Is it acceptable for parents to choose their child’s skin and eye color by genetic modifications? Should transgendered children be forced to use the sex-appropriate bathroom until they reach the age of 18? If only to keep us healthy, should government have the power to decide what foods we can buy?
You may have cringed while reading those three questions. I would.
Since his taking office, President Trump has managed to make two months feel like two years. With each day, his administration appears more riddled with scandal and corruption. His flirtation with antisemitism, immigration bans, and disrespect for the constitutional separation of powers has justifiably earned him the hatred by most Americans. That detestation, however, seems not confined to him and his administration, but broad enough to include his supporters. By doing so, I submit, we incur more societal damage than benefit.
This vote was not a referendum on the moral standing of 47 percent of American voters, and it’s a dangerous mistake to assume all Trump supporters espouse the same ugly values of the candidate.
Did Donald Trump’s campaign and eventual election mobilize and legitimize the racist, bigoted, and xenophobic subsets of our society? Absolutely (see Nazis celebrating in DC). His less-than-subtle dog whistles continue to energize the white supremacist and neo-Nazi fringe to come out of the dark corners of the internet that society had pushed them into, bringing them out into the mainstream.
But it’s important for us to realize that’s not the whole story.
The Science on Conformity and Dissent
Concomitant with our societal evolution, our morality undergoes a series of transformations, as we collectively form a moral consensus that some words and ideas are to no longer be tolerated. Think of the questions with which I opened this article. The act of simply posing such questions advocates for nothing, and yet it evokes a visceral response in the asked. We consider it too troubling or shameful to even think them, let alone argue against them. This is not because they’re inherently wrong, but because they offend our common sensibilities. So, what do we do?
It doesn’t take much to dehumanize a category of people if you don’t associate with them.
As humans, we have a bad habit of clustering into groups of people who think like us, even if we must change a little bit just to fit in. So, we find other people who share our sensibilities, self-assembling into like-minded tribes and antagonizing the ‘bigoted and ignorant’ people who don’t share our values (left vs. right). One problem with this, besides its polarizing effect, is the development of an immunity to reason and empiricism.
In 2005, psychiatrist Gregory Berns of Emory University published fascinating work that builds on the famous Asch experiments of the 1950’s. Berns studied brain activity in subjects placed in situations where they’re likely to conform. The subjects were introduced to a group of people they thought were volunteers like them, but who were actually paid actors instructed on what to say beforehand. As a group, they were shown two objects which were unlike each other, and asked whether the objects are the same. What the subject doesn’t know is that everyone else in the group was told to give the wrong answer and say that the two objects were the same. When the subject was asked, they gave the same wrong answer as their group (~41 percent of the time).
What’s interesting about this experiment is that the test subject’s brain showed activity in regions that are devoted to visual perception, not the area associated with conscious deception. This indicated that the subject isn’t lying, but the group has affected how they process what they see.
What’s more, the subjects who stood up for what they believed showed brain activity in areas associated with emotional salience and negative emotion. This suggests that the unpleasantness of standing alone, independent of your group, has an emotional cost. So, the beliefs of the people around us can literally change how we see the world. Doesn’t that make it even more important that we not limit our exposure to differing ideas?
If we don’t sincerely engage with those who disagree with us, and shun them instead, we risk distorting our world view. The negative consequences of that will impact both us and those whom we shun.
By subtracting dissenting opinions from our social circles, we rob ourselves of the ability to truly know how we know what we know. We risk making our morality superficial, our values arbitrary. We then resort to the simple and lazy otherization of those who disagree with us. Similarly, the conservative person we snub may end up resenting us for simply being liberal. They would see us as nothing more than self-righteous frauds who commit the very evils we profess to correct. It’s at this point that you start to hear phrases like “reverse discrimination” and “suppression of free speech.”
The day after the election, an article in Slate addressed the 52 percent of white women who voted for Donald Trump. At this point, we all know that Trump boasts about sexual assault, objectifies women, and poses a threat to women’s reproductive rights put in place by the Supreme Court. The author’s unfortunate assessment in this article is that “the biggest and saddest reason white women chose Trump over Clinton is simple: racism.”
I understand her frustrations, and share her apprehension with the president. Though, while racism may have played an underlying role, her claim is myopic. It’s dangerous to summarily discount an entire block of voters by asserting that their primary motive was racism, without leaving room for any valid grievances they might have. In defense of Muslims, we rightly say that it’s unjust to paint everyone with a broad brush; that there are valid differences within the population. Yet, we refuse to adopt that same approach to Trump supporters.
The Nation Will Outlast the President
The president has blocked entry to refugees and immigrants. At his direction, immigration officers have separated children from their parents. He’s demonized the free press, branding them as “enemies of the American people,”, while suspicion of Russian collaboration clouds his White House. Many feel distressed about the direction he’s taking America to, and continue to blame his supporters for electing him. After all, they are the ones who handed him power, and they will have to live with that decision. However, there exist subsets of that population who voted for him over a single issue, and they can be won over by listening to them and engaging them in rational discussion. Perhaps their values place them strictly against giving women their legal right to choose to have an abortion, or perhaps they fear losing their manufacturing jobs to an increasingly global economy. In fact, we’re beginning to see many Trump voters regret their decision.
Donald Trump’s presidency will come to an end sooner or later—whether it’s by impeachment, resignation from exhaustion, or losing reelection—and America will outlast its 45th president. It’s therefore important to remember that when the president is out of the picture, his supporters will remain part of the electorate, and will still have a vote.
I am not advocating for embracing the other side, nor am I arguing for normalizing hateful ideologies. It’s not that we have to agree with everything the other side says. We simply need to engage in thoughtful discussion with those with whom we disagree, and who are willing to engage with us. We need to talk to them with the goal of understanding their perspective, just as we’d like someone to be sincere with us. To do otherwise is not only a form of intellectual laziness, but runs the attendant risk (or inevitability) of someone worse than Trump rising to power—and they certainly do exist.