climate change · Climate communication · Empathy · fear · Fighting · Moral Distance · Politics · Psychology · Rhetoric · stereotype

“I don’t understand how…” How Moral Distance and Lack of Empathy Affect All Issues

I have viewed with interest the rise of Donald Trump. In the political arena.  This is a guy who has become an icon of the nouveau rocke riche. Trump is a brand like McDonald’s. Or Walmart. Or Whole Foods. Or Apple.  “Trump” is a recognized fiscal artistic entity.  Trump is a billionaire. Is a real estate tycoon who has his own television shows and commercials. He’s also a legendary troll.  Just do a youtube search for Trump and AJ Benza.  Trump has the remarkable ability to piss people off.

Red and Purple – Enemies to the End

And yet Trump is finding remarkable support among GOP voters.

I have seen it many times from many people.  They just cannot understand how it is that Trump gets support.  Or so they say.

“I don’t understand how anybody could vote for Trump.” It has become a rhetorical statement.  But let us strip is down to what is really going on with the person who thinks that. There are three possibilities:

(1) The person lacks the intellectual capacity to understand why a person would support Trump;

(2) The person lack sufficient empathy to identify with a person who would support Trump; or

(3) The person’s ego is such that he or she will not admit that he or she knows EXACTLY why a person would support Trump

Inferior Forms of Life

A career Army man by the name of Dave Grossman wrote a book called “On Killing.” LTC Grossman pointed out that dehumanizing of other makes it easier to destroy them.  It is much easier to kill a kraut, gook, slope, nip or spick than it is to kill another person. Wrote Grossman:

The situations described above represent a breakdown in the psychological distance that is a key method of removing one’s sense of empathy and achieving this “emotional withdrawal.” Again, some of the mechanisms that facilitate this process include:
– Cultural distance, such as racial and ethnic differences, which permit the killer to dehumanize the victim
– Moral distance, which takes into consideration the kind of intense belief in moral superiority and vengeful/vigilante actions associated with many civil wars
– Social distance, which considers the impact of a lifetime of practice in thinking of a particular class as less than human in a socially stratified environment or
– Mechanical distance, which includes the sterile Nintendo-game unreality of killing through a TV screen, a thermal sight, a sniper sight, or some other kind of mechanical buffer that permits the killer to deny the humanity of his victim

This provides an important – an too often uncomfortably denied – factor.  It is easier to hate someone we dehumanize rather than try to understand his or her interests.

Is it Really True that You Cannot Understand?

I know plenty of anti-Trump people.  I would not count myself as an anti-Trump person, though I certainly don’t envision myself voting for him.  Anti-Trump just seems too much of a problem for me.  I think I’d like Trump in person, even if I wouldn’t support his policies (whatever they may be).

But Trump seems to elicit a visceral response from people.  He is like Slayer – either you like him or you cannot stand him.  There is zero middle ground with him.

With this, many people (friends of mine. Educated. Intelligent. Uneducated. Idiots.  I like them all) are simply appalled at Trump as a politician.  A friend/acquaintance (Peter is a well-known guy and a guru whom I love to death) commented last week that he cannot understand how Trump has such support.  This was on twitter.  I actually felt compelled to respond.  Peter is a big PR guy.  He makes his living off of it.  If anyone can know why Trump get such support it would be Peter.  So I challenged him to tell me.

He couldn’t.  Or didn’t. But it got me thinking.

Are those who don’t like Trump REALLY intellectually incapable of understanding why Trump gets the support that he does?  Without even asking, I was already convinced that these were intelligent people who could readily grasp the psychology of it. Their inability to understand was not an intellectual issue.  So what else was it?

It came down to two issues: Either (1) they were not capable of empathy with Trump supporters; or (2) were too proud to bring themselves to admit the points.

Empathy – It Crosses Political Persuasions

I assume that the anti-Trump folks are intellectually capable of understanding why Trump gets support. This means we move from objective to subjective:

Are those averse to Trump emotionally capable of putting themselves in the place of Trump supporters?  Again, I hold them to higher standards.

In my opinion, Trump’s popularity is a result of an anti-establishment feelings.  He is not a politician. He is clearly not interested in creating an image of the guy who appeals to everyone.  He doesn’t care. He shoots from the hip. He speaks without a teleprompter. He does not care is you are pissed off. Indeed, he cares if you are not pissed off.

So what is the response?  Those opposed to him take the easy way out.  He is anti-immigrant. Pro-corporate. Nationalistic. And preaches greatness of Americans. The opposition?  Let’s go back to On Killing and coping.  How does one deal with Trump supporters?  Are they people supporting Trump?  No. They are racists.  Assign a motive which is, by all logic, horrible.  Trump is anti-immigrant. Therefore Trump is racist. Ergo, all Trump supporters are racist.

Coping complete!  Assign a motive. Attribute a cause. Trump supporters are lesser life forms.  They are racists.  Sanders supporters are lazy bum commies. Much as Grossman wrote about, it is easier to destroy a lesser form of life.  There is no need to empathize with a “1 percenter.” Human rights are not available to “Terrorists.”

Look at all that space between

We see it in other things.  Are there people who have a different interpretations of the data?  No. There are “deniers.” Are there people who have legitimate concerns about future climate? No. There are “alarmists.”

Moral Distance is Built

This is where politics comes in.  We choose not to look for those things we have in common with our opponents.  Instead, we seek to ever expand the “moral distance” between ourselves and our opponents.

It comes down to an individual form of morality.  It starts with determination of the enemy’s guilt. The guilt must be condemned.  With condemnation comes a need to punish the immoral and guilty enemy.  The immoral and evil enemy is depersonalized, which makes avenging the evil easier.  Trump plays the game. We have nameless subhumans (illegal aliens). They are rapists and murderers and bring drugs with them – which pushes the idea that they are immoral and have committed crimes against the moral society.

The second requirement for the distance is to affirm one’s own righteousness against the enemy.  Trump supporters claim that they have the law on their side.  That they are law abiding people who are interested in maintaining the integrity of the rule of law.  They have law and justice on their side.  Or so they convince themselves. And thus will avenge the moral society from the immoral invaders by kicking them all out and building a wall.

To Maintain Moral Distance, One’s Ego Cannot Acknowledge the Humanity of the Enemy

Can Trump supporters acknowledge that people immigrate from Mexico in order to pursue better lives for themselves and their families? No. To do so would shorten the moral distance. It makes it harder to point the finger.

Can a Trump hater (look. Let’s just call them what they are) look at a Trump supporter and acknowledge that the vast majority of them harbor no racial animus? Of course not! Because this would make it much more difficult for them to make a choice on things.

Can a climate change activist look at someone who is not worried about the warming climate as a person who simply has more important things to worry about? Of course not. They must be “denier” shills of Heartland intent on destroying the planet.  Or the other side looks at the “alarmists” as greedy pseudoscientists who produce fraudulent data in order to line their own pockets and create a world government.

How much of a moral distance has developed? Both sides are openly advocating CRIMINAL PROSECUTION of each other.

Set the Egos Aside, Empathize with the Other Side, and Figure Out Why They Think as They Do and not Why You Hope They Think as They Do

There are two reasons to do this.  The first reason is that one must actually empathize with the other side in order to understand what drives him or her.  Are you so against Trump that you actually believe that if you stamp out racism then Trump will not succeed? If you think this, you will lose. You are deliberately fighting a losing battle.

Notice that Trump’s power and pull keeps increasing as time goes on? Trump is making inroads with others who are fed up with the status quo.  Anyone out there protesting Trump is therefore viewed as the status quo. Thus every time Trump is protested, his message gets out.

The failure to understand what gives Trump his allure is increasing his allure. Much like the failure to understand the reasons why people don’t think climate change is a big deal has resulted in people’s concern about climate change falling away. Advocates do what works for them but have been downright adamant in failing to adapt. There is a moral distance between them and the “deniers.” Or even the general public: they depend on themselves to educate the ignorant masses of the horrors that await.

Have they considered that people just don’t want to hear it? Or at the very least considered that people would be more responsive to a message delivered in a different way?  Of course not. This is where activism comes in. Activists, by definition, have established a moral distance.

The other reason to empathize with the other side? You just might find out how much you have in common.  You might solve the issue.  At the very least, you can have some mutual respect. This goes a long way for all involved.



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