Hate Thy Neighbor
Americans are obsessed with outrage. Our hatred for each other pours out of us like bile after ten martinis and a whole apple pie, explosive and disturbing. In our age of polarization this new commandment we have given unto each other: hate thy neighbor. Let doomscrolling be our Two Minutes Hate. We must all partake lest we forget the inhumanity of our enemies, but more importantly the inhumanity of anyone who agrees ever-so-slightly with anything our enemies say. Let no sleight go unpunished. Cast the first stone. Strike the other cheek. And never ever miss an opportunity to unleash your righteous old-testament-style wrath.
It has been an era of no quarter, no grace, no forgiveness. Not for our enemies, not for neutral parties, and not even for our friends and families. Everything is problematic, and your original sins are unforgivable. Cancel everyone and shame on your neighbor. Repentance is off the table, so leave your remorse at home and come ready to fight. If you don’t want to be skewered, stay in your lane.
Following these commandments is easy since there are so many hateable factions to choose from. The Racist Republicans and the Freedom Hating Democrats are — of course — the main course. But the side-dishes are just as delectable. Welcome to America where you can slice and dice a zillion divisions. Pick a team, then pick a few sides.
Are you a moderate liberal? We can serve you racist white progressives, ignorant anarchists, scary socialists- Oh wait, you’re a progressive? My apologies, perhaps you’d prefer “establishment” Democrats or wealthy people? I think we still have one case of Joe Rogan listeners in the back… No, sorry, we sold out of Karens during the lunch rush.
And for you sir? A lower-case-c conservative, you say? You might enjoy the socialists I mentioned earlier. We’ve also got all kinds of progressives: Black, White, Latinx, and a delightfully multi-racial identity politics sampler. If you want a subtler kind of hate we also have an incredible Tea Party QAnon conspiracy combo.
Vegan looking for someone to chew someone out? Why not try vegetarians? They’re the best to hate because they recognize the issue, but don’t go nearly far enough in solving it. The meat-eating factory farmers don’t even acknowledge there’s a problem. Besides, they don’t really seem hurt by the attacks, and that’s just no fun.
As we succumb to our habitual anger we often strengthen our enemies resolve and weaken our own alliances. Fueled by mutual hatred we circle the wagons, find a safe space, and filter out the haters. Meanwhile, we hurt those closest to us by lashing out at those who are still listening.
Right now — hot on the heels of a Democratic presidential victory — Twitter is a liberal vs progressive bloodbath. Checkmarked accounts and political junkies argue endlessly about whether or not “defund the police” cost Democrats votes. Both agree that police reform is a dire need, but genuine and necessary discussions about what specifically to change are smothered by an avalanche of recriminations about sloganeering and bad branding.
Instead of a good-faith debate we wield our hot takes like a flamethrower, roasting our erstwhile allies with righteous indignation. But this is a political truth: Without a large coalition, you lose. Imperfect advocacy, topic specific alliances, and uneasy truces are a cornerstone of political change. As we flee to the moral high ground of purity we often sacrifice actual change in favor of symbolic revolution. We lose the ability to compromise, disagree, and still build the temporary, imperfect, and diverse coalitions that progress has historically demanded.
Despite revisionist history, the civil rights movement involved a lot of people with a lot of different ideas about both goals and methods. Dr. King and Malcom X didn’t see eye to eye — but they didn’t try to poke each other’s eyes out either. Civil rights leaders and Lyndon Johnson had plenty of disagreements, but they found a path to the Civil Rights Act. Millions of people came together, not in perfect harmony but still aligned enough to make history.
Honest disagreement is healthy. We can learn from it, grow because of it, and compromise to address it. Disagreement as dogma has left us in political gridlock since circa 2010. Maybe we could use a little more grace, compassion, and room for disagreement at the margins. After all, no one (and no policy) is perfect.
I am trying to take my own advice, and I dare say I am even making progress. For example, when I first heard the phrase “defund the police” I balked. I thought, “we absolutely need police reform, but just defund them? Then what? Anarchy and mob justice?” But as I felt the all-too-familiar itch in my amygdala, I decided not to scratch. Instead, I took a deep breath, told myself to keep an open mind, and began a search for common ground.
I did some reading, I listened to interviews. I talked to friends and family, most of whom were earnest and eager to explore the policy recommendations I had come across. I didn’t agree with everything I read or heard: I would probably have chosen a different slogan; I still don’t believe we should abolish the police entirely. But after my research I still felt compelled to publicly defend “defund the police,” for a variety of reasons.
First of all, I don’t pick the slogans. Activists who are igniting people’s passion do. Politicians with big ad budgets and marketing firms do. Besides, the slogan is out there now. When a conversation goes that direction we should make the best case we can for the ideas behind the slogan. We can productively refocus the conversation by exploring policies that will prevent police violence rather than nit-picking a pithy three-word slogan.
Secondly, I don’t trust people on average to do their own homework. Some activists love to remind people that it “isn’t my responsibility to educate anyone else.” And I agree, it’s not. At the same time, as a teacher myself, I know that most folks aren’t going to do the required reading unless they have some skin in the game. Generally, people who hear the phrase, “defund the police” and immediately balk are not going to autonomously learn more on their own.
It might not be anyone’s responsibility to better educate the masses, but if you seed the idea then cede the conversation you’re losing out on a lot of potential converts. Especially when that seed of an idea is unpopular and polarizing when taken at face value. I want change and I see it as my job to participate often in conversations that might lead that direction. For my friends and family members their “skin in the game” is their relationship with me. Very few people change for strangers, but we do have sway with the people who love and respect us. I see it as my responsibility to use that influence.
Finally, activists aren’t going to stop saying something just because some people don’t like it. If you think otherwise then you are deeply misunderstanding activists and activism. Part of an activists role is to push the “Overton window” and redefine the bounds of acceptable ideas and policies. Even the now lionized Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was unpopular up until (and well after) the day he was assassinated. The mere fact that “defund the police” is unpopular isn’t a good enough reason for activists to change. It’s always been this way: If activists already had a hugely popular message, their activism would not be necessary.
Good negotiators always start by asking for more than they’re ultimately going to get. Activists have started the bargaining process. Instead of castigating the sloganeers let’s bring some of the truly great ideas underlying the “defund” slogan onto the table and into the public imagination:
- Reduce the scope of the police mission. Plenty of police chiefs and officers want this. The job we give police officers is absurdly broad. Police handle calls ranging from mental health crises, to theft, violent crime, housing problems, and so much more. It’s just too much for one agency to handle effectively.
- Reinvest some of those resources to alternate forms of public safety. Rapid response social workers for mental health issues and housing crises. Police for a robbery in progress.
- Divest from purchasing military equipment for our police. The militarization of the police has created a tragic atmosphere of mistrust, fear, and enmity between the police and the people they are charged with protecting. A tiny fraction of police encounters actually require an assault rifle or shotgun, much less a freakin’ tank.
- End private prisons and focus on decreasing recidivism. The prison industrial complex costs taxpayers an astronomical amount of money. It also creates a perverse incentive for the prisons to lock up as many people as possible and keep them coming back. A for-profit prison can stabilize revenue by ensuring that released prisoners return in a horrible and wasteful cycle of crime and punishment.
- Reinvest those savings into the community. Good schools, beautiful parks, economic opportunities, and real hope for a better future are phenomenal crime prevention tools — let’s use them!
As much as I’d rather discuss these points, I did have to start lots of police reform conversations on the backfoot with my moderate-to-conservative friends and family. The “defund” slogan made many of them defensive, and I don’t blame them. If I said “defund Obamacare” no one would think that I meant, “find a better alternative to the Affordable Care Act by restructuring, saving a bunch of money, and investing those savings in more effective forms of health insurance and healthcare.” This defensive posture often made the conversation harder.
I have plenty of examples about how this plays out from the comments section of my op-ed defending “defund the police,” and they are illustrative about how a slogan or a headline can set us up for failure. One reader wrote, “I agree with everything you say, Tyler. Unfortunately the slogan ‘Defund the Police’ is poorly worded.” Another commented, “While this is an eloquent and well-written appeal, I am not convinced in the slightest. […] The solution of ‘defunding the police’ is a textbook case of looking beyond the mark.”
These people wanted to agree with me but they couldn’t quite get there because their imagination had been tainted by whatever they think “defund the police” means. In this way, “defund” is a losing slogan with moderates and incrementalists. The phrase is a double edged sword at the political poles. It is a gift to the “blue lives matter” crowd who drum up fear and activate “law and order” voters. At the same time, it is a successful rallying cry for organizers on the progressive left who have brought millions of Americans into the street to march for Black lives.
Unfortunately, when arguments between these two polar opposites play out in public forums, they are often divorced from any larger context. The undecided folks who find themselves somewhere between anarchy and authoritarianism witness a heated battle between two ideas that sound bad made by people who often seem like assholes. As a result the status quo wins.
In my own discussions though, I have found that people who balk at “defund the police” can be convinced to support the groundbreaking police reform passed in Colorado earlier this year. Ending qualified immunity is a huge deal. The law bans chokeholds. It also makes it illegal to turn off a body camera and invalidates any testimony of an officer who does so. Some people want to go further — and that’s great, they can continue to advocate for more — but even those chanting “defund the police” largely recognize this legislation as a win. Shouldn’t our conversations reflect that?
The Colorado law is a checkpoint, it cements solid gains and better police practices that will improve lives. We live in a country where police unions have a lot of political power and where policing as a concept is still very popular. A compromise like this might be the best thing we can get right now. That doesn’t mean stop fighting for more, it just means that to run a marathon you first have to run a mile.
Compromise is made impossible by recalcitrance, by an either-or mentality, and by a limited imagination about what constitutes progress. When we talk to folks who aren’t quite down with “defund” we can usually find something they would support. When we don’t love a slogan we can seek clarification about the underlying policies. When someone doesn’t like our favored slogan we can ask why with an open mind. We can even disagree afterwards, but if we just keep publicly incinerating each other with our shamethrowers we will entrench ourselves more deeply in the status quo.