So what just happened?

I’ve been pretty quiet lately, and haven’t had a whole lot of time or energy for baking. But we just had this, um, shocking result in an election, and I wanted to put a few words down about it. Everything I write below has to be understood as provisional, to be revised as new evidence and new arguments come in. This is a summary of a tweetstorm I made a few hours ago, patched up and edited a bit for clarity.

So I’ve been thinking, as I think we all have, about what happened in the election. While I was shocked by the outcome, and wasn’t expecting it, I do think we can see it as part and parcel with the “coastal vs. heartland” (or even “urban vs. rural”) culture war that has been at a low boil since at least the waning years of the Bush 43 administration. At the heart of it is a simple distinction that, while it seems overly legalistic, forms a large part of the cultural divide over #BlackLivesMatter, police violence, economic inequality, and gender equity, among many other issues. It has to do with the way we (the educated, metropolitan liberals) communicate with our fellow citizens in other places and other economic situations about these issues, and it has to do with the self-conception we and they do not share.

Anyone who has studied discrimination law will be familiar with the two theories of discrimination: “discriminatory intent” and “disparate impact”. Discriminatory intent is what it says on the tin: some person in a position of power is discriminating against someone else, intentionally, out of an animus against that person (or, in the usual formulation, against a group that person identifiably belongs to). Disparate impact is much less clear-cut: somehow, for some reason, outcomes are very different for members of one group relative to another, beyond the explanatory power of any measurable difference in those groups per se. Liberals place great emphasis on disparate impact discrimination, as evidence of structural problems in society that require explicit intervention to remedy. Conservatives and many moderates flat-out reject disparate-impact theories of discrimination, holding that discriminatory intent — and only discriminatory intent — is wrong or should be legally actionable. Disparate impact theories also require a degree of statistical sophistication that is beyond even many well-educated people, especially those who have not studied a science or engineering discipline that requires it. (That includes many computer scientists, by the way, but it also includes most lawyers and even many doctors.) We’ve seen this numerous times as disparate-impact claims have been dashed on the rocks of a conservative-dominated judiciary, where no amount of statistical evidence that liberals would interpret as pointing towards structural discrimination suffices to sustain a claim absent proof of particularized animus towards a specific claimant.

This disparity in interpretation results in two completely different social constructions of phenomena like racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and so on. Many people — decent people, not only in their own self-image but viewed objectively — who have no animus against any identifiable group, will support measures and candidates and propositions that can have horrendous negative impacts on some minority community, and see nothing wrong with it. In their understanding, their policy preference is driven by entirely neutral considerations and preferences, not by animus, and (whether explicitly rejecting or just failing to understand the disparate impact) “cannot be discriminatory”. We’re not talking about the “I’m not a racist but…” crowd here, but people who genuinely understand discrimination as a matter of intent alone, irrespective of outcomes.

But for coastal liberals like me, and the members of those minority communities, that impact is what matters, whether it’s driven by discriminatory intent (as in North Carolina, apparently) or not. As far as we’re concerned, if you make common cause with racists, homophobes, neo-Nazis, misogynists, Islamophobes, the Klan, and all the rest, you’re no better than they are — perhaps even worse, because at least they’re honest about their animus, and you’re just deluded. But these people understandably find such characterizations highly objectionable: if your lodestar is intent, rather than impact, then it’s downright hurtful to be called a racist, etc. By defining these people as “beyond the Pale”, we lose the ability to communicate respectfully with them, to address their concerns, or even make ourselves understood. That doesn’t excuse the harmful effects of their choices, but it is all the less likely that we will be able to make these understand the harm if they feel they’re being (as we would say) Othered by us.

This is not to say that among Donald Trump’s supporters you won’t find any number of neo-Nazis, racists, misogynists, homophobes (like VP-elect Mike Pence), and all the other “deplorables” in Hillary Clinton’s “basket” metaphor. They’re loud, and they’re skilled in making the social-media echo chambers reverberate with their poison. But there are far more people who supported Trump who are fundamentally decent people, and they are potentially reachable, could possibly be convinced that there is a better, more righteous path than the one they have chosen. There’s a gap, hopefully a bridgeable one, that must be overcome if we are to make progress. We cannot change their minds by condescension alone; they’re on to that; they can see it, feel it.

It’s going to require education, and empathy. It demands that we not retreat into our comfortable big-city lives, giving thanks that we don’t live in one of those backwards, regressive places. Change has to start with us.

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2 Responses to So what just happened?

  1. elfsternberg says:

    It isn’t just the common cause, though. It’s the restraint of any criticism, fueled in no small part by the collective awareness that, even if they didn’t have “common cause” with the supremacist alt-righters, they derived power and possibly even frisson from what the alt-righters did.

  2. lindajulien says:

    Thanks for writing this. I want to have some wise or witty response, but right now I just don’t.

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