This morning I finally watched the VICE documentary on the race-based terror that rocked the city of Charlottesville last weekend. The footage is nothing short of terrifying. Even though I have no illusions about the pernicious role that racism continues to play in our society, I was still shocked to see that a white supremacist rally of that magnitude could take place in America in 2017.
Trump’s response to the rally was disgraceful. Even if Trump himself is not a racist or a white supremacist, it’s pretty clear that his presidency has emboldened many people who are. This was Trump’s opportunity to explicitly separate himself from those groups, but he didn’t take it. Instead, Trump once again blew his racist dog whistle, refusing to denounce the hateful elements of his base that were so vital to his electoral success.
His attempts to draw equivalencies between neo-Nazis and radical leftist groups like Antifa are also total bullshit. I personally have no shortage of criticisms that I could offer about certain elements of today’s far-left—their affinity for identity politics, their silencing of free speech on college campuses, their ever-evolving policing of political correctness—but I would still stop far short of equating them to Nazis. One side fights against racism whereas the other side fights for it, and no matter how misguided the means of the former group may be, I’ll take them over the latter group any day.
Moral outrage is definitely the appropriate response to what happened last weekend in Charlottesville. If images of torch-wielding neo-Nazis chanting “Jews will not replace us” don’t make your stomach sink, then you have some introspection to do. However, as justifiable as our moral outrage might be, I still believe that conversation is the only solution.
The conversations that need to take place are not with the relatively tiny (albeit far too big) fraction of the population that self-identify as neo-Nazis or white supremacists, but with the people who, while not neo-Nazis or white supremacists themselves, still support small pieces of the agenda that motivated those far-right assemblies last weekend in Charlottesville. These are the people who question the removal of Confederate monuments, the people who view groups like Antifa as legitimate threats to American democracy, the people who possess justifiable concerns over immigration and radical Islam, and most likely, the people who voted for Donald Trump.
At no point in this presidency have Trump supporters been more ready to jump ship than they are right now. They are ready to seize the opportunity that the president did not and separate themselves from racism and bigotry. They are ready to open up a dialogue with people of differing beliefs on how to move forward from some of the ugliest days in our country’s recent past. But if we insist on labeling everyone whose outrage we deem as insufficient as an ally of neo-Nazis and white supremacists, then there are no conversations to be had. If we don’t throw Trump supporters a lifering, then they are not going to jump ship.
Conversation doesn’t necessarily mean compromise. It means finding common ground, validating beliefs that are acceptable, challenging beliefs that are not, and above all else, recognizing the humanity in the person on the other side of the table.
Everyone is a product of their life experiences. No one is born a racist just like no one is born a criminal. Those behaviors are learned. They can be unlearned as well.
It’s easy to be the purest person in the room—to righteously shout your worldview from the hilltops while refusing to acknowledge the life experiences that, for right or for wrong, have led other people to see their worlds differently. But when it comes to changing minds, that shouting will get you nowhere.
Conversation is about cultivating a mutual understanding. It is the attitude of “perhaps if I listen to them, then they will listen to me.” It’s an approach that gets people to uncross their arms and open their minds, in hopes that once the mind is open, it will be susceptible to change. I get the sense that a lot of arms have come uncrossed since Charlottesville. I just hope that our moral outrage doesn’t disable us from taking advantage of that opportunity.