Monday, 17 October 2016

Understanding those who think differently to you is pointless

I'm always interested in internet cycles. Despite what the critics say, the genius of the internet is its scale, which coalesces into a kind of aggregator of public intercourse, so that the whole thing operates as a perpetual engine of trend-bucking vs trend-following, each provoking the other. (For a hyperactive example of this, see my 4-year-old analysis of Kony 2012).

Donald Trump, who for the last year and a half has operated as the internet's gravitational well du jour, has catalysed one such chain reaction. We all follow the trend of pointing out his flaws and ridiculing his supporters. And so, inevitably, we then all buck the trend by writing or sharing think pieces of various academic levels, which earnestly seek to explain why the Trump phenomenon has been able to materialise. Allow me to buck this trend.

The think pieces, which I am seeing everywhere now, tend to say the same thing: We urban elites may be basically right about everything, but folks in poor rural areas see things differently. They have been hurt by economic stuff, and the government has done nothing for them. They are ignored by the media (but also idolised by it, as this example contradicts itself). They see liberal progress as an affront to their time-honoured values. They feel minorities are getting special treatment while their own woes are dismissed simply because they're white. And so, you see, this is why they turn to an iconoclast like Trump.

All these articles do a weird thing: they seem to want to make you, the bemused liberal observer, feel guilty.

Many pieces single out the media, which being controlled by urban elites, is generating progress in culture but Republican backlash votes in politics. The implication is that if we made the media less progressive, it would be politically advantageous.

That's always the implication: if we were only achieving less in rights for women and minorities, the political right would be robbed of its riled-up base. If we weren't so gosh-darned vocal about black lives mattering, then Trump wouldn't stand a chance.

But it's never stated, only implied. Because, you see, these think pieces are written by progressive people. They seek to humanise the enemy with their cut-and-paste ethnographies, but they are impassive observers, merely reporting the facts in the interests of better Understanding. These authors can't bring themselves to actually say that we should dial back the phenomenal progressive achievements of the last decade; their job is merely to make us pause for thought long enough to hit share.

And shared these ideas are, because progressives love nothing more than self-flagellation and the public pledge to do better at understanding those we disagree with. It's always the urban elites who need to do this understanding, because we're the ones who are so prone to following the trend of mocking horrifying man-babies like Trump. Of course, the Trumpites themselves are incapable of even attempting to make the empathetic leap in the opposite direction because they have been so irreversibly shaped by our neglect, like elves tortured until they become orcs. As the good guys, it is our responsibility to do all of the understanding, and then formulate and adopt a (more moderate?) position that will transform the rural crazies into rational folk - without them noticing, as it were.

Clearly, if I were to confront one of the authors of the Understanding Think Pieces, they would say no, we shouldn't dial back the progressiveness; the purpose of the piece was merely to create, er, understanding.

To which I say: then it is a useless piece.

Why has not a single one of these articles suggested any concrete policy steps to take? Why have none of these brave, trend-bucking savants dared to dip the merest toe into the waters of Next Steps?

I believe it is because there are no reasonable next steps to take. What is being described in the UTPs is one particular front in the sprawling, never-ending culture war. This is a war waged across all parts of society and politics, and basically it is responsible for the much vaunted Polarisation that we hear about. Because it is a a very fundamental war, which forces everyone to become either the type of people who want change, or the type of people who desperately don't want change.

I submit that there is no realistic way to end the culture war without it turning into an actual war through violent suppression (and as a progressive, I don't want this). People can only do what they think is best. If you want change it is impossible to come to terms with those who don't want it. Either the change will happen or it will not; if democracy works perfectly then up to 49% of people may be on the losing side.

Rather than the worldview of the Trumpites, what may need to be Understood is the sheer irreconcilability of the situation. Rather than learning about the Other by observing them through a glass wall, what may really need to be Learned is the inarguable existence of the wall itself. Like God it simply is, and the only reasonable response is acceptance.

If the lesson is "Trump supporters have become super reactionary because we are too successfully progressive", then the only solution (if we want to "cure" Trump supporters) is to become less progressive. This is not an option, because we literally are progressive.

But if the lesson is "We are at war with the enemy, even though we pretend it is a civil debate," then the solution becomes: defeat the enemy. Instead of blaming ourselves for their existence and trying to force ourselves to believe that our worldviews are equally valid, which we can't do because we wouldn't hold our worldview unless we thought it was better, we should simply try to win elections so that it is our view that prevails.

Instead of using the UTPs to pay extra attention to bigots, we should ignore bigotry as we are taught to ignore a schoolyard bully. There is simply nothing to be achieved by engagement.

But the UTPs raise valid concerns, you cry. They point out how white rural people really are suffering economic hardship.

No. No such concerns are being raised: we already knew white rural people are suffering economic hardship. It's literally mentioned in every campaign speech Obama has made for 8 years. It's something progressives in politics have been trying (largely successfully) to address since WWII. It's something the current candidate for Good Guy President, Hillary Clinton, has also pledged to fight.

We are trying to help poor white rural people, and rightfully so, because that is part of progressive politics and always has been. It just so happens that - for a variety of reasons already rushed through - they are incapable of seeing it, and continue to vote for candidates who make things worse for them. But we will continue to try to help them.

But guess what? We're also going to keep working to try to make things fairer and better for women and minorities, because they're also suffering, and helping them is also what we believe as progressives. We sure as heck ain't going to stop making a big deal out of this, because we really strongly believe that the current situation is very unfair and totally unacceptable. We understand that others don't see it this way - without needing a UPT to tell us so - but their worldview can't hold us hostage because we don't share it.

Our only option, when confronted with Trumpites who would try and prevent us carrying out what we see as the right thing to do, is to culturally and politically stop them, and keep them away from power if we can. If there were another way, the UTPs would gleefully have told us so.

My recommendation is not to see this state of all-out war as a failure of human co-habitation. Rather, it is a rather unique specific political event that has arisen in the century in which we happen to live (1945-2045). A century in which a huge amount of social progress has occurred in a historically minuscule timespan, and unsurprisingly it has provoked a powerful counter-reaction from those who have the most to lose. This is simply something we have to deal with and, yes, defeat, in order to reach the end-point of this historical period (not in 5 years or 10, probably more like 50 or 100), where the forces of regression have been relegated to fringe inconsequence. (That sounds super teleological, which is not the intent - when we've defeated those standing against today's progress, there will be conservatives of the future who stand against new issues as yet unknown).

And frankly, if you think Trump is bad, you're deluding yourself. At least now we're in the majority, or close to it. In the 60s, progressive movements were fighting for their lives, and it was the calm establishment, not the shouty rabble, who was bigoted. Now it's reversed and our greatest problem is our own success; perhaps a little perspective would help alleviate all this modern liberal stress-guilt.