REFLECTIONS ON THE POLITICS OF OTHERING FROM #SXSW

By Kate Catherall, Founder of CHORUS

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TODAY IN AMERICA, OUR POLITICS EPITOMIZES THE NOTION OF A ZERO-SUM GAME.

If you aren’t familiar with the term, a zero-sum game describes a situation in which if one participant scores points, the other participant must lose points in equal measure. In other words, one participant’s gain (#winning) is always the other’s loss (#sad).

Our narrative is one of good guys and bad guys, insiders and outsiders, elitists and populists, and nothing in between. You are with us, or you are against us. It’s a narrative that leaves little room for nuance, creates false binaries, and asks us to choose sides.

I’ve spent the last decade working in politics, but you don’t need someone like me to tell you that this is exactly what campaigns are all about. Making the voter choose. Painting contrast. Raising the stakes. Making it simple. Black or white. Red or blue. You belong, or you are the other.

We have largely succeeded in pushing voters to the ends of this spectrum. In the process, we have alienated the 40% of Americans who routinely choose not to cast a ballot.

The data here probably isn’t all that surprising. Democrats are significantly more liberal than they were 20 years ago. Republicans are significantly more conservative. Both dislike each other at higher and higher rates. But let’s take a step back from the partisan politics and just consider what’s behind all of this — how politics makes us, as individuals, feel.

OUR POLITICAL CULTURE IS NOT JUST POLARIZING US EXTERNALLY, IT IS POLARIZING US INTERNALLY.

This perpetuates a cycle of dehumanization that is hard to break. This is the story I told on a panel last Saturday at SXSW. Our trust in government and in each other has all but completely eroded. Our politics is increasingly driven by a culture of otheringAs John A. Powell and Stephen Menendian point out, othering is not new to American politics nor is it unique to the U.S. However, I believe othering was the chief strategy of our current President’s 2016 election campaign.

Of course it doesn’t end there, as dehumanization begets dehumanization. This is collectively traumatizing Americans, and pushing us further and further away from each other. It is one of the greatest threats to our democracy.

Before I came to SXSW, my impression of it was an associative word cloud: networking, innovation, parties, technology, crowds, BBQ, music, film, branding, demos…To be honest, it’s still a lot of those things. (Having come down with the flu on my way home, I might add “hand sanitizer” and “vitamin C” to the list.)

But what struck me this week was the call from so many speakers to grapple with the tension that is simultaneously holding to your values while opening yourself to engaging those with whom you passionately disagree; to — difficult as it may be — strive to find our common humanity.

I’m not entirely sure how we do that, to be honest, but I know that Van Jones was right when he said:

“We are feeding what we are fighting…We cannot fight polarization with polarization.”

He was also right when he said, “The politics of accusation is easy.” It is. It’s easier for me to dehumanize those who do not share my values, to call them stupid, to label them bigots. It gets more RTs on Twitter. It makes for a nice sound-bite and a much shorter blog post. It invites a helluva lot more validation. It makes this very scary world feel just a little easier to digest. Just pick the right side.

And let’s be clear — there is real evil and cruelty in this world — and there are real peoples’ lives being affected by our current administration’s policies in a way that we must resist. We must organize our communities, contact our elected officials and policy makers, and hold them accountable. That is the call of citizenship.

BUT LET’S ACKNOWLEDGE THAT HAVING THE COURAGE OF OUR CONVICTIONS AND HAVING COMPASSION ARE NOT MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE. IN FACT, THE TWO ARE ALIGNED.

Before I go any further, it’s important to acknowledge that as a white, able-bodied, cis-gendered woman in America, it is relatively easy for me to preach compassion and empathy. I don’t wake up everyday wondering if my family members will be detained, deported, or shot because of the color their skin, how they worship, or the nation in which they were born. For many Americans, this is a daily reality. People of color have had to resist and empathize and “understand” and code-switch everyday from the moment they‘re born. Undue burden on top of undue burden. For those insulated by privilege, it is on us to expand our capacity to understand in order to hold a space for this conversation.

It’s also important to say that I don’t have all the answers, and I am not free of blame. I have contributed to the problem. I have not done enough to break out of my ideological echo chamber. I’ve made many unfair, even derogatory comments about “Trump voters” — whom I have never met — out of anger. I am just as susceptible to the plurality of emotions I’ve described above as anyone else.

But if we mean what we say when we say we want an America that is grounded in the values of opportunity, equity, inclusion, and justice — then we have to bring humanity back to the conversation. Yes, we need to continue the work of dismantling the patriarchy. Yes, we need to confront and reject systemic and institutionalized racism and sexism. Yes, we need to acknowledge and put an end to the license that has been given to those who would commit violent acts out of Islamaphobia, homophobia, and xenophobia. This is the work before us as a nation, and it is urgent.

But we need to find a way to have a dialogue, and not just a debate; to invite those with whom we vehemently disagree to participate in these conversations, and to anchor those conversations in our shared humanity. It is only then that we have a chance at breaking this cycle, changing our culture, and forging a common American identity. We must live our values as we espouse them.

We can only begin to create an America in which everyone belongs by changing how we talk about and to each other. By assuming less. By giving each other the benefit of the doubt. By acknowledging that sometimes people make decisions that are not altogether representative of their character. By refusing to vilify and dehumanize each other. By recognizing that love is resistance.

As Van Jones so succinctly put it in his speech at SXSW, we must “call people up” instead of “calling people out.”

LET’S RESIST BY REFUSING TO PLAY THE ZERO-SUM GAME.

Let’s stop perpetuating a divisive and toxic political culture that alienates 40% of our country. Let’s stop pushing people into binaries. Let’s create room for the hard, deep, uncomfortable conversations to happen. Let’s amplify the stories of people whose lives are affected by the policies our elected officials enact. Let’s lift up the voices of authentic leaders. Let’s change the tone of the conversation. It will take all of us