Shaming Whites and Men Has Backfired
Stop Shaming Whites and Men!
by Rabbi Michael Lerner RabbiLerner.Tikkun@gmail.com
It turns out that shaming the tens of millions of people who were supporters of Donald J. Trump is not a good political strategy. The liberal and left world was 100% right to be fighting racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia. But the way that it did so often involved blaming or seeming to blame all whites and all men, and that contributed to the anger that exploded in the U.S. during the election and to the result: a Trump presidency that may soon be very destructive to the values that liberals and progressives hold dear. Already we are seeing violence in the streets and in the schools of America and the unleashing of violent attacks on minorities on women by some who were influenced by Trump’s rhetoric–though again it is not ALL Trump’s supporters who are involved or who support such violence, just as it was the case in the 1960s that it was not ALL of the anti-war movement that was involved in the violence that a section of the anti-war demonstrators practiced. I know how angry it made most of us in that movement when the extremism of some was attributed to all of us challenging the status quo.
It’s important to understand that in critiquing the shaming, I am NOT critiquing the Left’s struggle for an end to all the various forms of oppression, all of which I and Tikkun magazine have been deeply involved in. What I am critiquing is the WAY that these critiques have been made, a way that is very very far from what a compassionate movement might have been saying. To give one example: when Martin Luther King jr. gave his famous speech at the March on Washington in 1963 (I was there), he did not only critique segregation. He inspired people with a positive vision of blacks and whites together living in harmony. Instead of shaming, he elevated BOTH GROUPS, so that people could feel that his vision spoke to their own deepest yearnings for a world of love and justice. It was that kind of discourse which has largely been absent from the white-dominated liberal and left culture, though still very much alive in the Black churches of the past fifty years. Sadly, what is alive in those Black churches is rarely heard by the majority of Americans. What is heard instead is a much more arrogant and insulting rhetoric that tends to put all whites and all men into a category that can best be described as “under suspicion of being responsible for the totality of racism and sexism of the human race for the past thousands of years, and its continuation today.” And that has not been well received by an important section of the electorate that was heard from in the November 2016 presidential and Congressional elections. (And if the progressive news source The Guardian is correct in reporting that 53% of white women voted for Trump, it may turn out that this demeaning of white men doesn’t play so well for a section of white women either). So below you’ll hear my analysis of one of the dynamics (not the only one) playing out in that election, plus an addendum putting back some of the ideas that the NYTimes eliminated from the article I sent them, and then a slightly differently articulated analysis by Tikkun’s Editor-at-Large Peter Gabel. Please read both.
Rabbi Michael Lerner’s article from the NYTimes.com the day after the election of Donald Trump:
Though job loss and economic stagnation played a role in his victory, so did shame. As the principal investigator on a study of the middle class for the National Institute of Mental Health, I found that working people’s stress is often intensified by shame at their failure to “make it” in what they are taught is a meritocratic American economy.
The right has been very successful at persuading working people that they are vulnerable not because they themselves have failed, but because of the selfishness of some other villain (African-Americans, feminists, immigrants, Muslims, Jews, liberals, progressives; the list keeps growing).
Instead of challenging this ideology of shame, the left has buttressed it by blaming white people as a whole for slavery, genocide of the Native Americans and a host of other sins, as though whiteness itself was something about which people ought to be ashamed. The rage many white working-class people feel in response is rooted in the sense that once again, as has happened to them throughout their lives, they are being misunderstood.
So please understand what is happening here. Many Trump supporters very legitimately feel that it is they who have been facing an unfair reality. The upper 20 percent of income earners, many of them quite liberal and rightly committed to the defense of minorities and immigrants, also believe in the economic meritocracy and their own right to have so much more than those who are less fortunate. So while they may be progressive on issues of discrimination against the obvious victims of racism and sexism, they are blind to their own class privilege and to the hidden injuries of class that are internalized by much of the country as self-blame.
The right’s ability to portray liberals as elitists is further strengthened by the phobia toward religion that prevails in the left. Many religious people are drawn by the teachings of their tradition to humane values and caring about the oppressed. Yet they often find that liberal culture is hostile to religion of any sort, believing it is irrational and filled with hate. People on the left rarely open themselves to the possibility that there could be a spiritual crisis in society that plays a role in the lives of many who feel misunderstood and denigrated by the fancy intellectuals and radical activists.
The left needs to stop ignoring people’s inner pain and fear. The racism, sexism and xenophobia used by Mr. Trump to advance his candidacy does not reveal an inherent malice in the majority of Americans. If the left could abandon all this shaming, it could rebuild its political base by helping Americans see that much of people’s suffering is rooted in the hidden injuries of class and in the spiritual crisis that the global competitive marketplace generates.
Democrats need to become as conscious and articulate about the suffering caused by classism as we are about other forms of suffering. We need to reach out to Trump voters in a spirit of empathy and contrition. Only then can we help working people understand that they do not live in a meritocracy, that their intuition that the system is rigged is correct (but it is not by those whom they had been taught to blame) and that their pain and rage is legitimate.
Michael Lerner, the rabbi of Beyt Tikkun Synagogue in Berkeley, Calif., is the editor of Tikkun magazine and chairman of the Network of Spiritual Progressives.
[Up to here is what the NY Times printed in their blog. Lerner adds a bit more below, so as to help avoid misunderstandings.]
We need to retool the discourse in the Left and train hundreds of thousands of people to become part of an “Empathy Tribe” that can reach out to Trump supporters to apologize to them for the ways they’ve felt “dissed” by the liberal and progressive world and then to help people understand that what is deeply the cause of their suffering are the perverse spiritual distortions and twisted psychodynamics of a global competitive marketplace. We can and must help people understand that the inequalities in this society are not a function of who is or is not talented, smart or works hard, but on the class structure which will only allocate economic security and jobs that feel fulfilling to a small percentage of the populationad while the rest of the population is scrappling for the leftovers.
What we do not want to do is deny or lessen the importance of the struggles against racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, antiSemitism, and xenophobia. Rather, what we want to do is insist that those struggles must be carried out in ways that do not negate but rather affirm the pain and suffering caused by classism and the internalization of the materialism, selfishness and “looking out for number one” consciousness of our society. We want to avoid the kind of discourse that we so often hear in liberal and progressive societies in which one identity politics group fights with another over who is most oppressed while simultaneously demanding that others defer to their will on question a, b, or c. Please read Peter Gabel’s piece below to get a fuller sense of what we are talking about here.
In fact, if we could learn to listen to the life experiences and work experiences of middle income working people and the working and unemployed poor, empathically validate their experiences, and really hear their grievances, we would be in a much better inner place to build a transformative movement that included people who yesterday voted for Trump. In part, this means silencing those in the liberal and progressive world who are now talking as though everyone who voted for Trump is a racist, sexist, homophobe, stupid and/or evil. Some fit into that description but many do not, and when they hear themselves described by liberals or progressives reacting to the 2016 election by demeaning or shaming everyone who voted for Trump, they become even more attached to the Right, and more outraged at what they perceive to be the arrogance and elitism of the Left.
In my national best seller book Jewish Renewal I made a similar analysis of the growth of fascism in Europe–arguing that it would have been far more effective if the Left, instead of simply demeaning the fascists in the 1920s, had asked itself the key question: “what legitimate needs are these fascist speaking to and then leading people to the false idea that those needs can be met through oppressive and hateful actions toward the primary demeaned group in Europe–the Jews?” The point is NOT that antiSemitism was legitimate, but that there were other needs for respect, dignity, and a sense of value to their lives that was being denied them by the emerging capitalist order in Europe, and the fascists thrived by being able to blame the Jews for the denial of legitimate needs. Thinking this way might have opened the possibility of the Left beating the fascists in Europe. I’m hoping that a liberal and progressive force can emerge in the US that similarly addresses these kinds of needs–and if fact, that is precisely what Tikkun has been trying to convince the Left to do ever since we started some 30 years ago–and that is the mission also of our Network of Spiritual Progressives. This is NOT an attempt to justify racism, sexism, etc. but rather to undermine the appeal of racist, sexist and other hateful movements by speaking to the dimension of their appeal that is not reducible to their hateful message but rather speaks to needs that are legitimate, and tries to show people that those legitimate needs can better be met in a very diffrent way than the Right wingers have advocated. But if you dismiss the people attracted to the Right as nothing but haters, you miss the opportunity to win them away from the Right (and while a section of the Right’s constituency is so deep into hatred that they are unlikely to be moved, there are many others not as totally captured yet by that hate rhetoric and capable of being won to a different approach, as some of them were when they voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012).
What I’m describing here is a massive project, but one which is absolutely necessary if the movements for envioronmenatl sustainability and a slowing of global climate change, human rights, anti-racism, peace and nonviolence are to have any chance of achieving the political power they need to actually change our society. And the first step is one that YOU can be personally invovled in by circulating this analysis and Peter Gabel’s analyis, bringing your friends together to talk about it, and then becoming an activist with us in Tikkun’s interfaith and secular-humanist-and-atheist-welcoming NSP– Network of Spiritual Progressives. So if you are not able to come to our conference this weekend, at least join the NSP www.spiritualprogressives.org/join, and help us create a group in your local area to help promote this consciousness! And make a generous tax-deductible contribution to Tikkun at www.tikkun.org/donate. And how about putting Tikkun (and our official nonprofit sponsor The Institute for Labor and Mental Health) as a bequest recipient in your Last Will and Testament (though meanwhile we will be praying for you to have a wonderful, healthy and long life–because money, even our financial survival, is NOT our bottom line, while solidarity and love and justice is ).
Rabbi Michael Lerner firstname.lastname@example.org
Coercive Deference and Double Bind Politics on the Left (a response to the 2016 election by Peter Gabel)
Many white working -class communities feel robbed of much of their sense of worth and recognition by the impact of the global economy on the conditions of their life and on their culture. They see elites…millionaires, billionaires, tech wizards, bi-coastal cultural sophistocates…benefiting from an economy that their prior economic communities have been eviscerated by (in the rust-belt states of Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, for example, all of whom voted in large numbers for Trump). And they feel this marginalization and cast-asideness not just because of its material or economic aspect, but also and in some ways more importantly because of its denigration of their own sense of worthiness, recognition, and sense of communal belonging and value. In this latter sense, they feel spiritual suffering and the loss of human solidarity and love.
Instead of responding to this with compassion and concern, the liberal world has communicated to this community that the world is or would be fine if these whites had exercised their “equality of opportunity” to pursue their god-given right to fulfill their dreams through successfully competing in the marketplace… except for minorities, women, the LGBT community, disabled people, and other designated groups who must be given “special benefits” due to past discrimination so that they can gain the same “equality of opportunity” that the so-called “white” community already has. This liberal attitude reflected in the mainstream of the Democratic Party not only denies the spiritual pain of the white working class…it also blames the white working-class for failing to succeed themselves and for somehow contributing to the oppression of African-Americans, women, and all the other groups whom the liberal world (correctly) wants to extend more rights to and more benefits to.
Thus the liberal world in effect flaunts their own success as elites, blames the working class for their own failures, and then holds them responsible as “whites” for the oppression of other oppressed groups, requiring them to deny their own sense of marginalization and spiritual pain, their own invisibility, and to defer to the orthodoxy that it is the other oppressed groups who are deserving of concern and recognition. And even more, the white working-class communities are not allowed to comment upon this whole process because that would be racist, or sexist, or otherwise not politically correct for them to do. Understandably this makes these white working class communities feel they are simultaneously in pain and silenced from commenting on their pain, an untenable and explosive hurt that Donald Trump perfectly spoke to in his campaign.
What we saw in the election results, furthermore, was that this dynamic was not limited to to the white working-class, but also to white college-educated men and women who voted for Trump in large numbers, in spite of his derogatory comments about women. While these “whites” don’t face the identical socio-economic conditions of the white working-class, they also suffer the spiritual pain of not being affirmed in a loving and valuing way within our alienated culture, and they also are expected to direct all their concern to designated oppressed others and deny the pain of their own spiritual isolation. And they too are not allowed to comment upon this because they are supposed to be guilty about the pain of others rather than crying out themselves.
This is the coercive deference, the double-bind, that has undermined the Left’s appeal for the last forty or so years since the Left abandoned a universalist view of human liberation in favor of an exclusive focus on the extension of liberal rights to previously discriminated-against groups, and on identity politics based on the past and continuing injuries to each victimized identity group for which a designated oppressor group (“whites”) are responsible.
The solution to this is a new spiritual politics that sees all of us as suffering from a capitalist social world that fails to affirm all of us as worthy of love, respect, and recognition, and seeks to build an economy and a culture that carries forward that loving affirmation to all human beings. Of course this must include compassion for the historical and continuing particular suffering inflicted on African-Americans, women, the LGBT community and others who have been harmed, demeaned, and unrecognized, but it must also extend a loving solidarity to the “whites”–that is to all of us as universal beings with particular histories and circumstances who long for a world based on love, care and the embrace of truly being supported and valued.
Bernie Sanders did a great job of showing such a politics is possible right now, even though he focused only on economic issues as carriers of spiritual care and concern rather than on a fuller truly spiritual-progressive program that would have addressed a broader array of spiritual and communal needs. Until we move our politics in this universalist healing direction, others like Donald Trump will continue to succeed with messages that speak to “white” people’s pain in distorted ways with likely harmful consequences.
Peter Gabel is Editor-at-Large of Tikkun magazine, co-founder of the Project for Integrating Spirituality, Law, and Politics, and the author most recently of Another Way of Seeing: Essays on Transforming Law, Politics, and Culture.