It’s safe to say that spitefularguments are a standard component of U.S. political discourse. In the 2016 election, the candidates are more disliked than ever before, but the litany of horrors we have witnessed daisy-chained together over the past year has a context. However well-founded the practice may seem, we live in a climate that encourages ridiculing and dehumanizing those who disagree with us. And that tradition is what makes the unique problems of Donald Trump’s candidacy so incredibly dangerous.
Trump’s rhetoric is not just antagonistic. He speaks violence — and an escalating kind, at that. Reports of his public encouragement of various forms of violence have filled the news for his entire campaign. Most recently — and most directly threatening to the actual foundation of our government — Trump has questioned to impede the peaceful transfer of power from one president to the next. Before his campaign, Americans could take it as a given that, no matter how heated and overwhelming our process became, it would end with one universally agreed-upon winner, allowing us all to put the contest to bed.
All of this would be less terrifying if it weren’t for Trump’s success in leveraging a style of leadership that preys upon the worst tendencies of human psychology — the mechanisms by which the Stanford Prison Experiments and the Third Wave Experiments both found otherwise unremarkable people capable of deeply disturbing violence. If we continue to allow hateful thinking to fester, we risk allowing Trump’s destructive tendencies to endanger even more lives. We also have an idea of who the most likely targets of this assault will be: people of color, immigrants and refugees, women, and others whom Trump’s followers have galvanized around blaming.
Breaking this cycle requires building a framework that is completely different from our national habits. We need to accept that Trump supporters are not cave-dwelling imbeciles or invaders from a dark universe bent on destroying everything that’s positive about the country. They are citizens with real fears and vulnerabilities, complex lives and loved ones, who also have the ability to learn and grow. After the election, people who vote for the Republican candidate this year will continue to live in the same nation as those of us who genuinely fear Trump being invited on so much as a tour of the White House. We cannot pretend that ignoring such a sizable chunk of the population can lead to any civic good.
When we shut down conversation and alienate conservatives, we abandon them to their worst fears. Too many of us have declared ourselves unwilling to speak with, listen to, or befriend anyone who is pro-Trump at a time when we all need compassionate conversation the most. Trump only makes sense in an echo chamber. All of us have the power to prevent him having one if we fill the American conversation with the best of who we are from the ground up. When we waste that opportunity, we condemn ourselves and folks who are directly endangered to a disastrous future.
To be clear, I am not advocating that people of color, immigrants, survivors of sexual assault, or anyone who feels potentially physically endangered by Trump or his supporters force themselves into situations that could cause them harm. If you feel that speaking with Trump supporters could literally risk your safety, please take care of yourself by staying away. But I believe those of us with a lived experience of privilege (and perhaps most specifically White U.S. citizens who are not struggling with PTSD from sexual assault) have a moral imperative to act to protect our neighbors and loved ones by doing our part to steer our culture towards civilized inclusion. I believe we must begin with the people we disagree with the most.
Please consider this your invitation to help shift our political discourse towards civility. Here’s how:
1. Go in for the long haul.
Don’t expect a single conversation to change someone’s mind. Remember that compassionate conversations may take a while to unfold, and that they will have an impact well beyond Election Day.
2. Be patient, compassion-driven, and sincerely generous. See the best in them, and speak to that.
By setting a tone of high regard and respect, we immediately short-circuit the rhetoric of rudeness, cruelty, and ridicule.
Remember the quality of relationship you want to have with this person and lead from there.
3. Do your research, and stand firm about the facts.
Let your opinions on what the other person should do fall aside, and only speak on what you know for sure.
4. Put it all on the line.
Share your honest fears — the stuff that keeps you up at night about this election. Remember that you are building a context for vulnerability. Tell them what is at risk for you and the people you love in this election.
5. Ask them to join you in taking a stand for peaceful discourse and disagreement.
This work requires many strategies, and access to cultural spaces that many of us simply do not have. But we can empower one another to fight for basic human decency in all of our future conversations.
None of these techniques minimize the fact that we all need to vote on Nov. 8 — no excuses or substitutions. But hopefully, with diligent work, we can all do our part to keep the United States from having to weather an election as frightening as this ever again.
Tatyana Brown is a poet and educator based in the Bay Area. She teaches writing and communication workshops as a member of both Restorative Writers and the New Ground Project. Follow her on Twitter at @TatyanaBrown.