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The Trump Debate

Civility in a time of Political Polarization,
Making America Great by Listening

Sean Robinson

Prefatory Note by David Christopher Lane

Sean Robinson was unknown to me until a few weeks ago. He was not one of my students. However, my wife Andrea was sitting in her office at the college we both teach at and heard a very heated discussion ensuing outside in the hallway. She could hear raised voices and yelling even though her door was closed. Later she looked to see what all the commotion was about and discovered that a couple of professors and a lone student were in an intense argument about Donald Trump who had just won the Presidential election. She noticed that the student was acting reasonable and very calm, given the circumstances, but the professors who were involved (in another department) acted quite agitated and, to her mind, unbecoming as educators. I wasn't there at the time but when I heard what happened I wanted more details so later that week I got a chance to talk with Sean Robinson at length.

Although I didn't vote for Donald Trump and was, quite frankly, sick to my stomach when I learned early that he was going to win, I knew that others didn't share my viewpoint. I have long been appalled by the lack of civility in our public discourse, particularly among politicians. I feel it is vitally important to discuss ideas and candidates without devolving to sloganeering and mudslinging with our peers. Listening carefully to Sean helped me better appreciate why so many people may have voted for Donald Trump. The following article is not a justification for Trump as it is clarion call for better communication between those with contrarian views. Yes, we may adamantly disagree with each other, but the key is to actually listen to those we disagree with most. I must say I was singularly impressed with how Sean (a very young man) acted in response to those who, priding themselves as educators, should have acted more maturely and more in line with Socrates.

The point of this little essay is to underline how difficult it is to have reasonable discussions when we are entrenched with our own ideologies.

I was in the hall of the sociology, philosophy and psychology departments at my college. I typically read and write there for my own reasons; it's become a habit of mine. This was the day after the election of Donald J. Trump. Inside the confines of the department, I heard some professors down the hall talking about Donald J. Trump. The terms in which they spoke of him were what I had heard repeatedly before in the media—how he's a racist, a misogynist, or a homophobe.

I approached these professors and entered the conversation when it seemed most appropriate. My entrance was pretty abrupt, and the fact that I was wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat did not help my situation or start the interaction off on the right foot.

To preface, I did not conduct myself very well during the conversation. There were both arguments and statements of fact about either candidate that I should have made but didn't during the discussion, even when it would have been both timely and appropriate. However, the issue of how we conducted our respective arguments was more important to me, as I noticed that no matter what data I threw out it was summarily dismissed out of hand. I learned that, if faced with a similar situation again, it is better to ask a series of questions about the opposing party's position, rather than to exclusively hammer in my own counter argument. In sum, I should have been less pugnacious and more Socratic.

“Donald Trump is a racist.”

“Well, what indicates that he's a racist”? After posing this question, I was graced with the response “He said that all Mexicans are criminals and rapists.” The actual quote follows thusly: “Thank you. It's true, and these are the best and the finest. When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best. They're not sending you. They're not sending you. They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems with us. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people”.

I indicated that since he explicitly stated Mexico isn't “sending their best”, that indicates a distinction between those they are currently “sending” (which is questionable wording, since it implies a faulty causation), and those that would be their “best and the finest.”

However, I made a translation of what Trump said into my own words, which happened to include “The people that are illegally immigrating aren't measuring up to par by the very act of breaking the law by doing so.” The same, of course, holds true if I or anyone else was to enter into a foreign country illegally. Immediately afterward, I was accused of racism, since what I said indicated to them that I believe we live in a superior culture, even though that was not my intended meaning. Instantly, I was accused of “making a racist statement”. I attempted to explain that criticizing why certain individuals may wish to migrate is not the same as criticizing a race. I was not successful in making that distinction.

“Stop interrupting!”

Slightly before this point, one of the professors stopped me and told me to stop talking. “Multiple times during this conversation, you have talked over us! I've been counting how many times you've interrupted: four times! If you interrupt us one more time, this conversation is over!”

He seemed writhing with anger, with almost no visible build up (perhaps I was being unobservant). I told him that if I had interrupted at any point, I did not mean to, and I will take responsibility for it if I did. From then on, I said I would try my best to let either of them finish before going on to reply. However, in a very short order, I was told that the conversation was over. I asked “Well, why? I haven't interrupted you at any point after you asked me to stop. There's no reason for you to end this conversation.” Then, before he attempted to leave into his office, he turned back and responded “First, the guidelines were that you would not interrupt, but now you've said something racist, and you can't even admit to it. That is unacceptable! That's why I'm ending the conversation.” Despite his invective, I was somehow able to convince him to remain in the conversation.

“What you said is racist, but you just can't see it.”

I responded, “Well, I think this is rather interesting. It's funny how important language is in developing our conception of the world, and I think this discussion is a good example of that. Your perception of racism is very different from mine.” I further went on to say things about how their understanding of the word conflates the concepts of race and culture, whereas mine differentiates those ideas. It's also important to understand that the connotation of a word can influence a perceived denotation, which causes you to have a new perspective on the reality around you. I went on to say that understanding how language shapes our thinking is extremely important to consider in situations such as these. However, I was still met with a similar argument. “Well, your definition of racism is wrong. You should open up a dictionary and look up the definition”. I responded that I have, and I've actually looked into its meaning very closely. Still, the barrier was there. “Well, you just didn't look hard enough.”

For the sake of trying to avoid hitting an immediate brick wall, I refrained from arguing about this particular issue further, and eventually led the conversation back to Donald Trump. However, that was a mistake. The conversation should've remained more about perspective and reasoning regarding broader topics (how we can reasonably discuss racism, culture, and language), rather than about arguing to and fro about Donald Trump per se.

“You can't defend Donald Trump directly, you have to compare him to Hillary.”

This argument confused me the most. When asked why I supported Trump over Hillary, I tried to describe my support in the most concise manner possible. I may disagree with Trump from time to time; surely he isn't what I'd imagine to be my ideal president. However, I explained my reasoning somewhat like this: Donald Trump is new to the political process and as such is an open window, not necessarily beholden to decades of entrenched moneyed supporters. Whereas Hillary Clinton is a seasoned politician who has taken large sums of money from her backers for years, including paid speeches for Wall Street corporations. Donald Trump, like him or loath him, is comparatively untested in the political arena and thus will be held accountable from day one for every tweet, for every cabinet appointment. In sum, the microscope is on him. Hillary has, love her or despise her, a long and very checkered record in the political arena. Donald Trump is not only opposed by the Democratic Party, but he is also opposed by a fair amount of establishment Republicans and, as such, will face intense scrutiny. In other words, supporters of Trump see him as a wedge to open up the entrenched old school, political network, where cronyism and lobbying is the order of the day. Michael Moore said it best when he astutely pointed out "Across the Midwest, across the Rustbelt, I understand why a lot of people are angry. And they see Donald Trump as their human Molotov cocktail that they get to go into the voting booth on Nov 8. and throw him into our political system,"

What's strange about this is that, even as I tried to go into other reasons why I'd support Trump over Hillary, I'd be criticized for bringing up Hillary. If I stated a preference through comparison, that in itself somehow invalidated my position. At one point, I was asked about economic policy. I admit, I'm not well educated regarding economics, but I did bring up issues that could be present in Trump's plan (“Trumped up Trickle Down”, as stated by Clinton), and issues that would come up in Clinton's plan. I pointed out, perhaps naively, that it is in the self-interest of the Democratic Party to keep the immigrant issue alive and kicking, since apparently this issue works in the favor of those most aligned with voting along Democratic lines. The problem here is that large businesses often pay migrant workers less than they should and less than what allows for a decent living. There are legal pathways into this country and Trump has simply pointed out that something has to be done to enforce such. Ironically, Clinton herself actually favored building a fence on the border of Mexico since both California and Texas have had a border-crossing problem for decades. Why criticize Trump for his wall when the opposing candidate wanted something similar? Does this make Hillary Clinton a racist as well?

However, before explaining this, I had a problem formulating my position, and even more so of a problem trying to hone in on the specific economics, since I'm largely ignorant on the subject (which I admitted to them). The male professor chuckled as this happened, trying to hide his grin with one of his hands. He only stopped laughing at me once I was able to better express myself.

The conversation then turned to Donald Trump's misogyny and homophobia. Again, I tried to make some distinctions that were lost in translation. Regardless of what I said, I received the same reaction, “You just can't see it.”

“This is a waste of our time.”

Or so the professors shouted at me. But I begged to differ since what I was really interested in was a two-way exchange, not a monologue. So I said, again with little effect, “No, I'd have to disagree. Let me tell you something. Some of my best friends, actually, the people I'm closest to, are people that happen to have extremely different perspectives and values than I do. However, we all enjoy and value hearing each other's perspective on a particular issue. This is extremely important to our intellectual development, and it allows us to build genuine relationships with one another.” How did the professors respond? They rejected the idea entirely.

They argued, “No! If you have fundamental value differences between you and another person, there's no way you can interact with them without devaluing them as human beings!” That was the gist of it. Now, we seemed to sink into the ideological trenches.

The conversation was winding down. But before it came to a close, one last claim about Trump was made.

“Trump is a threat to my child.”

One professor exclaimed, “My daughter saw Trump on the TV. Immediately after she came running to me,crying. She said to me 'daddy, I don't want to be deported.' Trump is a threat to my child, and that is irredeemable.” I wasn't really sure at first how to respond to that. I was silent for a brief moment.

I understand that he's acting this way as a concerned father. He cares for his daughter, and if he perceives that his daughter is being threatened, then he must protect her, regardless of how rational or irrational that fear may actually be.

However, in this moment, I was too thrown off by the heated arguing that I didn't respond appropriately. So, I gave my honest reaction without coating it in overt empathy. “You are arguing from emotion.” He became furious. He asked if I was a parent. I responded “No”. He went on to tell me about how I could never understand his fear for and his care for his daughter, and how I'm not only wrong, but, because I'm defending Donald Trump, I am a threat. He didn't say exactly how I am a threat. Rather, he just told me “You are a threat.”

At this point, another Professor entered the conversation. She went on about how “Children are sacred and precious, and how if we have a leader in our country that is a threat to them, then he isn't fit to lead.” Again, I didn't know how to respond. Our conversation then went back to previously discussed topics—including name calling me a racist. At one point, she told me “I have to believe you're a good person, or else I will lose my faith in humanity”.

Before the conversation ended, one of the professors told me that I should stop arguing with them and just listen, since they have an education and I do not. I needed to “respect them as professors.” I told them that the people that I respect most in this world happen to either be practicing or former professors and teachers, even those that might have different views than I. Still, that didn't seem to do anything.

As the conversation ended, the professor that recently entered the conversation told me that I needed to “educate myself,” and I needed to “reflect heavily upon what was discussed.” It was condescending since they seemed blind to the faults of Hilary Clinton, so adamant they were in lambasting Trump.

What I really wanted (and I do place blame on myself in this multiple street intersection of critical communication) was a reasonable discussion and not merely name-calling and labeling.

This I feel is why there is so much animosity in American politics. Yes, I support Donald Trump, but that doesn't mean I am blind to his faults. But I do see an opportunity here and Trump is indeed the wild card in the political deck that to my mind needs a radical wake-up call. To simply call his supporters racists or worse is itself tyrannical, since it closes the door on why so many people did indeed cast a vote for him, especially in those states most impacted by the current state of the economy.

What's the solution?

How can we prevent ourselves from being ideologues? I think the first start is to become aware that the strings of ideology bind us all. This reminds me of Noam Chomsky's astute observation that “Everybody's worried about stopping terrorism. Well, there's a really easy way: stop participating in it.” We also must identify where our ideological biases lie. The philosopher John Stuart Mill provides us with insightful advice, “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion…”

Ideology to me is a serpent that has become an extension of our own form. If you do not fight it, it will devour you; you'll be lost to reality. If you cut it off, you'll bleed to death, you'll be devoid of meaning. It is an opponent that you must wage a lifelong battle with, and it is that battle that will allow you to pursue truth. The problem with being too entrenched in our own positions is that we end up simply reinforcing what we already believe and never open up to being contravened, like a mythic uroboros who eats his own tail (or is it tale?—pun intended).

Ideology manifests itself due to the human need for purpose, which helps accomplish a related goal (e.g. The need to see the lives of people around you improve will ultimately help accomplish the goal of directly helping those around you). If this is successful, then it is more likely that the individual will have an easier time accomplishing less relevant goals due to being in a more positive, motivational or emotional state

Purpose, in this context, can be defined as the goal of an activity or idea. Meaning, in this context, can be defined as a recognition of one's predispositions/inclinations, which allows the conscious assignment of value to activity that would be caused/influenced by said predispositions.

The creation of meaning is the foundation. Now, the individual develops that meaning, perhaps coming up with cohering ideas to further support that foundation.

This (with variation influenced by culture and that culture's complexity [especially considering complexity of language]) may manifest into an ideology. Our understanding that emotional states facilitate motivational states, and that meaning facilitates the development of pre-existing (more basic) motivations, we can associate ideology with a “motivational state equation” (Identify Threat ? Consciously or subconsciously establish a Goal to eliminate said Threat ? Establish and adjust plans and reasonings to work your way toward said Goal ? Attain Goal [If Goal is not attained, repeat previous step until goal is attained]).

This process not only serves the individual, but it also serves society as well. Just as ideological motivation allows one to function more effectively, shared ideological motivation between members of a group allows the group to act more cohesively (since they share similar values and goals). This bolsters their capacity to do work. An ideology/systems of values that a society functions around may manifest themselves into objects/subjects that act as physical representations of those ideas (sacred objects [Kaaba - Islam] [Flag - Patriotism/Nationalism]), as well as individuals that particular society would function around (sacred subjects [Pope - Catholicism] [Minorities/Marginalized Groups - Neo-Progressivism/PC Marxism]).

Furthermore, we can infer that: because individuals and societies function more efficiently as ideology helps goal attainment, individuals (without appropriate causation) attempting to dispel a given ideology/meaning, or a “why” would probably be very difficult, especially given the depth of one's beliefs.

If we imagine (approximate) truth as a singular bright light, and your own ideology as the endless black expanse that surrounds you, you would have to be somewhere in that space. At a certain point, if you travel so far away from that light, you will lose absolute track of it. You won't be able to find your own way back. Despite the fact that ideology can help individuals and societies to function more efficiently, this comes with a drawback. The stronger one's ideological bias, the further they are distanced from the light (truth in the approximate sense).

When we are consumed by our ideological beliefs (consumed by the aforementioned serpent) we are more or less acting as dogmatists. An ideological dogmatist will not change their beliefs, and will use any given information, whether or not it credits or discredits their beliefs, to bolster their own position.

Concluding Remarks

Let me be clear, the point of this writing is not to defend Donald Trump. There are plenty of people out there that do not have a preference for him that have legitimate reasons for that lack of preference. The point of this little essay is to underline how difficult it is to have reasonable discussions when we are entrenched with our own ideologies and have little time to actually listen (not merely judge) to a different or opposing purview.

However, to do this, we must do our best to try and understand where that other person is coming from. This can be extremely hard to do (and even if you do, it's not guaranteed that the opposing party will even attempt to treat you with the same courtesy). However, this is the only way you'll truly begin to show compassion for your fellow man, which is a necessary quality for a society to continue functioning in a healthy manner. The Trump/Hillary divide has shown us how difficult it is to be civil to each other, even if we may have similar hopes and dreams ultimately.

I once heard it said that if you want to have a civil conversation, it is necessary to always remember that one can be wrong or mistaken in their position. If, however, we believe that nothing can change our mind (no matter how much evidence is proffered), then we are in dogma land 101.


In closing, it is important to remember that even those people we may disagree with now, may have views that we actually dovetail with at a different time and a different place. As just one telling example, watch the following interview of President-elect Donald Trump back in 2007:

Donald Trump in 2007: “The war (in Iraq) is a total disaster. It is a catastrophy, nothing less… They are in a civil war over there and there's nothing we're going to do about that.”

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