I am an American living in Oxford, England. An acquaintance – still shell-shocked – told me this morning he had unwittingly joined pro-Trump students to watch the election at the Oxford Union building. ‘They were wearing “Make America Great Again” baseball caps,’ he said, ‘and when the race got close I told them to take them off, that it really wasn’t a funny joke. Then I realized it wasn’t a joke.’ As the map turned red, he said, the entire room started chanting, ‘Lock her up, lock her up.’
These are University of Oxford students, not the uneducated stereotype. We must look deeper.
In my role as a researcher, I try not to ask leading questions. I am trained to listen, to observe. After the data collection comes the analysis. At the end of academic articles comes a section we call, the Discussion.
This is what we need.
And so, in between bouts of rage and pessimism, today I also felt something else coming to the surface.
Stereotypes are never as easy to uphold once you engage with them. But I need to be honest: I am still working on being brave.
I have not yet called certain relatives of mine, the ones who circulated mass pro-Trump emails to friends and family. I am too scared to ask them how they could vote for a candidate who wants a Muslim registry, when I personally guided them through the former concentration camp I worked at in Germany. I showed them torture sites and graves, dammit. I am still too hurt to ask them how they could vote for a candidate who promotes homophobia, when I and other family members are gay. And I am still too sad to ask how, as women and as people who know and purportedly love women, they could vote for this candidate. How.
The researcher in me understands I might need to wait a few days and revise my interview questions.
The closest I have come thus far to engagement is by reading coverage offered by conservative online newspapers and – in an admittedly not entirely balanced moment last night – responding to an article that shamed Obama.
Darlene, a middle-aged woman from a small town, wrote me back. Her comment was linked to her Facebook profile, and I had a somewhat voyeuristic minute borne out of genuine curiosity, looking at some of her pictures.
A new baby has been born recently in Darlene’s family. If I were a grandma or an aunt, I would be proud, too. I see a cute dog, a picture of four men smiling, one with a t-shirt bearing a smiley face and the words, ‘This is what I look like when you shut up’. Classy, I think. Overall, however, this glimpse into a midwestern woman’s life, a woman who loves her family, her dog, and her garden, is important for me. It is humanizing. I need this experience now more than ever.
The Zen Buddhist priest Zenzu Earthlyn Manuel responded to the election results with the statement, ‘...[W]e are fortunate. There could be no other answer to our meditation and prayers in dissolving hatred than to be placed front and center with it and be exposed...Now is the time we have been practicing for.'
Yet how many of us have personally engaged like this, gone beyond somewhat trite Facebook or Twitter responses to the (perhaps very few) pro-Trump voters we know and asked them to have a conversation? Or, better still, asked to just listen to them? I haven’t. But I want to.
As a researcher, we also need to want to understand. I have learned that data must be collected before it can be analysed. I am not saying we should not analyse, respond to, or defend ourselves against the slurs, the chants, and all of the other forms of emotional and physical violence already occurring and to come. We must do all of these things. But we must also listen.
Let the investigation begin.