For those who’ve been following the Republican mass exodus from Trump’s campaign, I have been thinking a lot about Mitt Romney’s “mothers and daughters” tweet and the furious online discussion it’s provoked, but even more, I have been thinking about why statements like that work.
To be clear, I think it’s a bloody patriarchal statement. But I don’t think patriarchy is sufficient explanation for why it has been effective. I think it is effective because it speaks to the way conservatives relate to the rest of society, in terms of concentric circles.
I read a meme which basically said “This issue [with Trump] matters because women are women, not because of their relationship to you”.
I agree with this. Women are women. But while that’s true, it’s a cerebral statement (well, it’s actually a tautology) that doesn’t carry much persuasive or emotive ammunition; it does not provoke the instinctive response humans have when they think of a person coming after their family or friends. There is a certain level of shared experience and solidarity between men and other men, women and other women, etc. but it is nothing like the chemical bonds of family, romance or deep friendship built over time. We don’t relate to people in general. We relate to people we know.
The gut mentality of conservatism is “take care of your own first”, which tends to appeal to the most basic human triggers for empathy. Whereas liberals tend to want to take care of everyone; they are classical “humanists”.
I think this is why liberal moral arguments tend to not get any traction among conservatives or undecided blue-collars, because humans tend to make up their moral minds instinctively and justify it with their rational brains later; liberals tend to argue based on humanism (which is a rational appeal) first, rather than starting with someone’s inner circle (which is an appeal to instinct) and working their way out by analogy.
Pointing out that that someone is a human being (“just like you!”) doesn’t resonate with people who have trouble relating to people who don’t actually seem to be very much like them. As soon as there’s a specific hook, as soon as the person can say “Oh, that’s like me or someone I know,” the empathy kicks in. But until then, as much as one might think they care (or should care), they probably don’t.
I think this tendency probably applies to conservative thinking about all kinds of social issues, from Trump’s misogyny right down to opinions about health care and social safety nets. And I think it’s not going to change within this election cycle.
Liberal empathy can and does become a trained response. As my thinking on issues of justice has changed over the years, my emotional responses to things I see happening around me have also changed. But it was through friends and family that I learned to be an ally. Friends and family changed my thinking. My attachments to people changed my thinking. But it takes a long time, and it’s not something I can claim any credit for.
Pragmatically speaking, I’m just relieved that some conservatives are at least doing the thing and dumping the Trump, even though the reasoning is shitty. Hopefully we can sort out the mess in more detail after the election is over.