Dehumanization just ain’t it.
My partner and I were traveling up I-15 toward Salt Lake City Utah the weekend before the election. It was 3pm on a Sunday in Mormon country, which should usually mean light traffic even in this section of I-15 known best for its constant state of construction work. (A friend of mine once quipped that construction cones should be Utah’s state tree). That’s why my partner and I were perplexed when the traffic ahead was suddenly all brake lights. Then we saw them.
In the right-most lane, in perfect color contrast to the bright orange cones, a trail of blue Trump 2020 flags on white pvc pipes lashed onto the beds of trucks and the hatches of suv’s. In total, I would estimate somewhere around 150–200 vehicles were in the sort of Podunk parade. Each flag’s shade of blue varied slightly in tandem with each flag’s chosen tagline. Some sported the famous “Make America Great Again” slogan. Others flaunted the ironic phrase, “No More Bullshit”. My personal favorite was one 2020 flag that still offered up the “Lock Her Up” chant, which I could only suppose referred to now vice president-elect, Kamala Harris. Kamala being literally a former criminal prosecutor didn’t seem to factor into the decision there.
I was upset, my liberal snowflake heart couldn’t take such a brash showing of Trumpism, especially when its devotees were causing me to endure stop and go traffic on what should have been a pleasantly clear and open Sunday drive. My partner and I talked through the asininity of the parade, and she decided it was time to play some music. The title that immediately sprang to mind was “FDT” by YG, short for “Fuck Donald Trump”. We, two white millennials, turned up the volume and rolled down the windows in a 2000, Beige Buick LeSabre while slowly passing truckful after truckful of Trump supporters who also had their windows rolled down excitedly waving small plastic flags and honking their horns in support of their populist leader. It was a beautiful microcosm of white, middle-class, political division in Utah.
After a half an hour of passive aggressive music on repeat, we made it past the bulk of the parade of Trump supporters and the road began to clear again. A lone truck that looked several decades old with peeling paint was ahead of the rest with both the blue Trump 2020 and the bright red and blue confederate flag. My liberal snowflake heart hardened into a dense hunk of ice, and I sped up to position my beige Buick alongside the stinking white supremacists. I had decided before my foot pressed the accelerator to the floor that I would be flipping off the occupants of this vehicle.
Though a common occurrence for many on the road to both give and receive the flipped bird, I am more accustomed to little “sorry” waves and general passivity, so this marked a unique level of anger for me. Resolved now to do my worst, I pulled alongside the car’s passenger side and saw the occupants for the first time. The driver was a bearded white man in what I would guess to be his mid-30’s and next to him in the passenger seat window rolled down one arm hanging out was a boy that couldn’t be older than sixteen. The boy and I made eye contact. He smiled and extended his arm toward me his hand formed into an enthusiastic thumbs up. I gazed back steely-eyed, extended my arm, and raised my middle finger.
The boy’s smile quickly faded, and he withdrew his arm back into the car and said something to the driver, and I sped up leaving the confederate-flag-toting pickup far behind.
Regret instantly flooded my gut, and my partner and I began a discussion that I will now continue here at more length.
Human attention is the most sought-after commodity in a global economy in which rampant consumption of goods and services is the ultimate goal. Driving this culture of consumption is the work of advertisers who must purchase the access to our eyeballs from the industries and locations that we spend time in. An algorithmic arms race between social media giants, and anyone who puts content on a screen has left most human attention torn and fragmented. As a result, the human tendency to classify seemingly alike things and people into tiny stereotypical boxes and generalizations has been intensified. If there’s no time to think deeply about a topic or delve into a more accurate picture of a person’s worldview, we must create these shorthand explanations to simplify the process of understanding the world around us. To be clear, prejudice is not new, but the exploitation and weaponization of it to boost sales is.
This means that when I encounter a Trump flag, a thousand associations can run through my head in an instant without any more data. Add in an old truck with peeling paint and a confederate flag, and well, I know every single thing about this person and their dog, which they certainly have, and which they very likely abuse. I also know that they are an adult, white male with a Duck Dynasty beard, flannel shirt, and no college degree. They are racist, homophobic, transphobic, and their breath stinks. They are the exactly the type of a human that I don’t like and that I won’t ever get along with.
When we engage in this prejudicial conceptualization of a group that we don’t belong to, we are really working to define ourselves in relationship to the group. Our contempt for these other people allows us to pat ourselves on the back and think, “Well at least I’m not like that!” There are two main dangers to this mindset.
The first is that we actively engage in the type of bigotry that we often accuse the other group of. The very act of othering and judging a group based on the shorthand markers we have created for them is how thousands of years of oppression began. This is especially true of those that have privilege over the othered group. In my own case, I engage with this whenever I look down upon the host of white people without college degrees in this nation. They tend to have more conservative views and are more likely to support Trump, and somehow, in my mind, this has given me license in the past to look down upon people who didn’t have the same class privilege that I had to pursue higher learning. The phrase higher learning itself boosts me and my ego to a different plain than those less fortunate and with less formal education than me.
The second is that we can give ourselves a pass for our own biases and rotten behaviors. When we passively conceptualize those we disagree with as fundamentally immoral or otherwise “bad”, we get a boost to our own ego. We get to decide that we are on the “good” team. We may even be more correct about topics and ideas than another group generally is, and it isn’t wrong to feel or know that you’re right about something. It is, however, problematic when we start to make broad sweeping moral judgements about a person because of an idea they espouse or an affiliation they have to a group that we disagree with. It’s tempting because it does feel good initially to place ourselves above others. It can produce a feeling of power and assuredness knowing that we are better, but that feeling is fleeting and fades into disconnection and delusion.
Once we begin to define ourselves in opposition to another group and elevate ourselves above them, we begin to dehumanize them. Humans are messy, complicated animals, and we tend to inhabit varied roles, exhibit varied behaviors, and cling to varied beliefs. I catch myself thinking, saying, and doing things that are ignorant or harmful all the time. Part of life is working to accept that nobody is perfect, and everyone deserves dignity anyways. Dehumanization, like the prejudice and othering that spawns it, can happen without much effort or thought. It is easy to objectify individuals and groups, and it requires concerted effort and willful education to avoid it.
I recently took a job in rural Utah. Like the majority of the population in the state I grew up along the small corridor of towns and cities known as the Wasatch front. Though this area is still heavily conservative, with the exception of some portions of Salt Lake City, it is far more moderate than mainstream Trumpism. In my home county in Utah, it’s more common for a republican resident to offer up an acknowledgement that Trump is immoral while simultaneously supporting his tax policies or nominations of conservative judges.
In my new rural home, I have encountered many of the folks that would gladly participate in a Trump parade and that are more likely to believe that Trump is some sort of political messiah returning our country to a glorious past. I have to admit that I did plenty of dehumanizing and othering when I first arrived here. I was convinced that the entire community was totally duped into believing in this man who would deregulate markets and support tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans while also turning back years of progress toward greater racial, gender, and class equality. I saw them as uneducated suckers and fools who were actively pursuing their own unwitting destruction. Then I started to listen.
The county I live in has gone through decades of roller coaster booms and busts. Every industry depends heavily on the performance of the nearby oil fields from the antique stores to the local welding shops. What does a democratic president mean for my new home? It means sanctions on oil, which means oil workers will be out of work, which means restaurants and apartment complexes will be forced to shut down. That chain reaction will affect everyone this area, and it is felt more keenly than the seemingly far away, ethereal, elitist vision of climate change that they have been taught to think is a farce.
I am already seeing the effects of Covid shutdowns on local businesses, and I can’t imagine what it must be like to see your already bruised local economy sitting poised for disaster, about to plummet in the wake of an election that didn’t go your way. An election in which you were convinced based on your own fears and worries that not only would there be sanctions on oil, but possibly direct government support of groups that wanted to come into your community and destroy your families and neighborhoods. I can dismiss the fears of Antifa or supposedly evil migrant workers as Trumpist propaganda, but it’s real to my neighbors. I understand that now.
This isn’t a call to sit down with every Trump supporter and bend to their demands. Climate change is an existential threat to the human race, and we do need to decrease our dependence on fossil fuels to mitigate that threat. I am also not suggesting that we should excuse xenophobia, racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia because those who hold those views are people too.
I’m simply saying that a teenage Trump supporter is not served or swayed by a middle finger from someone with more privilege than he. He might be served and swayed by a conversation, a helping hand, and resources to increase his awareness and understanding. He’ll be required to do the work. I am certain of that. I am also certain that seeing him as fully human as we work to nudge him in the correct direction gives him the best chance to start.
Originally published at https://feministmasculinity.com on December 26, 2020.