Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Thoughts following the election

By Craig Hovey

After yesterday’s election—indeed after months and months of the election—many people are exhausted and today a lot of Americans are profoundly nervous about what a Trump presidency will hold. I am one of those people too.

While the Ashland Center for Nonviolence is a non-partisan organization, peace movements in America have generally been more at home on the Left since at least the early twentieth century. In the last half-century especially, the conscientious objectors, other war critics, and the advocates for civil rights largely saw their movements most represented among the Democratic party. This has not meant, of course, that Democratic leaders have always embraced nonviolence. As I watched the Clinton and Trump campaigns, I sensed some role-reversal early on when it came to Hillary Clinton’s strong advocacy for military might and Donald Trump’s near isolationism.

But I’ve always insisted that there’s more to peace than simply avoiding war. Nonviolence is also a gentle spirit that looks for concord, that advances respect for people who are different, that lifts up the weak, and seeks justice for the oppressed.
I am sure all of us have felt the extraordinarily raw spirit of disrespect, disdain, and scorn in this election. When I think this morning about my own uncertainty about a Trump presidency, I especially worry for racial and religious minorities in America. The ways that Trump has been speaking about Latino immigrants, refugees from the Middle East, Muslims, women, and other groups is offensive and frightening. I worry that he has given permission, not only to hate groups but to ordinary citizens, to inhabit and enlarge a bitter and coarse—if not violent—way with fellow human beings.

Like you, I am still processing what this election means. In particular, I have been trying to make sense of the meaning of the high tension, since it surely doesn’t only have to do with the issues nor, in my view, with the tone, as important as these are. I think there is more. I agree with those who, observing the deep divisions in voter demographics, see an element of backlash against our first African American president—not only his race, but against the more inclusive vision of America that he represents.

Andrew Manis, a historian at Macon State University in Alabama, has used the well-known language of “civil religion” (the high ideals of Americanism) to describe essentially two very different versions. The first is what Manis calls the exclusivist / homogenous civil religion. In its extreme form, this civil religion makes claims like America is for “us” (white, male, Christian, etc); it is distrustful of outsiders, will point to a particular American heritage, will talk about being a Christian nation, and so on. This exclusive / homogeneous civil religion can prevail if it can (1) get by most of the time thinking that it has prevailed (with the help, in no small part, of some myth-telling); and (2) bat down the alternative when it arises by showing how it threatens homogeneity. As America becomes more diverse, of course, it is much harder to hang on to the homogeneous dream.

But many others, Manis observes, have a fundamentally different set of ideas about what America is. For them, America isn’t a fragile house of cards that is always threatening to collapse at the slightest overreaching, at every attempt to find agreement among moral strangers. Instead, they have a different idea: for them, America requires a give-and-take among moral strangers. This will often be a long and drawn-out process of overcoming resistance, but this vision of America is reinforced by stories of struggle for good things like civil rights and abolishing slavery. Manis calls this the pluralist civil religion. According to this version, America’s greatness lies with the system of open collaboration and persuasion that we have discovered to be the greatness of pluralism itself. Struggle is not a sign that something has gone wrong but a sign that something is going well and right, that we are converging on what is good. Struggle shows us that we are on our way to a better society, one steadily being purged of injustice.

I wish it weren’t so, but I think Manis is right that we have two different visions for how a society of moral strangers ought to get along. My vision (my hope) is much closer to the pluralist one—an inclusive and welcoming society that embraces and seeks to understand differences, that works to resolve conflicts and promote justice through dialogue and understanding, that risks going outside our social circles, and that reaches out to other people with open hearts.

I’m afraid I interpret much (of course not all) of the enthusiasm for Trump to be a reassertion of the homogeneous dream by people whose vision of a better America is in the past (notice “Make America great again”). It is not surprising to me that historically oppressed groups didn’t go for it. As President, will Trump change his tune? I don’t see evidence that this will happen; moving toward a more inclusive America will threaten his base by prompting the uncomfortable recognition of that demographic’s loss of ascendancy. It will be more normal to double down.

As ever, the work of peace is ours to take up. It will probably mean raising our voices and our energies in support of the dignity of all people, especially oppressed groups. And it will mean facing some whose fear leads them to exclude and hate. We won’t be able to do it without seeking to embody the opposite to the depths of our beings: hope, inclusion, and love. This is our calling as people of peace. There’s work to do. Let’s do it together and bring others with us.

Craig Hovey is executive director of the Ashland Center for Nonviolence.

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