers in The Atlantic, The Huffington Post, and most TV pundits).
We are all hypocrites, maybe even more so than we are all prejudiced. It is human nature. It is immensely easier to point out the speck in someone else’s eye than it is to remove the log from our own eye. So what happens when this psychological quirk is mixed with the study of and discourse on privilege, oppression and equality? To answer that, we have to first identify who is able to participate in this public conversation and who is not. Those who participate the most in the conversation are those that have the most time to do so. To have this time available, a person has to either be paid to study or write about these issues, or be well off enough to be able to not need to earn a living. At the very least, you need a college degree, which means you need the financial background to have access to college and in most cases the sort of upbringing that allows you to get into college in the first place. In addition, it is easier for those fortunate enough to go to college to be able to afford to study social justice and/or to write about it as a full-time career if they come from a financially comfortable background, since this field has lower financial returns after graduation than do other practical fields in universities or trade colleges. Therefore, if I had to support my parents or siblings financially after graduation, that would affect my career choices and I would be less likely to study social justice. In other words, just to get a seat at the table of social justice studies, one needs to be pretty privileged.
So what forms of privilege do we focus the attention of our government-subsidized study of privilege on? To get an idea, it is an interesting exercise to take a survey of university courses that mention privilege or oppression in an entire course catalogue and break them down by type of privilege. You can do a similar thing in a major media outlet that covers these topics frequently, like Buzzfeed, Slate, The Atlantic, the Huffington Post, or a major national newspaper (like The New York Times in the US or The National Post, The Globe and Mail or The Toronto Star). It should be no surprise that educational privilege is not high on the list, even though education is one of the strongest predictors of status and wealth (both inherited and earned). Likewise, ‘urban privilege’ is not even on the map, which is remarkable if you consider the number of positive life outcomes associated with city living (greater income, greater access to health care, life expectancy, social networks, social and cultural capital, etc.) and the contrast between the mostly contemptuous media portrayal of rural and uneducated compared to the urban and educated. Of the main forms of privilege/oppression that are covered, class is covered the least (compared to race, gender, and sexual orientation), which is remarkable if you consider that class is the most direct measure of status or privilege in any society. In fact, the order of priority of forms of oppression covered by these programs (and in our public discourse) is significantly skewed toward those that have the highest representation of students belonging to the corresponding ‘victim classes’ represented in the subset of the population that is privileged enough to be able to study privilege for a living. Since this demographic is wealthy, racially diverse, and overwhelmingly female, it naturally leads to more emphasis on misogyny and racism, and less emphasis on class or urban privilege. Furthermore, we all say (rightly) that confronting inequality and building an inclusive culture requires us to have uncomfortable conversations, and yet when we allocate money to focus on this topic, we deliberately set up the programs to avoid uncomfortable conversations, by actively discouraging viewpoint diversity and prioritizing, above all, the emotional comfort of the people privileged enough to actually participate in the conversations. Do we really expect that the recommendations produced by dialogue set up in this way has any chance of either gaining broad public acceptance, or actually accomplishing the stated goals of reducing inequality and building more inclusive societies?
What about in our media? When that voice is used to focus attention on injustice and bring people together, what is discussed? If I were to compare the number of popular media articles on the decline of manufacturing to the number talking about ‘man-spreading’ or ‘man-splaining’, which will be more covered? How many critiques of cultural ridicule will I find that talk about Trailer Park Boys (I looked and it is much easier to find critical praise for the show), compared to ridicule of the Cleveland Indians? Are we really picking problems based on their magnitude, or are we picking them based on whether or not they require us to turn the lens of scrutiny inward (i.e. toward the demographic groups that dominate media professions, which are similar to the demographic groups dominating equity studies: urban, wealthy upbringing, elite education, except less female-dominated)? As our resolve to solve social problems grows in parallel to our willful myopia in identifying the problems, does the rage machine that follows actually start to condone overt discrimination, bigotry and contempt for others, particularly those who are also less fortunate than us (i.e. if they happen to be white, male, uneducated, rural, or any combination thereof)?
But, we might say, what about all of those Trump-supporters who troll social justice activists/scholars/authors online with one-line comebacks that are hateful, threatening, sexist, etc.? Aren’t they participating in the conversation, and proving themselves unworthy of the discussion and/or uninterested in the goals of equality and justice? Isn’t that enough to justify our silencing of them? Well, maybe; but we should consider also the constraints that many in this population may have compared to the activists being trolled: imagine you work 10+ hour days in a low-paying insecure job(s), living paycheck to paycheck. This means that, even assuming you don’t have a family to take care of, you probably have to spend a significant portion of you non-work time either managing your finances (e.g., getting food stamps, registering for social assistance and/or Obamacare, finding coupons, going farther to find affordable food, commuting farther to live in affordable housing, etc.) or looking for work. Now of the time left, you have, say, an hour per day to take in the news and commentary, from which you hear every day that not only you are a ‘deplorable’ (racist, sexist, biogoted), but you are a privileged one at that; and this is told to you by someone with an elite education who has time to think about privilege all day. Now imagine that this caricaturization makes you mad, and you want to make your piece heard, but you only have a minute to come up with a response (due to the above-mentioned other things going on in your life). I don’t know about you, but I bet if you put me in that situation with those constraints facing that level of contempt, I’d be calling people bitches and uttering threats in less than a week. And I bet I’d find a Trump rally that I go to once in my life, where I could be rude and let out all my anger, pretty cathartic. Maybe you think you would have more self-control, and if so, good for you. If I, like the activists, was able to be paid a salary to write and talk about identity and prejudice all day, I would probably come up with more sophisticated arguments for my positions too, even if they too were, at their core, very prejudiced. In fact the more I encourage ideological purity in these discussions, the more prejudiced and bigoted the results should become, whether shrouded in verbosity or not. Remember when eugenics was the academic identity fad, advanced in the name of social good?
But even if a person does troll and wear ‘lock her up’ T-shirts to Trump rallies, does that necessarily mean (s)he sincerely holds all these bigoted views, and that his(her) perspective is actually not more nuanced? Again, maybe. But consider some contradictions beyond the online rhetoric. Most opinion polls show broad and monotonically increasing support for a broad range of pro-equality causes: gay marriage, equal opportunities for women and men (not the same thing as saying identical outcomes), changes to advance racial equality, even gun control. Even in this election, where Trump won and Republicans took the House and Senate, basically every major ballot measure advancing a liberal cause, in every major state that had one, won. For example, marijuana is now legal in California, Massachusetts, and Nevada; Arizona (which voted Trump) and other states raised the minimum wage; Missouri and South Dakota passed campaign finance reforms; and California and Oklahoma passed criminal justice reforms. Contrast this to 2008, where there was a blue wave across the country and we elected a black president for the first time, but a significant number of liberal ballot measures—extending abortion rights, gay rights, pot legalization, etc.–were rejected strongly. Consider the diversity among this year’s Republican convention speakers, which included a woman who spoke in favor of expanding women’s health, reproductive rights and professional status, and a speaker who proudly proclaimed his gay identity.
This suggests that our divisions are becoming less ideological and more about identity (class, race, party affiliation, etc.). We (liberal/leftist elites) deserve at least a share of the responsibility for this increasingly tribal discourse, particularly in light of all the government money we take to monopolize the discourse on equality and social justice. We need to be responsible stewards of that money and power. Our credibility and moral authority need to be earned in order to be respected.
How can we convince people that we have genuine compassion for the poor, when we readily express contempt for the uneducated (even though most of the poor are uneducated and most of the uneducated are poor)?
How can we effectively convince anyone to denounce or renounce misogyny and male chauvinism, while we endorse and increasingly celebrate misandry and female chauvinism in K-12, our academy, media and popular culture?
How do we convince people we have never met to take inequality seriously, when we can’t keep most of the discussions, amongst ourselves and people who are already self-described ‘allies’, from devolving into piety contests over which one of our privileged selves is the least privileged and most deserving of empathy?
How do we expect to convince anyone of anything if we would rather talk down to them than get to know them?
3. We love to get to know people from different cultures, just not in our own backyards
It is understandable that economic growth and shared prosperity would both be popular political goals, ones that often do come into conflict. However, there has been an emerging dichotomy between how locally we think about economic growth and how globally we think about shared prosperity. Part of this effect reflects the general trend that bonds of empathy that bind us to other people no longer do so most strongly based on national affiliation, and increasingly do so on other metrics (religion, race, gender, etc.). But there also is a component that comes from our desire to avoid uncomfortable questions and situations where we feel real responsibility and accountability for the outcome. For example, I have spent far more money (and probably more time) sponsoring children in Africa and helping out in response to world crises (like the Haiti earthquake) than I have contributed to helping poor people in my own country. I could argue to myself that I made these choices because I felt the needs were more dire abroad than they were at home, and that is true to a point, but part of my motivation for these choices was that they were psychologically easier for me to make. I mean I clearly didn’t cause the earthquake in Haiti so I can come in, drop my money, and leave feeling like a morally pure ‘white knight’ out saving the world. And the best part is that if I donate to the wrong effort or the effort fails? Oh well, I don’t have to live with the consequences, or even face criticism for the outcomes. It is perfect drive-by philanthropy.
The same applies to diversity. Most of us who have the resources and time to go experience different cultures choose to do so to some degree, but why do we prefer to visit faraway places (e.g., southeast Asia or Europe) rather than spend time immersing with people in our own backyards? There may be other reasons to want to see East Asia over rural Kentucky (or Saskatchewan), but one I certainly notice, if I look hard at myself, is that it feels less like ‘vacation’. If I see suffering in Saskatchewan, I feel more personal responsibility than I do when I see suffering in Vietnam, and that makes me uncomfortable. Likewise, if I meet people I disagree with, particularly if the disagreement is strong and on emotionally charged topics (questions of values), I know that this person shares a nation with me and can vote, just the same as I can, and so I feel more affected by their views (i.e. they might impact me or my kin). This explains why I can see exactly the same behaviours (e.g., opposition to homosexuality) in two different cultures, and defend one (e.g., conservative muslims) while decrying the other (e.g., conservative christians).
One concrete takeaway from this that I hope we can all apply to our own lives is to make an effort to connect, non-judgmentally, with people from more walks of life in Canada, and to spend more time exploring our own country. Diversity makes us uncomfortable. If we are not ready to make ourselves uncomfortable, we don’t really care about diversity, and we might be enabling a future Trump-equivalent in Canada. It is amazing what one person can accomplish by putting down their knives and talking to others with a bit of humility, openness and curiosity (like dismantling entire KKK Chapters).
Are we ready to try something different?
We should all reflect on what we can do better to get to know people that have different life experiences from us and may disagree with us. And I think the responsibility to make the first move toward reconciliation is fundamentally ours, not theirs. This responsibility falls particularly on us young college-educated professionals for a number of reasons. 1) We have the longest future at stake amongst the voting age population–we have to live with the consequences the longest; 2) we supposedly claim to value diversity–let’s live up to that; 3) We actually have the resources and the time to travel around and meet other types of people. Maybe instead of ‘finding ourselves’ by traveling around east Asia or Europe to get a taste of the culture while sharing anti-Trump memes on Facebook, we should spend more time traveling around our own backyard getting to know Americans(/Canadians) we clearly don’t understand. If the only time we think it is worthwhile to visit a place is to canvass the people who live there, why should be surprised that they don’t listen to us when we tell them to vote for Hillary?
We had the power. We had the chance to make the first offer for change, and to build a bigger tent. We may have even had the best intentions. But we failed. We made a huge portion of the population feel simultaneously disempowered and mocked for being so. We gave them the feeling of nothing to lose and then put a grenade in their hands. Should we be surprised that they threw it? That is on us. And we have to be the first movers to fix it, because we are the ones who can.