“What I do know, though, is that the vast majority of ordinary people are not the cartoonish caricatures of human beings that political rhetoric has made them out to be. They have an experience of life, a history, a convergence of circumstances that has brought them to their opinions. Just like you.“
— Charles Eisenstein
Charles Eisenstein is an independent scholar, self-described degrowth activist, and author of The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible.
In a confusing and noisy world, Charles’ voice has a way of slicing through the bullshit to bring much-needed balance, wisdom, and clarity.
Which is why I was immediately hopeful and curious when I saw yesterday that Charles had shared a long meditation on the US election.
If anyone can cut through the hysteria and say what needs to be said, it will be Charles, I thought.
I was not disappointed. Here’s what Charles wrote:
This is how a war begins:
“Their stupidity is amusing.”
“Stopping Trump is essential. Anyone who says otherwise is either foolish or blinded by privilege.”
“People should get hated for voting for Johnson because he is a moron.”
“Are Trump supporters too dumb to know they’re dumb?”
“Hillbots have complete inability to do anything except parrot their hero Shillary’s endless lies”
“Anyone who votes for Killary has already been drugged and taken the stupid pill.”
“They will never change.”
“Disgusting, twisted human beings.”
Anyone who reads Facebook or pretty much any political website is sure to see comments like these that dehumanize not only the opposing candidate, but the candidate’s supporters too. This polarization and vitriol, unprecedented in my lifetime, has me more concerned than the prospect of an evil candidate winning. It is as if what is really going on here is a preparation for civil war.
Dehumanization is a predecessor of war. When you see your opponents as subhuman in their morals, conscience, or intelligence, then you will have to defeat them by force. Moral or rational persuasion won’t do it. That is what the above-quoted comments imply.
The dehumanization runs top to bottom, from the headlines in major news outlets to the comments on Facebook and Twitter. Photos of political candidates chosen to provoke contempt, statements taken deliberately out of context… the no-holds-barred tactics of war. Both sides feature the most outrageous comments made by partisans of the other side, seeking to indict all of them through guilt by association. Similar to the atrocity stories used to whip up war hysteria among a pacifist public before World War One, these reports polarize the electorate and sow paranoia and distrust.
If you read only one side, you don’t know that the other side expresses the same outraged grievances as yours does. Most of my readers are probably familiar with articles about gun-toting “poll watchers” sent by Trump operatives to intimidate voters. But unless you read right-wing media, you won’t be aware of its earnest, indignant articles about agents provocateur from the Clinton camp seeking to sow violence at Trump rallies. Each side claims the other exaggerates and misconstrues. Each side is constructing a reality in which the other is hideous.
Reading right-wing and left-wing news sites side by side, one gets the impression that reality has diverged into two. I read both, in order to understand the sickness that has infected my country. Headline news in one camp is totally absent from the other. It isn’t just the interpretation of the news that is different – the two sides don’t even agree on fundamental facts. Here’s how one Facebook commentator, Amelia Bagwell, describes the experience of reading a conservative friend’s news feed: “News agencies I have never heard of with bold headlines of ‘Breaking News’ announcing HRC’s pending arrest. Trump is second to none in morality, decency and honor…loves Jesus…and is a perfect example of a godly family man. If the same stories are reported, they are akin to reading two different languages. We are divided not just ideologically, but at a core level of raw information.”
Such a gulf of perception inflamed by hatred presents a very dangerous situation.
I will not venture an opinion on whether the candidates themselves are hideous. We live in a system that encourages and rewards corrupt and even psychopathic behavior. What I do know, though, is that the vast majority of ordinary people are not the cartoonish caricatures of human beings that political rhetoric has made them out to be. They have an experience of life, a history, a convergence of circumstances that has brought them to their opinions. Just like you.
Statements like those quoted above create a climate for extreme measures. Take them seriously, and you have to conclude that there are an awful lot of people out there who just need to be locked up, medicated, forcibly re-educated, or maybe shot. They are reprehensible, appalling… they are deplorable.
Once the name-calling starts it is self-perpetuating, since anyone who says that you are a deplorable person will seem to you deplorable themselves. How could they be so wrong about you? How could they not see your deep humanity, the good reasons you have for voting the way you do, your sincere attempts to make the world a better place? They seem just hateful.
And so, the body politic tilts further and further into extreme polarization. This will not end well, no matter which side wins.
Dehumanizing narratives are never the truth. The truth can only be sourced from the sincere question, “What is it like to be you?” That is called compassion, and it invites skills of listening, dialog, and communicating without violence or judgement. Now there may be times when such skills fail and there is no choice but to fight. Failure is guaranteed, though, when the surrounding narrative casts the opponent as evil, twisted, disgusting, or deplorable. In that case, war is the likely result.
Can we please stop creating conditions for war? Can we please stop demonizing those who disagree with us? Can we stop the cheap and degrading psychoanalyzing of our opponents? These tactics might seem to succeed in the short term – one side or another will win – but in the end we have only strengthened the climate of hate and the mentality of war.
What can you do about it? I suggest the following: see to it that you imbue everything that you post to social media, every comment, every reply, with a spirit of compassion and respect. Do not let your pain erupt forth as an implicit call to hatred. Do not beat the drums of war.
Reflecting on Eisenstein’s Words
With these words, Eisenstein manages to step outside of the vicious tribalism and polarization that have characterized this election cycle. With characteristic steadiness, he holds up a mirror to everyone in America and asks, “Do you see yourselves?”
Eisenstein astutely observes that in this election, both sides have frequently been guilty of stripping the opposite side of their humanity. Democrats and Republicans alike have used toxic rhetoric and cheap tricks to paint each other as evil, fanning the infernos of hostility that rage on both sides of the political aisle.
In our passionate focus on defeating and degrading “the other guys,” we’ve forgotten that we’re all ultimately on the same team.
Eisenstein notices this dehumanization and division and says what few have been able to: “Can we please stop creating conditions for war? Can we please stop demonizing those who disagree with us?”
Eisenstein implores us to remember that the people on the other side of the aisle are not monsters. They’re human beings with complex stories and deeply felt reasons for their actions. Neither side is fundamentally deplorable. The majority of individuals on both sides are well-intentioned people doing what they think is right.
Instead of demonizing, Eisenstein asks that we try to understand, to have compassion. Instead of dehumanizing, Eisenstein asks us to appreciate that it is possible for good people to view the world in entirely different ways.
If America is to move forward after this election, this is precisely what we need to do.
A lot of Americans on both ends of the political spectrum are hurting, struggling, and frustrated right now. There’s no doubt about it.
In the face of this pain, we can blame and condemn each other, or we can work together to find solutions.
If we blame and condemn, we will continue to amplify the division and aggression that are poisoning our discourse and our democracy.
If we cooperate, we will behave like true Americans: people of many backgrounds and perspectives coming together “to form a more perfect Union,” to negotiate a better future for all.