Walls and Walks: Reflections on American Political Culture

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From my positionality as an educator, a feminist anthropologist, a Euro-American, and a blue dot in a red state, I write about American politics and culture. I write knowing that I have blinders on, that I cannot see clearly about some issues, and I try not to fool myself into thinking my vision is clearer than others.

I start with a walk.

A few days after the 2016 US presidential election, I had to teach a seminar on religion and representation, and I found myself in a quandary. In my other courses, students had been deafeningly silent after the election. But international, minority, and DACA students privately

told me that those they thought were friends did not understand why voting for Trump felt like a vote against them. Given that the topic of this seminar course was about how we learn about and represent “other” people and their religions, I felt compelled to address the elections. It was also a three-hour seminar, so I couldn’t plead lack of time.

My class consisted of students who voted differently, practiced different religions or none at all, and had different socio-cultural backgrounds. We had just read Lee and Ingold’s “Fieldwork on Foot,” in which the authors argue that sitting face to face (as in an interview) can be too confrontational, but that the dynamic changes when people walk side-by-side, looking ahead at the same scenery. I sent my students outside in pairs to walk together and discuss the views of those who felt marginalized by the election. I challenged them to listen to each other, to try to empathize with a different perspective. I asked them to learn from each other. I glanced outside to see them walking slowly in pairs, meandering on different paths around the building or under the trees that line our university mall. I don’t know if there were any long-term effects to that walk – if it opened any minds to other perspectives – but the idea was, I believe, a decent one.

What I wanted was for my students to recognize the humanity of other people whose perspectives on the election, immigration, border control, guns, abortion, same-sex marriage, political correctness, or on being brown or black or female or gay in America might be different from their own. In the weeks and months that followed, protesters gathered in cities and wrote in newspapers, while hate crimes against minorities increased. Trump supporters scoffed at protesters, arguing that the results of the election revealed how the educated elite was unable to listen to the real concerns of everyday Americans. Rather than uplift ideals that unite us as Americans, Trump held rallies for supporters. Trump’s supporters did not see Americans taking to the streets as exercising their rights to freedom of speech and freedom to assembly; they saw complainers, sore losers, troublemakers, and spoiled brats.

There is much that could be said about this topic, so I pick a couple of threads, knowing that the floor of America is covered by meters of yarn, entangled in complicated histories and subjective narratives.

I argue that the proposed wall along the United States’ southern border is a much smaller problem than the wall created by social media and especially the privatization of news media in the US. I say this because words have the power to create, to destroy, to unify, and to divide. If we don’t listen, when we don’t hear the same words, we can’t even debate.

The protection of freedom of speech is something Americans should be proud of, especially when free speech is being curtailed in countless regions of the world. But what happens when you exercise that freedom and speak only to those who already agree with you?  Or to speak in ways that only like-minded individuals will hear? What happens when what you say offends others?

Taking offense

I’ll address the last question first. Being offended has become a national sport, and nothing rallies people together more. Being offended that some NFL team members knelt during the anthem, which Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid began during the 2016 season. Being offended by Black Lives Matter. Being offended that protesters wear pink kitty hats. Being offended that Trump supporters wear MAG (Make America Great) caps. Offended by “white privilege.” Offended by gay marriage. Offended by the liberal elite. Offended by “safe spaces.” Offended by “political correctness.” Offended that liberals may take our guns away. Offended that American gun culture has made innocents easy targets. Offended by any who try to censor us. We are consumed by what offends us.

We get angry. If we don’t like what we hear, we switch channels. We don’t invite a stroll and a conversation.

On not offending

I was in college during the 1980s, when political correctness was used among the left to provoke thought. Sometimes there was irony in saying something was “not PC.” At its best, it caused people to pause and consider who might be offended and why. I recall many of us thinking self-censorship could go too far, but it was a time when we believed power was unevenly distributed in our society and that we needed to examine our own assumptions and behavior in order to make it a better place for everyone. (That societal reality has not changed much, unfortunately.) Among the left, political correctness prompted discussions about different experiences in the world.

By the 1990s, conservatives co-opted the idea of political correctness to criticize a practice they viewed as limiting freedom of speech. I get their point. But political correctness was not about stifling voices; it was about active listening and imagining what life may be like from a different position in society.

As Trump’s presidential bid gained popularity, he repeatedly rejected political correctness. He spoke to fans who were tired of being careful of what they say. He spoke to Americans who felt left behind and believed their voices had been censored. He and his supporters celebrated the freedom to say whatever came to mind.

Protecting freedom of speech

Freedom of speech protects us from censorship, guaranteeing us a basic right as human beings. But that has not stopped us from debating which speech is protected by our laws. Americans debate flag burning, kneeling during the national anthem, marching under neo-Nazi banners, demonstrating in city squares, praying before sports events. Thank goodness we debate!

But is the right to speak also the right to hateful speech? The right of neo-Nazis to march in public squares is touted as a demonstration of freedom of speech, and conservatives and liberals alike hesitate to condemn their marching on principle. Those who study law can make their own conclusions, but I can tell you what anthropology teaches. Speech – whether spoken or written – is action. Speech does things in the world. When speech is hateful or careless, we need look for the effects in the world around us. When President Trump states that the New York Times, CNN, and other news sources are “fake media” and “enemies of American people,” it would behoove us to consider the connection between his words and the threats journalists receive. Take, for instance, presidential tweets about “fake media” and the actions and words of a man who threatened to kill journalists at CNN in Atlanta, claiming “fake media” as one reason.

Although causality is hard to trace, we need to acknowledge that words and deeds are connected. Our future together depends on it. It matters little what the intention behind words is.

Private conversations

Aside from public words that undermine our democracy, private conversations increasingly undercut connections. I’m not talking about conversations in coffee shops. I mean the walls built around us by our televisions and social media.

We live in a country where we do not (yet) need to fear state-sanctioned censorship. However, the privatization of news threatens our standards and has potentially undermined the ethics of journalism – one of our most valuable tools in a democracy. The blame rests not with our journalist but with us as uncritical consumers and with neoliberal values that emphasize economic gains over other principles. When it becomes hard to distinguish between opinion programming and fact-seeking missions, we lose sight that there is a world out there that we all, regardless of how we interpret it, can see and recognize as evidence-based truth. We should debate our interpretations, not facts. We should applaud fact-seeking investigative journalists who risk scorn and threats to uncover and reveal what politicians hope to hide. Every US president has had a contentious relationship with journalists because journalists ask difficult questions, they probe.

Second, we gravitate toward news sources that confirm rather than challenge our current views. This is supported by Martin and Yurukoglu’s study (2017) on the effects of CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBS on US voting and ideology formation. They demonstrate “that the Fox News effect in presidential elections grew from 2000 to 2008 because of a combination of increasing viewership and increasingly conservative slant on Fox News; and that the cable news channels can explain an increase in political polarization of similar size to that observed in the US population over this period” (2017: 2566). They found the partisan slant to be increasing across all three cable networks, and they argue “that this increase depends on both a persuasive effect of cable news and the existence of tastes for like-minded news” (2017: 2597). Over time, we become increasingly entrenched in our ideological positions, looking only for affirmation that our positions are correct. And we become less able to talk with others whose ideological positions differ from our own.

The depersonalized spaces of the internet, while a fertile territory to bring people and ideas together, also emboldens hateful speech. All people are “victims” of this impersonalization. But not all are equally endangered by it.

Don’t get me wrong. Social media has aided democracy in important ways. #Ferguson and Black Lives Matter enabled disparate people to connect the dots and see trends in violence against black men, raising awareness from suspicion to actual conversation about American perceptions of black male bodies. #MeToo brought ubiquitous experiences of sexual harassment into the open. These movements have started discussions by revealing how bodies are treated differently in society. Max Booth, a self-described political conservative, recently reflected on how social media in 2017 changed his mind about racism in America: “African-Americans have long talked about being stopped for ‘driving while black.’ I am ashamed to admit I did not realize what a serious and common problem this was until the videotaped evidence emerged. The iPhone may well have done more to expose racism in modern-day America than the NAACP.” While we have yet to see substantive changes in society, social media has opened a door to discussion about long ignored experiences.

More problematic, however, are the tools that enable people to make inflammatory or controversial statements with no accountability. Without recognizing each other’s humanity, we are emboldened to say whatever comes to mind – with no consequences, no need for empathy. Take, for instance, the recent news that student gun protesters are being compared to Nazi youth. That is no way to start a conversation and walk together.

Shall we add Russia’s effort to disrupt freethinking and democracy by meddling in our social media spaces?  Russia’s attempt shouldn’t be surprising; what’s surprising is what we have done with that knowledge. When Mueller’s team charged 13 Russians of infiltrating social media to influence US elections, I ran through my various activities and strong ideological reactions over the past two years. Had I been influenced? What rift had I allowed between myself and those, whose ideology differs from mine, I love? But rather than causing a soul-searching reaction, we fixed our eyes on different news events. In an in-depth study, Vox analyzed 72 hours of news coverage Mueller’s charge of Russian meddling and demonstrated that Fox, CNN, and MSNBC gave significantly different airtime and narratives to the Russian meddling news event. Yet another lost opportunity to walk together.

Trusting that you’re human

With anonymous internet posts, privatized news channels catering to ideologically fixed audiences, how do we see each other as humans rather than as disembodied offenses? How do we trust each other again? We can only really converse if we trust in the humanity of each other if we see each other as humans who have something to say about the paths that brought us here.

But here’s a caveat. Not everyone is willing to walk along the same path, even if briefly. There is no point in walking with those whose minds are solidly entrenched in ideologies that separate us.

And another caveat. Although it is incumbent upon everyone to listen, it is not the responsibility for everyone to tell their story. Their stories – as black, brown, gay, female, trans, sexually harassed, Sikh, Muslim, First Nation and Native Americans, and countless others – have been told to the point of exhaustion. If some of them are yelling in the streets, it is because other methods have not worked. It is up to Euro-Americans to listen…and to work harder, if we must, to hear. We built these walls around our separate identities, after all.

We need to trust that there is a story worth hearing, even if it disrupts our own view of our world. We need to trust that when we feel offended or censored by political correctness, there is a story that we likely overlooked in its earlier telling.

After all, communication is built on trust. When we are so busy being offended, we do not trust one another. But as anthropologist Veena Das says, “Not trusting the words of the other is in effect a lack of trust in the other and in our mutual capacity to have a future together…. [Then all the seemingly minor] slights, hurts, insults in everyday conversations might transform into a psychic annihilation of the other” (2015: 95, my italics).  When confronted by something she does not understand, Das argues that instead of dismissing her friend, “I trust my friend’s words and so I strive to find how they could be meaningful.” (2015: 95). In striving to understand, we acknowledge each other’s humanity.

For an anthropologist, it is common practice to recognize how our own lives could have been different: that “we” could have been “them.”  It is a practice that comes from actively listening to stories, to putting ourselves into other people’s shoes for a while. Imagining, even if briefly, that the lines between us/them are blurry, that our current circumstances are a somewhat arbitrary result of our birth.

The path forward is the walk. On that walk we look at the same scenery, hear the same sounds around us, and trust that the other person has a story worth hearing and worth trying to understand.


Works Cited

Boot, Max. “2017 Was the Year I Learned About My White Privilege.” Voice. Last edited December 27, 2017. foreignpolicy.com/2017/12/27/2017-was-the-year-i-learned-about-my-white-privilege/

Chang, Alvin. “Fox News’s appalling past 72 hours, analyzed.” Vox. Last updated Feb 19, 2018. www.vox.com/2018/2/19/17027456/fox-news-mueller-indictment-trump

Cillizza, Chris. “Donald Trump just issued a direct threat to the free and independent media.” CNN online. Last updated October 12, 2017. edition.cnn.com/2017/10/11/politics/donald-trump-media-tweet/index.html

Das, Veena. “What does ordinary ethics look like?” Four Lectures on Ethics: Anthropological Perspectives. By Michael Lambeck, Veena Das, Didier Fassin, and Webb Keanne. Chicago: HAU Books, 2015.

Lee, Jo and Tim Ingold. “Fieldwork on Foot: Perceiving, Routing, Socializing.” In S. Coleman, & P. Collins (Eds.), Locating the Field: Space, Place and Context in Anthropology (pp. 67-86). Palo Alto, CA: Ebrary, 2006.

Martin, Gregory J. and Ali Yurukoglu. “Bias in Cable News: Persuasion and Polarization.American Economic Review 107, no. 9 (2017): 2565-99.

“Michigan man arrested for CNN ‘fake news’ death threat.” BBC online. Last updated January 23, 2018. www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-42792611

Rosenberg, Eli. “A new epithet emerges for Parkland teens calling for more gun control: Nazis” The Washington Post online. Last modified March 28, 2018. www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/a-new-epithet-emerges-for-parkland-teens-calling-for-more-gun-control-nazis/ar-BBKNycy?ocid=spartanntp

Swaine, Jon and Marc Bennetts. “Mueller charges 13 Russians with interfering in US election to help Trump.” The Guardian online. Last updated Feb 17, 2018. www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/feb/16/robert-mueller-russians-charged-election

Yarimar, Bonilla and Jonathan Rosa. “#Ferguson: Digital protest, hashtag ethnography, and the racial politics of social media in the United States.” American Ethnologist 42, no. 1 (2015): 4-17.

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