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Some Questions for Democrats and Progressives

The election of Donald Trump, and the reaction of many of my fellow Democrats and liberal/progressives have raised several questions in my mind. Below are some of these questions and my consideration of them. I have to admit that I’m not sure that my answers are either valid or will turn out to be true. I tried to be honest when considering them, but my honesty is built upon my biases, which are mostly that, as humans, it is  desirable to rid ourselves of attitudes that prevent us from working cooperatively with each other. Many readers will not only not share such a bias, but will adamantly feel it is inappropriate for the present situation. Obviously I don't, but I could be wrong. I believe that Donald Trump most likely poses a threat to some of the things I hold most valuable, but I also think that to resist such threats we need a broad national consensus and to reach such a consensus we cannot alienate half of our fellow citizens.

Is engaging in stereotyping and prejudice of any sort harmful or is it harmful only when it is directed toward those who have historically been victimized and have less means to defend themselves?

My online dictionary defines a stereotype as “a fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.” Stereotypes are assumptions about members of a group, based upon their belonging to that group, rather than about knowledge of their individual characteristics. The opposite of stereotyping is to view each person individually rather than as a member of a group who shares the same traits as all other members of that group. The same dictionary defines prejudice as “a preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience.” Colloquially, we think of prejudices as ideas that lead to behavioral outcomes that are negative toward a person and are based upon his or her group membership, so stereotyping and prejudice overlap and it is easier to simply talk about prejudice. Racism is a prejudice that involves negative behaviors toward members of racial/ethnic groups based upon their group membership and in America has historically been directed at minority racial or ethnic groups, such as Blacks, Asians, Jews, Native Americans or Latinos (and in our earlier history, Southern Europeans and Irish).  Many people and some groups in America are unashamed of their racism, mostly perhaps because they believe the stereotypes that underlie them.  The majority of Americans condemn racist prejudices, although numerous studies have shown that nearly everyone holds some stereotypical ideas about most racial/ethnic groups (even members of such groups). Following the recent presidential election, which many racists are celebrating and even taking as permission to engage in racist hate crimes, many opponents of the winning candidate, Donald Trump have labeled everyone who voted for Trump as a racist, simply because of their vote. I happen to think this is wrong because 1) it oversimplifies the perception of individuals by stereotyping the members of the group which supported Trump and 2) it results in prejudicial labeling of Trump supporters, which further pushes them away from non-Trump supporters and into greater identification with others who are in fact, racist and who supported Trump for that reason. But that’s just my opinion.  Note also that I am referring to Trump supporters, not to Trump himself. The real question is whether stereotyping and prejudice are bad in themselves, regardless of who the target is, or whether they are only bad when directed at groups who suffer from (and have historically suffered from) discriminatory practices.

Everyone uses stereotyping and prejudice in making decisions about other people. We can’t help it and it makes some decisions easier for us. But anger plus prejudice results in hateful behavior and hateful behavior, based upon prejudice, hurts people for the wrong reasons. If this is so, should we oppose prejudice per se, no matter whom it is directed at, or only when it is directed at people who, because they are a minority, have less means to defend themselves?

I’m well aware that those who label all Trump supporters as racists will argue that their use of that label is not a stereotype or prejudice, but is based upon reality. All I can say is that everyone who holds a stereotype or prejudice says the same thing.

Does hostile speech lead to violent action or can speech and action be separated?

During the recent election, Donald Trump called Hillary Clinton a “criminal,” called the mainstream media “scum” and called illegal immigrants “rapists, murderers and drug dealers.” He famously said he would “like to punch him in the face” about a protester at one of his rallies. Because of his words, he and his candidacy have been blamed for violence during the campaign and for post-election hate crimes and violence, which include attacks on minority race individuals and Muslims, and numerous cases of hate speech. At the same time his opponents have called him a “despicable racist,” have carried signs saying “Fuck Trump,” and have used the hash tags “assassinatetrump” and “rapeMelania” on Twitter, and have occasionally physically attacked Trump supporters. Leaders of even nonviolent protest movements routinely demonize the group they are protesting against. Sometimes such protests erupt into violence and often they do not. Sometimes movements, which are overwhelmingly nonviolent, appear to provoke isolated incidents of violence by their sympathizers (e.g. the increase in racial/ethnic/religious hate crimes by Trump supporters and the attacks on individual Trump supporters by his opponents).

We are often admonished by our leaders to “tone down the rhetoric” on the assumption that hateful rhetoric can lead to violent confrontation. Intuitively this makes sense, but is it true? Our Constitution places freedom of speech above the concern for provoking violence, so for speech to be prohibited it must be linked to an “imminent” likelihood of violence (e.g. urging a crowd to attack someone), and so-called “hate speech” is protected under the first amendment. But Constitutional issues are a question of legal priorities, not a sociological explanation of the causes of violence. We have several cases in which it appears that internet-based hate messages have convinced Americans to join ISIS or commit acts of terror.

Some people claim that “people can make a distinction between speech and behavior” so the idea that hateful speech provokes hateful behavior is false. Others believe the opposite—that creating a mindset in a listener that one’s enemy is deserving of hate and is different from the listener in negative ways, lowers the listener’s internal prohibitions against using violence against the other.

I don’t know which of these positions is true, although I suspect it is the latter and that hateful speech leads to expressions of that hate in violent actions. If so, then all Americans who oppose using violence against their fellow Americans need to tone down the rhetoric.

Do tactics such as name-calling and demonization by one side in an argument increase such tactics by the other side or do they lead to avoidance of such tactics, or does it depend upon such tactic’s success?

Hillary Clinton promised that “when they go low, we’ll go high” in response to the insults from the Trump campaign during the election season. Clearly that didn’t happen. In fact, throughout the Republican primary we saw Donald Trump use name-calling and insults against his opponents, who invariably took of the gauntlet and returned his insults, only to find themselves losing voters for doing so. In the general election, Clinton’s focus upon Trump’s temperament, which she said should disqualify him for the presidency, and calling his supporters “deplorables,” while calling Trump himself a racist and misogynist led to more criticism of her tactics than to disaffection from Donald Trump by his supporters.

Is it invariably true that by insulting and demonizing your opponent you increase the likelihood that he or she does the same to you, or is this a phenomena unique to the Donald Trump candidacy and perhaps having to do with his skill at insulting his opponents and baiting them so that they do the same back to him? I don’t know the answer to this question. Many people seem to believe that it’s necessary to “call a spade a spade” and anything less than demonizing someone we feel is evil, is tantamount to surrendering to their viewpoint. The phrase we hear nowadays is that by not demonizing someone who behaves unacceptably, we are “normalizing” his or her behavior. But labeling behavior as unacceptable is not the same as demonizing a person and labeling a behavior as unacceptable is not normalizing it.

The concept of “normal behavior” can have either of two meanings: it can mean that it is behavior shown by a large segment of the population or it can mean that  it is behavior that falls within certain standards of “normality” agreed upon by the majority of population. Getting married falls into the first category and being gay falls into the second. Some people who show abnormal behavior, particularly using the second criteria, probably deserve to be demonized (serial killers, for instance), and some don’t (people with schizophrenia, for instance). Both types of normality may change over time due to cultural influences. People are today concerned that the culture may stop seeing things such as racial and religious persecution as not normal, if those who advocate such persecution are accepted as legitimate representatives of mainstream values. But if people feel that such persecution is not normal, do they need to demonize the people who advocate it in order to fight it? Does demonizing the person actually help or hinder the effort to fight against the behavior?

It seems to me that once an argument devolves into being about the character of the person who advocates a point of view, rather than the validity of that point of view, it can be countered by convincing people that the person’s character is not as bad as it seems or at least no worse than those who have an opposite point of view. This is exactly what Donald Trump did when he responded to accusations that he lied, made immoral business decisions, and preyed on women. He responded by attacking the honesty and morals of Hillary Clinton’s past behavior and by claiming that his sexual predation was no more objectionable than that of Bill Clinton’s. The public argument became one of comparing one candidate's "character" to the other's and about who represented the “lesser of two evils,” rather than about the acceptability of lying, of engaging in disreputable business practices or of using one’s wealth and position to prey upon women, regardless of who did it or about the policy positions of the two candidates.

Does cooperating with a political enemy on things you agree on lead to softening the other’s position on other issues or hardening them, because you’re perceived as “giving in?”

The question facing Democrats right now is whether to cooperate with the Trump administration on issues of concern to both of them, or whether to try to obstruct every action the Trump administration takes. A variety of this argument has been put forth by Chuck Schumer, in which he considers cooperating with Trump administration on issues where they share a common point of view, particularly if those are points of view not shared by the congressional Republicans in order to drive a wedge between the new president and his party. Michael Moore and Harry Reid have recommended he obstructionist pathway and Barack Obama, Chuck Schumer an even Bernie Sanders have recommended the cooperative pathway.

Cooperation in congress usually means compromise. Rarely do the two political parties agree completely enough on an issue to not require some compromise by one or both sides. Compromise means giving in on some of the things you want. When such compromises happen, they need not be even. One side may give in more than the other. Typically both sides claim that their side “won.”

The history of politics must tell us whether compromise leads to a softening of both sides’ positions or leads to one side taking advantage of the other. I’m not a historian of politics so I don’t know the answer to this. I don’t need to be a historian to remember what happened during the last six years, when Republicans controlled both houses of congress, the president was a Democrat, and the Republicans decided to obstruct everything the president wanted to do. Constructive legislation came to a standstill, the citizenry became fed up with politicians from both parties, more so with congress than the president, and the country divided in various ways: Republicans against Democrats, liberals against conservatives, and perhaps most importantly, anti-establishment against establishment.

Both Democrats and Republicans were criticized for not standing up for their principles and for not compromising—a lose/lose situation for both parties. But it was the American people who lost most of all, because nothing got done. Gun control is a dramatic case in point: both parties introduced gun control legislation and neither party would vote for the other’s, despite either one of the proposals being better than the status quo.

Being afraid to compromise to the point that the only bills that are passed are those favored by one’s opponent (remember the Republicans own the majority in both houses), because compromise and cooperation means giving in and lending legitimacy to your opponent’s agenda, seems to me to be the height of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face. And it will probably result in another populist revolt against establishment politicians.

But that’s just my opinion.



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