How to Have a Conversation: When you're a little afraid you're living in the end times

It was an unreal feeling to watch the results come in. The night started out in high spirits and ended with the 6 of us staring at each other in disbelief. This man with his dismissive rhetoric, allusions to violence and a truly heinous track record on healthcare – not to mention decidedly limited political experience – was going to be our new Commander in Chief?

It was even harder to swallow the second time around, in 2012. But after 8 solid years of Obama, I can attest to the reality that it is actually possible to live and work peacefully as a citizen of a country being led by a man who you cannot find a single thing in common with, apart from human DNA and an appreciation for craft beers.
— Jenny Uebbing at Mama Needs Coffee, 11/14/16
In 1790, just a few months before the beginning of the [slave] insurrection that shook Saint-Domingue and brought about the revolutionary birth of independent Haiti, French colonist La Barre reassured his metropolitan wife of the peaceful state of life in the tropics. He wrote, ‘There is no movement among our Negroes. …They don’t even think of it. They are very tranquil and obedient. A revolt among them is impossible.’ And again: ‘The Negros are very obedient and always will be. We sleep with doors and windows wide open. Freedom for Negros is a chimera.’ …A few months later [came] the most important slave insurrection in recorded history.
— Michel Truillot, Silencing the Past.

I know, you’re all wondering what these two quotes have to do with each other – but as a part-time grad student and part-time stay-at-home-mom, these are the people I’m reading right now. And it struck me that La Barre and Uebbing are basically giving the same message, but in two extremely different contexts: They are both saying, “Everything is normal. We’ve seen this before. There’s no need for alarm.” La Barre, we now know, was completely wrong in his assessment of the situation. At the moment, we have no way of knowing if Jenny is wrong too.

I find myself torn on how to react to Trump’s election and presidency, and the surrounding turmoil. If this is all due to deep divisions and polarization within the American people, when the two sides have become so far apart that their positions are almost mutually unintelligible, then I should do what I can to help build bridges, make connections, and bring us as a society back to a moderated, respectful dialogue. On the other hand, I think there’s a chance Trump’s presidency will actually challenge American democracy as we know it. And if that’s the case, then trying to establish a middle ground so that we can have conversations might actually end up making us collaborators with evil.

One way of resolving this tension, I think, is to go deeper in our conversations. I think many peoples’ perspectives are undergirded by the fear of what might happen. Will Trump’s immigration ban be extended to visa-holders of more countries? Will his vendetta against the “fake news” media end up curtailing free speech? Are these all small steps towards a fascist government takeover? The people I know who voted for Trump also had fears about the consequence of a Clinton presidency. Would churches be forced to change their theological positions or be penalized by supposedly anti-discrimination policy? Would parental choice in education be erased? Would I be persecuted for expressing my religious beliefs in the public sphere?    

For some reason, perhaps because we don’t want to come across as simply paranoid, we tend to keep these fears hidden. I propose, however, that becoming more vulnerable to each other, and describing our deepest fears, might actually help bring us together.  One technique that has been useful to me has been to ask those who don’t currently see the need to oppose Trump’s actions: “What would cause you to speak up?” For example, if you are okay with the current travel ban, would you protest if it was extended to other countries? If it involved deportation of some categories of immigrants? If it involved deportation of all legal immigrants? Working backwards to find common ground like this could be disheartening, but I think it accomplishes two goals: if we’re not in a doomsday scenario right now, it helps us understand the ideological positions of others and the limits of their extremism (or what we perceive as their extremism), and allows us to find common ground. Worst-case scenario, it makes them declare their “line in the sand” before it actually becomes necessary – hopefully encouraging them to protest if it actually does.

Since my son’s birth, I’ve been singing him the same lullaby in Spanish every night. One verse stands out to me right now: Aunque te digan algunos que nada puede cambiar/Lucha por un mundo nuevo, lucha por la verdad. [Although some people may tell you that nothing can change, fight for a new world, fight for the truth.] The idea of change can offer hope, but it can also portend evil. Either way, we must work with the knowledge that everything can change.