stubborn binaries, killing us softly

In honor of election day fast approaching, and the political frenzy it brings, this week’s essay is a repost from about a year ago, when I challenged the death grip binaries had our thinking and acting in the public sphere. Sadly, we still seem to love binaries, so much so that instead of loving our enemies we love to have enemies. As long as we continue to assume we all fit only on one side or the other, we are part of the problem. I hope this reminds us that there is a better way forward.

 People love to say our country is divided, and it certainly seems to me that it is. The more interesting observation for my money, however, is on the nature of that divide. I’m sick of the old ones—and they don’t seem to fit anymore anyway. Democrat/Republican, urban/rural, public/private, rich/poor, Christian/all-the-others, progressive/conservative, yuppie/hippie, dominant/minority, those who “get it”/those who don’t…they’re all examples of binary thinking that strike me as rather simple, and frankly, as evidence of unexamined thinking. 

 And yet, I have whole-heartedly rolled around in such binaries for the last politically-crazed year like my dog in freshly laid mulch: with a relish that is both nauseating and a little baffling. So why? Why do we refuse to bring our life experience, which is most definitely un-binary, to bear on the way we describe the tensions we feel with each other? Why do we pretend that all who kneel do not respect those who served our country, while all who stand do not care about those marginalized by injustice? The answers lie in understanding the foundational ways in which we relate to and contextualize each other. 

 Our tribal instincts are exacerbated by our immersion in segregated communities.  While most of us live, play and worship in racially and economically segregated spaces, almost all of us connect online in politically segregated arenas. Our ability to respectfully approach others with curiosity is severely hampered when we only hear attacks about “them.” The dependence many have on social media to connect with others and validate their own value tends to be—at best—equal parts sincere engagement and performative pandering. We know this, and feel it in our souls even as we compulsively check our feeds for extrinsic encouragement. There is a place in each of us that understands we are complicit in participating in this bullshit exchange-space, and this is the place from which our cries for authenticity arise, even as we exchange our own experience of ambiguity for binaries that exclude others and comfort us. 

 That for many, President Trump’s shoot from the hip style is refreshingly authentic is hilarious for some and devastating for others. Some of us know him as an honest and authentic outsider, unsullied by the “swamp.” Some of us abhor him as a fundamentally selfish and unethical hypocrite, amazed daily that others can’t see through the show. The former group, despairing in the inability to feel heard and respected by society, celebrate the President as embodying the authenticity they crave. The latter group think Trump’s election reflects a great mistake, a blip in our otherwise just and thoughtful democracy. Absurd as it is, the alienation they felt in the last eleven months overwhelms any notion of connection they shared with fellow citizens. Instead, they buy into binaries. I sometimes resonate, feeling the fabric of society had been torn, and that I no longer belong to, or even understand those who live on the other side of the lines we draw between us. 

 For some who allow binaries to define their views of community, they now gravitate toward a new view: that the President exactly reflects the reality of the sentiments held by voters. In short, Trump is America—or should I say, ‘Murica—and we deserve him. This may very well be true, and there is certainly daily evidence to support such a claim. We are hateful and mean, consumed with self, entitled victims.  We are, in fact, bad at taking care of each other. But we are also really good at it, and my contention is that binary thinking prevents us from recognizing both of these facts. Thus, viewing the era of Trump through such extremes is insufficient and, frankly, does not offer an analytical framework nuanced enough to understand this moment. Could it be that we are all selfish jerks and compassionate neighbors? Could it be that we are all presenting lovely masks of ourselves and taking strides toward authenticity? 

 This brings me, with great pleasure, to the person and persona of Josh Tillman, aka J. Tillman, aka Father John Misty. A folk singer/songwriter/rocker, Tillman presents the most interesting tableau of meta-authenticity I have come across in a spell. While creating and performing critically and popularly acclaimed music, Tillman is loathed by many who dismiss him as a self-obsessed crackpot philosopher who waxes poetic about the nature of performance in America today. Yes, maybe. But his awareness of self, his self-mockery, his ease with conflicting ideas even as he articulates them passionately, makes me a fan. He deconstructs society’s impulses even as he deconstructs his own drives, all while acting boldly on those drives!  It is hilariously refreshing to hear him think out loud. For Tillman, the notion of binary thinking is outright absurd, a shoe that does not fit any foot in the kingdom. 

 Reading about and listening to Tillman, where ambiguity and nuance organically infuse every thought, offers a clear juxtaposition with destructive and ill-fitting binaries. In processing through this last year, it is evident that we have, as an American culture, adopted what I call a binary cycle, in which our basic notion of self worth arises out of belonging to one side, and this becomes the rubric by which we judge others as well. Our thinking about others, and, importantly, about self, is dictated by binaries. Extremes certainly helped elect our President, but they have also reduced us to thinking almost exclusively in terms of us and them. Tillman is a reminder that these binaries, and the biases to which they give birth, are, in fact, the foundation of our fractured society. This is why American society has fallen with no means to get up.

 (But there I go again.) No we haven’t. Our society is not defined primarily by our binaries.  We demonize “them” all day long, but we are also a compassionate people who often care sacrificially for others. In Nashville, TN, in the midst of the travel ban on majority-Muslim countries and the halting of refugee resettlement, agencies who work with immigrant and refugee populations were flooded with volunteers and donations. Also in Nashville, gun violence has risen dramatically in parts of the city inhabited mostly by minorities. While many people with power seem oblivious to this crisis, some of us are starting to notice curiosity among those who heretofore have refused to link gentrification, education and development policies to the displacement, disruption and despair of many marginalized communities. I see evidence everyday that we all have a capacity to care about “them.” We the people are totally selfish and greedy, and generous and compassionate. We are not a binary, and when we think of ourselves and others through a binary lens we lose sight of ourselves and destroy the very fabric of society that still holds us together.

 So this is my call, in honor of  those who kneel and stand, and in thanks to our dear Father John, to invite more of us to join his conversation. Can we begin to recognize how binary thinking dehumanizes ourselves and others? Can we reject totalizing statements and replace them with curious listening? Can we create new habits of recognizing our commonalities before only seeing divides? Can we endorse candidates whose policies and rhetoric suggest we all belong together, as we vote for people to represent us, rather than down a party line? Paying honest attention is a good antidote for thinking in simple binaries.

why i weep

an open letter about the 2016 election

This week has been hard for me and many others in our country, and I suspect it would help us heal if I tried to explain why.  After spending time with college students and talking with a few of you, I realize that many who voted for Trump misunderstand our weeping and gnashing of teeth.  I am reaching out because I don’t want to be misunderstood.  I am reaching out because I want you to have every chance to understand.  I am reaching out because I need to heal and believe developing empathy for each other is a crucial part of that process.  If you also want to heal, if you are willing to see me as a thoughtful person whose feelings and perceptions of the world are valuable, then read on.  Although I think many will resonate with me, I don’t want to generalize or make assumptions, so I will only write for myself.  

I am disappointed we elected a President who, in my view, does not have the experience to excel at the multiple aspects his job will require.  I am disappointed we chose to believe he will surround himself with wise council, even though he repeatedly thwarted opinions--even in his inner circle--that did not confirm his own.  I am disappointed we chose to trust him most of all with our economic future, even though he has repeatedly filed for bankruptcy, refused to pay bills, and has chosen to make the vast majority of his products overseas rather than in America.  

These truths disappoint and frustrate me, but they are not the reason I have cried every day, or look with pride to some of the protesting marchers, or feel betrayed and shocked by my country.  The reaction I have had to this election has nothing to do with red or blue, my candidate getting defeated, sour grapes or even frustration with policy positions.  My deep sadness comes because I feel alienated from my country given what a vote for Trump necessarily affirms.  Let me be clear: He has openly encouraged behavior and statements that portray

  • Women as gratifying objects whose primary value is demonstrated through their physical attributes.

  • Muslims as radical, unwelcome terrorists who are not to be trusted or made welcome, and who cannot be loyal to America even if they die defending our freedom.

  • Hispanic immigrants as thieves and criminals who have come to ruin American livelihoods, who cannot function as professional Americans in any environment.

  • Disabled people as objects to be mocked.

Please hear me say that I feel confident that you, the majority of Trump supporters, disagree with and loathe these statements.  I do not think you are racist or misogynistic in the way you approach others.  I also know you might feel judged and attacked by those protesting or weeping for our country.  I am sorry to have lumped you in with voters who enthusiastically endorse the statements above.

Here’s the deal though, and this is the key to understanding the tears and despair: By voting for him, you did endorse his perspectives on the value of others.  With zero intention on your part, you confirmed a perspective which negates the value of about half of our country.  For a female survivor of abuse, a Muslim, an immigrant, or a disabled person, our country’s decision to elect Trump was an irreversible statement screaming that we find them unvaluable, expendable and not one of us.  I believe you when you say you didn’t mean it, but this is the message that is rattling around in the hearts of half of our society.  I am a white Christian profession woman, and I am devastated that I can’t pull that message back.  I can’t unring the bell.  My students and friends and African-American daughter will have to live out the consequences of all of us saying these statements aren’t bad enough to be absolutely rejected.  They have to face the rest of us, wondering if we love or hate them.  They have to get up and go to work and school in a country that elevated a man who said they were not and never would be his equal.  Can you imagine leaving your house this week if you were a minority teenage girl or boy?  We had the chance to say, “no”, and instead, by electing him, we said, “more please.”  This is why I weep.

They have to face the rest of us, wondering if we love or hate them.

I have heard many reasons a person might have voted for Trump, and none of those include bigotry.  I hear you, and am trying to understand the dignity of your choice.  For a person of color or for a female, these statements are not just about personality or a gaffe, they are deadly sentiments which ruin lives, and I weep because our country voted to affirm them.  I know these ideas are already out in the world, and I know voting for Trump didn’t cause them to exist.  However, I am deeply wounded that we had the chance, as a people committed to liberty and justice, to say, “Absolutely not. I will not allow comments like that to go unchecked at my dinner table/workplace/playground.” We missed it.  Instead of saying we want to heal as a country with a terrible track record on race and gender, we decided deadly sentiments like Trump’s were not a problem.  This ability to overlook the danger in his comments reveals to me that my community either does not know any immigrants, Muslims, disabled people or victims of abuse, or that we just don’t care.  This is why I weep.

For a person of color or for a female, these statements are not just about personality or a gaffe, they are deadly sentiments which ruin lives, and I weep because our country voted to affirm them.

I am not interested in blame, but in helping articulate a path forward so that we can stand up as a people and say, “Absolutely not!” to words that inspire violence and exclusion.  In light of that interest, here are my commitments to you:

  1. I commit to not speaking of all Trump voters as bigoted misogynists, as if you are all the same. I will believe that you do not and did not support or minimize the damage his comments would cause many in our country. I commit to working hard to finding empathy for those whose value system allowed them to vote for our President-elect.

  2. I commit to giving our new President an open mind and my respect, even behind closed doors.

  3. I commit to confronting my own despair and to finding and celebrating moments of hope and healing.

  4. I commit to making it my daily mission to reach out and affirm every person marginalized by the power of the majority.  I will go out of my way to listen and to actively value people who are different than me.

In our commitment to healing, I ask you to consider the following:

  1. Will you commit to finding empathy for those whose lives feel endangered by trying to build relationships with people outside your race or gender?

  2. Will you commit to standing up and speaking out against jokes, stereotypes and comments that undermine the dignity and value of all God’s people?

  3. Will you follow your vote up with action that affirms life, liberty and equality for ALL, to look beyond your own interests in order to rebuild the fabric of our society?  Will you reach out to those who might feel marginalized or endangered and let them know you are an advocate for them?

I am committed to making this the moment when we agree as a people not to blame each other for our own failure as a society.  No matter who you voted for, can you commit personally to moving toward those who are weaker than you, who have less power or comfort?  If we say yes, Trump’s presidency will be one of healing and hope for all of us.