We need to embrace nuance if we have any hope of moving forward as a country.
Imagine that the moment you were born, you had a pair of sunglasses superglued to your face. Everything you experienced in life got filtered through those sunglasses. Depending on the color and tint of your shades, the way you perceived the world was different from your siblings, friends, and neighbors, who also had superglued sunglasses in their own special shades.
As you move through life, your glasses get smudged by life experiences, further clouding your ability to see clearly. But since you’ve worn these glasses since birth, and you’ve literally never seen the world without them, you forget you’re even wearing them. You think that what you’re seeing is reality, not your subjective, filtered interpretation of reality.
As a clinical psychologist, I use this metaphor often. The source of most communication problems, relationship disputes, and social dissatisfaction comes from the fact that we forget we’re wearing sunglasses and assume that everyone is living in the same version of reality we are.
The past several months have been like a collective refusal to acknowledge our sunglasses. When we remember we’re each wearing a unique pair of sunglasses, we can begin to understand how others can experience the world differently from us, and maybe even find ways to connect amidst those differences.
I met my husband at 19, working a summer job. We became fast friends. I grew to trust him more deeply after one night, he found me crying over a painful reminder of the sexual assault I’d experienced the year before. Vulnerable and reeling from post-traumatic stress, I rambled about how broken and confused I felt. He didn’t try to fix my feelings, and he didn’t pity me or try to rescue me. He made me feel seen, valued, and cared for. He offered a shoulder to cry on and sat with me in my pain.
Later, he told me that was the moment he knew we were meant to be partners, supporting each other through life’s hardships and facing the world together as a team. After a decade of friendship, we became romantic and ultimately got married.
Anyone who knows my husband would describe him as what we Jews call a mensch. He is genuinely kind, easygoing, and supportive. What’s more, he has a secure attachment style, which I put a lot of stock in. He doesn’t dismiss someone if they express a view that’s different from his, and he isn’t threatened by disagreement.
As a lifelong people-pleaser, he’s taught me a lot about standing my ground and not needing to be liked at all costs. In fact, our ability to challenge each other’s perspectives from a place of mutual love and respect has strengthened our bond. I don’t think we’d be as satisfied in our partnership if we just unquestioningly agreed on everything. Ours may not be the dynamic for everyone, but it’s rewarding for us.
Fast forward to 2020. I’ve known this man for almost 15 years. We’ve lived through quite a bit, and now we’ve spent the pandemic stuck in a tiny city apartment together. If everyone who votes for Trump is a racist, sexist, homophobic asshole, this guy has done an amazing job of tricking me. I study this stuff for a living. I analyze emotional, behavioral, and relational patterns with people all day long. I’m not saying I’ve never been caught off guard or manipulated, but I think I have a pretty good radar for psychopathic deviance.
I can say with full confidence that my husband does not fit the profile that many liberals have attached to “all Trump voters.” Does he have some internalized racism, sexism, homophobia, and misogyny? Of course he does. He’s a human being who grew up in America. We’re all breathing that toxic air. We all have a shit ton of unlearning to do that we’ll never fully complete.
But when I hear someone immediately dismiss a relative, colleague, or random person on the Internet as “a Trump voter” with an air of disgust I would reserve for pretty much Adolf Hitler and nobody else, I feel deeply misunderstood. If “all Trump supporters” are pure evil, how has this guy fooled me for so long?
At first, I blamed my husband for how others judged him (and me, by association). If only he was a Democrat. If only he voted on the same issues as me. If only he agreed with every opinion I have, if only he had on the same sunglasses as me, we wouldn’t be in this situation. We’ve had some pretty heated arguments about this stuff. At one point, I even wondered if we would ever understand each other’s political identities, and if we couldn’t, what would become of our partnership?
Since I wasn’t about to divorce him, I needed to navigate my cognitive dissonance. I put on my psychologist hat and got to work trying to understand his experience of the world. To his credit, he did the same for me. Over time, he’s moved me a little more towards the moderate camp, and I’ve moved him a little closer to the liberal side. And we’ve both become much better critical thinkers.
I should mention that when it comes to social issues, we typically see eye to eye. He supports a woman’s right to choose (a dealbreaker for me). He believes everyone deserves a fair chance and that nobody chooses the circumstances they were born into. If he didn’t share these values with me, I’m not sure we’d be a good match.
However, he also thinks the role of government is more enmeshed than it should be and worries that a more progressive government would threaten our autonomy. Like me and many others, he thinks that Trump is egotistical and tactless, and finds him abrasive. He voted for Trump strictly for policy reasons, not because he’s a character role model. While we differ in our beliefs about the role of government, we’ve grown to respect these differences and appreciate that they are welcome as long as we live in a democracy.
Psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach often describes the danger of “bad othering.” When we fundamentally disagree with or disapprove of someone, we characterize them as “bad.” Once we’ve put someone in the “bad” box, it’s no longer necessary to treat them as a fellow human. They’re not one of us, they’re an “other.” They don’t deserve to be seen, heard, or treated with compassion. We believe that there’s nothing we could possibly learn about this person that would make us empathize with them.
Bad othering is at the root of bigotry and oppression. It’s a mindset used to justify ugly behavior. And 2020 has taught me that it’s not just reserved for dictators and white supremacists.
The bad othering that my liberal friends, colleagues, and clients have demonstrated throughout Trump’s presidency, and particularly during this election season, has been overwhelming. I’ve never seen such collective all-or-nothing thinking. Defensiveness seems to be at an all-time high, and we’re wildly quick to categorize and dismiss our fellow humans.
Early in my career, I honed my therapy chops working with middle-aged adults recently released from prison. Many of the people I saw had committed murder and other violent crimes. If I didn’t find a way to empathize (which by the way, does not mean that I agreed with or supported their actions), I would have been incredibly ineffective. Those experiences taught me that my snap judgments about people are usually wrong. I learned that everyone has a story, and we rarely (if ever) learn someone’s whole story before we form an impression of them.
If you can learn one piece of information about a person and immediately dismiss them, you’re likely to reject most people you meet. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have dealbreakers. But if half of the population is ready to completely throw away the other half without taking the time to understand their perspectives, we’re never going to progress as a society.
As humans, we like to feel “right.” When we see information that confirms our beliefs, we latch onto it. When we see information that contradicts our beliefs, we reject it. So of course someone liberal watching a liberal news outlet will not think twice about trusting what they are learning, yet when they hear it on a conservative channel they will feel outraged. This happens on both sides.
The media is primarily run by people with liberal views, who are influenced by friends and family, many of whom are rich and powerful. My husband and I purposely watch political coverage across several news channels. During the debates, we flipped back and forth between CNN, NBC and Fox just to see how the same event was being covered. It amazes me to see the different narratives.
The real challenge is to be able to see the bias spouting from EVERY channel, not just the channels promoting views you disagree with. Just because the cool kids are saying it, doesn’t mean you should go along without doing your own research and drawing your own conclusions. That’s called groupthink, and it’s the very mindset we’re blaming for the ills of society.
Let’s also remember that we are never getting the full story. When you consume information, you aren’t taking it in with 100% accuracy. The human brain takes in 11 million bits of information per second, but the conscious mind can only process 50 to 120 bits per second. In other words, your brain filters out most of the information you consume, leaving you with only the bits and pieces it deems most relevant or important. Your brain’s informational priorities are vastly different from someone else’s.
Additionally, when someone writes an article or covers a piece of news, they are deciding which pieces of information are most relevant and significant to include. Their neurons are hard at work doing the same filtering, choosing what they deem most important.
At the conscious level, they are subjectively determining the narrative, as filtered through their permanent sunglasses, and there’s no way to prevent this because they are human beings. We don’t think about the fact that a reporter pruned away at a 30-minute interview so it could become a 30-second news clip that you’ll half-watch while scrolling Twitter to read other people’s boiled-down analyses.
Believe me, if I met Trump out in the world I wouldn’t be interested in hanging out with him. I generally try not to spend much time with narcissists, unless they’re paying me for psychological services. I don’t think he is the best fit to lead a country, nor do I think he’s done a good job bringing together or representing our diverse country. However, if you are able to suspend your feelings of hatred for the person and look at the facts, he (like everyone) is not “all good” or “all bad.” And not everything he has done in the last four years has been all good or all bad.
When I say this, people usually hear “I like Trump and think he’s been a good president.” So I’ll say it again: I don’t like him, he’s done stuff that really upsets me, AND he has done a few things that I think are neutral, and a few that are even positive.
A turning point for me psychologically was when I started to look at facts and mentally swap out his name for “the president.” This took away the knee-jerk emotional reaction to him as a person, and helped me focus on the actual event that occurred.
My husband and I are both Jewish and have relatives who survived the Holocaust. We are invested in the importance of Jews having a safe place to live where they will be free from anti-Semitism. We believe this value applies to all humans of all identities. And naturally, because it’s personal, we feel strongly about peace in the Middle East.
Guess who has brokered more peace agreements in the Middle East than any other recent president? Trump. Do I like him? No, he makes my skin crawl with every word out of his mouth. And yet, he accomplished something that is important to me, my family and my community. It’s hard to hold the nuance, but yes, he has done something that I appreciate.
How are both of these things true? Don’t I have to pick a side, either I worship him or I wish he was dead in a ditch? Can multiple seemingly opposing things be true at the same time? As difficult as this is for us to comprehend, yes.
The most polarized, “bad othering” voices tend to also be the loudest ones these days. I can’t even attach my name to this essay because I’m so fearful of the social and professional ramifications. People who are typically reasonable, thoughtful, and open-minded become rigid and dismissive as soon as Trump’s name is uttered. People so strongly associate him with a particular type of person that there’s no room for meaningful dialogue.
I used to be the token social justice warrior among my friends. I am often empathetic to a fault, and my life’s purpose is to help those who are suffering. But these days, there’s only one right way to care. In most spaces, I’m afraid to share my views at all because I’ll get canceled by the Woke Police unless I agree with everything the loudest person is shouting.
I don’t recognize my own political party anymore, or feel like I belong. Perhaps I’m just more of a pacifist than a warrior. People will tell me I’m not radical enough, that we have to riot to make change. I can empathize with that perspective, but it’s not the path that’s authentic to me. My instinct is to speak honestly and gently, to try to sit in the nuance even when my brain wishes I’d just pick a category.
If you claim to care deeply about all human beings, you have to recognize that Trump voters are, in fact, human beings.