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Saturday, October 22, 2016

Election 2016, Empathy, and the Betrayal of Trust

Wow. Some election year, eh? Smear campaigns galore and plenty of name-calling, and most spectacularly, somehow our country has selected a candidate that can blatantly and callously--and very vocally--contradict everything his party and its followers claim to stand for, and they still support him. 

If ever there was more evidence needed of the lock-step mentality of some voters, that's it. But, evidence be damned. 

Again, anyone who's been paying attention can see the mound of evidence--videos, tape-recordings, interviews, written statements--just go hit rewind to see all the blustering falsehoods, followed up with, "well...what our candidate meant to say..." or some other excuse for why the reality, the facts, and the actual incidents of racism, sexism, and lies should be ignored. 

And some obediently nod their heads and say, "Yeah, see? It's ok," then point their finger at emails--that four different investigations have cleared as a stupid mistake, but not a crime--or at Benghazi (while ignoring all of the embassy attacks in the previous 30 years, all with greater loss of life, and again, with the subject of their witch hunts cleared of misconduct or any offense by numerous investigations). 

Yes, this is the era of a "facts-be-damned" electorate. Any thinking person knows that's the culmination of years of attacks on education, science, and critical thinking skills. The perfect storm of ignorance, predicted by Justice David Souter four years ago. You can see his comments in this video.

This current election and the state of the country--particularly the state of those who cling so tightly to what everyone else in the country and world see as failed party dogma--is sad. It's disturbing, and frustrating. But through all that, the biggest thing we should be feeling, and that I've been reminding myself to feel--is empathy. 

I know I've lashed out in my own frustration. How can anyone who claims to be for fiscal responsibility support a candidate whose wealth has come off stealing from tax payers? Yes, he legally manipulated a flawed tax system. Legal, sure. Moral--not so much. Does it demonstrate fiscal responsibility? Not in the least. How can those who claim to admire "a good businessman" think that someone with 6 bankruptcies and a trail of lawsuits for failure to make good on contracts, payments, and financial obligations is an example of that? How can those who embrace the GOP as the party of family values and morality reconcile that with his pussy-grabbing, cheating, lying behavior and words? 

The clear and overwhelming evidence shows he's not a good businessman, he doesn't practice fiscal or personal responsibility, and his morality is nonexistent. Sure, those purporting to be good Christians while supporting his behavior say, "judge not lest you be judged" and "people make mistakes, but we forgive them." Except, that only applies to those candidates on the right. Seems all one has to do to get the fundamentalists and non-thinking Christians behind you is to say, "I'm a Christian," or "I support family values" or "I oppose a woman's right to autonomy over her own body." Then go ahead and do whatever you want. For them, actions don't count, only words. 

 But, at the same time as I vent my frustration over the wild hypocrisy, and rail against the mind boggling cognitive dissonance of these people, I also have empathy for them. My heart aches for what they must be going through. For more than a generation, this group of people have been told, "You don't need to learn science, we'll tell you what you need to know," and "you don't need to research the facts about how elected officials actually act and vote, we'll tell you who to vote for," and "don't look beneath the surface of these complex, multi-faceted issues, we'll give you the answer." 

How comforting and easy life is when you trust so much that someone, some entity, is looking out for you like that. How much less anxiety in life when you don't have to look at perplexing issues from multiple perspectives, considering all the information and evidence, but are handed black-and-white answers. And, as long as you don't look beneath the surface, don't question, well, it all makes sense. It's all simple. It's all comfortable. You can bury your head in the sand and let the people you've been told to trust make all the decisions, do your thinking for you. 

Then this election year happens, and this candidate emerges. Suddenly, all of those reassurances to "trust us, we'll tell you who stands for the same things that we do," are harder and harder to justify and believe. The evidence rings out loud and clear every time this candidate opens his mouth, contradicting everything Jesus taught, everything the New Testament tells us to do, everything years of being told that the GOP value the same things its supporters do. 

Put yourself into that position. Thinking about it makes my brain hurt. I can feel it bending and contorting, trying to put all of those ill-fitting pieces into the proper places in that puzzle. If trying to just consider it makes my brain hurt, knowing I don't have to reconcile lies and betrayal with the picture of me in my head, then just imagine the agony of all those people who really do have to reconcile the pieces they've been handed into the coherent picture they have of their beliefs. How do they force this new narrative onto their lives? 

Thinking about how they must feel makes me want to cry for them. I can imagine the gut-wrenching pain they have to live with daily, as they place Trump signs in their yard, then go inside to hug their daughters, knowing they'd never let those young girls stand in the same room with the man they're going to vote for. I can imagine the squirming and twitching in the church pew as they read Bible passages about loving thy neighbor. They have to reconcile wall-building, Muslim concentration-camp constructing claims with the words, "Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did to me." The horror they must feel as the preacher reads the next passage: “Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me you who are cursed...For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me." 

Yes, cognitive dissonance (the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioral decisions and attitude change) will allow people to behave in ways inconsistent with the words that come out of their mouths and with the image they've developed of who they are. To others, the elaborate stories created to reconcile these conflicting narratives can easily be labeled hypocrisy. But it's deeper, more difficult to subvert ones very psyche. The burden and effort must be draining. More than draining, demoralizing and even physically painful. It can be hard to feel empathy for those whose thinking is so completely different from our own, or so distorted from their own beliefs. 

I know I hadn't let myself go there--to empathy. It's easier to voice frustration, disappointment, or anger. But this week, I've made an effort to understand and try to put myself in the shoes of friends and relatives who are clinging tightly to what's been their source of comfort, their trusted way of dealing with life. 

When I did that, the feeling hit me like a brick wall--a painful wall that I hit while running at full speed. I got a lump in my throat wanting to cry for those people who have placed their total and complete trust in a system and in institutions that have now abandoned them. I'd imagine it's something like the heartbreak and disappointment children feel when they discover that the story mommy and daddy told them all these years about Santa Claus isn't true. But magnify that by orders of magnitude: an adult lifetime of believing the story you've been told, and about issues that are far more important and complex, not only to you, but to the entire country and even the entire world, and not on one day of the year but every day. 

The complete and total betrayal of a lifetime of belief and obedience, doing what you're told because you trust them completely, only to discover it's been a lie. Imagine the grief one feels realizing nothing you've been told is working out quite the way you were promised. How does anyone recover from such a comprehensive betrayal? I think that question explains what we're seeing now. 

The country, and especially those who have trusted in certain institutions like the GOP or the church to provide all the answers they need, is grieving. Grieving for that lost trust. Many are just realizing it and are in the first stage of their grief: denial. These are the ones digging in their heels, planting their signs, and defiantly standing by their candidate. They grasp onto the one or two stalwart positions they hold: abortion is wrong (but let's ignore those policies that let children starve, go homeless, and suffer from illness because they can't afford insurance). They develop convoluted stories that let them rationalize how everything antithetical to their stated beliefs is okay and not what it seems, mostly by demonizing the other candidate over demonstrably false claims. 

Some have moved on to bargaining. "I don't support this one candidate, but if I vote for the rest of the party slate, then everything will be ok." Many have even moved on to the third stage in their grief: depression. At this point and in this election, that's probably a healthy place to be. 

Luckily for this country, many, including party stalwarts, have come to terms with the reality regarding the culmination of their party's 30-year embrace of civic ignorance: acceptance. They're the current GOP leaders who have thrown their support behind Hillary, or Johnson, or won't be casting a vote. They're the ones signaling the wake-up call that the GOP had better change course or become irrelevant. 

 Getting to that point in the grieving process can take a long time and is uncomfortable, even painful. Rather than drive people to defiance, backing them into a corner to stand by their denial, the rest of us should exercise a bit of empathy. Give them the room and understanding they need to grieve and move on. Allow them a graceful move away from the corner they've backed into. Show empathy for the pain and grief they must be feeling over this huge loss of trust. As difficult as that can be, especially with the election looming in only in only: 

It's important we do this so that after the election, we can move on as one nation, undivided. Together, with liberty and justice for all.