Tis the season to depart from the liberal nest of the American college campus and return home to family gatherings that nurture a greater diversity of opinion (or maybe not). For progressive voters, the aftermath of the election has been a jarring evolution from devastation to knee-jerk fury at those with differing views, finally arriving at a place that is less blindly emotional.
For many, this resting state is marked by confusion over the true definition of 'American' and just how many disparate meanings the word can have. It is marked by anxiety over how to interact with friendly, familiar people whose ideas of America are revealed to be far removed from one's own.
Does the remedy for this discomfort include splashing coffee in these people’s faces, calling them deplorables, and retreating to the New York Times website? After all, some things have no political justification. Some things are absolute moral wrongs.
Or do we tolerate those who selected a candidate who espouses rape, blatantly racist rhetoric, and ableism?
As with most things in life, the answer is not as simple as it may seem, and the path forward is somewhere in the hazy space between two extremes. To find this path, with the guidance of Boston College professors, I will lean on the wisdom of philosophers, politicians, and American founders who envisioned our country long before “Make America Great Again.”
In 1992, when Clarence Thomas was nominated to join the Supreme Court of the United States, a lesser-known law professor named Anita Hill accused Thomas of sexually harassing her. Hill’s accusations were rejected and Thomas was confirmed. For those who believed Hill’s case, this was a stinging instance of male voice trumping female, and of the American political process obscuring justice in the interest of unity.
Hill’s challenge, while unsuccessful at stymying Thomas’ judgeship, did succeed in an entirely different way. Between 1992 and 1996, according to filings by the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, the number of sexual harassment suits doubled. In 1992, more women than ever before won public offices. Sexual harassment was on the public radar and women were taking political steps to occupy seats in the 98% male Senate that had ruled against Ms. Hill.
In retrospect, it’s far too easy for Americans to look at the scandals of Thomas, Bill Clinton, Jerry Sandusky, Bill Cosby, and Donald Trump as perverted, one-off rarities. In the case of political leaders exemplifying behavior that few would argue is moral, history shows that we’d rather move past these things, for the sake of cohesion and the functioning of American democracy.
One BC professor, who preferred to remain anonymous for the integrity of their teaching, theorizes that we justify these fearful events as rarities and minimize their importance because fully acknowledging them would compromise our own sense of safety.
Dealing with political behavior that targets vulnerable groups, whether for the sake of a moral stand against harassment or to encourage solidarity with the threatened group, profoundly disrupts our own sense of comfort and the impression that these sorts of things don’t really happen to us. Anita Hill and the women who were grabbed by our President-elect must be lying, because if not, our imagined world crumbles.
When Americans consider the necessity of having jobs and roofs over their heads, the stories of Donald Trump’s accusers seem less certain and less important. The feelings of rejection that disabled and Muslim Americans experience in this candidate’s wake seem much less pressing.
Some Americans voted for Donald Trump because they believe in the inferiority of women and people of color. Some Americans voted because they want the wall.
Many more Americans voted for Trump because they want jobs and the protection of life and liberty that our Constitution promises to all American citizens. They voted for the physical protection that John Locke’s vision of a liberal society prioritizes, and not for rhetorical comfort. They voted in spite of Trumpisms they identified as morally reprehensible. Why else might so many Trump voters have lied about their choice leaving the polls?
The instinct as a Democrat is to delegitimize this leader. The instinct as a human with a strong moral compulsion is to take to the streets, to scream for equity until one’s vocal cords fail. According to the words of John Locke, Abraham Lincoln, and Alexander Hamilton, an American citizen's response to this seeming failure in our political system must be neither of these things.
These famed thinkers compel citizens to speak to one another, to listen and not just hear voices red and blue.
They do not tell us to quit our advocacy, forget our President-elect's transgressions or resign when the government moves against our cause, like it did to Anita Hill. Rather they instruct us to persist in our civic activism, and to marry it with enough tolerance for our fellow citizens' opinions to talk about these issues that feel the most morally compelling—the ones in which diversity of opinion seems intolerable.
Why? Pragmatically, because every American vote counts as much as the next. And if we think dismissing one another as immoral—as baby murderers or elitists—will sway others to our side, we are gravely mistaken.
If other Americans’ votes didn’t matter as much as mine and I held significant power over conservatives, I might force pro-choice legislation on every American and mandate that public schools and government buildings have a Black Lives Matter banner flown next to the American flag. But that is moral tyranny and would cease to feel comfortable the instant someone I disagreed with came to power and forced their mores on me.
Aristotle and his fellow pre-modern philosophers saw the role of the state as caring for the bodies and souls of its citizens, as did the rulers of 18th century European church states. Locke thought differently, arguing that the state ought to concern itself solely with the physical protection of its citizens and their possessions, not the salvation of their souls. Members of persecuted religious groups who migrated to America agreed.
As unsettling as it can be to interact with someone who has a different view than oneself with regards to God, abortion, or race relations, the only thing more unsettling is being forced by dictate to align with a moral position one doesn’t believe in.
Trump and his followers may be immoral from a given person’s perspective, but to call them politically illegitimate poses a dangerous threat to the liberality of our country in light of Locke’s teachings.
The fundamental concept of a liberal democracy licenses our government to protect the physical aspect of our lives—for instance, to further racial equality through protecting minorities from violence or unequal access to housing. But what can we do about racist rhetoric or people who think degradingly of black Americans? We easily recognize that discriminatory thoughts are the seeds of similar actions.
Perhaps we can follow the example of Abraham Lincoln, who exercised immense restraint in his refusal to force the South to give up slavery with an amendment (it was only when the North won the Civil War that peace was settled with terms guaranteeing emancipation). He advocated tirelessly for slaves’ freedom and for his understanding of justice, yet would not impose those values on an entirely unwilling people.
Frederick Douglass, a legendary abolitionist, said in his Fourth of July speech, “There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven, that does not know that slavery is wrong for him.” This cutting line speaks first to the absolute immorality of slavery and its violation of our very human nature. It does not in any way step around a moral stance. But it is also likely a nod to Lincoln, a leader who refused to impose a system, even if it was a moral one, on white Southern Americans. They too were humans, undeserving of subjugation to a law they didn’t choose for themselves.
This is not to say that the path forward for discontented Americans at present is complacency and unquestioning obedience to the political system we have. The idea is not to wait passively for our fellow Americans to ‘come around.’ Though we cannot compel our opposition in a liberal democracy, we have a responsibility to persuade, even on the topics we feel shouldn’t need explaining.
We must continually prick the conscience with probing documentaries and journalistic investigations of wrongdoing, with grassroots social movements and community activism. We must speak calmly and convincingly on why others ought to be compelled by our cause.
In Federalist I, Alexander Hamilton forwardly announces his support for the much-debated new Constitution to his fellow citizens. He says, “I frankly acknowledge to you my convictions, and I will freely lay before you the reasons on which they are founded… My motives must remain in the depository of my own breast. My arguments will be open to all, and may be judged of by all.”
Hamilton does not rely on promoting the psychic, emotional, or personal reasons for which he supports the Constitution. Rather, he will convince his fellow citizens “that this is the safest course for your liberty, your dignity, and your happiness.”
For many of us, standing up to things like sexual assault and racism are highly emotional; these emotions can be assets that propel us forward in our activism. But in order to give our moral stand legs amongst people who don’t already believe in it, we have to buttress our arguments with facts and anecdotes and engage people unlike us in a persuasive conversation, just like Hamilton engages those who stand against the Constitution.
If our cause is as righteous as we believe and our advocacy within our communities (and families) as convincing and convicted as possible, we can have faith that someday many others will come to believe in it too. Dismissal and intolerance can only poison the appeal of our movement.
Anita Hill didn’t win her case against Clarence Thomas. But in the day-to-day world in which we live, Americans have taken major steps against sexual harassment. For die-hard progressives, the path forward may be the opposite: to make the largest day-to-day impact possible over the next two years, and then to take the system by storm with a majority of Americans when the midterm elections arrive.