Slicing Through Stereotypes Requires A Sharp Ear

Editor's Note: This is a guest column submitted by listener Andrew Vandiver. You can reach him on Twitter here. 

         Hillary Clinton recently placed supporters of Donald Trump into two categories: (1) a basket of deplorables who are “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, [and] Islamophobic”, and (2) people who “wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroine, feel like they're in a dead-end.” For obvious reasons, this has led to backlash against Clinton. While there are undoubtedly people who fall into these categories that support Trump, her statements were overly broad. 

         Rather than focus on Clinton’s statements or the election, I want to use this article to discuss a larger issue.  That is the stereotyping of people seen as having politically conservative viewpoints. This was a major part of the conversation with Nikki Johnson-Huston on Tuesday’s podcast episode.

         It is very easy to define political opponents as extreme or bigoted. The internet is a place full of a wide range of opinions. One does not have to look hard to find individuals who would clearly fall into the “basket of deplorables.” Yet, is it fair to define all or most of one’s ideological opponents in this manner? Are the vast majority of critics of immigration reform xenophobes? Are pro-lifers waging a “war against women”? Are orthodox Christians following the same hateful ideology as the Westboro Baptist Church?

         This is certainly not the case, but there is a temptation to pretend it is so. If we define our opponents in the political arena as extremists, then we absolve ourselves of having to grapple with their positions.

         Some of the worst displays of these types of characterizations can be found on The Daily Show, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, and Last Week Tonight. These shows often pick the worst representatives of the ideologies that their creators oppose, and then put them on full display as if they reflect the views of large groups of Americans. I get slightly depressed every time a friend posts on social media that “Samantha Bee has destroyed!” someone or something because I know that they have mistaken entertainment for a genuine debate on the issues. 

         We can do better. Rather than seeking out the dark places of the internet for political sparring partners or promoting entertainment masquerading as news, a better approach would be to engage the very best and brightest of our ideological opponents. This is especially true if you cannot fathom how someone would take a position that you disagree with. Perhaps the problem isn’t with their position, but instead with your failure to give it a serious hearing.

         In order to start this conversation, I have picked out a few issues where a lack of understanding has generated a great deal of animosity. My focus is on the issues of immigration and the so-called “culture wars.” I picked these issues because I feel that they have not always been represented in the best light on the podcast or amongst the listeners who post on social media. I could have easily written a companion piece criticizing certain elements of the conservative movement. However, I believe that Beth and Sarah sufficiently cover that area without my assistance. 

         On immigration, we are often told that anyone who opposes comprehensive reform is a racist or a xenophobe. Yet, working class Americans have suffered greatly over the past decade. Many fear that they will have to compete with new immigrants in an already tight job market. While there is a great deal of data that suggests immigration is a win for American workers, there are also some very smart people who believe that the research on this issue is based on faulty assumptions. There are others who assert that the economic advances of recent immigrants have stalled due to social and cultural problems amongst the American working class, and that another wave of new immigrants would create more hardship for low income communities. While I support immigration reform, it is important to recognize that these are legitimate concerns that need to be addressed.

         In addressing these concerns, an important ally would be the many Christian communities across our country that care deeply about the plight of immigrants and refugees.  These types of communities can help people to look past their fears and show compassion to those in need. The Catholic Church has long advocated for comprehensive immigration reform. Further, as the New York Times recently reported, conservative evangelicals, Mormons, and Catholics have worked together to provide an “indispensable support system” to Syrian refugees.

         Unfortunately, many would place these groups into the “basket of deplorables” because of their views on abortion, religious liberty, and marriage. They fail to recognize that it is a consistent ethic of life that drives most Christians to advocate for the poor, immigrants, and the unborn. For them, it is impossible to separate these issues out simply because they do not line up with the current political alignment of the parties. 

         While many are content with characterizing the pro-life movement as full of angry old men, one does not have to look far to see young women amongst its most passionate advocates. In fact, both Glamour Magazine and Cosmopolitan recently featured stories about women who defy these stereotypes. Further, pro-life intellectuals are not the dimwits and extremists often portrayed in popular media. Public intellectuals such as New York Times columnist Ross Douthat have written lengthy and sophisticated responses to their pro-choice counterparts. One is of course free to disagree with these perspectives, but they should at least do so after gaining an understanding of where these individuals are coming from. 

         On the marriage and religious liberty, it is worth noting that views on the issue are often a great deal more complicated than most are willing to recognize. Many believe that a pluralistic society should both condemn unjust discrimination and protect more traditional viewpoints where possible. In fact, most people defy the polarizing rhetoric defined by our politics and personally strike this balance in their communities and with their friends on a regular basis. 

         Unfortunately, few take the time to really understand these issues from a religious viewpoint at all. However, it is not difficult to learn more about not only the Christian worldview, but also that of many of the other major world religions. A couple of years ago, Pope Francis convened a conference on marriage which gathered 14 different religious traditions from 23 countries.   The speeches from that conference can be found here and here. Some might be surprised to find that the “culture wars” of the United States were barely mentioned. Instead, there was a great deal of discussion about the common ground held by these religious traditions that transcend race, nationality and culture.

         This of course brings me to another point. We are often so consumed by our ideological differences that we miss a great deal of the good work that is taking place right in front of our faces. I frequently hear from critics that Christians spend all of their resources on the “culture wars” as opposed to helping the poor. This is understandable given the media’s tendency to focus on conflict.

          Yet, the reality is very different according to an article in the Washington Post which outlines how much faith based organizations spend to alleviate poverty at home and around the globe. Of the tens of billions spent by faith based organizations; only a small portion goes to causes touching on the so-called “culture wars.” Of course, this does not even take into account the thousands of volunteer hours devoted to helping the poor and needy. Even Nicholas Kristof, as critic of Christian dogma, has acknowledged that cultural liberals would do well to emulate their religiously conservative counterparts when it comes to charitable giving

         Americans have for too long been captive to a system of binary choices that extends far beyond elections. You are either with this team or that team based on the political consensus of the moment. This leads us to stereotype our fellow citizens in ways that are totally disconnected from reality.

         Will gaining a better understanding of our opponents’ positions end all political disputes?  Absolutely not. On the other hand, it does humanize those that we disagree with and oftentimes leads us to be more humble with regard to our own positions. A combination of understanding and humility could be the recipe for a much more civil political climate.