Sunday, November 13, 2016

Telling people to just chill-out about Trump and love one another, is bad advice and philosophically incoherent

This photo is courtesy of the LA Times.


Post-election discussion on social media has reached the phase in which large numbers of people are telling others to calm down. Demands for people to “chill out,” “love one another,” and “agree to disagree” are all over the place, as are testimonies that the poster will never unfriend someone because they voted differently. In some cases, the last kind of remark is a direct rebuke to my previous post declaring that I could never stay friends with someone who voted for Donald Trump.

The idea behind these love-promoting messages is that angry political debate should always be contained, and that people will be better off if they just find common ground and push the conflict aside. There may be times when this is a suitable response. Now is not one of them.

The election of Donald Trump has terrified and angered an impressive amount of people. It strikes at the core of people’s most cherished beliefs, of their vision of what America is and ought to be, and, in many cases, of their own identities. Many LGBTQ people, for example, were just starting to feel secure as a result of the legalization of gay marriage. Now the rug is being pulled out from under them. They and their loved ones have every reason to be furious.

It is worth exploring then, why, at this moment, at least, calling for calm is inappropriate.

First off, we ought to remember that a person can be angry without directing their venom at any specific person. It is possible to be furious at an outcome or at the system itself without naming individuals in the process. This is a tactic that many people use to preserve their friendships. In essence, they are saying, “Dude, I’m not calling you out in particular, I’m just angry that Trump won, and if you take that personally, that’s your business, not mine.”

The problem with this tactic is that it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Trump didn’t win independently of voters. He was actively chosen and when pressed, anger about this election is most certainly about the acts of specific people. The people who voluntarily voted for the worst candidate in history are to blame. We cannot sit idly by and say “mistakes were made.” We must say instead, “Chad, Mary, and Craig (or whomever) made a mistake.” We have to name the culprits to defend against the crime.

Second, it's perfectly okay to be angry at people who do stupid and dangerous things. We get justifiably pissed at a drunk friend who aims a loaded gun at us. We are also acting reasonably in ending friendships with people whose drama risks destroying our families—we all know toxic people who are best kept far away from the people we love. In fact, we are often condemned when we disregard such dangers. Remaining passive in such a situation is simply irresponsible.

Donald Trump is a loaded gun. The people who voted for him are endangering our children. The presidency is not a game. If you doubt this, ask a Vietnam vet if Presidents Johnson and Nixon were blameless. Sure, people may take issue with my perspective on Trump. They may argue that I am wrong to think he is dangerous at all. But they cannot fairly claim that if I honestly, truly, do think Trump is a threat, that I don’t have the right and the responsibility to act accordingly.

It is precisely this responsibility I want to discuss. What I want to explain is that the people who suggest that we just love each other are, in general, people who also think that political debate is something that we can easily pop in and out of. They think that politics is something that goes on in the background while they are doing other things and are only relevant to our tax rates or gun ownership. They don't understand that public policy is fully integrated into every part of our lives even if we don’t know it, and that massive changes like the ones Trump is proposing actually affects everything we do, including how we love each other and how we see ourselves.

The history of philosophy explains this well. The classical Greek's separated their lives into two distinct spheres, the polis, or the city, which was the domain of men, and the oikos, or the household, which was the domain of women. The city, the male sphere, was where collective decisions were made. It was the place of law, of debate, and of fame. It prioritized rhetoric, the ability to persuade. We now call this space “the public” and it is no surprise that our government is still dominated by men. The polis—politics—has been presumed to be their exclusive domain for more than two millennia.

The space that we now call “the private” is the modern iteration of the household. This is where discussions about the family, personal finance, and managing day-to-day life took place. This is where women were in charge and it is why many think, not only that being at home is more natural for women, but it helps explains why many men feel comfortable joking about how they have to “check with their wives” before they make big decisions. It is also why women are so often thought of as natural shoppers. The word oikos eventually became Ĺ“conomics, or economics. (Economics meant “organization” before it became the money and exchange-centered discipline that it is now.)

The problem is that this division between politics and the household is blatantly untenable. First, the idea that men and women have different natural spheres of activity assumes that they are fundamentally different in their humanity. It assumes that men and women have different rational capabilities and, ultimately, that men care more about the common good than women do. History has shown this to be one of humanity’s great fictions. We now know that women and men are fundamentally equal with all the same capacities. Fecundity and average strength aside, men and women are equally human, of equal moral worth, and equally able to cultivate their capacity. If you are still of the opinion that women have no place in politics—if you still believe that men are superior to women—then really, there is no point in talking to you about any of this at all. You’re just too far gone to reach.

But the most relevant problem with the division between polis and oikos is that it doesn’t acknowledge that fact that politics defines what the household is and what the range of possible arrangements are. It describes who is permitted to be there and what they are allowed to have. It asks, for example: Can people of the same sexes marry? Can there be polygamy or polyandry? Are adopted children regarded as part of the family or just a charitable add-on? Does property get passed down to the first-born son or can it go to anyone the original property owner wishes to bequeath it to?

Of course, there is more. Here is a random sample: Can we read whatever books we want? Can we grow and smoke marijuana? Is the internet available to the poor and the well-off alike? Do we live in group homes? Can we grow whatever crops we want? Is birth control accessible? Is there a right to clean water? Are we allowed to eat pork? Must we prey to the same god or any god at all? Is public nudity allowed? Can people own guns? Can a husband or wife refuse sex from their spouse? Is child abuse permitted? What are we allowed to see on television? Are missionaries allowed to demand entrance to your home whenever they want?

Virtually any and every “private” activity is defined by political life. We simply cannot separate the two because, in fact, who we regard as a person is itself a political decision. Slaves, women, Jews, and the Irish are just a few groups who were considered less than human at one point or another. They are no longer regarded as such because our politics have changed. It is, of course, the 1960's and 70’s feminists who first declared that the personal is political.

The people who want us to just pretend we agree, or love one another and move on, simply don’t understand that each of us have the responsibility to demand to be heard. As participants in a democracy, frankly, as people in the world, we must help guide collective decisions to promote justice and the common good. But we must also protect ourselves and loved ones in the process.

Let me put aside the bigotry of gay-bashing policies and the increase in hate crimes since the election. Allow me to step away, for the time being, from the deterioration of women's rights and the anti-immigrant paranoia, xenophbia, and isolationsm that puts our country at great risk. Instead, I'd like to end with one very simple and personal example. Please indulge me as I predict the future.

My family is Jewish. Despite the rhetoric equating Trump with Hitler and the comparison of this election season with 1930’s Germany, I will freely admit that it is unlikely that my 11-year old daughter will end up in a concentration camp. What is more likely is that kids in her class will be emboldened to bully her. The more intolerant our government—the more Trump’s antisemitism becomes the norm—the harder her day to day life will become because the more her classmates will see her as prey. This will make her life miserable, and prevent her from learning and from being happy. Eventually, someone will cross the line. Someone will say too much, or push her in a way she can no longer take. Perhaps someone will physically threaten her. She has a black-belt in Taekwondo. She will eventually kick the shit out of that kid. She will fight back and make it clear that the bully is not permitted to mess with her again.

When she does, she will have my unqualified support, but she will not have the school’s. Administrators are mostly cowards. At minimum, they are uninterested in context. They fall back on “zero tolerance policies” despite their absurdity and they will, no doubt, suspend her for defending herself. “Why didn’t she find a teacher?” they would ask. "Why didn’t she just walk away?" "Doesn’t she understand that words are just words?" Sticks and stones, and all that.

They will find an excuse to blame her, not the bully, and she will be taught that her own bodily integrity, her Jewish identity, and her self-esteem are not valuable enough for the school to defend. She will learn that she is not important enough for the principal to commiserate with. She will never hear the most obvious truth, the principal admitting, “I would have punched him in the neck, too. He deserved it.”

THe principal will never say this because he or she might lose his or her job, might get sued, or might be featured in the newspaper as a bad manager who cannot control the school. All of this happens because the politics that surrounds education decides who gets to defend themselves and why. It decides how much of a personality a principal is allowed to have and who he or she defends first: the school or the chidren.

So, the next time you are compelled to tell someone to calm down and agree to disagree, or the next time someone suggests to you that you are wrong for aggressively demanding justice, the next time someone suggests that conflict on social network or losing friendships is too high of a price to pay for political change, ask yourself, what’s worse, some online unpleasantness and losing a friend, or a young kid being backed into a corner with no one to defend her and no way to get out? If you think it’s the former, well, I suspect you don’t have any kids. I also suspect you voted for Trump.

Don't tell me to chill-out or ask that I agree to disagree. Not in this case, anyway. There is too much at stake. If you ask me to choose between your personal comfort and my daughter's well-being, after a moment's reflection, I hope you are mature enough to know, that there really is no choice to make at all.


Follow the author on Twitter: @jackrweinstein

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