Sunday, January 22, 2017

Seattle Conference, Inauguration, and Protests

I arrived in Seattle Washington today to attend the annual meeting of the American Meteorological Society. Friday I watched footage of the rule of law, managed democracy in action, in the inauguration ceremony of Donald Trump. Yesterday I saw freedom of expression in action as people swarmed the streets of Seattle as part of the set of nationwide "women's marches" protesting the inauguration and Trump's rhetoric, history, and proposed policies. As this is an education blog, my point in discussing these issues here is to encourage people to listen to diverse perspectives different from their own. My purpose is not to side with one view or the other on the Trump presidency.

I took some time to mingle with the crowd, listening to their conversations and perspectives. Most of them aligned solidly with the political left. Yet, aside from their chants and signs, most of their conversations were about things they saw around them, their experience of the day, and their decisions for their next meals. Really similar, actually, to what I saw in Tea Party rallies. Also similar to my observations of videos of Palestinian and Israeli birthday parties posted on Youtube. As different as aspects of our views are, most of us are surprisingly similar. Some readers my trivialize my perspective here--I mean, obviously both groups are human, but that is precisely my point. It is becoming common practice for each side to dehumanize the other, and it does not make things any better. 

I recently posted on Twitter how I think that every person on the political right needs a friend on the left. Every person on the political left needs a friend on the right. We all too often listen just to people (and sources of news) with whom we already agree. Besides being intellectually weak, this behavior amplifies political polarization. We construct for ourselves echo chambers, where we tend to hear progressively more extreme views with which we see no reason to argue. People on the left and the right have also segregated themselves geographically. This separation leads many of them to conclude that basically everyone is like themselves, and that the distant strangers who disagree are simply deluded or even evil. Many people on the urban east and west coasts do not have many opportunities to meet conservatives. Many in rural America do not know people on the political left. 

In comparison with the past, I think there is relatively little hate left in the United States that is motivated by race, sex, or other characteristics of identity. Most of us mingle well with the opposite sex, other races, and people of other religions or belief systems. Of course hate motivated by those things still exists and still impacts people's lives, and it is an important problem for the individuals seriously impacted by it. I'm just claiming that it does not dominate our culture. 

Recent events suggest to me that most of the hate left in the United States is now aligned with politics. Abhorrent attacks on Trump supporters, including a man with a mental disability, along with other attacks going the other way support this view. 

People on the left, for the most part, did not hate George W. Bush because he was white. They disliked his conservative rhetoric and policies. Similarly, most people on the right did not dislike President Obama because he was black. They hated his left-leaning rhetoric. The truth of this point becomes obvious when the same people voice support for Clarence Thomas. I think we can all do better than this. There is no good reason to hate any person because of either their skin tone or their politics. 

Although it may be true that some ideas on either side really are simply wrong or harmful to humanity and human dignity, most of the time when we see the views of the opposition that way, it results from our own restatement of their position. The straw-man fallacy shows up frequently in both Tea Party protests and the ongoing anti-Trump marches. In the straw-man fallacy, we put up a false caricature of the opponent's view, then attack it as if it were their actual view. Sometimes we even do it while thinking our representation of their view is correct. Being wrong and not knowing it still feels like being right. Personally I would rather be less wrong. 

Obviously not everything either side claims about the other is a straw-man, but we owe everyone the common decency of an honest representation. Our politics can do better. My invitation to each of you is to seek out people with views different from your own. Question yourself and each other. Don't attempt to silence people with differing political views. Celebrate free expression, consider each other's views, and then stand up for what you think is right.