Saturday, November 12, 2016

Solidarity in the twilight: how to fight darkness post-election?

Image credit: Pete Linforth via
In the wake of the Trump victory in the US Presidential election, I read a number of confused posts. I see people wondering how they will cope now that forces of darkness have been unleashed, and I read people asking how a campaign built on hatred could do so well. Comparisons with the rise of Hitler and Mussolini, comparisons with Brexit... there is fear all around that, yet again, with a result going the way of those who incite hatred, acts of hatred will follow. A fear that angry white men in particular, but not exclusively, will see the result as legitimising their acts of hatred. Apparently hate crimes against Muslims are already on the rise with only September 11 2001 as a comparable precedent - see this article about just one such incident in Wisconsin, a state in which 300,000 registered voters were turned away without sufficient ID.

I was shown a facebook post today written after an experience in a restaurant that goes like this:
...there's a Muslim family sitting nearby. The woman, wearing a hijab, keeps glancing around warily. Like she's expecting a confrontation any minute. They passed by my table as they left, and I told her that I thought her hijab was beautiful and I loved the color. She smiled and said, 'Thank you,' and I said, 'I hope y'all have a good rest of your night. Stay strong,' to all of them.

It got me thinking - for all the people who are really upset after Trump's victory and wonder what they can do to prevent darkness descending... what have people done in the past? What works and why?

The first thing that came to mind was the trending hashtag after an attack on a Sydney cafe #illridewithyou. The truth of the story at the beginning of the movement is disputed but even if it is a fictionalised account, a fantasy of 'what I should have done' then it fits here. The story goes like this:
and the (presumably) Muslim woman sitting next to me on the train silently removes her hijab.... I ran after her at the train station. I said 'put it back on. I'll walk with u'. She started to cry and hugged me for about a minute - then walked off alone'  and when the story was shared by a journalist, others created the hashtag, with commuters sharing schedules to at least provide company to those who were scared.

I would like to acknowledge an interesting perspective on this kind of helping, which suggests that aiding those who are afraid in this kind of situation actually perpetuates islamophobia, It concerns me, because it is well-argued, and I don't want to suggest that a patronising approach is the best solution under the circumstances. But I don't think that's where I'm going.

So far what I see is the idea that there are people eager to express solidarity but they don't know how. A quick search for explanations of what solidarity actually is led me to a couple of websites quoting from Pope John Paul II.
“Solidarity is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all.” 
Pope John Paul II image credit ddouk via

The website I have taken this quote from is thoughtful, giving a reasoned explanation for action.
Solidarity is a radical expression of compassion. Solidarity is rooted not in my distress at the pain of others, but in the objective reality of their distress. Solidarity is rooted not in transient feelings of distress at the pain of others, but in a lifelong commitment to alleviating the pain of others. Solidarity derives not from our sense of generosity but from our sense of justice, from an acknowledgment that we are all united in our common humanity and the pain of others is our responsibility. 

This reminded me of something important, perhaps obvious, but easily forgotten. Feeling distress because of the pain of others is already a step beyond what many adults can manage. Transcending that feeling of distress, recognising that the feeling is best understood as concern for injustice and a desire to act to correct a perceived imbalance... that's even rarer.

This brought to mind the footage of Bernie Sanders being arrested for his involvement in protests against segregation in Chicago schools in 1963. With a history of standing up against injustice, it's no surprise that he's still there to be counted:
Bernie Sanders image credit Max Goldberg via

Here are some ideas about what you can do to make it more difficult for people to commit those acts of hate.
1. Start your own conversation with someone who's being verbally assaulted. Your conversation will win.
2. If you're in a position of power/authority/respect, you have the ability to affect whether potential victims feel safe or not. Another post on facebook I saw today was a photograph of a notice on a teacher's classroom door stating that he/she was in support of Mexicans, Muslims, LGBQT... basically saying everyone is welcome. Do you feel like everyone is welcome in your world? Maybe at the moment you need to find a way to say it.
3. The safety pin. Did it work? I suspect it was too subtle.
4. You've got your own social media accounts, right? If you feel bad, why not post about it? This video had popular appeal, probably to people who already weren't racist, but still, why not look and share?
5. If you feel bad, the closest thing there is to a political voice to your feelings is probably Bernie Sanders. Look at his twitter feed and think.
6. Keep your eyes open - more and more messages like this are coming out. Here's Nicola Sturgeon.

7. Follow the advice here:

So where's the link to research?

Empathy. One model of empathy that I have spent some time looking at identifies four components of empathy. While perspective-taking, fantasy and empathic concern increase over time, personal distress goes down. On one hand you could argue that personal distress goes down with the development of a mature detachment from others' distress (Erikson's definition of wisdom), or you might also argue that personal distress decreases when other avenues are found to express concern at injustice. Some of the work from the Berlin approach to measuring wisdom found that many of those nominated as wise in the 1980s had been actively working against the Nazis during World War II (refs. on request).

A situation like this can be a growth experience, for individuals and for society as a whole - it can push you and people like you towards a more active empathic stance. Take the opportunity and at least start to support those who could use it. Think solidarity, not just compassion.

Davis, M. (1983). Measuring individual differences in empathy: Evidence for a multidimensional approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 44 (1), 113-126 DOI: 10.1037//0022-3514.44.1.113

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