There are a lot of different ways of looking at the world, aren’t there? Although President Trump looks to be headed at full speed towards an election cliff, I still keep hearing startling interviews with his supporters. There are some who think he’s honest and effective, and they like his style. They find him both admirable and lovable.
This week I heard normal seeming people saying it’s unfair to tag Trump as racist. Didn’t they hear him calling neo-Nazis very fine people, and telling the Proud Boys to stand by? What’s going on? I have a few thoughts.
Racism is not the only problem we’ve got in the U.S., but it’s a big one. Not so long ago, I thought white people (my birth group) were making great progress in putting behind us the myth that people of color are inferior. We’d enacted laws requiring racial equality, and started seeing the pervasiveness of more subtle discrimination.
So I assumed that when Black people started pointing up the fact that they are too frequently targets of police violence and other discrimination, most white people would be receptive and sympathetic. I figured those who were unaware would want to learn more. I thought most everyone would be interested in how to fix the problem.
And happily, a lot of white people have spoken along these lines. But there has been a strong counter reaction by others. The storyline for them goes something like this: Black protesters are violent ne’er-do-wells who are unfairly targeting the police, who have done nothing wrong. The real problem (in this view) is how to stop the protesters, and how to prevent them from destroying businesses and invading the suburbs. White people, not Black people, are the real victims.
This upside down storyline has been promoted in right wing media such as Fox News and Rush Limbaugh-type talk radio, and, of course, President Trump. At first I thought the torrent of slick, angry, fear mongering media accounted entirely for the right wing narrative. That is, I imagined that those who saw white people as the true victims were were overwhelmed by the propaganda of Fox and its various friends, and simply not getting enough correct information.
But I’ve come to think this is not a complete explanation. There are some who fail to see the point of Black Lives Matter protests who do not live entirely in a right-wing media bubble. They are exposed to other information sources. For them, the problem is not lack of information, but something more complicated.
I don’t have all the data, of course, but I assume Trump supporters are in most regards the same as everybody else. That is, we all have basically the same physical make up, the same genetic components, and the same brain structures. There are individual variations among Trumpists, with some being loud and obnoxious, and others quiet and thoughtful. I’m sure there are many who are loving parents, good employees, and charitable community members. There are certainly some that I like as people and respect, except for their Trumpism.
The big difference between us has to do with information processing. We ordinarily think that if we see, say, a star, everyone in the vicinity is seeing the same thing. Similarly, if we hear a story about children being separated from their parents and held in cages, or about hundreds of thousands of people dying in a pandemic, we think our reaction is about the same as everyone else’s. But this, it turns out, is not necessarily so.
We don’t usually think of reality as something we each create and maintain with our brains, but it is, in a way. As infants, we learn to distinguish significant from insignificant, and pay attention mostly to those things that are either pleasant or threatening. Eventually we learn how, without conscious effort, to filter out the great majority of sound waves, light waves, and other potential stimuli.
We couldn’t function otherwise. Our brains don’t have the processing power to render coherent all the sound, light, and other physical activity around us. We can choose to train ourselves to notice some things we might not otherwise notice, like rocks that may actually be fossils or meteorites. But in general we take the mental framework we’ve built up, and don’t perceive much outside of it.
Our social reality is similar, in that it’s something we each construct, piece by piece. We start as infants learning who and what to trust, and who and what to fear. We accumulate a library full of working assumptions about what sort of behavior is normal, and what sort is alarming. And we situate ourselves in communities of people with similar assumptions about normal and abnormal ideas and behavior.
There are significant advantages in being in a community with its own culture. We can outsource a lot of the work, relying on others to detect threats or opportunities. The community helps its members with food, clothing, and social contact. But the community also imposes restrictions. These include the requirement not to question basic assumptions of the community.
So for example, in a mining community, raising questions as to the risks of global warming may be unwelcome. For a long time, I assumed that in such situations, many people might have doubts on factual or moral questions but consciously keep quiet about them, so they could remain community members.
But now I’m thinking it’s more likely that they have no doubts. That is, if being in a community requires that you believe something, you may well sincerely believe it — even if it has no factual basis.
And if there’s a challenge from outside the community to the belief (such as, say, a broad consensus of expert opinion that man made climate change is happening and potentially disastrous), it takes no conscious effort to ignore it. You don’t register conflicting information, or instantly dismiss it. The belief carries with it a kind of filter that traps and isolates dissonance, so that inconsistent information has no effect on the thinking of the community.
How could we test this theory? We could do surveys or brain scan experiments, and probably should, because it would be helpful to get more data about how our minds can settle on conclusions at odds with our basic moral principles and all known evidence. But in the meantime, it’s worth keeping in mind the possibility that people develop thought patterns that have nothing to do with physical reality while remaining otherwise sane and productive members of the community.
This week I had a minor epiphany listening to an interview with a Trump supporter. The supporter was defending Trump against what he viewed as unfair charges of racism. When the interviewer asked how he’d describe racism, the supporter gave a surprising explanation: it’s when you consciously hate Black people and want to hurt them. The Trump supporter said he’d never personally known a racist.
Conscious hatred and malice is a very narrow definition of racism, obviously. For this Trump supporter, and probably a lot of others, racism is not a big problem, because as they define it, it is only rarely found in the real world.
This would explain why Trump supporters reject and resent suggestions that they themselves are racist. They don’t consider themselves malicious towards Black people, and think it’s unfair that anyone one would think that of them. This is understandable.
But racism is actually much broader. A fair understanding of racism takes in a range of attitudes and behaviors, from violence and hate speech all the way and to hurtful social slights and indifference. A lot of our behavior and institutions have strong and non-obvious assumptions as to one race being superior and others inferior. Under a broader definition, almost all of us are raised as racists, and are to some degree racist. Understanding and correcting for our own inherited and unconscious racism is hard work.
Isabel Wilkerson has argued in her new book Caste that it’s helpful to talk about the American system using the terminology of caste, rather than race. That is, the American system is in some ways like other caste systems of history, such as the Indian, South African, and German ones. Like us, other countries have had elaborate systems for defining degrees of inferiority and permitting oppression. Using this caste approach might be a good workaround for the definition problem with the word racism.
Anyhow, I now get why Trump may actually think he’s not a racist, and his supporters may agree. I would argue that redefining racism to exclude most of the actual social problem is nonsense driven by what we’ve traditionally called racism. But I don’t expect that will be at all convincing to Trump supporters.
For these supporters, I doubt that any unapproved argument will get through the filtering system and affect their thinking. But even so, it’s important to keep talking, and maintain loving and respectful relations. Most of the time, we can have differing world views and still enjoy each other’s humor, intelligence, creativity, and affection. In fact, you never know how things will turn out. From time to time, people change their minds.