The fictional is political
25th November 2016
Words by Samantha Lewis
One of the conversations that has emerged in the weeks following Trump’s election win has been the ways in which we (unconsciously or otherwise) choose the stories we read. The “left-wing” media, for example, has begun to examine the role its own rhetorical strategies played in Trump’s victory, particularly the effect of painting all of his supporters with the same brush used to mark him.
You’re likely to have read tweets or articles along the lines of “Not All Trump Supporters Are Racists/Sexists/Homophobes”, a regeneration of the “Not All Men” argument that I thought we had begun to move past together. The phrase “echo chamber” is used often to criticise the self-tailored nature of social media with platforms like Twitter and Facebook ‘empowering’ individuals to set the parameters of their own realities, enabling us to simply ignore whatever opinions or perspectives that may represent a fundamental challenge to our deeply-held beliefs. The sound of shattering glass many hoped would mark the election of the first woman president turned out instead to signify the fracturing of the echo chambers we didn’t realise we had been occupying over the course of our lives.
It is, however, not news to minority groups in the United States, as well as in other “first-world” nations like the United Kingdom or Australia, that our communities are tense with extreme differences and inequalities, anchored in and maintained by hierarchies of power. It’s not just that some of us have ignored the perspectives of those with whom we fundamentally disagree politically; white progressives have also systematically failed to listen to what minority groups have been telling us for decades: society is a lot less kind, and more fractured, than we hoped. That it took someone as blatant and crass as Trump to shock the white world out of our optimistic stupor and begin listening to the warnings and suggestions from minority groups proves how insidious and pervasive our echo chambers really are.
I am not going to pretend that I fully understand the minutiae of the electoral college, or the political leanings of particular media outlets, or the impact of 24/7 news on the public psyche, or the problem of selective polls. The 2016 election will, I’m sure, be dissected and analysed from various angles for generations to come. What I have been thinking about recently is where we go from here, and, more generally, who “we” are.
I was taught from a young age to watch the ways in which people react to tragedy. I believe that what you do in the face of overwhelming fear or chaos says a lot about your character, and the kind of world you want to build for others. On the afternoon of the election here in Australia, many writers and activists took to social media to summon those of us who felt powerless, urging us to “get to work”. I took this work to mean engaging with family, friends, and colleagues about politics, protesting, petitioning, volunteering, asking hard questions of our elected representatives, attending rallies and lectures and round-tables. Organising. Reaching out. Speaking. Listening.
Except, who does the speaking? And who listens? Trump’s victory has pushed these questions to the forefront of political discourse. Does the echo chamber narrative extend to this kind of basic, grassroots political work, too? How does – or should – the work we carry out negotiate what may appear to be irreconcilable differences in fundamental concepts such as liberty, freedom, equality, justice, and autonomy? Should we try to speak and/or listen to those who do not share our values? Whose responsibility is it – if anybody’s – to take the first steps towards reconciliation? Is it even necessary to reconcile these differences in the pursuit of a peaceful and prosperous society for everybody? Or is this idea too utopian, too unreachable, to even consider seriously?
I have seen many people – myself included, in moments of rage and exhaustion – rightly argue that those who are oppressed should not be required to legitimise a politics of hatred and fear by engaging with it politely or kindly. The oppressed should not have to carry the burden of both navigating oppressive social structures themselves while carefully leading their oppressors out of their myopic beliefs. As historian Charlotte L. Riley (@lottelydia) tweeted, “[the moral high ground, peaceful engagement, asking respectful questions] works solely and only if the people you are opposing actually care about your opinions, your concern, and your wellbeing.” The idea that minority groups should meet the language and behaviour of those who hate them with kindness or compassion is one borne of a certain type of privilege. “For everyone else,” Riley tweets, “the only way to get what you want is to make it impossible for your demands to be ignored… And sometimes that means fighting and screaming and shouting and burning shit down before you can even get in the room.”
Indeed, the notion that we should meet oppression with compassion is not new, either. Twitter user @arwon posted a screenshot of a friend’s public Facebook post, in which they explained that NFL player Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem, the peaceful and life-affirming Black Lives Matter movement, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s doctrine of non-violence are examples of those at the forefront of oppression attempting to be patient with and compassionate towards the fear, trivialisation and hatred directed at them. The extreme and violent backlash towards all of these moments makes it clear that kindness, for all of its benefits, does not work as a political tool. Why should people who are oppressed continue to be kind to those who do not believe in the rights of others to marry who they love, to control their own bodies, to determine their own gender identity, or to simply exist without fear?
"The extreme and violent backlash towards all of these moments makes it clear that kindness, for all of its benefits, does not work as a political tool. Why should people who are oppressed continue to be kind to those who do not believe in the rights of others to marry who they love, to control their own bodies, to determine their own gender identity, or to simply exist without fear?"
I wholeheartedly agree, however, this doesn’t mean we should stop meeting hatred with kindness altogether. Instead, the burden of unravelling the hate, anger, and fear of otherness that many believe was responsible for Trump’s victory should now be placed on the shoulders of the privileged. It is our silence over the course of generations that has enabled these extreme social differences to elect an unqualified, unconcerned, and uncertain leader of the United States. We must stand in solidarity with, or speak up in conjunction with, the disenfranchised and the dispossessed, when and where they ask us to. If not, we must create the spaces for people to project their own voices, and to be heard. The kind of work we need now cannot fit into a presidential term. The kind of work we need now is generational, structural, and educational.
We are not born knowing who, how, or why to hate. Hatred is taught; it is thrown over us, like a dark sheet, by people and situations external to us. Hate, like compassion, fear, and love, becomes a lens through which we look at ourselves and others; a lens which can be warped consciously and unconsciously as we move through life. This was not an election of logic, or facts, or argumentation. It was an election of emotion. Trump identified the hatred and resentment seething from a large fraction of the United States and directed it towards arguably the most qualified presidential candidate in history. Despite belonging to the same class of “elites” as Hillary Clinton, Trump created a fictional narrative that positioned him as an outsider; a won’t-take-orders-from-nobody-but-myself deviant. For many, that fictional aura was enough. Every tweet, every interview, every debate answer, every official statement was part of this elaborate fictional Trump – reiterating some things and burying others – constructing an ‘Us versus Them’ narrative as old as narrative itself. By offering to solve the emotion-driven questions of many ordinary people, Trump positioned himself as their leader; the protagonist of a story he had woven from specific threads of our world. We know, of course, that this story is simplistic; but simplicity is the human desire Trump appeals to in a society that is becoming increasingly complex.
"We are not born knowing who, how, or why to hate. Hatred is taught; it is thrown over us, like a dark sheet, by people and situations external to us. Hate, like compassion, fear, and love, becomes a lens through which we look at ourselves and others; a lens which can be warped consciously and unconsciously as we move through life."
Much of the uncertainty now stems from whether or not Trump is truly like the fictional man he has presented to us. And if he isn’t, what does it mean that so many people believed in and voted for the fiction anyway? I wonder whether the outcome would have been different if people had been able to identify the wider narratives about immigrants, the economy, ISIS, trade, jobs, and so many other factors that Trump used and abused in order to position himself the way he did. To what extent have we focused on fighting each other instead of challenging the structures and narratives that tell us that in-fighting is the logical or natural outcome of identity politics? Do we want our politics to be grounded in what appears to be irreconcilable differences, or is there a way we can learn to appreciate both differences and similarities in order to form coalitions in pursuit of a shared goal: a peaceful and prosperous society for everybody? What basic, practical steps can we take to lay the foundations for a new type of social consciousness upon which future generations can leverage and build on?
In her book Poetic Justice (1995), Martha Nussbaum argues that reading fiction can teach us how to empathise with others. Fictions that invite us into the lives and worlds of people who are different from ourselves is one of the few universally accessible and teachable methods of empathy-building. Readers, importantly, are not required to approach fiction critically, for the text to be an effective teaching device. The power of decoding fiction, even if less consciously, comes from its ability to encourage its readers to form close emotional connections with its characters; to identify parts of ourselves in others. As we have seen from this election, it is nearly impossible to combat emotion with logic or argumentation; in this “post-fact” society, we can meet emotion with emotion. As Nussbaum says, “[t]he reader cultivates concern with human agency and autonomy and, at the same time, a capacity to imagine what the life of [another person] is like.” Fiction that self-consciously uses rhetorical strategies to draw readers into the minds and bodies of different characters “promotes habits of mind that lead toward social equality in that they contribute to the dismantling of the stereotypes that support group hatred.” It is more difficult, in other words, to hate what you care about.
Diversifying our media landscape is the first step towards a general evolution of our lives as consumers of information. It should also apply to our artistic and literary worlds, our sports, our religions and spiritualities, and everything else that we draw upon to define ourselves and others. While ‘some’ from older generations may be too ingrained in their refusal to reflect upon the nature and causes of stereotypical ignorance, teaching children and young people how to read – in both a literal and a figurative sense – will equip them with the basic tools that are arguably at the heart of our progressive, collective politics. Reading the same types of fiction by the same writers in the same genres from the same perspectives with the same characters in the same spaces leads readers to unconsciously normalise and universalise the lessons they learn about themselves and their worlds through these limited reading practices. Normalising diversity from the beginning of their social lives instead gives younger generations the chance to move beyond the differences that some believe have overshadowed other, wider, and more catastrophic political issues such as capitalism and climate change.
The intention of this essay is to provide an opportunity for all of us to think about what we want our legacies to be. This is not to suggest that the safety and comfort of our echo-chamber communities is entirely false or dangerous; it is necessary for us to have a space to breathe, a space to collect ourselves before we march back out into the world. This is, if anything, a request aimed at those of us in positions of privilege, as I believe we are ethically and morally obliged to use whatever influence we have over younger generations to promote a politics that does not pit communities against one another. Empathy cannot stop at the horizon of our identities. We must vastly move over and vacate the warranted space to the voices of the oppressed, whose ideas and beliefs have been and continue to be historically dismissed, systematically and institutionally. We must champion the ability and the desire to find common ground amongst diverse perspectives, instead of reinforcing the parameters of difference. We must demonstrate the value of patience and of listening to and through the stories that others tell. In so doing, we can begin to listen and speak back to those narratives with an appreciation for their malleability, and an understanding of the fear and the pain that comes with recognising that what you thought was real is but one of many complex stories that we use to constitute ourselves and our world.
"Empathy cannot stop at the horizon of our identities. We must vastly move over and vacate the warranted space to the voices of the oppressed, whose ideas and beliefs have been and continue to be historically dismissed, systematically and institutionally."
Illuminating through fiction the multiple, intersecting circumstances and wider narratives of gender, race, class, sexuality, dis/ability, and so on, that leads one person to hatred and another person to the contrary or indifference, should surely constitute a new type of political work. The project of love should not end when loving becomes difficult. Once we learn to recognise each other as both caught within and capable of seeing through these wider narratives that keep us preoccupied with what divides us – once we become literate in the language of power, oppression, and identity – we will be able to turn, together, towards those people and those systems that have thus far profited from our illiteracy.
Samantha Lewis is a recent Masters of Research graduate from Macquarie University in Sydney. Her thesis focused on how modernist short story writer Katherine Mansfield used narrative devices to position readers in the gendered bodies of her characters in order to better understand the complexities of the domestic space as it is experienced conceptually and phenomenologically by differently-gendered people. She’s passionate about the ways in which narratives of gender frame our relationship to our bodies, spaces, and reading practices.