Blaming Trump is part of the problem

The Atlantic tells us that “Trump is making everyone a little like him.”

I disagree. Notice the headline’s passive voice. President Donald Trump isn’t making us do anything. Instead, we choose to act in certain ways.

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Lemon tree in Phoenix, Arizona. © Dave DuBay

American culture has become coarser in the past half century. Trump didn’t start this trend—not even on Twitter—but he is the logical conclusion of it.

The Atlantic notes former FBI director James Comey’s many insults of Trump in his new book, and Comey’s denials that he’s mocking Trump. Social justice activists are also well known for their abusive online rhetoric. Meanwhile, right-wing ideologues fill online comment sections with all sorts of insults of women and minorities.

This phenomenon is no more left-wing than it is right-wing, though the right has the most globally visible practitioner of it.

Trolling and online insults proliferate because so many people think it’s only wrong when someone else does it. But when I do it, the reasoning goes, I’m speaking out against someone who has hurt others and who needs to be exposed so they can no longer harm others.

Conservatives who say liberalism is a mental disorder are legitimately warning others of liberalism’s threat to civilization as we know it—at least in their own minds. And social justice activists call anyone who isn’t as far left as them a bigot in a justified attempt to fight oppression—or so they say.

But saying that Trump is making us do this evades responsibility for our choices. And it makes the problem worse because it blames the phenomenon on one segment of society, ignoring the fact that really it’s all of us.

No one person is likely to shift the tide, but each individual can play a small part by refusing to play along.

I can choose not to troll online or in person. I can choose not to use insults and instead to focus on why I disagree with someone. And if insulted, I can choose not to retaliate.

Marcus Aurelius wrote that the best revenge is not to be like your enemy. Ever seen a situation where someone remains calm and respectful even when being viciously insulted? In contrast to the exaggerated facial expressions, shrill tone of voice, and over the top statements of the attacker, the other person’s relaxed face and thoughtful response makes it look like a conversation between a child and an adult.

Besides, while factual items can be corrected simply by stating the facts (which may or may not be believed), character judgments are opinion and can’t be refuted in the same way. So redirecting from the personalities to the issue at hand can save us from the rabbit hole of “I know you are but what am I.”

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SPLC: men’s rights groups are hate groups

The Southern Poverty Law Center’s three pronged social justice strategy is to fight hate, teach tolerance, and seek justice. They raise awareness of right-wing hate by naming and shaming white supremacist, anti-gay, and anti-Muslim groups.

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Flagler University, St. Augustine, FL. © Dave DuBay

Their focus now includes “male supremacy” groups. Like all things SPLC, this is not without controversy. Conservative critics decry the SPCL’s focus on the right. Will antifa be listed as a hate group? Unlikely.

But it’s not clear that the men’s rights movement can be generalized as right-wing. Warren Farrell, the “father” of the men’s rights movement, donated the maximum allowed to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.

The SPLC says a hate group “has beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics,” with a particular focus on “race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity.”

But this can get tricky. The SPLC labeled anti-FGM (female genital mutilation) activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali as an extremist because she has said that there is no moderate Islam, and that violence is inherent to Islam. Now an American citizen, Hirsi Ali is a former Muslim from Somalia and survivor of FMG. She is certainly outspoken. But is she a hater?

I’ve been critical of both the manosphere and feminism for the derogatory attitudes of some members of both groups. But I’m also skeptical of the SPLC.

The SPLC opens their statement about male supremacy stating,

Male supremacy misrepresents all women as genetically inferior, manipulative and stupid and reduces them to their reproductive or sexual function — with sex being something that they owe men and that can or even should be coerced out of them.

The SPLC goes on to include websites such as A Voice for Men and the Return of Kings as male supremacist. Yet, these are two very different websites.

Return of Kings is a website for pick up artists. They claim that men are superior to women, and they focus on women as sex objects to be used and discarded. But Return of Kings rejects the men’s rights movement because men’s rights activists reject traditional gender roles.

Paul Elam, publisher of leading men’s rights blog A Voice for Men, comes across as resentful of women. He appears to blame feminists for almost every issue men face. His blog complains about women’s sexual power over men. But AVfM also opposes the attitude of pick up artists.

However, the SPLC is disingenuous with its selected quotations. They quote Elam as saying that October should be “bash a bitch month” but fail to note that this is satire. Elam was protesting a Jezebel piece celebrating women’s domestic violence against men.

Further, the SPLC disingenuously associates Christina Hoff Sommers, the “factual feminist,” with MRAs. And they claim filmmaker Cassie Jaye has become a men’s rights activist, which is a blatant lie.

This does not mean there aren’t serious problems with the manosphere. But it does mean that the SPLC needs a more nuanced and intellectually honest approach.

 

Taking Safe Spaces to a Logical Conclusion

I recently came across a YouTube video of an administrator at Ohio State using the notion of a safe space to end a student protest. Whether the student’s cause is righteous or not isn’t what interests me. Even if the students are right and administration is wrong, trying to remove students who have occupied a building is simply how the game is played.

What does interest me is the administrator’s approach. He’s authoritative but not authoritarian. He’s respectful but not deferential. He’s straightforward but not patronizing.

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And he gives the students a choice. He doesn’t call the police to remove them. Instead, he tells them that he plans to call the police in a half hour, and they have the choice of leaving or staying to be arrested. This gives both students and administrators shared power and shared responsibility.

Moreover, he turns the notion of a safe spaces back on the students. The desire for places free from racial and sexual slurs, where stereotypes are not perpetuated, and where women and minorities have an equal voice without reprisal, has morphed into a demand for spaces where conservative or even moderate opinions are banned, where critical thinking is seen as a threat, and where progressive opinions are subjected to purity tests.

The New York Times even described a safe space at Brown University that featured “cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies.” Though an extreme and unusual example, it illustrates how safe spaces can devolve into infantilization.

That certain people are delicate flowers who need a trigger warning even for mundane phrases such as “violates the law,” and need to be protected from any viewpoint that is not in alignment with their own, is a perfect illustration of the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”

There’s also a narcissistic aspect to safe spaces. The expectation that the world will conform to my desires fails to recognize that other people have competing desires. If it’s all about me then I’m not thinking about how my behavior affects others.

The administrator in this video takes the demand for safe spaces to its logical conclusion. If students don’t want other people to make them feel unsafe then students also have a responsibility not to make others feel unsafe.

In the Atlantic, however, Conor Friedersdorf writes, “I’ve never heard of even one case of a college staff member or administrator coming away with even a scratch.” And he’s right. Administrators were in no danger. It would be fatuous if they thought they were. Really, there’s no good reason why students can’t occupy administrative buildings in protest.

But that’s not the point. The idea of a safe space has gone from a reasonable demand for everyone to have an equal voice free from harassment, to the unreasonable demand that students face no challenges to cherished beliefs, and that people walk on eggshells because students can be triggered by almost anything.

If college students want a safe feeling environment then they have a reciprocal responsibility to others (in this case college administrators) to make them feel safe by not infringing on their sensibilities, no matter how small. And that means no more occupying administration buildings or other public places.

If the students find this to be absurd or onerous then it’s their responsibility to reexamine the reasonable limits of safe spaces, and to question their own alleged fragility.

Identity Politics, Social Justice & Prejudice

Identity politics often divides groups into privileged and oppressed dichotomies. Whites are privileged and minorities are oppressed. Men are privileged and women are oppressed. And so on. But these dichotomies are simplistic even though there’s some truth to them.

A case in point is La Sha’s recent article in the Huffington Post about the sentencing of American student Otto Warmbier to 15 years of hard labor in North Korea for stealing a government poster. Sha’s takeaway is that Warmbier’s privileged heterosexual cis-gender white male status is like a drug, and his arrogance is “pathogenic.” She juxtaposes his theft of the sign to mass shootings in the United States, and compares his 15-year hard labor sentence to the racism and sexism she’s experienced as an African-American woman.

In addition to Sha’s schadenfreude over a violation of human rights, she’s exploiting a tragedy for ideological gain. Intersectionality adds a layer of complexity. Everyone belongs to multiple groups. One person might simultaneously belong a privileged group and an oppressed group. Some groups are more oppressed than others, and that can be used to gain status. On the other hand, a person’s good standing is diminished by belonging to a privileged group. So a heterosexual white male must try extra hard to prove he’s not like the others, and this involves checking his privilege and directing self-righteousness at others in his demographic group who don’t accept this ideology.

Intersectionality can be like walking a tightrope. Cathy Young notes that, “A white woman upset by an insulting comment from a white man qualifies for sympathy and support; a white woman distraught at being ripped to shreds by a ‘woman of color’ for an apparent racial faux pas can be ridiculed for ‘white girl tears.’”

Once I was talking to a man, and he mentioned Hirsi Ayaan Ali (a black ex-Muslim and survivor of female genital mutilation) being disinvited from a speaking engagement at Brandeis University because she’s an outspoken critic of Islam. He asked, “Why don’t feminists want people to speak out against female genital mutilation?” I didn’t know what to say. Feminists speak out against FGM all the time. The criticism of Islam (or even mentioning the role Islam plays in FGM) is the problem. Because social justice activists see Muslims as oppressed, Islam must be protected from any criticism. Hirsi Ayaan Ali’s transgression was failing to maintain the rigid dichotomy of oppressed and oppressors.

And oppressed status can be lost. In the United Kingdom, there’s an effort by the National Union of Students LGBT Campaign to drop representation for white gay men because they’re not oppressed within the LGBT community. No longer being oppressed could be seen as progress except that it means white gay men are being reclassified as privileged, and thus new members of the oppressor class.

In other cases, historically oppressed group might not be seen as oppressed at all. Cathy Young points out that “’social justice’ discourse sheepishly sidesteps anti-Semitism—surely one of the most pernicious forms of bigotry in Western history.” Social justice activists haven’t figured out how to support Palestinians while also recognizing that anti-Jewish bigotry is still a big problem.

Some argue that left wing radicalism will collapse because “revolutions eat their own.” After all, the quest for ideological purity has led some progressives to turn their backs on long time gay rights activist Peter Thatchell because he supports free speech, and feminist Germaine Greer because she doesn’t support transgender women.

But that might be optimistic. Insiders and outsides, us and them, is a quirk found in every human culture. And the self-serving bias – that insistence on justifying one’s actions – compounds the problem.

Jane Fonda & Lilly Tomlin Talk About Female Friendships

…but that’s not what I want to write about. I typically find one or two things that catch my attention, which I use a springboard. Besides, I’m a man and I write about men. And anything I’d have to say about women’s friendships would be like a blurry black-and-white photo while Fonda & Tomlin’s talk is in color and in focus.

If you want to learn about women’s friendships then watch the YouTube video, which I highly recommend. For my tangential thoughts, keep on reading. Or do both.

At one point in the video the host, Pat Mitchell, says that men always seem a bit mystified when the topic of women’s friendships comes up. She asks Jane Fonda about the difference between women’s and men’s friendships.

Fonda says there’s a big difference. That might be a controversial statement in some circles. But in my experience it’s true.

I don’t see men forming close bonds with the same frequency as women. And I personally struggle with getting emotionally close to other men. I find it easier to tell women how I feel. My emotional connection with my closest male friend involves laughing as we do imitations of people we know (in real life or from TV).

At the men’s group I joined a few months ago I’m constantly being asked: You told us what happened, but how do you feel about it? It’s second nature for me to list the facts, as if my life were no different from a geological survey. But the other men there lay their emotional cards on the table. It’s a matter of respect for them that I do the same. But I go blank when trying to open up with them. And they have feelings about the way I hold back from them.

Yet, when Fonda says that women need to have empathy for men because men don’t have the deep friendships women have, the mostly female audience laughs derisively.

Both Fonda and Tomlin seem surprised at that response. I’m not. There are a thousand subsets of feminism, and in my post about male stoicism I noted that feminism has at times encouraged and opposed open emotional expression from men.

A lot of women have been hurt by men, and the need for men to be more empathetic – especially toward women – is a prominent feminist theme. No wonder it took some audience members by surprise when Fonda expressed her view that men need more empathy from women.

But feminists who laugh at the notion of empathy for men are promoting rather than opposing patriarchal values (though probably not intentionally).

When we talk about gender issues we usually mean women’s issues. But we’re not discussing gender issues if we’re focused only on one gender. That’s why Fonda’s comment is important, and why the audience’s response was off key.

Later, Fonda says that “men are born every bit as relational as women are.” What changes? Her perspective is that patriarchal culture teaches boys that to need a relationship is girly. And being girly is absurd because emotional connection is a type of weakness.

Feminists seek to turn that notion on its head. And Fonda clarifies that women’s greater relational skills don’t make women better than men, it’s just that women don’t have to prove their masculinity.

Empathy is about recognizing another person’s shared humanity. As such, anyone who scoffs at empathy for this or that person or group is failing to recognize their shared humanity. And any group or movement that fails to challenge the lack of empathy within its ranks will find its ability to do good compromised one misstep at a time.

The problem is that traditional values such as “suck it up and be a man” means no empathy for men, and that’s taught by showing no empathy for boys. In the parlance of our times, “boys are stupid, throw rocks at them.” But when you show no empathy toward someone that person’s capacity for self-empathy is impaired, and so it’s harder for them to learn how to be empathetic toward others.

But feminism isn’t known for its empathy toward men. The feminist meme “I bathe in male tears” truly is ironic as feminists claim, but the irony is feminist promotion of patriarchal values. But as Jane Fonda shows, we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking this apparent misandry represents the entire feminist movement.

Final thought. People often ask why we should even talk about men’s issues since men are not oppressed. But I think the oppression question is unhelpful. It’s not that oppression isn’t a serious issue, it’s just that social justice sometimes seems like a one trick pony. If oppression is the only lens to view things through then men must either pretend to be oppressed or have men’s issues ignored. Yet, any social norm that prevents people from reaching their potential is an issue, and because we’re all in this together we can only succeed if we look at the big picture.

Religion, Secularism, & Atrocity

Religious atrocities are central to the atheist critique of religion. Christians often respond with a litany of atheist atrocities such as mass murder by communist regimes. 

Even when religion or anti-religiousness is directly to blame, we must ask: What does this prove? That one is better than the other? If both sides are guilty of atrocities, it would seem that we need to dig deeper than the veneer of belief systems. 

Criticism is the life breath of reason. When religious and political regimes commit atrocities, it is not because they are inherently evil, but because they too easily become evil when they refuse to permit criticism.

Taking it a step further, all ideologies need to seek out criticism. But communism and religion typically fail to do this.

It is politically correct to declare religion (especially Islam) innocent of any culpability for atrocities committed in God’s name. An unasked question, however, is this: If religion is not responsible for evil committed in its name, then is religion also not responsible for good committed in its name?

For example, one controversial theory claims that slavery was really abolished because it is incompatible with modern industrial capitalism, but religious sentiments served as a good marketing strategy for abolitionism because economic self-interest was too crude a reason. 

But wouldn’t capitalists love free labor? There are key reasons why they wouldn’t. For one, capitalism is based on incentive and self-interest. If you work hard, you’ll earn more money. A slave, however, will still earn nothing regardless of how hard she toils. But slaves do have an incentive for passive resistance, such as “accidentally” breaking tools, not bothering to think of ways to improve efficiency, and pretending to be stupid. Further, education is important in a modern capitalist society, but slave education was prohibited because knowledge is power.

Yet, it doesn’t seem plausible that the moral and religious sentiments of abolitionists (some of whom were also critics of capitalism) were less than sincere. The point is that religion is intertwined with politics and economics. Put another way, religion is not mutually exclusive from other social institutions. 

It’s not a matter of religion or politics. Instead, it’s the combination of religion, politics, economics, culture, and so on. Likewise, communist atrocities involved politics and economics, but atheism was in the mix too.

Further, the dividing line between secular and religious atrocities is not always clear cut. Nazism featured a confluence of two disturbing ideologies, one secular and one religious. Social Darwinism justified racism as survival of the fittest, and this created a new rationale for anti-Semitism, which the Nazis borrowed directly from Christianity. Hitler (a lapsed Catholic) was quick to sign a concordant with the Vatican upon taking power in Germany. And the Vatican, unlike its unrelenting criticism of communism, remained silent on fascism until after World War II.

Religion didn’t invent violence, and neither did atheism, although at times both have encouraged it. Only studying what promotes peace, and understanding what creates violence, will enable us to find ways of stopping atrocity. But simplistically blaming religion or atheism for the world’s problems is unlikely to get us anywhere.

The Dangers of Moralizing

Human beings are moral creatures. Whether you believe God made us that way, or that evolution favored people who worked well with others, doing what’s right matters to everyone. (Well, maybe not to psychopaths.)

For millennia, morality has been a religious monopoly, but today millions of atheists show that you can be good without God. Secular morality (such as the wrongness of homophobia) is overtaking religious morality (such as the wrongness of homosexuality). And that’s a good thing.

But not all moralizing is the same. Some moralizing is an abstract investigation of general principles, or ethics. Some moralizing is self-critical – striving to be a better person, or character. And some moralizing is accusatory, pointing a finger at others and demanding better behavior. Which is to say, self-righteousness.

I grew up in a very religious, Catholic family. In 8th and 9th grade I attended a Christian school run by the Pentecostal, evangelical Assembly of God church. I need not detail the characteristics of right-wing preachers. But I see liberals railing against right-wing evangelicals without pausing to consider why their reaction is so visceral. Yet, a casual glance at Twitter’s left-wing Puritans solves that mystery.

Another example is that the judge who released a court transcript where Bill Cosby admitted giving women Quaaludes for sexual reasons (that is, rape according to two dozen women) said he did so because of the “stark contrast” of Cosby the public moralizer who has behaved in an “improper (and perhaps criminal)” manner.

Which reminds me of the Bible verse where Jesus says “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” A priest once told me that Jesus wasn’t saying don’t judge. Rather, he was saying you’ll be held to the same standard, so be careful of the judgments you make.

I’ve heard it said, “When you point a finger you’ve got three fingers pointing back at you.” (Point your index finger then look at your middle, ring, and pinkie fingers.)

The problem with self-righteousness is that it’s often a cover-up for bad behavior. This includes passive-aggressive self-righteousness, where the person doesn’t say, “You are bad,” but rather, “I’m the kind of person who lives by a higher moral standard.” In other words, I’m better than you and you need to be more like me.

As a young social worker in the late 1990s I worked at a residence for people living with AIDS, some of whom were recovering heroin addicts. One resident (I’ll call her “Jane”) had become particularly vocal about the importance of recovery, and how most of the people at Narcotics Anonymous were lying about their sobriety. It got to the point where she began targeting a certain peer.

The residence manager, and de facto substance abuse counselor (and best damn substance abuse counselor I’ve ever known, even if she didn’t have the credentials), told me that Jane had either relapsed or was about to.

I was doubtful. How could someone so passionate about recovery be using? That’s the first sign, she told me. Jane is pointing a finger at others, and she doth protest too much. Sincerity is typically self-focused: the recovering addict talks about fighting her own urge to use.

That lesson stuck with me. As a counselor, she struck a balance between toughness and deep empathy. Such a hard balance! I can be empathetic. And I can be confrontational when need be. But I’ve never been able to be tough and empathetic simultaneously.

This is why I don’t like Dr. Phil. It’s easy to judge him. But it’s true that I don’t like what I see in him because I see it in myself. This is true for all of us, and the people we don’t like.

And that’s the key. If I see something that really riles me about someone else, I need to find where in myself that same fault resides.