Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Who’d have thought it? Sneering at people doesn't win them over

Like many people, I spent the morning after Trump’s election on Facebook.

Yes, I know. Lazy. But I had a reason. I want to understand the echo chambers that are shaping our views. How else to connect? How else to commiserate with people I knew about the imminent end of the world? Lots of my friends are writers and comics; by mid-morning I was starting to feel that Armageddon might not be so bad if at least we retained our sense of humour.

But one comment stuck in my mind. It was from a British stand-up, posted sometime in the early hours after the result was declared, and it was this.

One useful statistic to come out of this election is that at least 57 million Americans are assholes.”

I should say that it wasn’t representative of the guy’s output. I haven’t seen his stand-up but I’ve followed his Facebook posts – fast, frequent and hugely popular – for a while. Most of the time they’re extremely witty and inventive. 

But this one?

57 million Americans. You blink at it, in the same way you gasp at something in Family Guy, Onion, Louie, in a “Did they actually say that...?” kind of way. But aside from any issues of offence, what’s really interesting here is the assumptions that post reveals. I think they’re important. In fact I think they might even partly explain why we’re contemplating a Nightmare in the Oval Office.

The comedian in question (I’m not going to name him) is a fairly typical British comic, part of the left-leaning comic boom that exploded since the 2000s with a mission to deconstruct misogyny and xenophobia, refute the men’s movement, challenge the ideas of UKIP or the American Alt Right. Fine. I’ll admit that’s partly why I find him funny, since I share those views. But a post like this – though it might have been made on no sleep in the heat of the moment, when much anger is habitually spilled – suggests a slightly darker side to this progressive mindset.

Here’s what it reveals.

First, it assumes it’s okay to talk about America in the way that someone like Donald Trump talks about Islam. Would my comedian use the same language to talk about India or Brazil? I think not – and for good reason. It reflects a generation of the British left that grew up being taught to mock America after the invasion of Iraq, who speak in an aggressive, secular, anti-US Imperialism tone, with an assumption that anybody is fair game if they don’t agree with you.  

But the second point is much more interesting.

57 million Americans are assholes because they don’t agree with this comic. Really? All of them? That’s nearly the population of Great Britain. And why exactly? Because they dared to differ from him in their views on race or gender or climate change and show it in the ballot box.

Is this the level to which civil discourse has descended?  

I know I’ve written about this before, but I think it’s too important to let alone. There’s a huge problem on the left with sneering at people who aren’t deemed “virtuous” enough in Millennial liberal terms – those we like to call racists, misogynists, homophobes, and so on. It reflects a simplistic binary mindset – a world of good and evil, them and us, fools and sages, with ourselves cast (of course) on the side of Luke Skywalker.

Now, I don’t like Trump. I think xenophobia was a huge part of his attraction. But this kind of sneering doesn’t just cause offence. It helps to cause alienation and anger. And that anger makes people vote for right wing populist causes. Like Brexit. Like Trump.

Every time the electorate fails to vote liberal we get much head-scratching at the fact that the working classes who used to vote left now vote right. I think there are many, complex reasons for that. But couldn’t a part of it be because they’re sick of being branded as bigots?

Much of Facebook has become a sneering machine aimed at people who fail to display enough liberal virtue; many of these people, like Brexit or Trump voters, are working class. The result is a sort of mass stealth snobbery. I’ve seen people referred to as scum, trash, dickheads; I’ve heard them referred to in ways that would be declared hate speech if it came from the right.

And here’s the ironic thing: while witty, erudite, left-leaning pundits like my friend are flawless in defending the rights of minorities (and a good thing too), they also overlook a huge, glaring, economic minority, one that sits within their own midst – the millions of displaced people in the ex-industrial areas, the north of England, the Welsh valleys, the US rust belt. The laid-off. The jobless. The despised. The places that voted for Brexit and Trump.

I live in one such area. I brush up every day to people whose opinions differ radically from my own on things like migration, sexual orientation, feminism. I don’t count close friends among them. But neither do I want to brand them as assholes for the crime of not agreeing with me. Rather I’d like to try and talk to them. Understand them. Perhaps, you know, maybe even put my point of view across. 

Take yourself away from the safety net of social media, and you realise it’s possible to try and understand people whose opinions you don’t share without resulting to abuse. The sociologist Arlie Hochschild recently moved to Lake Charles, Louisiana, a town of 75,000 all but ruined by the petrochemical industry in an attempt to understand the roots of Trumpism. How did Hochschild do this? By talking to people. Yes, people who liked the Tea Party. Or Sarah Palin. Imagine!

I don’t want this essay to be misconstrued. I feel deeply uncomfortable around sexism, xenophobia and I feel quite sick at the thought of the four years to come. But I also believe that the left needs to start listening to these “left behind” people rather than screaming at them, patronizing them, or calling them assholes – or God knows what the next blow to the liberal dream will be. All the indicators suggest that this swing to the right is going to get substantially worse before it gets better; we may well be facing eight years of Trump, or at least another populist Republican. (The Right’s on the rise in continental Europe too; sound familiar?).

So let’s try and understand rather than condemn. We should be building bridges not burning them. To put it another way, if Trump called 57 million people assholes, would we let him get away with that?