This is a scary election season, with so much racism and misogyny coming out of the woodwork and being normalized by the Trump campaign and the GOP. In this context, Clinton was of course correct that a core of support for Trump’s campaign is driven by racial and gender anxieties and even hatred. And the people who espouse, enable, or normalize those views should be confronted and held accountable.
But in a world of rapid-fire social media, where we are connected to each other in a one-dimensional way, it is easy to forget that people are complex and that even hateful comments and attitudes needn’t be expressions of an essential and unchanging character. Such comments and attitudes are likely to be instead the product of ignorance, fear, and peer or family influences. Martin Luther King presupposes this to be the case when he said that the aim of nonviolent direct action is to “create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.”
It’s hard to say what kind of treatment the “deplorables” deserve. It certainly doesn’t seem that they have earned any respect. But I’m struck by a couple of recent articles about hate-merchants who have abandoned their hateful views precisely because others have had the grace to treat them with this undeserved respect.
The first is about Derek Black, son of Stormfront founder Don Black and former heir apparent to white nationalism. As reported here, Derek renounced his views in 2013 in a letter to the Southern Poverty Law Center. More recent reporting has shown that the evolution in his thinking was enabled by the willingness of some of his college classmates to treat him as a normal person, even knowing about his noxious views and associations.
In an amazing gesture, a Jewish classmate invited him to Friday night Shabbat dinners, even while Black continued to defend views about “racial realism” and “white genocide.” What seemed pivotal to Black’s transformation were the personal relationships that allowed him to consider arguments against his views to be something more than enemy propaganda.
The second article is about how the granddaughter of the founder of the Westboro church gradually abandoned her hateful views. As with Black, she was persuaded by arguments—but only when those arguments came from people who, even though sometimes mercilessly mocking her views and church, managed also to treat her with a respect that she hardly earned through protesting that “God hates fags.”
So here’s to hoping that as we mock the deplorables for their hatefulness and idiotic conspiracy theories, we might also find some opportunities that allow them to see us as fellow human beings.