How We Got Here: The 2020 Political Crisis and the Future of Social Change (Part IX)
Part IX: Charlottesville as a Case Study
This piece is part of a treatise which consists of the following sections and will be published in the form of a series over several days.
- Part I: Introduction — Tribalism Meets a Conflict Long in the Making
- Part II: Deep-Seated Denialism and Classism
- Part III: A Diverging Society
- Part IV: Humanistic Approaches and the Lost Opportunity for National Economic Justice
- Part V: An Identity-Based Movement for the Progressive Cause
- Part VI: Politics of Personality
- Part VII: A Political Perspective
- Part VIII: The Fundamental Origins of Extremist Hate and the Conditions for Demagoguery
- Part IX: Charlottesville as a Case Study
- Part X: The Current Stage of the Crisis
- Part XI: Conclusion — Finding Reconciliation and Togetherness
I do not wish to re-open old wounds, but I would like to revisit the 2017 events in Charlottesville — because I believe they are illustrative of many of this treatise’s key observations. It is my hope that readers will consider this case study with an open mind.
Trump’s comments in the wake of the Charlottesville events — that there were “very fine people on both sides” — roiled the nation and left progressive America infuriated. The progressive movement insisted that anything short of a full-throated denunciation of the evil neo-Nazi and white supremacist protestors in Charlottesville would be morally abhorrent and would amount to complicity.
Yet, as with virtually all Trump-related political crises over the past four years, a substantial portion of the country was unmoved by the political left’s uproar. How could this be?
I believe the reason — which is extremely unpopular to suggest — has to do with the following: Trump’s statement held an ounce of truth.
I know this remark is difficult to swallow for many readers; however, no matter how much we may despise the hatred espoused by the extremists present in Charlottesville, we cannot deny that these individuals were real people with real lives.
Just as someone who is imprisoned for a crime can remain a decent person, so can someone who expresses hate.
Even if we may not want to acknowledge it, there is much more to these citizens and their lives than being racist, anti-Semitic, and xenophobic. Many of them have families that they care about, have ambitions that they are pursuing, and serve in communities that they hope to better — just like the rest of us. Just as someone who is imprisoned for a crime can remain a decent person, so can someone who expresses hate.
Moreover, the hatefulness that these citizens stand for has roots in legitimate social and political grievances, even though the ultimate expression of these grievances in the form of hate is morally reprehensible.
In addition, even though the explicit expression of hate may have been confined to the fringes, the grievances of those present in Charlottesville reflected the grievances of a much larger group of citizens — a group that cannot be flippantly dismissed.
As paradoxical as it may seem, all of the foregoing discussion is to say that someone can still be a decent person even if he or she harbors hateful beliefs — for our lives are far more complex than any single dimension.
Thus, the ounce of truth contained in Trump’s statement was that those individuals present in Charlottesville may have indeed been decent people — and, at the least, were real people with real experiences that we (like Trump) must legitimize.
Trump understood exactly what he was doing. He understood that many citizens in our country — that is, many of his supporters — would appreciate his legitimization of their lives. He also knew how progressives would react to his comments, enabling him to further his agenda of dividing the country.
He knew that progressives would respond with vehement, dehumanizing shaming, delegitimizing the lives of his supporters when many of them simply want to be heard.
In fact, many of Trump’s tactics operate in this fashion.
His statements almost always contain a kernel of truth or plausibility which makes them compelling when viewed from the lenses of his supporters.
On a wide variety of topics — from NAFTA to coronavirus shutdowns — progressives virtually never want to acknowledge these kernels. The failure to recognize the bits of truth has been exacerbated by a hyper-polarized media landscape and the progressive movement’s groupthink that Trump lies about everything. He is indeed a pathological liar, but his lies often have grounding in some reality.
To see the kernels of truth, we must exercise humility and empathy, rather than always rushing to judgement.
Against these realities, however, humility and empathy were not part of progressive America’s response to the Charlottesville events. Its response to Trump’s “very fine people” statement was not only to denounce the hate that Trump expressed but to entirely write off the protestors — and all of the citizens they may have represented — as evil.
I must point out that this occasion was hardly the first time that the Democrats and their allies made such a mistake; Hillary Clinton did the same when she wrote off many of Trump’s supporters as a “basket of deplorables.”
Overall, the kneejerk dismissiveness on the part of the anti-Trump movement only delegitimizes the existence and lived experiences of other citizens. By reducing human beings to single, denigrating labels, we deny them of their humanity.
The above dynamic also helps to explain why the “Black Lives Matter” slogan does not appeal to many of Trump’s supporters, who instead prefer to say, “All Lives Matter.” As many of these citizens themselves have been marginalized in our society, they wonder why their grievances have not earned front-and-center attention as well, why one identity is seemingly prioritized over others, and why one group is apparently deemed “very fine” by the progressive movement but another is not.
I understand that, to a Black American whose ancestors have spent more than 400 years fighting for justice and equality in this land, this perspective may feel entirely wrong. Again, however, my primary intention here is to shed light on human experience.
Nevertheless, I must emphasize that I found Trump’s position on the Charlottesville events morally detestable.
As a strong supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement, I believe our society should have no room for the hate expressed by the protestors. As a Jew, I have also been a target and victim of the genocidal ideology advocated by neo-Nazis.
However, my point is not about the moral tolerability of hate but about the manner in which we respond to hate.
It is not enough to be on the morally right side of an issue; the methods we employ in pursuing the moral truth must also be morally right. We cannot respond to hate with hate; responding to dehumanization with dehumanization never works.
It is not enough to be on the morally right side of an issue; the methods we employ in pursuing the moral truth must also be morally right.
Some readers may assess my position herein as “weak” in fighting hate. The contrary is true. Our current responses to hate have merely amounted to stifling hate. But we should not be satisfied with stifling. We must seek to eradicate hate.
In this effort, we must establish justice in our society, and we must hold accountable those who commit hateful acts.
But, to fully eradicate hate, we also must summon the capacity for forgiveness.
To extend forgiveness, we must begin with the extraordinary task of empathizing with our oppressors. In performing this task, we begin by acknowledging that the same hate of our oppressors exists inside of all of us — as members of the same species — even if we may not actively oppress others with this hate.
We must offer love in the face of stigmatization. We must offer kindness in the face of cruelty. We must offer compassion in the face of evil.
We also acknowledge that the humanity we share with our oppressors means that they have the capacity to turn inward, to change, and to do better. Just as many of us believe in the promise of rehabilitation for many prisoners, we must afford the same promise to extremists.
We must offer love in the face of stigmatization. We must offer kindness in the face of cruelty. We must offer compassion in the face of evil. We must see past the hatred into our shared humanity. We must offer our hearts even when our hearts have been indelibly hurt.
As a member of a people that has been subjected to repeated persecution in every land and at every time throughout human history, my natural instinct is to denigrate the oppressors of the Jews, to render a blanket judgement against them as pure evil, and to seek retaliation. Before racing to act on these instincts, however, I pause to remind myself that we Jews share 99.9 percent of our DNA with our oppressors.
The moment we begin to otherize fellow humans because they do evil is the moment we also otherize ourselves and forget our own capacity to do evil — for the capacity to do evil, like the capacity to do good, is a basic feature of all humanity.
In this fashion, I must — somehow — find the strength to empathize with evildoers like Hitler. I cannot otherize Hitler because I know (as psychological research has demonstrated) that I am capable of committing the same acts of evil that he perpetrated. Even if Hitler, like Trump, suffered from mental pathology, mental illness itself is always an extreme reflection of normal human behavior — human behavior that I share.
In the end, the moment we begin to otherize fellow humans because they do evil is the moment we also otherize ourselves and forget our own capacity to do evil — for the capacity to do evil, like the capacity to do good, is a basic feature of all humanity.
Anyone in denial of their own capacity for either good or evil is in denial of their own humanity. Similarly, even if Trump supporters do evil, the commission of evil does not make them any less human. And if they can be misguided to commit evil, they also can be guided to do good.
Because we have not exercised the humility to empathize with the opposing side — to empathize with our oppressors — we have been unable to compete with Trump.
Albeit in a pathological way, Trump is able to empathize with his supporters, at least enough to manipulate their minds in furtherance of his agenda. To our detriment, he understands that persuasion (and even brainwashing) begins with empathy.
At the outset of the Trump presidency, we faced a basic choice: persuasion or opposition.
By exercising empathy, the progressive movement could have broadened its forces — or at least dampened extremism — by winning over the hearts and minds of key populations in our country to build a more cohesive social movement.
Instead, the progressive movement chose outright opposition, further alienating those key populations while hoping to win by merely outnumbering the opponent.
Altogether, a much more effective response to the Charlottesville incidents would have been to denounce and refute the hate, while also (1) responding with more positive words of peace, love, harmony, and non-violence; (2) giving legitimacy to the grievances of the protestors and offering them the opportunity for forgiveness, education, and rehabilitation; and (3) building constructive ways in which multiple vulnerable groups in society could come together to seek resolution for shared problems.