Look at Bigotry
Bigot: a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices. Especially: one who regards or treats the members of a group (such as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance. (Merriam-Webster)
Bigotry is on the rise all across America. Our increased attacks against each other based on race, ethnicity, religion, gender, lifestyle, politics, values, etc. are impossible to deny. While President Trump is often blamed for this increase, bigotry is a bit more complicated than that. Trump certainly pushed many of us over the edge, but the groundwork was laid well before he came onto the scene.
As an ancient instinct for survival, we all feel some level of discomfort about things that are unfamiliar to us and with people who are different than us. Likewise, we feel comfort in familiar surroundings and with similar people. Our feelings of discomfort go on in our subconscious and typically go away as we acclimate. But this behavior can also be exaggerated when we’re experiencing fear, anxiety, or threat – these put our brain into “fight or flight” mode or a highly suspicious and defensive posture. Again, this is all normal human behavior.
Bigotry, however, tends to stick and it’s often cultivated by actors within society who manipulate us by fearmongering and scapegoating to create a perceived threat. These fear-based exploitations can affect us deeply and easily increase anxiety and bigotry.
Anxiety and low self-esteem are key drivers of emotional vulnerability and they are in abundance today because of the relentless brutality of trickle-down economics, the global economy, wealth-inspired agendas, and the accompanying disinformation used to provide cover for these policies. In general, many of us know that we are now in a rigged system and that we are a pink slip or diagnosis away from financial disaster. Climate change and the pandemic add to the feeling that things are slipping out of our control, adding to our anxiety.
There’s also plenty of additional anxiety created by inaccurate reporting and bogus crises that are continuously delivered into our living room by Fox News and other conservative media sources. They do their best to convince us that if we haven’t been left behind by our evolving society yet, then it is only a matter of time.
All of this keeps us in a steady state of anxiety which creates an environment for bigotry. We increasingly distrust anyone unfamiliar to us and seek safety among those like us. This is a dangerous combination that has been exploited and made far worse by conservative voices that give us specific things and people to fear. Social media divides us even more by making it easy to find and isolate ourselves with others like us.
Identity Politics: The Bigotry Magnifier
To (overly) simplify it, identity politics is a political activity where ideas and policies are promoted in support of various subgroups of society (based on race, religion, gender, etc.) that are oppressed, have reduced opportunities, or are marginalized in some manner. Citizens push for these ideas and policies in hopes of getting equal treatment. Politicians typically pursue them to genuinely support the subgroups, but sometimes only to accumulate political support.
Conservatives are experts at turning crises and legitimate issues into culture wars. Identity politics is no exception and is often their favorite thing to attack. The Republicans have managed to turn identity politics into a trap and the Democrats just keep on stepping in, making themselves lose ground and creating a greater schism in our society.
The Left is continuously scrambling to defend minorities and the vulnerable from the endless attacks from the Right. A short list of these attacks includes discrimination, an unfair criminal justice system, banning gays from the military, gay marriage, transgender rights, voter suppression, immigration, “the wall”, CRT, white replacement theory, white supremacy groups, book banning, etc. Each of these certainly warrants a vigorous response from the Left, but because of conservative rhetoric, many Americans view the defense of everyone other than white male Christians as the only thing the Left stands for.
The Republicans’ use of identity politics to worsen our divide works like this:
- The Right tilts the playing field against the working class
- The Right frames minorities as scapegoats for the working class sliding down that tilted playing field.
- The Right further attacks minorities to promote anxiety and anger.
- The Left spends the majority of their time defending their fellow human beings (and trying to get their vote).
- The Right spends all their time talking about the woes of the rural/working class, populism, the evils of wokeness, and how the Left is “out of touch” and only helps the takers take everything from, and someday even replace hard-working, white, God-fearing, real Americans.
The result is the Left wonders why the Right keeps voting against their own best interests while the Right, being convinced by Republicans and Democrats, believes that they are voting in their best interests (their safety).
This leads to another dangerous side effect of identity politics which is that the Right has used it to frame the Left as an existential, turning the Left/Right divide deadly. So, ironically, identity politics is making it more difficult to ensure that everyone is treated equally.
What to Do
Democrats often push people away while simultaneously providing more ways for the Republicans to lure people in. If we don’t know how to push back against bigotry then we’re probably making things worse and further dividing the country.
If Democracy is going to survive, we must start calming things down and bring folks “back to the table”. We need to start restoring their self-esteem and decreasing their anxiety in order to reduce their perceptions of threats. Once that foundational task is underway then we can start discussions about bigotry and inclusive society in a less intimidating and more constructive manner – in a way that minimizes those fear triggers.
We are highly social creatures. Humans require humans to survive. Two million years ago, if Homo Erectus got booted from the tribe then he was done for. Evolution has wired our brains to equate society with survival and our subconscious sees being outcast as an existential threat. It’s important to remember that many Americans, at least for the moment, have been convinced by provocateurs that an inclusive America will exclude them. This is precisely why terms like “white replacement theory” are tossed around.
Because we want to reduce the perception of this threat, care should be used when talking about an inclusive society. The main point is to not make folks feel that a rapidly evolving society is being forced upon them and squeezing them out. Once the perceived threat is decreased (and replaced with more constructive ideas) then these discussions can be revisited with the energy that they certainly deserve. Topics to discuss more carefully include:
- An inclusive society
- Racial equality
- Religious freedom
Hopefully, improvement to these issues will be an end result of calming people down, but for now, they need to be carefully addressed. It is more constructive to approach these issues by changing the conversation to be about working together for positive change and identifying and then working against those that are actually hurting so many of us. Working together on these issues will not only measurably improve our world, but it will also create a sense of community and camaraderie that has been proven to increase our self-esteem and reduce our prejudices. Below are some simple examples of reframing certain conversations with certain demographics – these are simple notional ideas, intended only to provide context:
- America has always done better when we work together
- The great thing about our Democracy is that none of us lose any of our rights if the guy across town has the same rights as us. In fact, it makes us stronger.
- We need as many people as possible contributing to our economy to keep money flowing through our communities and to create jobs.
- The big secret? it’s really about rich vs. poor – they just want you to think it’s about black vs. white.
- The only people taking your money are millionaires, billionaires, and Wall Street. We need to work together to take back what was ours.
- The economy will not work if wealthy people take all the money and don’t pay their share in taxes.
- The billionaires are forcing more and more of us to share that last, shrinking slice of the pie.
Another factor is self-esteem. If we can improve self-esteem in folks then we will reduce their sensitivity to fearmongering, their need to belittle others, and their vulnerability to the Trumps of the world. People will come back to the table if they see things are heading in the right direction – they need to see that they have a future.
For the near term, Democrats need to continue producing tangible results on their working-class agenda and, importantly, keep getting the word out. They need to do this not only in terms of what they are doing but also what the Republicans are not doing — two things the Democrats seem unable to convey. It’s important for Democrats to understand that ramping up their efforts only during campaign season or touting a major accomplishment in a few speeches will never match the relentless 24/7/365 barrage from conservative voices who have a much wider reach. Republicans give some of us a sense of protection and, even though that protection is an illusion, it beats out solid policies every time.
Working together on common causes has been shown to reduce prejudices. It doesn’t matter what the common cause is — it doesn’t need to be (in fact it shouldn’t be) related to bigotry. Bi-partisan activities at the community level can include restoring or improving medical services in rural areas, working to protect local natural resources from climate change, efforts to save Main Street, etc.
The same goes for playing with each other. We need to provide more opportunities for people to physically engage with society again. Public events or festivals that celebrate the community as a whole (not a particular group) can bring people in and reconnect them with society (something their subconscious already deeply desires).
Other proven techniques to reduce anxiety and bigotry include practicing kindness, gratitude, and humility. Efforts to provide reminders, examples, and exercises that will rescue these human traits from the abyss would be very useful. In a deeply divided society, it is important to be reminded that we are social creatures.
None of this is about giving bigotry a pass — there are plenty of cases where it must be addressed head-on. This is more about, to the extent possible, calming at least some people down and bringing them back to the table. We will never get them all, not even close — but we have to start or our divide will just get bigger and our society will degrade to the point where we will lose Democracy.