November 28, 2016

GUEST ROOM | Against Polarization: a Post-Trump Letter of Support from France

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In the distressing times that followed election night, it seems natural that our community would feel the need to pull together, to stand as one and fight harder for the recognition of shared values. There are two purposes to this need for mobilization: the first is to provide a supportive space for the liberals among us, to build solidarity and help each other through fear, pain and uncertainty. Following this call to unity came a call to activist mobilization: we need to protest, take the streets and “fight back” against the hate crimes and the hurtful speeches that Trumpism normalized. With this call to activism comes concern: especially when it comes to values and ideals, the activism of a group may require the alienation of another. As friend unfriend friends on Facebook and as some families struggle to bridge their political divides, the temptation to “fight back” brings with it the shadow of counterproductive polarization.

I would like to share with you a testimony from France, where over the past years a proto-fascist party, the Front National (FN), rose rapidly, now threatening our upcoming presidential and legislative elections. My testimony is the one of a country where as the FN kept claiming more votes, our media, our politicians and our intellectuals opted to “fight back.” During local elections, traditional parties block against the FN. In the outraged media, its rhetoric is denounced as incompatible with liberal values. The FN is racist, and its supporters are reduced to that status only. Much like Cornellians laughed at Trump during political debates, students of my university invite FN leaders to debates to laugh at their simple rhetoric and their simplified vision of history. On Facebook, we mocked FN supporters or stigmatized them morally: racist, intolerant, ignorant, embittered nationalists caught on the wrong side of globalization.

Did this strategy help us? Faced with moralization and dismissal, FN sympathizers grew increasingly alienated. Despite party blocking, every local elections saw increases in FN scores. Complacently, we used morals as a shield to ignore some of the most problematic points raised by FN rhetoric. When populists attacked refugees and integration policies with economic arguments, we shoved pictures of little Aylan in their face, thinking empathy could be our principal argument. Seeing only the racist discourse, we failed to understand its origins or address underlying themes.

It is obvious today that the way we defended liberal values did not convince those who disagreed, it silenced them. To their fear (about the job market, about globalization, about terrorism, about security), we responded with a moral backlash. We shunned resentment, shaming arguments that could only be debunked if they were acknowledged. Trump’s election makes us fear the alienation, the stigma placed on the far-right electorate will surge back in the ballot box.

We forgot that tolerance is not embedded in people: it is built through positive interactions. College is one of the most enabling place where to develop tolerance: because we are surrounded by other liberals, by foreigners, because our classes are infused with liberalism, because we tend to be less uncertain about our economic future and it becomes easier to see globalization with optimism, harder too to burst out of our bubble. In many ways, one could argue that to “grow up” tolerant — to have our education expose us to liberal values- is a formidable cultural privilege. How different would we be without this permanent pressure to discuss and think critically?

Yet even in this enabling environment, liberal values have become such a strong ideology that they constrain debate. The “safe space” we want to create in the classroom has rigged discussions with invisible landmines. This was one of the most difficult experiences I have had here at Cornell: many times, I was afraid to be misinterpreted, to offend someone unintentionally, to suffer moral backlash because my cultural background masked to me what I was or was not entitled to say. If I, a liberal to the gut, felt anxious to speak up — for fear of disrupting a liberal principle I wasn’t aware of — do non-liberals feel comfortable engaging in debate in our classrooms?

I turn again to my country of origin. As we approach our own elections, there is a sense of panic, of “running out of time” among the students of my government school. Trump’s election slapped me in the face: I saw here the same challenges France grapples with. One of these challenges is: how do we handle racism efficiently? How do we change people’s beliefs? I witnessed my own grandparents drift nto daily prejudice and intolerance. They are a very progressive, intellectual, socially liberal, very well-travelled couple: yet as their neighborhood hosted more and more immigrants from the Middle East, as a mosque was built next to their house, resentment built. How do we answer the very concrete concerns and fears, the perceived loss of identity of people who are by every other standard generous, kind, and educated?

I think there are solutions, but these require pragmatism. Despite our strong beliefs and despite the satisfaction that comes from pulling together and fighting back, this strategy can have unintended, counterproductive consequences. This is only my personal testimony; I understand that the American context is specific in many ways, but I also see many parallels between our societies. Of course, reason and empathy and discussion will not bring hate groups to tolerance. There are some associations between people and beliefs that are impossible to break. Yet I refuse to believe that 50 percent of Americans are the racist, sexist pigs that liberal media has portrayed: although it’s easier to see things in a binary, intolerance is a spectrum. There are many people around me who are generous, and open-minded, but afraid — and their fear is as real as ours: and they do not hate minorities, but they see their own community as threatened, and this means they will not care about “out-groups” so long as they perceive their way of life to be under threat. This is not an excuse, only a key to unlock change.

It is important to support each other, and to defend tolerance. It is also crucial to ensure that our protest does not become a way to shun “the other” and a gaping wound in the political debate. We need to back liberal visions with arguments that answer people’s concerns. In France especially, our political elites can no longer dismiss FN rhetoric as racism unworthy of attention: we can’t turn FN voters into democrats by hammering them with abstract values. Similarly, the American millennials will fail to bring about the change they wish to see if they turn the liberal bubble into a fortified castle.

Lyse Mauvais is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Comments may be sent to [email protected]. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.