“Taking the high road” by not speaking out against hate is not going to curry favor with bigoted conservatives. In fact, it’s likely what got us here in the first place.
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On Sunday evening, a stadium full of baseball fans banded together to boo Donald Trump, and chant of “Lock him up!” broke out. For a moment, for an evening, my Twitter timeline was joyous.
But in the morning came the scolds. The people who wanted to be sure to chastise the rest of us, saying that it was things like this that got Trump elected in the first place, and that he will be re-elected if they keep happening. These are the same types who, when Elizabeth Warren suggested, at the LGBTQ town hall, that those who “marriage is between one man and one woman” should just marry one person of the opposite sex, wrote plaintive op-eds reminding us that mocking people with traditional values like that will inevitably result in Trump being re-elected. You know, because there was definitely a chance in hell that anyone who feels that importantly about LGBTQ people not having rights was going to vote for a Democrat before then.
There is an element of absurdity in these pleas, considering the behavior of Trump and his followers. One can hardly imagine anyone writing a scolding op-ed to devoted Trump followers, urging them to stop sharing anti-Semitic frog memes or accusing people of running child sex rings run out of pizza parlors and be more “civil,” never mind one suggesting that Donald Trump’s lack of civility and respect for others could push people further Left. It just wouldn’t happen.
And yet, there is a strain of “wisdom” that if we are just nicer to conservatives, if we always take the high road, if we are civil, if we are more forgiving of bigotry (pardon me, “traditional beliefs”), if we are careful not to be “condescending,” if we don’t advocate for things they really don’t like or vote for people who “frighten them,” they will return the favor and be more moderate themselves. Or they won’t, and then all the nice white suburban Republican ladies will finally decide that the Republican Party has gone “too crazy” and rush into the waiting arms of the first moderate Democrat they see.
Conservatives themselves are often the first to push this sort of wisdom, and are frequently found on the internet claiming they’ve been “forced” to become racist because they were called racist by a liberal for saying a thing they did not think was racist. Like the prototypical abusive husband, they don’t want to hurt us, but we are just not good enough at walking on eggshells around them.
But here’s the problem: We’ve tried that before and it did not work. No one ever got a thank-you note and, if you will notice, John Kerry was never elected to the Oval Office. In fact, I would argue that coddling the Right for decades is what got us here.
For decades, the news media consisted of straight news, mostly centrist talk panels and right-wing talk radio/opinion shows. They would hear Rush Limbaugh or Bill O’Reilly talking about how evil and scary feminists and gay people and tree-huggers and peaceniks and immigrants and Black people were, and how they were going to ruin the country. They did not hear from any of those people. There certainly wasn’t a liberal equivalent to Rush Limbaugh, talking about how conservatives were bad people who were going to ruin the country.
Heck, in 2003, Phil Donahue was fired from “liberal” MSNBC, at the behest of “liberal” Chris Matthews, for opposing the invasion of Iraq. A memo that leaked after his firing read that network executives considered him a “difficult public face for NBC in a time of war.” Yes. Phil Donahue—that Phil Donahue—was just “too radical” for MSNBC.
So if you were a conservative Republican in those days, you had every reason to believe that the vitriol only went one way. You hated all those sinners out there, but you didn’t ever hear directly from them, nor did you hear from them what they thought about you. They weren’t real people with thoughts and feelings like you had—they were boogeymen (and women).
One of the things I hear very often on the Right is that, from their perspective, racism was over, sexism was over, and everything was fine, everyone got along, but then all of a sudden, nothing was fine anymore. And it’s not that people weren’t discussing sexism and racism—we were—but they were not around or involved when they did. As far as they knew, from the end of the Rodney King trial to the dawn of the Black Lives Matter movement, there was no police brutality that particularly bothered anyone. After all, it wasn’t on the news.
Then social media happened, and all the conversations the Left had been having all along, in coffee shops, in college, at meetings of activist groups, at parties, in LiveJournals and blogs, were suddenly being had in full view of everyone. And it wasn’t just that people were still mad about bigotry, but that they were so much further along in their analysis and understanding of these issues than they were the last time the Right checked in. They were talking about privileges and microaggressions and intersectionality and ways people could discriminate without even knowing it. All of a sudden, as far as conservatives were concerned, people would think they were jerks if they made fun of a woman for being a “slut” or overweight. Women didn’t want to be catcalled. Trans people wanted to be treated like human beings instead of the shocking twist at the end of a Kinks song.
Liberals, they discovered, were even offended by all the things people on the Right had been saying about them all these years. That when we heard someone say something like, “Gay people cause hurricanes with their gay sex,” we did not think, “Oh, well, they just have traditional values and beliefs. Live and let live!,” and instead thought they were terrible, terrible people.
They found out that the vitriol did, indeed, go both ways. We didn’t like them any more than they liked us. We were not being tolerant of their intolerances. And that was a tough pill to swallow. And they got angry. So angry, supposedly, that they elected Trump in hopes that he would make it “OK” for them to be themselves again without any social repercussions.
I’m not entirely convinced that continuing to walk on eggshells would have prevented Trump. After all, conservatives elected George W. Bush twice, back in the “good old days.” The Tea Party formed while Obama was president—arguably because he was president—as he desperately tried to convince Republicans that he wasn’t going to hurt them, governing (by his own estimation) to the right of Nixon, and passing the Heritage Foundation’s national health-care plan. No amount of capitulation and deference and taking the high road would have kept them from moving even further Right.
The fact is, the more you treat people as if they are made of glass, the more they will behave as if they are made of glass, and right now these people are Fabergé eggs.
If the Right hadn’t been coddled all along, hadn’t been mostly protected from ideas and legislation that might “frighten” them, if they had been made aware that we found most of the things they said about us extremely insulting, perhaps there wouldn’t have been as big of a culture shock when social media came around. Perhaps the Right would have developed a slightly thicker skin and there wouldn’t be this huge double standard where they get to go around saying cruel things, walk around wearing T-shirts that say “Fuck your feelings,” and then fall into heaving sobs the second they think someone is being “mean” to them or “their president.” Perhaps they wouldn’t “need” Trump as they feel they do now.
At the very least, we sure as hell know the other way didn’t work. So maybe it’s time to put the high road under construction.
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