Two Minutes of Listening Beats a Two-Minute Hate
Reflexive "outgroup" outrage and retaliation just leads into tit-for-tat wars.
Back in September of 2017, Trump supporters held a giant rally—the Mother of All Rallies, as they called it—in Washington. Some folks from Black Lives Matter also showed up. The two groups usually get along like oil and water. And that's about how well they were getting along on this particular day.
But then something happened. The organizer of the Trump rally, Tommy Hodges, invited the leader of the BLM group, Hawk Newsome, onto the stage to speak. "We're gonna give you two minutes of our platform to put your message out," Hodges said.
Newsome gave it to them straight. "I don't think my Bible is any different from yours when it says 'love thy neighbor,'" he told the crowd. The BLM movement was not anti-cop, he said; "we are anti-bad-cop. If a cop is bad he needs to be fired like a bad plumber, like a bad lawyer, like a bad politician."
"I am an American, and the beauty of America is that when you see something broke in your country you can mobilize to fix it," Newsome said. "If we really want to make America great," he concluded, "we do it together." Then he shook hands with the Trump supporters, took an American flag that was handed to him, and raised it high.
There had been some heckling while Newsome spoke, but the crowd applauded when he finished. Again, Newsome: "A man who controls a 4,000-member militia shook my hand and said, 'I always knew I identified with you, but today solidified it.' Wow. One of the heads of Bikers for Trump came up and shook my hand, asked me to take a picture with his son. … Here I went from being their enemy to someone they want to take pictures with their children, and that's the power of communication."
That moment came to mind Thursday, when social media was swarming with its usual angry-hornet mobs, who were fighting over what Samantha Bee had said. Her remark can't be repeated here; suffice it to say that she told Ivanka Trump, on national TV, "Do something about your dad's immigration policies, you feckless"—and then used one of the two most vile words in the English language. Liberal media outlets ate it up.
What happened next was predictable. Conservatives compared the situation to Roseanne Barr's racist tweet and railed against liberal double standards. Liberals shot back that the two situations were completely different. More conservatives dredged up horrible things liberals had said in the past, and more liberals dredged up horrible things conservatives had said in the past, and so it went.
Did Bee have a point about the Trump administration's policy of separating undocumented immigrant children from their parents? Absolutely. But the point was utterly lost in the resulting furor. Maybe, to Bee, that didn't matter; she's in the entertainment business, not the saving-the-world business, and the resulting controversy earned her plenty of free media, whether it had any effect on immigration policy or not.
But you could hardly ask for a starker contrast than the one between Newsome's speech and Bee's remarks. Self-righteous rage and poisonous invective are surely great fun, judging by how much of them erupt on a daily basis. But they achieve nothing except retaliation in kind. How many people at the Mother of All Rallies would have heard a word Newsome said if he had called them a bunch of backward, stupid, racist mother-….?
The Newsome moment at the Trump rally seemed promising. But in the months since, how much time have Americans spent giving respectful audience to their political opponents? How often do we stop to ask ourselves: Is it possible that I might be wrong? "The spirit of liberty," judge Learned Hand wrote, "is the spirit that is not too sure it is right." A little doubt now and then fosters humility—and moderation of tone, and tolerance of other views.
Tolerance is a word that get used a great deal these days, but the exercise of it seems in short supply. Scott Alexander, who blogs at Slate Star Codex, has a superb meditation on this titled, "I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup." Tolerance as it is spoken of today is often not real tolerance at all, he notes. If you are, for example, a liberal Democrat who abhors homophobia, then you get no tolerance points for approving of gay marriage; the fact that you approve of it means it requires no putting-up-with in the first place. But what about Christian fundamentalists?
Alexander defines real tolerance as "respect and kindness toward members of an outgroup." And the outgroup often is not people very different from us, but people quite like us. Alexander notes that in WWII, the Germans were not trying to exterminate the Japanese—who were very different from them—but rather European Jews, who were so very much like them. For many Americans today, the hated outgroup frequently is … their fellow Americans: "the Liberal Elite," or evangelical Christians, or Trump voters, or Black Lives Matter—and the preferred posture is to hunker down with one's fellow ingroup members and hurl insults at the outgroup. Which gets us nowhere.
So, a proposal: Find yourself a few members of your chosen outgroup. Then give them a couple of minutes, and listen. Because, as a wise fellow said not long ago: If we really want to make America great, we do it together.