Like so many people here in the United States and around the world, I’ve had a very strong reaction to our election. Given the pre-election polls, I was shocked by the outcome, and given how I voted, I was disappointed by it. As I’ve ridden the roller coaster of intense emotions over the past week and listened to reactions, read articles, and talked with people in my life – I’ve been struck by the profound level of division and disconnection in our society, which actually concerns me as much as almost anything else right now.
Elections often get nasty and we tend to hold our political views passionately. However, as a student of American politics (my degree from college is in American Studies) who has followed campaigns pretty closely for most of my adult life, this one has been particularly negative and divisive. And, with issues of race, gender, and class being so prominent in the debate, it took on even more intensity and fear than I’ve ever seen or experienced.
In response to some of my feelings and insights about the election – specifically related to my concerns about the treatment of women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ community, I wrote an “open letter to my fellow straight white men” last week and posted it on social media. It felt both important and scary for me to write this piece and share it.
The feedback has been mixed, but enlightening – lots of comments of support, as well as many comments of disagreement. More than disagreeing with me, however, I’ve received a number of personal attacks – people calling me horrible names (especially onTwitter), questioning my manhood and intelligence, and more.
I realize that people’s emotions are running hot right now, but I wasn’t quite prepared for this reaction. However, I think this is important to pay attention to on a few levels. After my initial shock and stopping myself from reacting back in anger, I’ve read through all of the comments and have been sitting with my feelings of anger, sadness, confusion, defensiveness, fear, and more. When we feel attacked, it’s easier to either fight back or run away…but I think it’s even more important to lean in, get curious, and be willing to engage.
Engaging in dialogue or debate about important issues online is tricky and often unproductive – I rarely do it. I also don’t often get intense negative reactions to the things I write and say – both because of the general topics I focus on and also because of the size and nature of the audience with whom I’m communicating.
One of the main reasons I don’t usually write about or talk about politics, as well as issues of race, gender, class, oppression, and/or anything else that may be considered “controversial,” is because I don’t want to create more division – there is so much of this in our culture as it is. My work, as well as my overall approach to life, is focused on inclusiveness as much as possible. I also, quite frankly, don’t really like being called names, attacked, or criticized – I’m a pretty sensitive person, so throughout my life and with my work, I have chosen to stay away from things and topics that might open me up to harsh judgments from others.
This election outcome and the feelings and reactions of the past week have pointed out a few things to me about this. First of all, for a variety of reasons, I think it’s important for me (and many of us) to be willing get past our fears and talk about these important topics, even and especially if they’re uncomfortable. Second of all, this is hard and most of us, myself included, aren’t that skilled, experienced or comfortable doing it – especially with the intensity of the emotions and the situation right now. We also often have blind spots and insecurities – some of which we’re aware of, some of which we aren’t. And, third of all, there is a lot of anger, fear, and separation in our country and our world right now. I’m not sure I was as fully aware of it before the election as I am now. It’s there and although the intensity of this past week may dissipate a bit as we move into the holiday season, the underlying issues and disconnections don’t seem to be going away on their own or anytime soon.
My primary question to myself right now is: How can we lean in and engage with one another about these important issues in an authentic and productive way? The challenge I’m sitting with personally at the moment is how to speak up for what I believe to be true and important, and at the same time do so in a way that brings me closer to those who may disagree with me?
My main questions to all of us are: How can we speak our minds and keep our hearts open? How can we stand up for those we believe are being discriminated against, and not discriminate against others in the process? How can we engage in big, complex problems, and come up with solutions (not just argue and make things worse)? How can we be both fierce and kind at the same time? How can we see and take responsibility for our own bias and arrogance, and actually listen to one another with understanding?
I’m not sure there are easy answers to any of these questions, but it feels as important as ever to be asking them right now. I do believe strongly that if we’re willing to ask and answer these questions, and if we have the courage to engage with each other in a productive way, it’s going to take an enormous amount of authenticity by all of us.
As I’ve learned over the past many years studying human behavior and relationships, and specifically inquiring into the nature of authenticity, it’s much easier said than done to be authentic. Authenticity is about having the courage to be honest, first and foremost. But, it’s also about having the self-awareness to remove our self-righteousness and the confidence to embrace vulnerability. Honesty, without self-righteousness, and with vulnerability is what true authenticity is all about.
Dr. Martin Luther King said “We have no morally persuasive power with those who can feel our underlying contempt for them.”
What’s tricky about this for most of us is that when we’re being self-righteous, we don’t think we’re being self-righteous, we think we’re RIGHT. Self-righteousness fundamentally separates us from one another. If I’m “right” about something and you don’t agree with me, that makes you “wrong,” and now we have a wall between us. The natural human response to self-righteousness is defensiveness.
On the other hand, when we have the courage and confidence to be vulnerable, we let down our guard and share what’s true and real within us. The natural human response to vulnerability is empathy. Empathy brings us together and connects us with one another. It also reminds us that we’re more alike than we are different – even when we disagree.
As hard as it may be for some of us right now, it seems to me that what we need is more empathy, understanding, and compassion for one another as human beings. Some of us are mortified by the election results, some of us are thrilled. I think that most of us are some version of scared – this is a change and a big change. Like with any change, we don’t know what will happen and how it will turn out. Whether we think it’s likely to be terrible, move our country in the wrong direction, and have a negative impact on us and those we love, or we think it is going to be wonderful, move our country in the right direction, and have a positive impact on us and those we love, we simply have no way of knowing at this moment.
What we do know for sure, is that we can’t really do too much without each other. In other words, WE’RE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER!
How are you feeling about the election? What can you do? How can we work together and come together after all of this? Share your thoughts, feelings, and insights about this below.