Polarization, outrage, and vitriol rule the day. Trump’s epithets ricochet through the Twitterverse and beyond, degrading our discourse and deepening our divisions. Though partisan antagonism predates the Civil War, demographic shifts, political dysfunction, and new media have magnified old differences into dangerous distortions that threaten to undermine our already-imperfect union.
What is to be done?
Before we can transcend the prevailing “us versus them” mentality, we must first understand what motivates and sustains it. What leads us to dehumanize groups of people we don’t even know? How can we find common ground?
One place to start: Consider people once consumed by tribal hatred who discovered their shared humanity with those they previously wanted to kill. Tony McAleer, former organizer for the White Aryan Resistance (WAR) and cofounder of Life After Hate, which helps extremists re-enter the mainstream, says that people often have never met those they purport to hate: “And there’s nothing more powerful — I know because it happened to me in my own life — than receiving compassion from someone who you don’t feel you deserve it from, someone from a community that you had dehumanized.” Arno Michaelis, former activist in the white power movement, echoes this sentiment: “People I claimed to hate, such as a Jewish boss, a lesbian supervisor, and black and Latino co-workers, defied my hostility. They treated me with kindness when I least deserved it, but when I most needed it.” On what attracts people to the movement, he says, “Rather than do the work it takes to get your personal life sorted out, it’s easier to blame other people.”
From the opposite side of the racial divide, African American musician Daryl Davis has convinced many Ku Klux Klan members to give up their robes by approaching them with respect and curiosity (plus extraordinary courage), opening his home and heart to them. Frequently he was the first person of color with whom they had spoken. Bryan Stevenson, African American public interest lawyer and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, which promotes racial and economic justice for people traditionally denied it, has witnessed a white prison guard’s evolution from belligerent racism to humble gratitude toward him.
In the prison parking lot on his way to meet Avery, a man on death row seeking his help, Stevenson saw a truck covered with Confederate symbols and racist bumper stickers. As an attorney, Stevenson was entitled to enter, but the white guard saw only a black man he wouldn’t allow in without a humiliating strip search. The guard wanted Stevenson to know that the truck outside belonged to him.
Like a child who hasn’t yet grasped the distinction between his inner wishes and the outer world, Avery asked Stevenson if he brought a chocolate milkshake, though Avery hadn’t asked for one. A story emerged of abuse and neglect in a series of foster homes that exacerbated intellectual and emotional disability, culminating in homelessness, substance abuse, and psychosis that led Avery to kill an elderly man he believed was a demon. His trial lawyers presented no evidence about his past or mental state.
During every visit, Avery asked Stevenson for a milkshake, but the guard wouldn’t permit it. At a post-conviction hearing, mental health experts testified that several of Avery’s former foster parents had since faced allegations of sexual and physical abuse, and others confirmed his history of mental illness. Stevenson advocated empathy for the circumstances and humanity of the accused, for balancing compassionate treatment with public safety.
After the hearing, the guard who had strip-searched him greeted Stevenson with warm respect, eager to explain that he too had grown up in a series of foster homes. Stevenson’s speech enabled him to see some commonality with Avery and to understand that his anger had been fueled by the hurt from his own past. On his way back from court, the guard, who subsequently resigned, bought Avery a milkshake.
This man’s transformation provides another demonstration of the capacity for change within those who hurt others as a result of their own unmanaged pain. All these awakenings arose from face-to-face interaction with a compassionate member of the hated group.
Exit USA, a project of Life After Hate that helps people leave white supremacist groups, invites them to its website with the words “No judgment. Just help.” This approach parallels Daryl Davis’ open-hearted desire to understand and Stevenson’s argument for empathy. Former extremists and health care professionals agree that before you take on the ideology, you have to heal the wound that created the susceptibility to it. According to Christian Picciolini, former neo-Nazi skinhead leader and founder of the Free Radicals Project, it’s not the ideology that’s radicalizing people; rather, it’s the “broken search for identity, community, and purpose.”
As neuroscience confirms, our thoughts, beliefs, and actions are profoundly influenced by feelings of which we may be unaware. Thus, trauma, helplessness, and alienation leave us more vulnerable to ideologies offering power, belonging, and a sense of purpose. “I’ve never met a happy white supremacist. … They’re all miserable,” says Picciolini, who has helped hundreds renounce their racism and recover their humanity. This misery brings to mind James Baldwin’s observation in "Notes of a Native Son": “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”
The teams at Life After Hate and like-minded organizations know that in order for people to let go of hate, first their underlying neglected needs must be addressed. As their pain diminishes, the beliefs in which hate took hold loosen their grip, and the prior compulsion to hurt others is replaced by the same compassion that helped them heal.
According to Pete Simi, a sociologist at Chapman University who studies white nationalists and other hate groups, the most effective recovery organizations collaborate with educators, social workers, and others who help fulfill unmet needs. People often “need additional schooling or employment training,” Simi says, or “maybe they have some housing needs, maybe they have some unmet mental health needs,” such as substance use problems. Unlike locking more people up in our overpopulated prison system, this holistic approach rehabilitates people.
The same comprehensive support works best when reintegrating former prisoners, who are disproportionately people of color, into the community. They experience many of the same problems as people drawn to white supremacist groups, with the additional burden of racial discrimination. Indeed, they have often endured these problems throughout their lives. Today’s mass incarceration and massive racial inequities are a legacy of our nation’s founding dehumanization — of Africans brought here in chains. A truly shared politics will require racial reconciliation that acknowledges both the long shadow of slavery still darkening black lives today and the often overwhelming difficulties faced by the white working class. Only by honoring both will we stand a chance of creating Martin Luther King Jr.’s beloved community at last.
How do we get there from here?
Courageous people like Daryl Davis and Arno Michaelis are leading the way, but most of us can’t devote our lives to such work. We can, however, increase our awareness of our own “cognitive biases.” Though understanding how our feelings influence our thoughts takes sustained effort, we can develop it with practices such as mindfulness meditation. Our enhanced awareness can enable us to refrain from contributing to the outrage cycle on social media that amplifies polarization. As Robert Wright observes, the tweets and other declarations that generate the most positive responses from your tribe are often those that most enrage the other tribe. This creates a “feedback loop” wherein people try to elevate their stature among their ideological brethren while worsening the partisan divide.
When you cultivate mindfulness, you gain greater control over your feelings’ influence on your behavior. Wright points out that “cognitive bias” is a misnomer that fails to take into account the significant role of affect (that is, emotions as opposed to thoughts) in activating our biases. This brings us back to the centrality of love, and our greater vulnerability to prejudice and polarization when we feel unloved, scorned, disregarded.
Another type of meditation, called “metta,” specifically cultivates our capacity to treat people with love. Daryl Davis and others who have helped white supremacists relinquish their hatred have succeeded by showing them metta, usually translated from the Buddha’s language of Pali as “loving kindness.”
We cannot expect everyone to undertake the demanding practice of daily meditation, whether mindfulness or metta, but everyone could try to show more compassion toward themselves and those around them, one moment of forgiveness and understanding at a time. This alone would bring us closer to the common ground on which to build a shared politics promoting justice rooted in love.
Though individual action can make a great deal of difference, a more perfect union will require collective political cooperation. According to Eric Knowles, professor of psychology at New York University who studies prejudice and politics, “We need an integrated society, and at the same time need to create as much socioeconomic fairness as we can, so what relationships people have across group lines are egalitarian relationships. … That’s the one thing that can create trust between people on each side of an us-them divide, and the only thing in the long term I would put my money on to reduce prejudices.” What’s more, while the internet facilitates mass recruiting to extremist groups, recovery is one-on-one and labor-intensive. This problematic asymmetry underscores the need for systemic solutions to the chronic distress and disaffection that render people susceptible to radicalization, online and elsewhere.
Collective multicultural mobilization may sound utopian, but the reality is that nothing less will save us from the existential challenges at our doorstep. So let’s love our way to justice and a hospitable world for our children and grandchildren at the same time.