To Understand the Extreme
Trying to listen to radical perspectives and what can come of it
The state of the world today has left many people with questions, trying to pave a way forward. Traumatized by the election of Donald Trump, many American citizens are now scared and angry. I hear these questions:
How can you expect me to work with racists? What is the value of hearing out a sexist? When will I not feel threatened when I speak with an evangelical?
Trump supporters, in response:
Don’t they understand that they’re killing babies? They threaten my values: why engage? How can I respect someone who is taking the money I earned?
Whether you would consider yourself in either of these camps, it is evident that sympathy, empathy, and understanding is increasingly absent in political life today. Priorities are different. Values are opposite. Dreams are divergent. And people are failing to have compassion for each other.
The divide between America’s communities continues. One group admirably strives to fight poverty, protect minority rights, and alleviate inequality. My friends — advocates for vulnerable communities of color — are so embedded empowering of a group of people that they see it as the nation’s priority.
The other view honorably endeavors to reduce harmful government, address working class struggles, and defend virtue. Friends with this perspective have witnessed failed Democratic policies and an encroachment on what they perceive as American values: “the forgotten man” is their priority.
For many, the other side is extreme and incomprehensible. Some are bigots and entitled. Others are “victims” and intolerant. You may feel this way. You may want to just fight the other side. So first, what does understanding entail? And why should you choose it — why have compassion?
As the son of an U.S. Air Force serviceman, I had the privilege of living in over 10 places, with varying assumptions, norms, and values. I formed relationships with people holding extreme views.
While I hold more moderate views, many people associated with my family are quite conservative. They are committed to ensuring U.S. security, Judaeo-Christian values, and freedom to work hard without interference. Several of these people supported Trump. At their most extreme, they see Democrats as corrupt, slimy, and hypocritical — citizens trying to steal their country. They view the African American culture as degenerate. They see Muslims as a security threat. They assume many of the impoverished are not hardworking, but rather willing to free-ride on welfare. They see immigrants as illegal and thieves of American jobs. Most of these views are extreme. To one world of Americans, these views are repulsive. But I believe we should strive to understand perceived malice and engage it.
Some of Trump’s supporters have committed heinous acts. If so, they were motivated by psychological issues or experiences they have had. But most individuals who support Trump’s views are not evil, despite some hurtful decisions. To understand, with sympathy, empathy, and reason, individuals should place themselves in the world of the Other and imagine what they would have thought and done had they been that person. If you use empathy, it can be cognitive or emotional. The empathy discussed in this article is mostly cognitive: “the process of assessing what other people are thinking, their motivations, their plans, what they believe.”
Imagine you grew up in the deep South or rural West. You parents worked minimum wage jobs. You had nights with very little food — you had to work at the age of 15. You had mostly white classmates and were not exposed to much diversity. You grew up in a Christian church and believe your faith and principles are a guiding light. Then your hometown experiences Democratic policies that largely defend minority rights, neglect working class citizens, overemphasize the right of women to work and abort babies, and preach tolerance at the expense of religion. You make a few racist comments out of frustration that a black person that got a leg up over you. You’re racist.
While radical perspectives aren’t usually justified, they come from somewhere. Imagine if you came from there. What would you do?
While I do not agree with most of the hardline conservative opinions, I can understand the reasoning behind them. I can understand frustration with minority programs that forget the white workers (even though I sympathize with efforts to defend and empower minorities). I can make sense of fear of Muslims (even if I believe that it is uninformed). I can grasp irritation with laws that protect individual expression (like sexual orientation) at the expense of hallowed values (like sanctity of marriage). I can fathom discontentment with elite Democrats that raise taxes but “hypocritically” take tax loopholes and $600,000 speakers fees. This does not mean I will not fight that with which I disagree. But instead of rebuking Republicans, I want to befriend them. I want to show them where I come from.
As Emmit Rensin of Vox points out in the Smug Style in American Liberalism, disagreement does not excuse liberal’s “full retreat to the colleges and the cities…deciding, We didn’t abandon them. The idiots didn’t want to be saved.”
I could have attended the conservative Hillsdale College. Instead, I chose to attend the University of Virginia, a school with a vibrant mix of political beliefs and backgrounds. Today, many of my friends are liberals committed to fighting inequality, prejudice, and injustice. Faced with Trump, they are deeply concerned. At the extreme, they accuse Trumps supporters of being ignorantly privileged, racist, and dumb. They assume that white people are subconsciously racist. They believe that men on the right want domesticated women. They believe that evangelicals want to convert all gays. They believe that conservatives want power and wealth at their expense.
These liberals, many of whom are minorities, are not all ungrateful hypocrites. Like all of us, some of their actions and decisions are drastic and overly accusatory. But they come from somewhere.
Imagine you were born into a single-parent family in destitute poverty. You family has not received a good education and yours suffers as a result. Your influences are not positive — you live in a neighborhood with organized violence and crime that makes you fear for your life. You don’t trust authority and see most people as self-interested. You are forced to work at a young age and earn everything you have, despite everyone discrediting you. You have encountered many people who have treated you differently because of your skin color and origin. Given your poverty and experience with the belief that the system is rigged, you begin to fight for justice, fairness, and equality. Your sexual orientation is questioned, but you just want to love. You cry recalling your pain. You blame white power and the system for your issues. In conversations with white peers in college, you lash out violently. You are marginalized as a leech, a cultural disease, and a threat. If you had this experience, would you be any different?
I believe that some hardline liberal positions are either ineffective or intolerant, but I can understand the thinking behind them. I can comprehend the impact of poverty and education on the ability to access an equal opportunity. I can acknowledge how racism, sexism, and moral judgment could affect an individual’s view of their peers and the system. I can appreciate a belief in social welfare systems, as I know many people that would not willingly help others. I can make sense of the urgency to get the guns off the streets and the fear of authority. I can see the development of identity politics due to both cultural pressures and real harmful actions. Instead of rejecting Democrats, I want to befriend them and show them who I am. I try to understand and listen to their perspective.
It is exhausting to listen. To keep defending and explaining your side to an Other that hates you. Many Americas feel like they are shouting into the void about real and tangible problems like sexual assault or corrupt elite, and the response they get back is complete fabricated nonsense. To many, the call for listening and learning is too simplistic and hasty: it fails to address instances in which change might not be possible or positive.
- Is there anything so unforgivable that it entitles you to refuse to listen?
- Why should I empathize when I can choose to fight against “the enemy?”
- Why should a person of color to try to understand a racist, or a woman understand a misogynist, when their beliefs fundamentally devalue them?
- How do you build lasting, systemic change when all forces keep pushing the two sides even further away from each other?
- How can you fight tirelessly for your causes and listen to others?
- How do you argue against a position that is informed by misinformation and held by someone who doesn’t believe any of your sources?
These questions are valid. Certainly, there are a few circumstances, like violence, where listening is not possible. If someone is harmful, you have to prevent that action before trying to understand it. Empathy can be harmful itself. When understanding with emotional empathy, use it selectively and diversely: it can lead to emotional distress and clouded judgment.
Bright people have put themselves in other people’s shoes and come to the conclusion that they are unwilling to compromise. But absolute compromise is not the ideal. Rather, the objective is a genuine dialogue that provides us the opportunity to share our perspectives and decide whether to hold firm on our principles or change our position.
“We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.” — Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Sociologists and psychologists have argued that our social environment and experiences matter. Not only do they influence the decisions that we make, they shape the way we see the world. They inform what we consider right and wrong. So why listen? To recognize human difference and share in it.
My experiences have taught me that trying to understand the Other can help people challenge and sharpen ideologies, pursue truth, and share it. It spurs compassionate action. Liberalism has forgotten its great traditions. Voltaire once said: “I strongly disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” The defense of this right is an essential value of democracy. Instead of judging someone — concluding that they must be evil to come to a decision that is foreign — try to understand. Embrace difference and challenge it. As the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin said:
“To force people into the neat uniforms demanded by dogmatically believed-in schemes is almost always the road to inhumanity…social or political collisions will take place; the mere conflict of positive values alone makes this unavoidable. Yet they can, I believe, be minimized by promoting and preserving an uneasy equilibrium, which is constantly threatened and in constant need of repair — that alone, I repeat, is the precondition for decent societies…”
We may unravel if we collectively disregard the equilibrium and concede that spending time trying to understand and connect with the Other is futile. Surely, doing so may not ease fears or protect priorities. But understanding in moderation will spur compassion and togetherness. Emmit Rensin proposes, “It is impossible, in the long run, to cleave the desire to help people from the duty to respect them. It becomes all at once too easy to decide you know best, to never hear, much less ignore, protest to the contrary.”
To understand the extreme does not exclude fighting for what one believes to be right. Wherever you fall on the political spectrum, you should spend the next four years fighting — with decency — even harder for the causes you think are right. If your antagonist does not listen, turn the other cheek and repeat. Make your case. Understanding is an essential tool to win arguments and more importantly, to remember why you are arguing in the first place. If you can decipher another perspective, you can identify what might change it. You can have a productive conversation, whether it ends in agreement or disagreement. You can be decent.
“The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race…those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth…” -J.S. Mill
When one person is able to understand someone who sees the world differently, that human connection is extraordinary. Whether that person is a friend or someone you believe is evil, they are in your community. They vote on your leaders. They influence your loved-ones. Who they are matters.
“Being decent doesn’t necessarily mean being good. It means accepting the flaws in others and returning, despite disruptions and disappointments, to the predictable rhythms of reciprocity.” — Joshua Rothman from On Politics & Neighborliness
Unfortunately, people often define others by their decisions, when they really should define them by decisions and experiences. It is essential to remember that understanding does not concern itself with what the Other believes. Rather, contemplating another’s perspective is the process of tracing how they became who they are and arrived at their difference.
If you can’t listen and act decently or do not think it will change anything, perhaps someone else you know can make more progress. But candidly, if you have given up on your peers, it is worth asking: is the community worth fighting for at all? The Other likely won’t go away. You shouldn’t either.