The power of compassion in the aftermath of the 2016 U.S. election

NOTE added Jan. 23, 2017:  To fully, accurately express the ideas in this post with all the context they deserve, I feel that nothing shorter than a full length book would do justice. However, I am not famous and I don’t think anyone would be willing to read a book-length argument on this topic by a little known writer. And besides, I’m already working on a different book that I’m having enough trouble finishing (lol). So for now this post, as inadequate as it is, will have to do. 

It is just a little over a day after the 2016 election. I am writing this post, even though very few will see it, because amidst all the post-election noise and aggression, despite all the opinions people are expressing, I don’t see the ideas I’m about to share in this post being expressed very often. I am almost certain that some will misunderstand my message and/or intent. Knowing this in advance already hurts. But so be it. I can only hope my communicative skills are up to the task of expressing a nuanced and complex opinion in an age in which nuance and complexity seem to be all but dead in public discourse. Whatever your politics, just remember: I come to you with my hands raised, arms outstretched. I ask nothing more than that you listen and give me the benefit of the doubt that I am trying my best here, the same way I would listen to you and give you the benefit of the doubt.

Before I go on I’d like to just state a few things upfront to try to avoid, if possible, what might be common misunderstandings of what I’m about to say:

  • This post is in not intended to understate the importance of the election results.
  • It is not to say that everything will be okay.
  • It is not to say that you should not be angry, scared or upset. I am upset too. For many reasons.
  • It is not to say that you should be silent.
  • It is not to say you should not take action.
  • It does not universally apply to any and all situations of interpersonal conflict. My focus here are the everyday arguments and disagreements over political issues/ideas on social media.
  • It is not to say, “You have to do this.” You don’t have to do anything. I’m just putting an idea out there—albeit one that I personally believe in and try to live out to the best of my ability, as difficult as it is.

Now that I’ve (hopefully) clarified those things, I feel the ideas in this post are important because what I am seeing in the media at large, and on social media in particular, are confirming my concerns about what would happen in the event of a Trump victory (or even a Clinton victory, for that matter). What I am talking about is the ongoing and amplifying levels of misunderstanding, blame, rage, animosity and outright hate among the public in the aftermath of the election results. To a degree I’ve never in my life witnessed before, there is a collapse occurring in the public’s ability to listen and communicate with each other. It’s not surprising that this would occur between ideological opponents in a political atmosphere like now, but it’s occurring increasingly even among those who are supposedly on the “same side.”

While I too share the shock, disappointment and concern that many are feeling right now, the truth is that I find the way people have treated each other in large numbers throughout this election, and are continuing to do so right now, of equal concern. This kind of behavior during the 2016 election season was not some isolated, anomalous event. It was in many ways very indicative and representative of the political and cultural climate in the U.S. as a whole: a kind of zealous tribalism and ritualistic demonizing of anyone who doesn’t perfectly share our views, of anyone who makes us even remotely uncomfortable with their differing opinions. So rampant is this trend of viciously attacking others when we disagree with them that even the rare few who call for moderation and restraint are attacked for calling for moderation and restraint.

This epidemic of shaming, bullying and dehumanizing all who disagree with us; of assuming that they are the antithesis of everything we stand for; of assuming that they could never, ever possibly understand us because of their different race, class, gender, sexuality or opinion; all this has far deeper roots and causes (and remedies) than I can adequately discuss in a single article. I can, however, briefly summarize what I personally believe is the most effective and least harmful mindset to move forward with.

For those for whom Trump’s victory is bad news: it doesn’t have to be the end of the world despite what doomsayers may say. Whatever harmful effects his future presidency may have, we—all of us, no matter what our stations in life—can help mitigate those effects with engagement and action. Things like protesting, writing and calling congressman, and talking about it on social media are all important and laudable, but there’s a certain way we need to go about those actions if we truly want them to be effective in changing people’s hearts and minds and not just be preaching to the converted.

For those for whom Trump’s victory is good news: I am going to try to trust that the majority of you are good people who believe, for whatever reasons, that Trump will be good for you and America as a whole. But as you go about doing what you believe will be good for this nation, please consider my suggested way of going about it which I think will make your actions more effective. (And I’m not trying to be condescending here so I hope you won’t take it that way.)

So what is this way of going about your political actions that I’m talking about?

It is simple: unconditional gentleness and compassion (or at least civility) in the words and actions we choose in the coming days, weeks and months.

Every word you speak or write, every interaction you have with another human being—even, or especially, on social media—has repercussions. Multiply this by the millions every single day and you can imagine how such negativity adds up, the very kind of negativity that fueled the Trump campaign. Therefore take action but above all take peaceful, civil and compassionate action in whatever ways that you can, to whatever degree that you can. And this is possible in most cases, I believe, even at times when it feels like it might not be possible (yes, I’ve been there). Such occasions are when digging very deep within for the strength and patience to remain civil may, to your great surprise, eventually lead to the other person opening her mind or heart. On the other hand, I have never ever seen an occasion in which people argued or fought with hostility and one of them suddenly said, “Yes, I feel you. I understand you. I see what you are saying. It is a good point.”

Now, by all means, if you feel that you or your loved ones’ safety is being threatened in any way then of course you must take measures to protect yourself. So I’m not talking about being passive or doing nothing in the face of genuine threat. However, if it’s a matter of someone on Twitter or Facebook being rude or malicious towards you, returning the malice will not help anything. It will not help your cause. It will not change the other person’s mind. It will only fuel his (and their) fire. Disagree with him but do so peaceably and sincerely, without resorting to attacks or insults and without passive aggressiveness. And if you can’t bring yourself to do this, then just ignore him. By refusing to stoop down to his level, by simply refusing to engage with him, you are doing the far more powerful thing than you would by arguing with him. Silence, in such an instance, can speak louder than words.

Worse than simply arguing with people is dehumanizing them yet I am seeing a lot of that too. No matter how bad you think Trump’s victory is, to demonize and dehumanize people—especially now in this most critical of times—would be to make everything worse. While it’s true that some Trump supporters are racist, sexist, and/or homophobic, not all of them are (and not even the ones who are do not deserve to be dehumanized). Many of them are just regular people like you and me who, for whatever reasons, believed Trump’s promise that he was going to make things better for them. They’re worried about the future, just like you. They want the best for their children, just like you. Their life experience and situation just happen to be very different from yours. Don’t think that being unkind to these people won’t have its own harmful political consequences.

This is why I’m not terribly crazy of the combative metaphors and language that are often used in political causes, no matter how noble the intent. Words like “We must fight and not let them win!” may be rousing but they invoke the antagonistic mindset, and assumption that those who don’t agree with us are our enemies, that I think is part of the problem. If war and fighting metaphors are what it takes to inspire you to take action, then by all means adopt them. But I believe that in the long run fighting metaphors need to be retired and other metaphors adopted if our culture is to keep evolving and heal the schisms that divide us (I realize that not everyone wants these divides to be healed but I’m addressing those who do). Hostility begets more hostility—always, always, always, without fail. If you want it to stop, then you have to stop. And make no mistake: you can take dynamic and effective action without being hostile.

This goes for everyone from those who occupy the humblest positions in society (I include myself in that category) all the way to the most powerful and influential. We are all in very diverse situations in life so the precise form that our actions with take will vary dramatically. They all have their place and they’re all to be valued. So never for a minute feel powerless and do not torture yourself with guilt if you’re not able to do as much as you wish you could right now. Just do what you can. The action you take doesn’t even have to take overtly political forms. In truth, in a way everything you do is political anyway. Just do whatever you do with compassion because in this current political atmosphere, the mere act of treating everyone you come across with basic respect—and refraining from responding to hostility with hostility—is almost revolutionary in its political power.

Gandhi once said, and no one has since said it better, “You must be the change you wish to see.” If a more peaceful, compassionate and tolerant society is what we wish to see, then that is the example we must set ourselves in our workplaces, our homes, and in our communities. Unconditionally. Not just towards those who agree with us. Not just when things are going our way. But especially towards those who disagree with us, and especially when things do not go our way.

One thing history has shown us is that no matter how much progress we make there are cycles of regression and chaos. But despite such intermittently dark times we’ve  been able to get back on track. And the efforts of ordinary people have always been critical in this cycle, as equally critical as those in positions of influence. No matter how electric and inspiring Martin Luther King Jr.’s leadership had been, for instance, he could not have catalyzed the change he did had it not been for the ordinary people who did their best to live out his ideals – his non-violent ideals. And as Gandhi, who profoundly influenced King, went to great lengths to try to make people understand, violence is not just physical. Emotional violence is committed constantly, even by those who might consider themselves pacifists in terms of physical violence.

One thing this election has ironically shown in certain ways is that ordinary people do have power, both for good and bad. Much more power than they realize. Precisely because you do have such power, it is by practicing as much kindness and compassion in the days ahead as you can—by treating even your ideological opponents with dignity and respect, no matter how fiercely they disagree with you—that you would be setting the example for the change that you want to see. If indeed that is what you want to see. If on the other hand, you want to see America continue down this path of paranoia and intolerance, then treating people who disagree with you with rudeness, sarcasm, and belligerence would certainly help ensure that outcome.

Despite whatever Trump may say and do while in office, it is still—and always will be—up to ordinary people to decide the actual direction our society takes, particularly at the everyday level. We can still contribute towards creating a society based on compassion and civility even as we resist that which we feel is not right. Or we can continue to segregate ourselves into myriads of warring tribes, refuse to listen to each other, assume everyone is our enemy, and add further layers of bricks to the walls encircling our already cemented hearts.

The future is still full of hope and possibilities. Even now. Especially now.