Monday, November 16, 2020

Finally Understanding My Republican Friends

I try to understand how other people frame things. If you don't try to inhabit different perspectives, you'll suffer through life in a world of seeming fools, where no one seems to see correctly. I held this world view for a long time, until I began to understand that it was an empathy failure on my part. If you grok where people are coming from (beneath the material content of their thoughts, down to their subjective stance), it's much easier to tolerate and respect their divergence from your own perspective. You know the old chestnut about never judging a man until you've walked a mile in his mocassins? There's more depth to that than it seems.

In extreme moments like now, my brain smokes a little, straining to empathize with people brazenly unwilling to mask up during a deadly pandemic (and who continue to support a president who's the epitome of the sort of leader our founders were worried about). I grok the spittle-flecked, middle-finger hoisting, hopped-up ghouls at the MAGA rallies. They're easy. But my Republican friends and neighbors, at this point (when I'd have expected their fever to have broken), baffle me. The nice people - reasonable and coherent, politically unsophisticated but in no way evil - are a tough nut to crack.

Until now. I've just come to understand their framing.

When I was a kid, my mother smoked in bed a lot. Naturally, she’d nod off with cigarettes in her hand, so her bedspreads were full of burns, some horrifically large.

In fire prevention programs at school, we were warned that smoking in bed is the top cause of catastrophic fires. So I spent my childhood terrified that the house would burn down. I trained myself to remove my window screen and jump out in just a couple seconds. When I'd ask (and, eventually, beg) my mother to stop smoking in bed, she'd respond with unexpected anger. "I take care of you all day," was the gist of her thinking. "This is my thing. This is what I do. This is for me.”

As a logical, clear-headed kid lacking a sophisticated grasp of human psychology, I figured she just needed correction. "Is smoking in bed really so wonderful? Couldn't you choose a better hobby? One offering something more productive than lung cancer, and which wouldn't risk the lives and possessions of your loved ones?"

One couldn't argue with my logic. But logic wasn't the missing element, so this cogent analysis was not graciously received. Logic had no connection with her visceral desire to do this thing she wanted to do. She stubbornly pretended not to recognize the flagrantly obvious stupidity, uselessness, and danger.

And that's what's happening now. Trumpism is people's pet thing, an indulgence they grant themselves and stubbornly refuse to be talked out of, despite the flagrantly obvious stupidity, uselessness, and danger.

Like my mother's bed-smoking, it's not something they're able to contemplate (much less discuss) reasonably. Republicans I know who are able to rationally converse about political issues - even hot button ones like abortion and guns - can't broach Trumpy topics without spewing fury and nonsense. One can't argue with a visceral desire.

Trumpism is their little indulgence - the irresponsibly stupid thing they know to be wrong and can’t possibly defend. And if you try to coax them to clarity, you will not be received graciously. It's their thing. This is what they do. This is for them.

"Pretend" is the key word ("She stubbornly pretended not to recognize the flagrantly obvious stupidity, uselessness, and danger"). Trumpers understand who and what he is. They know, just like my mom knew the danger of smoking in bed. And don't imagine you're incapable of this, yourself. None of us unfailing follows our best judgement. We all have willfully and knowingly walked toward a dead end while people screamed "Dead End!!!" at us, as if we didn't have eyes. As if we were stupid.

Stop treating them like they don’t know. My mom didn't lack awareness of the perils of bed smoking. She knew. Of course she did. Treating her like she just needed to understand better - patiently explaining the obvious as if she were a damned child - rankled her. She didn't need to hear it. She wasn't an idiot. She knew.

We all know what it's like to choose poorly, and to obstinately double down on that bad choice. It doesn't make you blind or stupid, however blindly stupid you might look from a distance. You were just wrong, and willfully so. You felt (with justification) like it was your right to be intentionally wrong sometimes. Our wrongness is a deeply personal thing - perhaps the most personal thing - so it's particularly infuriating when people aim to deny us that latitude.


Michael P. said...

"You can't reason a person out of a position they didn't reasonably get into."

Thank you for thi slog. I enjoy it very much.

Jim Leff said...

You’re welcome.

Anonymous said...

I often wonder this as well. And yes, lots of them are definitely are afraid to admit it, some of those large bunch even to the pollsters. Hillary was going to win in 2016, right? Well, according to the polls. Luckily Biden got the job done this year. Great post!

Jim Leff said...


I don't think it boils down to "afraid to admit". My mother wasn't "afraid to admit" smoking in bed was dangerous. She didn't even want to DISCUSS it, because it was the thing she did, and even if it was wrong (which, deep inside, she knew she obviously was), she felt it was absolutely her call, her thing, and she didn't need to justify it. It's about volition, and if you don't like my choices, too bad (this obviously applies to masks, too. It explains a lot of what's going on).

And the essential point, which I tried to stress, is that if you imagine you don't have eleventeen things exactly like this, yourself, then you're in serious denial. Everyone has pampered snatches of comfortable wrongness we willfully cling to, and we grow irritated (or batshit furious) when someone deigns to slow-talk explanation at us like all we needed was BETTER INFORMATION because we were just too stupid to understand.

Everything's a framing thing. Everything can be related to if we study our own framing. It's all inside each of us, all of it. And until we get more supple at grokking people's framing, the universe will keep seeming unpleasantly wrong and crazy. If we don't recognize our own capacity (even thirst) for wrong craziness, then we get arrogant, judgmental, anxious, confused, obnoxious, barbaric, depressed.

Problems apparently "out there" in the world are invariably "in here" with the framing.

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