I joined a protest march on Saturday for the first time in more than a decade. It wasn’t particularly satisfying. My feet froze, and the potluck of battered signs (anti-war, pro-Gaza, Black Lives Matter) made our purpose unclear even to me. When I gently chided a younger protestor for spray-painting FDT (f… Donald Trump) on lamp posts in an already battered neighborhood, he turned on his heels, surely dismissing me as a fussy old white lady who cares more about property than shaking a fist at the system.
I wish he’d stayed to talk. In what Toni Morrison aptly calls these “days of dread,” when our president-elect mocks information and opinions that challenge his own bristling complacency, I crave open, searching conversations with people who see the world differently than I do. Not the bloviators and demagogues, mind you, but the people who have more to fear from his victory than I do and those who propelled his win with their fears of a changing America and their pain at feeling socially and economically left behind. For if we’re ever to overcome the terrible divide that produced this strange and bitter election, we’ve got to talk.
My model is “Strangers in Their Own Land,” Arlie Russell Hochschild’s deeply insightful book about Tea Party members in the small towns and bayous of southern Louisiana. Propelled by a paradox – that the very people who could benefit from effective government programs fervently oppose them – the noted Berkeley sociologist spent five years talking to people in their homes, churches and political gatherings, probing their “deep story.”
There are many parts to that story. Anger that urban elites mock their intelligence, religious faith and allegiance to traditional gender roles. Resentment that they’ve waited for decades for real wages to rise but believe that women, minorities and immigrants have bumped in line in front of them, in part because of affirmative action and immigration policies. Grief, especially over severe environmental damage to their beloved bayous caused by petrochemical companies. Resignation because they’ve been trained to believe that environmental destruction is the cost of having high-paying jobs in the oil industry.
Lest we urban elites deny our own bigotry, I quote a column about Trump voters (the “Sheeple”) that appeared recently in my neighborhood newspaper: “Now they can sit back in their La-Z-Boys and go full-on Wall-E and watch the stupidfest.”
My inspiration these days are people who foster conversations across our great divides. A friend works for a trucking company whose owner distributed Truckers for Trump caps around his office. My friend stopped him in the hall and suggested that perhaps this wasn’t the best idea. Why? the owner asked. After all, Trump is likely to favor deregulation and lower taxes. Yes, my friend answered. But many of the firm’s drivers are Muslim, and the hats might make them believe the company shares Mr. Trump’s extremist views. It could make it harder to retain Muslim drivers or to attract more. To his credit, the owner acknowledged that perhaps he’d been thinking too narrowly about what was good for business.
Talking across divides is slow, uncertain work, requiring equal measures of persistence, courage and gentleness. Not everyone has the stomach for it these days. As an African American friend told me: “I’m not interested in learning about people who aren’t interested in learning about me.”
There’s another march on my schedule – the Women’s March Minnesota on Jan. 21 in St. Paul. As I search for ways to stand up against hatred, work for the values I hold dear and build bridges across the lies, prejudices and fears that produced this awful election, I can do this: Show up, ask questions and listen.