Note: This article is addressed to me as much as anyone else.
Update: In retrospect, this post came out a bit more angry than it should have. I was pretty upset about the election results, and I rattled this off under the influence of those emotions. Apologies for the tone. I still stand by the sentiment that we liberals should be more empathetic if we want to get more people on our side.
We stared at our variously-sized screens in horror last night as a misogynistic, racist, ignorance-celebrating, sociopathic idiot was elected our President. We thought that eight years of Obama and changing demographics meant that we were on the right side of history, and that our society was an inevitability for everyone in the US. And, while I hope that this is just an unfortunate blip in our march of progress, there’s now a real chance that it isn’t.
I count myself a staunch liberal. But in the last few years, I’ve become increasingly disenchanted with much of our movement. Specifically, I’ve seen us lose the empathy that was supposed to be our greatest strength.
The rise of both Trump and Bernie Sanders shows that there are real, legitimate problems happening in middle America. Yet while we’ve been fighting the good fight for marriage equality, for equal pay for equal work, and for many other causes for other disenfranchised groups—all of which we needed to fight—we missed this one. We missed a large portion of middle America—mostly rural, mostly white, mostly (former) middle class—being put directly under the boot of our political, economic, and cultural system, and stepped on.
Worse, we lumped these folks in with the bad guys. We ridiculed and belittled them privately and publicly. We laughed at them in interview panels on national television set up specifically to mock them. And yes, some of them hold utterly vile opinions, and sometimes they actually were the bad guys, but you know what? Life is fucking complicated, and if we’re going to argue that telling young black men over and over that they’re criminals might lead some of them to say, “Fuck you then, if that’s what you expect of me then that’s what you’ll get”, then we have to admit the possibility that constantly telling rural white people that they’re racists might elicit the same reaction. (Note that I am not saying this is the only or even a particularly common explanation for racism.)
If we’re going to push for social change, then we have a responsibility to not be intellectually lazy about it. Social issues are complicated, so be nuanced in your thinking; social issues change over time, so always question if the same old explanations still apply; social issues require objectivity, which requires introspection, so turn the microscope inward and stare hard at what you see.
For instance, white privilege is absolutely a thing. Straight privilege is a thing. Male privilege is a thing. But so is the privilege enjoyed by all of us who are educated and live in cities with strong economies. So is the privilege of every single person working in the tech industry, which, don’t forget, frequently makes money precisely because people elsewhere lose their jobs. (More on that below.) Many of us in America’s strongest cities who talk about privilege are actually part of a new global class who—we should at least consider—may have more privilege than many poor white people in Michigan or Ohio, regardless of the color of our skin, our gender, or our sexual orientation.
I’m a straight, white, educated man. That puts me in a very privileged class in the US. But I think people who know me would consider me at least a decent ally for those communities who are disenfranchised. (If you know me and you disagree, please tell me.) But whatever understanding I have isn’t because I’ve personally experienced the struggles of people in those communities. I’ve never had to come out to my friends and family. (Although I came out as an atheist in a Christian family, which comes with its own set of much lesser struggles.) I’ve never experienced catcalls or sexual abuse. I’ve never experienced the fear that many minorities feel when they interact with the police. But I believe in empathy, and I strive to exercise it. And in the past few years, I’ve seen the liberal community fail to extend the same empathy to truly disaffected lower-class white people that we rightly extend to gay people and women and minorities. What we’ve told these folks is: You only get our empathy and our help if we agree with you. (Or more accurately, if you agree with us.)
Allow me to propose a thought experiment. Imagine that you are a woman in her 30s living in Michigan. You lost your job during the housing crisis and you’re underwater in your mortgage. You have old-economy skills, so you can’t find steady work. (Or maybe you’re working two minimum wage jobs.) You worry every day where the next meal for your two kids will come from, and what you’ll do if, heaven forbid, one of them gets sick. If you’re in this situation, what level of sexism would you be willing to put up with if it meant being able to truly provide for your family?
I honestly don’t know the answer to this question. But we need to ask ourselves questions like this, and we need to do it honestly, prepared for any answer. Even one that makes us uncomfortable.
To my liberal friends in the tech industry, we especially need to own up to our part in this. Ben Thompson of Stratechery wrote the following of the tech industry in his daily update today (link for subscribers only; italics are his, bolding is mine):
And when it comes to reality, the fact of the matter is that the tech industry is predicated on inequality. The entire idea is to build scalable processes that massively increase efficiency and disrupt old-world businesses by making it up in volume. Where we have failed miserably as an industry is coming up with solutions for — or, to be more precise, giving the slightest hint of a damn about — the individuals lost along the way. Individuals who are primarily rural, primarily Midwestern, and who overwhelmingly showed up — as opposed to most demographics who didn’t — to elect Donald Trump president.
That so many of us are confused by last night shows how unaware we are of the plight—and the resulting anger—of so much of middle America. But every day, our Facebook feeds and John Oliver and every article we choose to read tells us that we have the right view of the world, and that anyone who disagrees with us is uneducated or bigoted or uncaring. Meanwhile, middle America saw an economy that didn’t want their skills and a culture that sure as fuck didn’t care about their opinions. And they turned to the person they believed was their only hope.
Now I, like many of you, believe that they were wrong to see him as a hope at all, and that they’ve instead elected one of the most vile human beings who ever ran for President of the US. But where was our concern for this community when we were trying to convince them of the danger of Trump? Where were the liberals saying, “Yes, you’re right that our culture is trying to throw you out with the bathwater, and that’s wrong, but…?” Where was our empathy?
It was drowned out by an echo chamber, our own personal cacophony of choices and clicks and likes that we make a little louder every day.
So quit Facebook. Talk to a cab driver. Watch Trumpland. (I haven’t seen it yet but I want to: Michael Moore’s been making some solid points.) Read this article. Or this one. Or this one. Again, I’m also talking to myself here, so I think I’ll be pretty much done with Facebook from now on, and will struggle in my limited way to understand my country at a deeper level than I’ve managed in the past few years.
Lastly, if you’re the type of person who likes to solve problems at scale, consider working to solve the problems of the former middle class in middle America. Because, like lots of other groups in our country, they’re flawed—some deeply—but they’re struggling.