10/6/16: on the importance of tone (sorry!)

In the October 10, 2016, issue of The New Yorker, Larissa MacFarquhar investigates how a once-solidly Democratic county now comes to be voting overwhelmingly for Trump. It’s a misleading lede, since the article clarifies that this trend began when W. ran for office in 2000, and that it was largely because the coal-based West Virginian county of Logan would have been economically devastated by Al Gore’s environmental proposals. But there’s a larger, deeper concern in there, which has to do with the way in which we talk to those who disagree with us, and how we present our views.

Although Obama’s and Clinton’s immigration policies are pretty similar, the way they talk about the subject is quite different. In a speech at the end of last year, Clinton suggested that wariness of immigrants was a sign of bad character… She described immigration as a matter of universal human rights.

When Obama gave a speech on immigration in the fall of 2014, he spoke first about America’s border–how he had secured it, and how illegal crossings had been cut by more than half. When he spoke about people who opposed his policies, he said he understood them…. “We don’t like the notion that anyone might get a free pass to American citizen ship. I know some worry immigration will change the fabric of who we are, or take our jobs… I hear these concerns… and I believe it’s important that all of us have this debate without impugning each other’s character.”

Of course, Obama doesn’t have to prove his anti-racist bona fides in the same way that Clinton does. But it is also Obama’s style to talk like this. He likes to reconcile, to draw people in, to minimize the differences between them. Clinton, on the other hand, always describes herself as a fighter, and it is her style to draw sharp lines between right and wrong–between people who are being oppressed and the people doing the oppressing. This style can make it sound as though she thinks people who disagree with her on immigration are probably racists.

Do take the above with a grain of salt: for all his reconciliation and understanding, there are many who are still vehemently against him, and Logan was so against Obama that in 2012’s Democratic primary “Obama was soundly defeated by Keith Judd, a Texas felon serving a seventeen-and-a-half-year sentence for extortion.” That is, a lot of people who are anti-Hillary may in fact have misogynistic motivations. But beginning a conversation that way, or outright dismissing concerns about Hillary because of how awful (you feel) Trump is, only serves to widen a divide between people, to entrench them in their own beliefs. Let’s talk, then, about the disagreements that have been made public, and not our characters, which are generally private.

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