Opinion— “Imagined Slights”
There is a major, perhaps intractable problem with combating the hatred and ignorance rampant in U.S. society and politics today. Recently I found a way to verbalize it.
In early 2009 I found myself spending a good deal of time in close quarters for work with a fellow who always has projected himself as being highly intelligent. This was before Obama was even inaugurated.
This fellow kept talking about how ‘the Democrats’ were going to introduce legislation requiring talk radio stations to provide equal time to both sides of any topic. In other words, whatever stations broadcast Rush Limbaugh spewing hate and lies for hours on end, they would be forced by law to supply equal time to opposing views. I kept telling him that this was nonsense and that no Democrat had proposed any such thing. (In fact, the Fairness Doctrine was first proposed in the 1930s and had been repeatedly discredited by Democrats for seven decades.) He kept insisting, so finally, somewhere in Asia we went online to FactCheck.org, the non-partisan clearinghouse for factual information, fact-checking, and rumor checking used by journalists worldwide. No Democrats were saying they would introduce such legislation, no such legislation planned, and Obama and the other Democrats had publicly said they were against any such idea. The origin, the non-partisan fact-checkers found, was a racist ultra-right-wing radio commentator in the Deep South.
I already had experienced and observed firsthand the extent to which right-wing, and some left-wing, extremists refused to engage in calm, objective political discourse. They grew agitated if you tried to speak reasonably and rationally about the state of the world. This had been apparent in 2004 already. Then again, it had been apparent in 1964. And it was apparent in 1936 – 1940 by the pro-Nazi America First Committee, Huey Long, and others. (Yes, America First started as a group that wanted to ally with the Nazis, Italian Fascists, and Japan. Modern-day politicians choose their signals knowingly.)
The subject came up again recently after a famously ill-informed relative re-posted a tirade in 32-point all capital letters by someone writing he was fed up with people telling him that he could no longer wish anyone Merry Christmas or call a Christmas Tree a Christmas Tree. Ignoring my doctor’s and my wife’s advice to avoid toxic people, I took the bait. I asked who had told him he had to stop wishing people Merry Christmas or calling a Christmas Tree a Christmas Tree. I pointed out that I live in a liberal enclave in the wrongly presumed liberal New York City (which regularly has as many Republican mayors and other elected officials as it does Democrat ones), that I travel the country and world extensively, that I read extensively, and that I had never heard anyone say that.
They refused to answer. I asked a few times.
Finally, my cousin wrote something that explained it all. She wrote: “It is people like you who try to take away my right to say Merry Christmas and my right to believe abortion is murder.”
There it was, a major key to unlocking the hatred and anger of millions of Americans. Imagined Slights.
I asked her if she knew anyone who in reality was trying to take away her right to wish people Merry Christmas or to believe that abortion is murder. I certainly was not, even though in her anger she falsely accused me of doing such. (I used to wish people Merry Christmas until right-wing jerks made that a sign of being an ignorant right-wing fanatic. I still do, but I am more cautious lest I be misidentified as a fanatic.)
Of course, she could not name one single person who was trying to make her stop saying and believing things. It was all in her mind, fueled by the hate radio and internet blogs she absorbs religiously.
There is a great difference between someone saying they disagree with you and someone telling you to stop expressing yourself or believing in what you believe. But not in her mind, and not in the minds of the millions of other angry right-wing people.
This is the core problem. These are Imagined Slights.
Society can correct real slights, real inappropriate and unfair actions, and statements. But, it cannot correct things that exist in an individual’s imagination. Only those who imagine such slights can correct their beliefs that they have been set upon.
Now Fox New says there is a ‘liberal assault’ on Thanksgiving. Nonsense. However, these Imagined Slights are at the core of anger and hatred. It is the core of the “Jews Won’t Replace Us” mantra of the Nazis marching in Charlottesville. It is the basis for all of the nasty ‘us versus them’ paranoia that feeds so many people. This is the twisted logic of people who say they stand for liberty but want to take away other people’s freedom to control their own biology, speak whatever language they want, walk down the street without being splashed with acid or shot by a policeman for being non-white.
William Barr recently spoke at Notre Dame, saying there is a socialist, liberal attack on Christianity in America. That also is Nonsense, with a capital N. Barr knows it’s a lie. He also knows that those sorts of lies would have gotten a populist fascist elected in 1936 if he had not been shot in 1935. The Republican leadership knows that the Democrats are not espousing socialism. When I asked a prominent Republican party member in March 2009 why they kept calling Democrats socialists, he said “It worked for the Nazis in the 1930s,” discrediting the opposition in the minds of those who did not know better.
The problem with the origin of the anger being Imagined Slights is that no external comments or efforts can change them. They exist in the distorted thinking of those who hold these Imagined Slights. Yes, they are fueled by hate-mongering politicians and commentators who make their living preaching division and intolerance across the nation. But the hate and the Imagined Slights are internal to individuals’ brains, and only those individuals can correct the errors.
George Washington warned of the dangers of partisanship in his Farewell Address, saying “It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and … foments occasionally riot and insurrection.”
Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos Or Community
One can work to reduce the flow of bad information, the Pizzagate story, the phony threats of Fairness Doctrine legislation, and other made-up stories, but that is tough to accomplish under the best of circumstances. Having a government that sees misinformation and hate-mongering as instrumental to control does not help.
It may be more fruitful to try to raise the capacity of citizens to be able to:
- read for content instead of confirmation,
- think critically,
- raise their knowledge and understanding of the world, and
- question the veracity of what they read and the ethics and motives of the sources of the information they receive.
Suggesting the reinstatement of civics classes in school, having students read and debate the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and then discuss their meaning and origins, is now considered left-wing indoctrination akin to re-education camps.
Circulating lists of non-partisan sources of information and encouraging people to turn to such news outlets is one way to help stem the tide of tribally driven information sourcing.
Developing an intelligent electorate that seeks out unbiased information takes several generations of reformed education, however. The lack of civility today is directly related to an absence of knowledge of our nation’s history as well as world history.
Reforms work only if people want to change and improve themselves and the society they live in. Most people in the United States probably would like to see a less polarized political and social environment, but right now they do not have much of a voice, drowned out by the angry extremes on both sides. The political system is not providing the means to combat ignorance, uncritical thinking, and imagined antagonism.
There is a myth that Rudy Guiliani solved the rampant crime problems that haunted New York in the 1970s – 1980s. He did not. He was elected because the people of New York were fed up with crime. The times made the man; the man did not make the times. Certainly the people he hired helped effect the change, but it was the denizens of New York City who did the heavy lifting.
The issue is how does a society pull back from such corrosive polarization. How can we as a society change minds to encourage critical thinking? This has to be done by people willing to listen, learn, and change themselves. At present, there are too many people who refuse to engage in thoughtful discourse.
To honestly discuss differences of beliefs each party needs first to fully understand the knowledge, logic, and underlying bases of the other parties’ beliefs. Only then can you begin to consider and discuss how each party, or one or the other party, maybe basing his or her actions and sentiments on misplaced or erroneous thinking. As a society, we are not there yet.