We Understand Each Other Better Than Ever, And Hate It

In the after­math of the hor­ri­fy­ing elec­tion of a renowned fraud, attempt­ed rapist, and proud racist to the Pres­i­den­cy, I have seen a lot of brow-beat­ing by earnest lib­er­als (and some gloat­ing con­ser­v­a­tives) whin­ing about the break­down of under­stand­ing in soci­ety. In the past, some­time, they argue, we used to trust and under­stand each oth­er, and now that is gone.

I call bull­shit. We under­stand each oth­er now bet­ter than ever, and we have the Inter­net to thank for it. Because of the unfil­tered, telepa­thy-like insight into each oth­er we now have over Face­book, Twit­ter, Snapchat, and oth­ers, we are able to con­nect to the like-mind­ed and dis­tance our­selves from the dis­taste­ful in ways our fore­fa­thers could only dream of.

Think of it: in the past all we had to con­nect each oth­er was geo­graph­ic prox­im­i­ty and maybe mem­ber­ship in a club or a reli­gion — essen­tial­ly tra­di­tion­al civic insti­tu­tions that would form the basis of a com­mu­ni­ty. More­over, you would only know what a per­son thought through care­ful, and often polite, con­ver­sa­tion. Pub­lic civil­i­ty used to be an insti­tu­tion in Amer­i­ca. Civil­i­ty also cov­ered up a lot of ugli­ness: it used polite lan­guage to pre­tend that Amer­i­ca was not a place of hor­rif­ic oppres­sion of oth­er­ness.  That is break­ing down, and has seri­ous down­sides. But it also has some upsides, too.

A break­down in civil­i­ty is not the same as a break­down in under­stand­ing. When peo­ple on the inter­net call me a fag­got and wish for me to die of AIDS, that’s not a break­down of under­stand­ing. I know exact­ly what they mean. Sim­i­lar­ly, when white peo­ple call black twit­ter users the n‑word, there is no veil of mis­un­der­stand­ing: the tar­get of that attack knows exact­ly what the white per­son means with the epi­thet.

One of the glo­ries of the inter­net is that we no longer need to be in geo­graph­ic prox­im­i­ty in order to form a com­mu­ni­ty. Like many things about the inter­net, it began with utopi­an inten­tions, but has had malign effects: yes, queers of col­or can form a sup­port com­mu­ni­ty, but so can the KKK (and the KKK out­num­bers them, and is spread­ing its wings now). And in this elec­tion, peo­ple orga­nized around race (before you even bring up the econ­o­my, do not both­er: if it was the econ­o­my then you’d see peo­ple of col­or vot­ing for Trump but they sim­ply did not). Because of a delib­er­ate social media strat­e­gy by the Trump cam­paign, pri­mar­i­ly white peo­ple orga­nized around the idea of exclud­ing immi­grants, peo­ple of col­or, and LGBT peo­ple from par­tic­i­pat­ing in the econ­o­my and main­stream Amer­i­can soci­ety.

So our prob­lem isn’t a lack of under­stand­ing, but per­haps too much under­stand­ing: we have too much knowl­edge of the vile things our friends and rela­tions think, and it has result­ed in social frac­ture. The tool meant to bring us togeth­er in a new lib­er­tar­i­an utopia, the inter­net, has instead become the wedge that is dri­ving us apart.

And while we lament that, let us also reflect on the imag­ined gold­en age of mutu­al under­stand­ing in Amer­i­ca. For many sup­port­ers of Pres­i­dent-elect Trump it is the 1950s. In a recent sur­vey, 70% of peo­ple who said they were vot­ing for Trump imag­ined the 1950s as a bliss­ful era in Amer­i­ca, where com­mu­ni­ties felt whole and the coun­try felt “right.”

In oth­er words, a super­ma­jor­i­ty of Trump sup­port­ers long for the days before the Civ­il Rights Move­ment, before wom­en’s lib­er­a­tion, before the nor­mal­iza­tion of gay rights. And the 1950s were indeed an awe­some time in Amer­i­ca so long as you weren’t black, female, or gay. Sup­press­ing minori­ties has been a long-term fix­ture of this coun­try, and it has re-inten­si­fied after the Supreme Court chose to dis­able the Vot­ing Rights Act (the Repub­li­can par­ty under­took a mas­sive effort to pre­vent black and brown peo­ple from vot­ing this year, and it worked).

Look­ing fur­ther back into our his­to­ry, can any­one real­ly say we under­stood each oth­er bet­ter in the 19th cen­tu­ry — dur­ing Recon­struc­tion, the Civ­il War, the Ante­bel­lum South, or Nat Turn­er’s rebel­lion? Back when a fifth of the coun­try was treat­ed like prop­er­ty and hor­rif­i­cal­ly abused and stolen from, when our fore­fa­thers com­mit­ted geno­cide on a con­ti­nen­tal scale to steal peo­ple’s land and con­fine them to reser­va­tions?

The real­i­ty is that our under­stand­ing of each oth­er is bet­ter than it ever has been. And, while the results are ugly, this is a great thing for our future. We can no longer pre­tend our demons are invis­i­ble: they are there, con­fronting us, every sin­gle day. Every time some­one is called a racial epi­thet and takes to social media to tell their sto­ry, we have to con­front the very real racism that still per­vades us as a soci­ety. Every sin­gle time a Mus­lim woman has her hijab ripped off, every time a queer per­son is beat­en in the street, or a woman has her crotch grabbed, Trump-style, we are being forced to con­front the ugli­ness that is at the core of our cul­ture.

I’ve seen many pun­dits say­ing these are not our val­ues — that racism, sex­ism, xeno­pho­bia, homo­pho­bia, and so on — but that is a lie. These are inher­ent Amer­i­can val­ues. We should want to change them, because they are garbage val­ues. And now, we no longer have the lux­u­ry of pre­tend­ing they aren’t our val­ues.

This should be a wake up call. Amer­i­ca has some gen­uine rot at its core, and we thought elect­ing Barack Oba­ma would cleanse that rot. It did not. Like all can­cers, it is putting up a fight while we work to excise it. But now, we have the best imagery we have ever had about where it lurks, and who it has cap­tured. Start­ing this week, we have no excuse for pre­tend­ing it isn’t innate to what we are, as a peo­ple.

There is a lot of work ahead. But at least now we have an idea of its scope. It is mas­sive, but it is not insur­mount­able.

Joshua Foust used to be a foreign policy maven. Now he helps organizations communicate strategically and build audiences.