This Is How War Begins
“Their stupidity is amusing.”
“Stopping Trump is essential. Anyone who says otherwise is either foolish or blinded by privilege.”
“People should get hated for voting for Johnson because he is a moron.”
“Are Trump supporters too dumb to know they’re dumb?”
“Hillbots have complete inability to do anything except parrot their hero Shillary’s endless lies”
“Anyone who votes for Killary has already been drugged and taken the stupid pill.”
“They will never change.”
“Disgusting, twisted human beings.”
Anyone who reads Facebook or pretty much any political website is sure to see comments like these that dehumanize not only the opposing candidate, but the candidate’s supporters too. This polarization and vitriol, unprecedented in my lifetime, has me more concerned than the prospect of an evil candidate winning. It is as if what is really going on here is a preparation for civil war.
Dehumanization is a predecessor of war. When you see your opponents as subhuman in their morals, conscience, or intelligence, then you will have to defeat them by force. Moral or rational persuasion won’t do it. That is what the above-quoted comments imply.
The dehumanization runs top to bottom, from the headlines in major news outlets to the comments on Facebook and Twitter. Photos of political candidates chosen to provoke contempt, statements taken deliberately out of context… the no-holds-barred tactics of war. Both sides feature the most outrageous comments made by partisans of the other side, seeking to indict all of them through guilt by association. Similar to the atrocity stories used to whip up war hysteria among a pacifist public before World War One, these reports polarize the electorate and sow paranoia and distrust.
If you read only one side, you don’t know that the other side expresses the same outraged grievances as yours does. Most of my readers are probably familiar with articles about gun-toting “poll watchers” sent by Trump operatives to intimidate voters. But unless you read right-wing media, you won’t be aware of its earnest, indignant articles about agents provocateur from the Clinton camp seeking to sow violence at Trump rallies. Each side claims the other exaggerates and misconstrues. Each side is constructing a reality in which the other is hideous.
Reading right-wing and left-wing news sites side by side, one gets the impression that reality has diverged into two. I read both, in order to understand the sickness that has infected my country. Headline news in one camp is totally absent from the other. It isn’t just the interpretation of the news that is different – the two sides don’t even agree on fundamental facts. Here’s how one Facebook commentator, Amelia Bagwell, describes the experience of reading a conservative friend’s news feed: “News agencies I have never heard of with bold headlines of’Breaking News’ announcing HRC’s pending arrest. Trump is second to none in morality, decency and honor…loves Jesus…and is a perfect example of a godly family man. If the same stories are reported, they are akin to reading two different languages. We are divided not just ideologically, but at a core level of raw information.”
Such a gulf of perception inflamed by hatred presents a very dangerous situation.
I will not venture an opinion on whether the candidates themselves are hideous. We live in a system that encourages and rewards corrupt and even psychopathic behavior. What I do know, though, is that the vast majority of ordinary people are not the cartoonish caricatures of human beings that political rhetoric has made them out to be. They have an experience of life, a history, a convergence of circumstances that has brought them to their opinions. Just like you.
Statements like those quoted above create a climate for extreme measures. Take them seriously, and you have to conclude that there are an awful lot of people out there who just need to be locked up, medicated, forcibly re-educated, or maybe shot. They are reprehensible, appalling… they are deplorable.
Once the name-calling starts it is self-perpetuating, since anyone who says that you are a deplorable person will seem to you deplorable themselves. How could they be so wrong about you? How could they not see your deep humanity, the good reasons you have for voting the way you do, your sincere attempts to make the world a better place? They seem just hateful.
And so, the body politic tilts further and further into extreme polarization. This will not end well, no matter which side wins.
Dehumanizing narratives are never the truth. The truth can only be sourced from the sincere question, “What is it like to be you?” That is called compassion, and it invites skills of listening, dialog, and communicating without violence or judgement. Now there may be times when such skills fail and there is no choice but to fight. Failure is guaranteed, though, when the surrounding narrative casts the opponent as evil, twisted, disgusting, or deplorable. In that case, war is the likely result.
Can we please stop creating conditions for war? Can we please stop demonizing those who disagree with us? Can we stop the cheap and degrading psychoanalyzing of our opponents? These tactics might seem to succeed in the short term – one side or another will win – but in the end we have only strengthened the climate of hate and the mentality of war.
What can you do about it? I suggest the following: see to it that you imbue everything that you post to social media, every comment, every reply, with a spirit of compassion and respect. Do not let your pain erupt forth as an implicit call to hatred. Do not beat the drums of war.
D. Preston Noff says
Thank you for this refreshing take on election depression … I appreciate your insight… Love loves lovE
This election has left a tender, bruised, open feeling within me. Perhaps this is what stretching the mind and heart toward wholeness is like. I can walk from “camp” to “camp” and see and feel what that block of voters see and feel. Whatever border I cross, I keep encountering the same deep emotional turmoil: The terror of The Evil Other, which triggers individual and collective nightmare, even ptsd. It has never before been so easy to access blogs, chat rooms, youtube channels and endless comments that give a glimpse into the narratives that are guiding citizens all over our country. There are kernels of truth everywhere. So too, evidence of profound pain. Saddest of all, while we are set up to fight our fellow citizens, the system that pits us against each other marches on in its destruction of all we hold dear.
Amy Carbone says
Thank you for this, Charles. You’ve articulated the scariest part of this election and political climate.
I really appreciate your words and this is one of the best articles on the mess that we seem to have created surrounding this election. As you said, the dehumanization of this campaign is frightening and it has taken a front row seat to the actual election itself. It saddens me that we have declined to this point. Tomorrow is the election and I don’t know what to do! I feel has if I’m a child in the midst of a horrible divorce and I have to pic which one I will be with! In my meditation tomorrow I will imagine a world not divided and accepting!
I love Charles’ work. It is entirely consistent with his entire philosophy that he pen this piece now. However, when you, Kay, state that you can’t decide between these candidates, my heart sinks.
The vitriol is not the problem in and of itself. The real problem/s America is facing are deep and complex. Emotion is the thinnest veneer over these complex problems, no matter how strong the feeling.
The candidates (4 at least) are not equally flawed. Part of what has gone wrong is that one side has been busy trying to convince the majority to buy the false equivalency between a person who makes mistakes after careful consideration and on the basis of a sound philosophy and another who doesn’t make mistakes because his modus operandi has nothing to do with a vision for human civilization.
His mode of being involves himself and only himself. If he violates another in body, mind or spirit, he is content. The other person could die; such a result might be advantageous. There is no question of a lack of evidence or the lack of a courtroom. The evidence is all around us. We are the court. That is what it means to have an election: we decide.
If I had created Donald Trump in a laboratory, I could not have fit together a more toxic combination of personality and character flaws. It is necessary to read the media like a fox in order see through all the distortions. Few sources are even coherent, never mind truthful. Even though this is the case like so many others, I struggle to understand how any decent, thinking person would have trouble choosing between these various actors. Two sets cannot win mathematically. One set must not win. “Rolling Stone” just published an article, “Trump must not become President.”
The sexism arrayed against Hillary for more than thirty years has turned her into someone very special. Whatever differences I have with her, and they are many, I am newly stunned by her strength and her dogged stick to it attitude. We have to turn to her on Wednesday and make it clear she must keep her promises while we defend her against lies which would seek to destroy her and our government/our nation.
Our country is in shock as a result of the most harrowing Presidential campaign in a century, if ever.
I absolutely will not vote for Hillary! I feel that she and her campaign is the representation of corruption like we have not seen. We must somehow elevate ourselves to being better! With her, the slime gets thicker!
With Trumps leadership, it too scares me! Having said that, perhaps an outsider would see and do things differently, even though there may be a cost for that as well! Our two party system is nothing than an “ole boys club”. I’m sure that our Founding Fathers would oust our present candidates!
I love the Libertarian party but I cannot vote for Johnson.
Despite all, I will support whomever we elect because I am an American and I believe in democracy.
A very respectable reply in my opinion Kay. Even if I disagreed with you, this is one of the first times I have seen someone state something unequivocally, and state it solely as their opinion, without being argumentative or rude about it. I cannot even begin to disagree with you on the “ole boys club” statement, cronyism is such a huge part of the failings in our system it is insane. One thing I will politely disagree with you on is this: ” I’m sure that our Founding Fathers would oust our present candidates!”. I too am certain that they would have a great desire to, but without just cause and due process they would do no such thing. Of course, this is an opinion only, either of us could be correct, or both could be wrong. I know over the years our “founding fathers” habe been somewhat idealized, and some of their less popular or agreeable traits have been scrubbed from history in most areas, or the knowledge of them is simply not passed on, but I still like to believe that they would not go outside of the framework and laws they set up for this country in order to “save it” based on their opinion of a candidate rather than evidence of a criminal or otherwise disqualifying act because they would be corrupting their own political machine out of fear of corruption spreading within it.
In the spirit of compassion and respect, including for those who have similar responses to me, I am moved to say that this last post makes brings me much sadness. However, I do hear a goal of seeking for better that I can agree with.
Is this the spirit of compassion and respect that Charles just mentioned?
I know lots of Trump voters….I like them, and respect their intelligence and the choice they have made….
I don’t care for either of the main candidates….but what have I gained by insulting those who simply vote for a different candidate than I have?
Erik Kowal says
Unfortunately, the militarism, imperial mindset and culturally-promoted predisposition towards violence that is embodied in every facet of American life almost guarantee the sort of approach to the voters for one’s non-preferred candidate that you have described, Charles. This is exemplified by violent children’s cartoons, violent action movies and horror films, the prevalent glorification of war and the armed forces, the playing of violent sports like football and hockey in school, a win-at-all-costs mentality in business life which exploits and dehumanizes workers, an exploitative attitude towards the natural world and agricultural practices which is based on environmental destruction and inflicts a tremendous amount of suffering on farm animals, the “war on terror” and its surrounding climate of fear, and a historical record of violence, paranoia and demonization of the outsider.
The last of these is evidenced in the genocide of Native Americans and the continuing denigration of their descendants, antipathy towards the Chinese in the 19th century, slavery, racism, internment camps for those of Japanese descent in WWII, the Cold War and McCarthyism, anti-Muslim sentiment today, the myth of American exceptionalism, and the legacy of the Monroe Doctrine.
All this is consolidated by an education system that tends to gloss over the country’s structural and historical iniquities and inequalities, and serves to reinforce the self-entitled attitudes, self-absorption and narcissism that we see everywhere in the America of today, especially in many segments of the dominant white Anglo culture.
Given all this, is it really so surprising that there should be such bitter partisanship shown during this election?
It also does not help that the two main candidates (especially Trump) have themselves used highly inflammatory language to characterize both each other and each others’ supporters. When the principal figures appear to be determined to set a bad example, it is hardly surprising when their own supporters take this as a cue for what is appropriate in their own behaviour. If the chief candidates running were Jill Stein of the Green Party and Bernie Sanders, I’m pretty sure that the degree of incivility shown by their supporters would be a tiny fraction of that we have seen among supporters of Clinton and Trump.
Charles Feltman says
The other day I overheard two supporters of one of the presidential candidates (candidate X) talking about the other candidate (candidate Y). One of these people ventured an opinion that something Y had said about one of the country’s major issues was “actually worth considering.” At this point the other person in the conversation started berating this individual, practically shouting “How could you say that? Nothing that candidate Y says has any validity. I can’t believe you would support anything that [I’ll leave out the obscene adjective] says.”
I recall Don Beck (one of the authors of Spiral Dynamics) some years ago talking about what he called “flamethrowers” whose views are at the outer poles of any spectrum of belief. The flamethrowers will do anything to perpetuate the most extreme view of the situation, including viciously attacking people on their own “side” who dare to take a more moderate stance or give any credence to the “other side”. The goal is to render the “other side” completely illegitimate.
The conversation I overheard was just one small example of this. I see it happening on both sides of this election spectrum in what seems to be an alarming extent. If all I did was read what people say on social media and the so called “news” outlets I would have to believe there are more flamethrowers at work in this election than any I can recall in my lifetime.
I believe, however, that this kind of vitriolic rhetoric will fade from the lips of the vast majority of us once the “big contest” is over. Yes, there will be some flamethrowers who perpetuate it as they did after Obama was elected, after Bush Jr. was elected, after Clinton was elected.
But I see this as an urgent call to the majority of us in this country who have less extreme views, who recognize that the issues facing us are complex need thoughtful consideration, who understand that governance of a country like ours requires dialog and compromise, not to let ourselves be ruled by fear and loathing on either “side”. We need to stand up to the flamethrowers. The multi-partisanship this country needs to survive and thrive is only possible if the majority of us are willing to engage in it with courageously open minds.
Werner Brandt says
I spent many of earlier adult years (1960′ thru 70’s) oversimplifying the political landscape as the straights vs. freaks, a time when police were dehumanized as pigs. Republicans were evil, and trusting anyone over 30 was a mistake. Now looking back, what a limiting view of the world, and missed opportunity to build connection with people who are not like-minded. And yes, that divisiveness brought much suffering to the collective consciousness of our country. But maybe this is what the emerging shadow of our nation looks like as we attempt to deal with the underbelly of your nation. Thank you for the reminder of good manners, Charles.
Ed O'Malley says
“This is How War Begins”….yes,with angry, incendiary essay titles.
I’m sorry Charles, while I usually find your writings uplifting, it was hard to get past the irony of your title and tone while calling for compassion.
Maybe a title that offered “a way to Peace”, elucidated by the ensuing essay, would have been more enlightening.
jeannie Carbone says
Thank you for reminding me why I love my right to vote, thank you for reminding me that I do not want to become like the candidate I so fear and really do not understand. Thank you for reminding me to mind my own manners, to love, not hate. My sister has told me you are a person who is worth listening to, and she is a very wise and gentle woman. I really needed to hear this and see just how ugly I myself have been at times in my frustration during this very long process. I still love my country, and I still feel we MUST do the right thing, but name-calling does not get the job done. Again THANK YOU FOR OPENING MY EYES to what has been right in front of me all along! We have become hysterical, and this was the gentle slap in the face that I needed to snap out of it, and get back on the right path????????may LOVE and KINDNESS and INTELLIGENCE – win this race.
Raquel Sommer says
Charles! Please don’t forget that there are two alternative candidates! If you (plural) haven’t met Jill Stein, tune in to DemocracyNow.org, where she “participates” in the debates. Jon Johnson (I think is his name) is another alternative. I would have to ask my brother where would be a good place to meet him.
For the alternative candidates 5% is a GAME CHANGER! That’s what they need to get their foot in the door.
I’m in Munich, where about 7000 Americans live. From what I hear, not one of them has been found who will vote for Trump. Here, word (the media) has it, that the choice is between the Pest (Black Plague) and Cholera.
I won’t vote. I made one feeble attempt to register, thanks to the Avaaz campaign (they even phoned me) but I could not summon up the motivation to send in my registration form.
My brother will vote. For Johnson, the Libertarian. I once felt intense hatred (short-lived, but intense) for my dear brother for being a Libertarian, and to provoke me he subscribed me to the magazine “Reason.” One issue had a photo of (that murderer… the one who Thatcher loved… his name escapes me. Ahhh. Milton Friedman. Is that his real name?) I could not get out of that subscription, though I wrote to Reason several times asking that they please release me. I had to find a new address (hide).
My civil war with my brother is over now. I am so weakened though by my wars that I could not even summon the energy to register to vote. If you can and will (wish) then please vote for Jill Stein.
I could not agree more Charles, as usual wise words. Whatever happens in US elections, the country is deeply divided, the only way to heal that is to use compassion, empathy and mutual respect.
Raquel Sommer says
One of my students (German, senior English student) today asked, “Is there anything Trump could have said which would have lost him the votes he needed to win?”
Obama’s rhetoric was positive and empowering: “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for” and “Yes, We can!” He gave us hope. We put our hope in him. He couldn’t empower a nation which didn’t want to be empowered. We collectively failed to own our own power. We hoped Obama would be strong. Such a lovely family, such a handsome young president, such lovely words, a grassroots campaign — but the presidency, as far as I can see, was business as usual.
Does the ugly show have more credibility than the idealistic show?
Can we own up to our ugliness? Ugliness, it seems, can be a source of power. My ugliness can connect me to people. My beauty can isolate me. I need both.
David Diamond says
Thank you Charles. Only by treating each other with decency will we be released from the easy bichromatic blindness of our anger…and be able to allow our minds to focus on the large problems we all have in common!
Thanks for putting my feelings and thoughts into eloquent words. We needed this. Peace.
How, oh, how can we get this essay out to people beyond our like-minded group? We are “preaching to the choir”. Yes, it’s good that we as like-minded individuals read this and try to put it into practice. However, I despair of these words ever getting out beyond our borders. I can start by sending it to people I know who aren’t 100% in the fold so that’s what I’ll do. See what happens. I don’t know any people who are vehemently against the idea of “what is it like to be you?” They’re already on board. I can try people who I think may be on the fringe of that idea or may know people who are against it.
Thank you. I am a new follower. Came by way of Ben Hewitt.
Liz Day (Norwich) says
Thanks Charles. This article – and your essay on the election – has inspired me to write my own reflections on political events in the US, a view from ‘across the pond’. I’ve set up a blog to host it, which I hope to add to in due course. I’ll be looking to you for ongoing inspiration 🙂 http://www.brokenhallelujah.net
Susan Firer says
Thank you for this article Charles it’s quite refreshing to hear this message and a great reminder for all of us. This is my first time here but won’t be my last; I’ve added you to my “go to” sites hopefully you won’t be added to the “Fake News” list as a number of my other sites have been 😉
Jim Johnston says
Good read and certainly provides a stepped back view of what happened. The dehumanizing of soceity is always troubling however it seems to be a snap shot conclusion at only part of the evolution of things, part way down the slippery slope. Step back a bit more and it is recognizable that a part of this is caused by needing to fit the world into 20 second sound bites, which requires cutting right to the chase and no, or very limited context. As society moves faster and faster this becomes almost ingrained in everyone’s life. Ever catch yourself using the word hate? For trivial issues, like a flavour or taste? We are all guilty of this, even this in article in using “right-wing and left-wing” as opposed to conservative and liberal. It is a slippery slope …