The Politics of Caring

I think I’m just going to go ahead and post this. I don’t think it’s the most well-written post; certainly it is more ramble-bloggy than structured-essay-y. But it IS a record of some of my current attempts to understand the politics of caring: why certain people try to get you to STOP caring, and why I still value it.

I recently watched some of the play-off games between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers. I don’t know much about basketball, but even I could tell that the Warriors are playing a whole new level of ball game. The Cavs are very good, but they are very good at playing the basketball that I grew up watching: one where the teams switch off having possession of the ball, defense is usually 1-on-1, and the game is won based on which team can make the most shots. When the Warriors have possession of the ball, you can see how the traditional gameplay just doesn’t work in the same way against them. The Warriors are agile, super quick, and work together as a team to the get the ball to the net. They make it look like a choreographed dance. It makes any other team look slow and clunky in comparison; it makes the other team look forceful and forced. The Warriors dominated the post-season; no one was coming close. They’ll continue to dominate until other teams start to question and evolve the way they’re playing the game.

When I was talking with some girlfriends soon after the election of Trump, what we kept circling back to was this incomprehension of why certain people were voting for him. We understood the racists, we understood the rural poor who had become disenfrancished within this country, but we didn’t understand this other group, the group who didn’t seem to care that their actions would mean disastrous things for nearly everybody. They seemed to have privilege, and they seemed to not have any empathy for those who would be affected most by Trump’s policies, and they didn’t seem to grasp how those same policies would eventually also affect them. Did they not understand that you can’t burn down the other side without burning down the entire house?

This article by Dale Baren outlines the history of 4chan, and the evolution of the power of its users, to the point where they are now influencing our political arena. After reading it, I understood better. We thought seeing Trump in debates with the other candidates would help people see his incompetencies, his pettiness, his insensitivities (to put it all too too mildly). But we were also assuming that seeing these things would cause people to not vote for this man. We were playing by the rules of the game we were used to: we should as a country elect moral, competent, and smart people into office.

This was a whole new ballgame.

“Pepe [the frog] symbolizes embracing your loserdom, owning it. That is to say, it is what all the millions of forum-goers of 4chan met to commune about. It is, in other words, a value system, one reveling in deplorableness and being pridefully dispossessed. It is a culture of hopelessness, of knowing “the system is rigged”. But instead of fight the response is flight, knowing you’re trapped in your circumstances is cause to celebrate. For these young men, voting Trump is not a solution, but a new spiteful prank.

In other words, we can append a third category to the two classically understood division of Trump supporters:

  1. Generally older people who naively believe Trump will “make America great again”, that is to say, return it to its 1950s ideal evoked by both Trump and Clinton.
  2. The 1 percent, who know this promise is empty, but also know it will be beneficial to short term business interests.
  3. Younger members of the 99 percent, like Anon, who also know this promise is empty, but who support Trump as a defiant expression of despair.”

The scariest part is how this hopelessness, despair, and prankishness is affecting our current political discourse. Film Crit Hulk wrote about this in an article called “P.C. Culture vs. the Big Joke” which traces strains of our current political discourse to nihilism and a generation who (as someone tweeted) doesn’t understand the difference between skepticism and cynicism, having grown up on South Park and 4chan. The figure of the Joker from the recent The Dark Knight trilogies serves as an apt analogy for a swath of people who don’t play by the rules.

“There’s a reason The Dark Knight’s Joker struck such a cord with this populace and it wasn’t just his good performance, it was his mantra: ‘Why so serious?’ It was his ability to reign terror and tear apart hypocrisy. It was the sense power that comes with having such a freeing attitude toward the cares of society. The pure, bleak joy of nihilistic glee. And yes, the way this philosophy was expressed could be as terrifying as when the Joker did it. The lulz is an almost pathological need to undo your seriousness. To undo what you care about. To not make sense. There isn’t a side. There isn’t a belief. The only goal is to burn down your side. After all, ‘Some men just want to watch the world burn.'”

This is scary. They don’t play by the rules because they want to burn the whole game down.

“When I look at everyone. I’m asking ‘What do they want?’ And when looking at anti-PC culture as a whole, from the left-hating alt-right, to the trolls, to the knee-jerk comedian, the aligned message is clear, and whether they mean it or not, the effect of that want is the same:

“They want to tear down people who actually give a shit.

“It’s all part of the upside-down. They are fighting anyone who tries to be protective of marginalized groups and they’ll tell you that they’re the ones who are really marginalized. Fuck man, I will tell you it is easier to find ground in a conversation with an actual KKK member and I’m not kidding. They believe in something so morally wrong, but their goal isn’t to upend the notion of serious conversation itself. And so, with the anti-PC crowd, it becomes part of the reflexive game that goes ever on. We lose ourselves completely in wars of false equivalency, pedantic arguments on ‘logic’ that eschew morality completely.”

It is easier to engage with someone in the actual KKK than to engage with someone in the anti-PC crowd because the former actually believes in something. Remember that thought because we’ll come back to it. But for now, this is the frustrating part because this is what makes is so hard to have logical, reasonable conversations; to rely on facts; to remain civil; to keep playing by the same rules of the game we have always played by.

Participating in arguments with people who are defiantly despairing, nihilist, and who want to tear down anyone who gives a shit…will eventually tear you down, as well.

It leads to frustration and feelings of futility and articles like this one in the Huffington Post, entitled “I Don’t Know How To Explain To You That You Should Care About Other People.”

“I don’t know how to convince someone how to experience the basic human emotion of empathy. I cannot have one more conversation with someone who is content to see millions of people suffer needlessly in exchange for a tax cut that statistically they’ll never see.

“I cannot have political debates with these people. Our disagreement is not merely political, but a fundamental divide on what it means to live in a society, how to be a good person, and why any of that matters.…I can’t debate someone into caring about what happens to their fellow human beings. The fact that such detached cruelty is so normalized in a certain party’s political discourse is at once infuriating and terrifying.”

It leads to giving up.

Which is precisely what those who play the game of “why do you care so much” / “why so serious” want.

Which is something I cannot abide by. While I understand the need to stop butting our heads up against the walls of a now-rigged game, the conclusion that we stop trying to help people see why they should care is something I can’t quite sit with. When we start to dehumanize this amalgam of YouTubers, gamers, harassers, trolls, basement dwellers as ‘losers’, and as we start giving up on them…then we will have become them.

Hell, I am one of them right now in that I am living in my boyfriend’s family’s basement. I understand how little it takes to start to feel powerless and purposeless. I understand how hard those feelings are, I understand how compelling escapism is, and I understand how searingly painful it is to care about something when it feels like you can’t do anything to change it. So I understand that not caring and disengaging are protective self-mechanisms that work. They are about self-preservation, but the question is who then is the self you are trying to preserve?

“Like adolescent boys, 4chan users were deeply sensitive and guarded. They disguised their own sensitivity (namely, their fear that they would be, ‘forever alone’) by extreme insensitivity. The rules, like everything else, were always half in jest. Everything had to be a done with at least a twinkle of winking irony. This was an escape route, a way of never having to admit to your peers that you were in fact expressing something from your heart, in other wordsthat you were indeed vulnerable. No matter what a user did or said, he could always say it was ‘for the lulz’.”

And hell, I am also one of them others right now because we keep having political arguments with my boyfriend’s dad, that keep ending up at the same dead ends. It’s a different strand of the conservative notion of meritocracy, but it’s eerily familiar: if I as an immigrant worked my butt off to pull myself up by my own bootstraps to get to where I am today, everyone else who is on welfare must be lazy. Poor people have no one to blame but themselves. Government is corrupt, nothing is going to change, you already have it so much better than when we were growing up poor, hungry, and dirty in the countryside, you are naïve to think you can change anything, so why bother making a fuss? Take care of your own, and leave it at that.

“Why do you care so much?”

Why so serious?

That is the argument that always crushes my spirit, that makes it impossible for me to continue engaging in the conversation. How do you defend why you care about something? How do you justify something that feels so self-evident to yourself?

It’s difficult because I think the root of the question of “why do you care so much” is actually “who do you think you are to care so much?” Caring about something presumes that you matter enough to 1) be in the arena to feel whatever you’re going to feel about what you care about, and 2) be able to do something or make a change about whatever you care about.

So it makes sense that those who are disenfranchised, who feel powerless, who have been told explicitly or implicitly that they don’t matter will also try to attack you in the same vein — to try and make you believe that you don’t matter. By attacking what you care about. By attacking the fact that you care at all.

Earnestness? Sincerity? Values? Empathy? Caring? Hope?

Those things make us vulnerable.

For my partner’s father, it was a mindset honed to survive the grueling realities of poverty, immigration, and hard work to scrape by. In a way, he has bought into the narrative that America handfeeds to its immigrant workforce: work hard and keep your head down, don’t get too big for your britches. Be invisible to be the model minority. Be grateful.

“The refugee has to be less capable than the native, needier; he must stay in his place. That’s the only way gratitude will be accepted. Once he escapes control, he confirms his identity as the devil. All day I wondered, has this been true in my own experience? If so, then why all the reverence for the refugees who succeed against the odds, the heartwarming success stories? And that’s precisely it – one can go around in this circle forever, because it contains no internal logic. You’re not enough until you’re too much. You’re lazy until you’re a greedy interloper.”Dina Nayeri, “The Ungrateful Refugee”

For the anti-PC, 4chan crowd, it’s a new world where feminists present gender as cultural instead of pre-determined and gender identity as a spectrum instead of biological. (Sidenote: It’s actually a lot more complex than this; Laci Green has a video that examines why both feminists and anti’s have valid views on gender.)

“To the deplorables, whose central complaint is one of masculine frailty, pride, and failure — to deny their identities as men is to deny their complaint. They are a group who define themselves by their powerlessness, by being trapped into defeat. But if they are to accept the left’s viewpoint, they must accept that the problem at core of their being is all in their heads. That is to say, the left’s viewpoint of sexual-difference-as-illusion is exactly what they don’t want to hear — that they have cornered themselves into their mother’s basements.

“The irony here, of course, is the radical idea of sexual-difference-as-illusion is meant to solve the deplorables’ problem. It was created to liberate those who are oppressed by the concept of sexual difference by dispelling it as a cloud of pure ideas. But to these powerless men, it’s as if the left were addressing their issue by saying in an Orwellian manner, ‘There’s no such thing as your problem! Problem solved!’

“Here the notion of sexual-difference-as-illusion is not performing the work it was built to do, rather the opposite. Ironically, it works to convince alienated men that sex/gender has marked them as a unique sort of outsider/failures, who cannot be accepted even into the multicultural coalitions that define themselves by their capacity for acceptance. In this way, 4chan’s virulent hatred of gender-bending ‘safe spaces’, though not justified, makes at least a perverse sort of sense, one tangled in wounded masculine pride.”

Learning how to show up as yourself and engage with the discussion at hand through that vulnerability is hard work. (Which incidentally is what Brené Brown and Love Warrior and Buddhism and meditation sanghas and On Being and so many others — who get written off as hippies, who get written off as SJW pandering, whose work get dismissed as woo woo — have been writing about recently, and so many many others have been exploring for centuries.)

Remember when Film Crit Hulk pointed out that it’s probably easier to have a conversation with a Klan member because they actually believe in something?

There is a two-part Love + Radio episode with Daryl Davis, a black musician who initially interviewed KKK members in order to understand “How could someone hate me based on the color of my skin without even knowing who I am?” He eventually befriended a lot of his interviewees. Daryl Davis talks about the shift in some of the people he met. In their initial conversations, he would interview them and they would answer all his questions but never once ask Daryl what he thought about the issue.

“And as time progressed, then all of a sudden they would say, ‘Well, what do you think?’ Then I realized, ‘Oh my goodness, I have an opinion. I have some value. They wanna know what I think.’ That broke the ice – they’re open to hearing what I’m gonna say.”

We can’t hear the other side until we see the other person as a human being, until we acknowledge their humanity, that they are of value, that they matter, and that they are worth listening to. It’s a two-way street. Although, Daryl Davis proves that seemingly one-way streets can become two-way…with enough time, patience, open-heartedness, people can come around even if it doesn’t seem like they care what you have to say when you first engage with them.

I think we will eventually get there with my partner’s dad because I have to believe he cares about something on a deeper level past the talk of politics. He seems to lack empathy for groups of people who he persists in stereotyping based on his worldview, but he engages in the conversation, and he is willing to listen to opinions which are different than his. I like Daryl Davis’s advice about listening, asking questions, and giving others a platform to express their views honestly without fear of attack:

“Learn from them, because while you are actively learning about somebody else, at the same time you are passively teaching them about yourself.”

But what about the anti-PC 4chan crowds who don’t want to engage, whose goal is to “upend the notion of serious conversation itself”? How do you engage the Joker? How do you get someone to care?

I don’t know. That’s a wall I keep hitting when I think about all of this.

But even within the feminists vs. anti’s communities on YouTube, there are shifts happening. I really admire the work Laci Green, a prominent feminist YouTuber and sex educator who values intersectionality, sex positivity, and skepticism, has been doing recently to open the door to conversations with the anti-feminist YouTube community by having real-life, in-person, in-depth conversations with them. She has been receiving a ton of flack from the feminist social justice YouTube communities for “red-pilling” and being a sell-out and by “whitewashing years of abuse” by merely being in conversation with anti’s, as she has received a ton of real abuse, threats, and pile-on’s from the anti-feminists over the years.

But the pushback she is getting from both sides’ extremes misunderstands what those who are engaging in this conversation are trying to do. Instead of respecting the longer timeframe that having respectful conversations and building relationships with other human beings with multidimensional points of view, the critics are reducing Laci Green and some of the other YouTubers with whom she’s been engaging (like anti-feminist Blaire White) to sides.

Laci Green has said that these conversations are about her own personal healing. One fifteen minute conversation can’t be a reconciliation between the feminists and the anti-feminists. It’s just a step in her reconciliation and potentially having some kind of new relationship with another YouTuber who has in the past caused her a lot of pain, pain from which she wants to heal.

The hardest thing is that when people try to be reasonable and have conversations, to really listen to each other (if you look for it, there are people trying to speak reasonably about complicated public events, while their comments sections remain testament to how stubbornly everyone else wants to draw them into these firestorms)…this moderate approach does not translate well to YouTube or Twitter, which are the battlegrounds that the 4chan crowd continue to use to pile on abuse and shut the conversation down in attempts to try to change the rules of the game.

The trust is long lost. Battlelines have been formed. And it’s hard to break out of that narrative. It’s hard to give anyone the benefit of the doubt when you’ve been burned by others who look and sound so similar to those who are extending olive branches.

There’s a parallel with what’s been going on in D.C. Look at how the Republican-majority legislature twisted the rules of procedure to obstruct and oppose Obama’s platforms for eight years. Should the Democrats learn from this playbook of methods and tactics? If they don’t, the country slides progressively right as Republican policies get pushed through during their terms in power and Democratic policies continue to be blocked during other times. But…

“The biggest danger, of course, is what all of this legislative warfare does to the democratic process. As both parties get deeper and deeper into the muck — and this is something on the minds of many Democrats — there will be growing concerns over how all this effects our ability to govern and responsibly resolve the great problems of the day.” (CNN)

How do we preserve the civility of the discourse, when there are hard conversations to be had across differences, when there are even other groups out there who are trying to subvert it all and burn/troll all of us who are trying to have any serious conversation?

I believe the answer is to continue to engage with any who are willing to show up in the arena with you, on an earnest level. To look for the humanity and go towards it.

So the conversations need to keep happening on a 1-to-1 level. And in-person. Similar to the years of conversations Daryl Davis had in living rooms with (now-former) Klan members. Relationships will evolve.

Over time.

It’s the long game.