Maybe We Should Go Easy on Uncle Bob

Edit: James Shore, the guy who attempted to shame Uncle Bob on Twitter, has fairly pointed out that I’ve omitted some of the context that makes his shaming appear more reasonable. I’ve edited this post to include more of that context.

Holy crap! In case you missed it, Uncle Bob got excoriated on Twitter earlier this week for a comment he made about the media’s coverage of the separation of immigrant children from their parents. Here’s the comment:

Here’s the start of the excoriation:

The last tweet in this “storm” really stands out:

Now, this isn’t the first time Uncle Bob has made problematic statements, and the context on this particular occasion in James’ own words has the following elements:

a) Bob’s attempt to deflect criticism of a child-separation policy, which is going to cause lasting harm to thousands of children, mostly by repeating right-wing pundits that were outright defending the policy.

b) Five hours of tweets before mine, most of which were people trying to engage in good faith with Bob and being ignored.

c) Bob’s history of engaging in bad faith mockery of people who criticized his attitude towards women.

I think a) and b) are pretty fair characterizations of the situation, but I can’t speak to c).

Now, I think that many Americans’ response to illegal immigrants and refugees is very morally problematic and although I’m really not a fan of Trump (voted for Hilary even though I didn’t care much for her either), this sort of shaming strikes me as a bad idea, even given the context of the conversation.

Instead, I think maybe we should go easy on Uncle Bob.

I think this for 2 reasons:

  1. I think folks on the far left are often insufficiently nuanced in their characterization of folks on the right.

  2. This leads to an approach to conversation that produces more polarization rather than insight and compromise. In fact, I think it (understandably) actually makes Trump more appealing to conservatives.

I want to spend a little time trying to support these points with some personal anecdotes and the (admittedly) less-than-bullet-proof generalizations those anecdotes have informed.

We “Good-hearted” people…

Oliver Traldi, one of my grad school buddies, actually recently suggested that humans in general tend to oversimplify their characterization of people who are “on the other team.” His description includes a political example, so it’s worth quoting in full:

It’s a commonplace that one of the ways in which humans “other” their outgroups is by treating them as uniform, monolithic – as a horde, a mass, etc. By contrast, our ingroups are just full of diverse individuals and interrelations among subgroups. Many leftists, for example, will be able to explain to you in detail the differences among Maoists, Stalinists, Leninists, Marxists, communists, anarcho-communists, left-libertarians, socialists, social democrats, progressives, left-liberals, and mainstream Democrats; many of the same leftists, however, will opine very eloquently about how they don’t see a real difference between white nationalists and Donald Trump or between Donald Trump and the mainstream conservative movement – how it’s all the same, deep down. By the same token, the same rightists who can recognize various levels and forms of libertarianism, traditionalism, capitalism, etc. will tell you that Hillary Clinton was a socialist.

The truth of this paragraph really rings true for me even as I’m re-reading it now. Its probably because of these personal experiences (and others like them):

  • I grew up in a Christian household, and when I studied religion in college, I started to notice (and be bothered by) unsophisticated characterizations of non-Christian religions that were offered by my Christian friends and family.

  • I sat at dinner with a family member once who made the exact same mistake that Oliver discussed in his article: he characterized a slightly left-of-center position as socialist. When I pushed back on the characterization by pointing out that not all folks on the left are socialist, he asked for example of such a person. I pointed to myself.

I think this mistake — a mistake that has traditionally come from the people in my life who are on the right — is precisely the same mistake that some folks are making on the left these days.

I might just be naive, but because of these experiences and the intuitive idea that humans tend to “‘other’ their outgroups,” I’m not ready to suggest that someone is not one us — a “good hearted” person — just because they say “Cries of Nazi-ism and reference to Japanese internment camps were irresponsible and beyond the pale.”1

…will drive these behaviors back into the shadows.

Once we take step back and try to segment “the right” and “these behaviors” a little more, I think we’ll see that this is a problematic idea.

Can social pressure work on positions that make up tiny majorities of societies? Sure. Shamed individuals must shrink to their corners and feel isolated and lonely.

Can social pressure work on positions that make up large portions of the country? Not in my experience. I’ve only seen polarization come from “social pressure” on conservatives.

I have friends and family who voted for Trump and who have morally problematic stances on the issue of illegal immigration, but here’s the thing: these people aren’t evil.

When we treat them as though they need to be driven back into the shadows, it understandably just pisses them off and makes them less likely to want to hear anything from the left. They feel that they’ve been unfairly demonized in the name of “political correctness,” and they learn to like Trump — the politically incorrect president — even more.

When we fail to segment the group of people who live further to the right than we do and when we treat them all like white supremacists, we aren’t driving behavior back into the shadows. We’re doing just the opposite: we’re feeding in to Trump’s appeal.

To make matter’s worse, its not like Trump supporters are some tiny minority in the country. The dude won the election.

After getting excoriated by folks on the left, they can just spend more time with the people on their team. They’ll just get together and talk about how mean “liberals” can be. I’ve seen it.

Another way

On the other hand, when I don’t let myself get too annoyed with my conservative friends and family, I find that our conversations are actually pretty interesting and helpful. I’ve been told by several friends and family members that they like talking with me about politics because most of the time I don’t bite their heads off or freak out when they say something that makes me wonder about the future viability of our country.

I manage to do well in these conversations not because I’m virtuous or patient (I’m neither of these things). Rather, it’s mostly because having productive, careful political conversations is hard and I’m lazy and not willing to spend the energy on it these days (you can call me a sub-par citizen if you like). So, I often just listen to what my conservative friends and family have to say about politics without offering my viewpoint at all (unless they ask for it).

This lazy approach probably isn’t doing enough to move the needle on improving political discourse in this country, but at least its not making it worse. Again, I could be wrong about this, but that’s what it feels like the “shaming” approach is doing, so maybe instead we should just take it easy on Uncle Bob.

“Taking it easy” doesn’t mean we do nothing. I just think we need to dial it down a notch from “I’m not here to talk to you. I’m here to shame you.”