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How Should Progressives Talk Trump?

By Rachel Robison-Greene
2 Dec 2016

The election of Donald Trump to the Presidency of the United States has further divided an already deeply divided country.  Specifically, the question of how, precisely, to respond to the election result has fractured a large group of deeply despondent progressives.  One segment of this population maintains that the behavior of Donald Trump, not only during the election, but also throughout his entire lifetime, demonstrates a profound lack of respect and regard for the well-being of women, racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants, Muslims, impoverished individuals, and members of the LGBTQ community.  They argue that, because Trump supporters don’t seem bothered by this behavior, and because some of them even engage in it themselves, Trump supporters should be called out for what they are: racists and bigots.

I’ll call this approach the zero tolerance approach because its advocates argue that we should never, even for one moment, normalize behaviors that are reminiscent of our racist, intolerant past.  As such, the perspectives of Trump supporters are deserving of nothing but our disdain.  

Another segment of the community argues that Trump’s election provides the best evidence for a phenomenon that attentive citizens should have been aware of for quite some time: as a society, we have forgotten how to engage in respectful dialogue with those with whom we disagree.  Perhaps we’ve never really known how to do this effectively at all. This segment of the population argues that it is time to learn. I’ll call this approach the respectful dialogue approach. This group of progressives, as a whole, takes as dim a view of Trump’s policies as any of their ideological peers, but they reject the idea that the appropriate response to the situation is to condemn those who voted for Trump as the new wave of Nazis or Klansmen (leaving out, of course, the actual neo-Nazis or Klansmen who voted for Trump).

The disagreement over how to respond to Trump’s election speaks to a larger philosophical question: what is the ethical way to deal with disagreement when the disagreement is about questions of fundamental rights and values?  When the issue is framed in this way, we can understand the zero tolerance approach as the position that fundamental rights and values are of paramount importance.  We should do anything in our power to prevent their violation, and when they are violated, we need to identify and punish those responsible. We can understand the respectful dialogue approach as a more procedural response.  Though this approach also recognizes the importance of fundamental rights and values, advocates of such an approach highlight the importance of being reasons-responsive and engaging in civil discourse, even with, and perhaps especially with, those with whom we disagree.  

Advocates of the zero tolerance approach tend to recognize that not all Trump supporters voted for him because of the policies he has advocated that have implications for disenfranchised groups.  Many of his voters, not themselves members of the groups at issue, were motivated by considerations pertaining to their own interests.  For instance, they may have lost their jobs and may feel that Trump is likely to bring back jobs in factories and industry.  Even so, advocates of the zero tolerance approach are critical of the rank ordering of the values of this kind of Trump supporter.  If you want your job back so badly that you are willing to gamble away the rights or respectful treatment of disenfranchised groups for the mere chance of getting a better job, you don’t avoid the charge of bigotry.  

Advocates of the zero tolerance policy also point to the importance of looking at the history of intolerance and oppression.  Often, injustices of incomprehensible magnitude actually take place because good people are too polite to call out problematic behavior as it initially happens.  It’s crucial, then, to speak out against potentially oppressive policies, before they are ever enacted, to prevent human rights violations from ever taking place at all.

Advocates of the respectful dialogue approach agree with the zero tolerance crowd regarding the values that are, ultimately, morally defensible.  They differ on the issue of how to deal with disagreement.  It may well be true that Trump supporters harbor either explicit or implicit bias against disenfranchised groups.  Even if this were so, calling them out on this fact in exactly these terms is not likely to be productive.  Those terms put people on the defensive, and progress isn’t likely when people are in that state.  

The disagreement isn’t merely pragmatic, however.  Advocates of the respectful dialogue approach value truth, and they claim that the best way that society can arrive at and disseminate the truth is through the process of providing and listening to reasons.  It is naïve, they claim, to believe that all and only those in our immediate circles possess the right answers.  It is important to understand where other people are coming from.  It is only by hearing the reasons that a person has for holding a particular view that we can evaluate whether that view has merit.  Of course, no position that maintains that another human being should be treated with less respect and regard because of characteristics like race, sexual orientation, gender identity, or socioeconomic status will actually be found, through rational discourse, to have merit, but it is only through civil, rational discourse that we can ever change the mind of someone who doesn’t already believe that.  The person we don’t want to talk to is often the very person to whom we are morally compelled to speak.

Proponents of the respectful dialogue approach also point out that those who disagree with progressive ideas about fundamental values are, in many cases, equally convinced that they have truth on their side when it comes to the fundamental values that they advocate.  If both parties embrace the zero tolerance approach, we have reached a stalemate.  Conservative members of Congress have adopted a zero tolerance approach of their own, and, among other things, it has motivated them to rule out even having a discussion of the merits of the case for Merrick Garland as a Supreme Court nominee.  We are really in trouble when we rule out the possibility of even having a conversation, and this would be the seemingly inevitable outcome when both sides adopt a zero tolerance policy for the positions of the other.

Ironically, this division has, in many cases, prevented progressives from having productive conversations with one another about how best to move forward.  Zero tolerance progressives don’t want to sugarcoat the truth, and respectful dialogue progressives don’t want avenues for civil discourse to shut down for good.

Rachel is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University. Her research interests include the nature of personhood and the self, animal minds and animal ethics, environmental ethics, and ethics and technology. She is the co-host of the pop culture and philosophy podcast I Think Therefore I Fan.
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