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How Fear Fogs Our Present-Day Political Discourse

Photo: Gabriella Demczuk

There’s an atmosphere that seems to blanket all present political discourse. It’s not just the ever-present Trump Trapdoor, which, to borrow a phrase from journalist Ezra Klein, is that moment in an ordinary conversation when the Trump Trapdoor opens up and—whomp!—down you go through a dark, winding shoot that lands you in a conversation about some maddening element of the national political crisis.

No, the Trump Trapdoor doesn’t fully capture the haze through which so many of us have been moving since November, one that seems to cloud our norms and institutions, blur the landscape, and make it difficult to see very far ahead.

This fog could even be found at New America’s annual conference last week. It was a day of conversation that probed American renewal through civic technology, the future of healthcare, racial justice, and more, and it was all against the backdrop of a divided America. Closing the day in conversation with New America President & CEO Anne-Marie Slaughter, celebrated author and MacArthur “genius” grant recipient Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spoke of a similar kind of fog, and gave it a name: fear.

Recalling what it was like to grow up under a military dictatorship, Adichie says she knows what it is to feel fear as a shroud around you. As a child, Adichie remembers her parents begging their children to teach them the Nigerian National Pledge. Under General Buhari’s brutal rule, soldiers blew through university campuses, harassing professors, forcing them to recite the national pledge, and beating them if they missed even one word. Adichie’s parents never learned the pledge; it was written after their schooling days. “America can easily be that,” Adichie warns. “I just think a madman is in charge of America… This is not time to talk about holding hands.”

Adichie and Slaughter’s conversation parsed the nature of political discourse in our fear-inflected moment.

Facing a fractured America, Slaughter accepts the daunting task of forging connections across ideological lines. She’s hunting for tools to make that work more effective. For her, without renewed effort at unity, the country doesn’t stand a chance. When Slaughter turns to ask Adichie how Clinton voters should engage Trump voters, Adichie returns, plainly, “Why do we have to?”

Hours after a Donald Trump became President-elect, Adichie penned a stirring piece for the New Yorker. "The responsibility to forge unity belongs not to the denigrated but to the denigrators," she wrote. Today, she relents. “The question becomes, what kind of Trump voter?”

"Trump voter" is probably not a very useful label. The uniformity of the millions of ballots cast for Trump belies the variation in experiences that brought each individual into the voting booth. Adichie tells of a Nigerian physician she knows who voted for Trump—not all black people voted for Hillary, she reminds us—because he “wanted lower taxes.”

The Nigerian physician troubles the widespread post-election narrative of disaffected white Trump voters in Middle America, who bore the devastating effects of free trade and fear that their children would be worse off than they were. In the succinct manner of the former law professor she is, Slaughter offers, to vote for Donald Trump, economic anxiety was neither sufficient nor necessary. Indeed, as was echoed throughout the day, millions of Americans who did not vote for Trump, especially Americans of color, have long-faced conditions that make “economic anxiety” seem almost comically mild.

***

A year ago, Slaughter offered a rhetorical question in a commencement speech to thousands of soon-to-be graduates of Barnard College. Wrapped in broader musings about navigating layered identities, solidarity, and representation. Slaughter asked: Does my identity mean I cannot speak for women who do not look or live like me?

One year later, Slaughter poses the same question onstage to Adichie. Adichie pauses before answering. Adichie does this often. Her pauses contribute to a sense that respects her audience enough to be extraordinarily deliberate before she speaks. And, truthfully, the pause also gives us a moment to admire her ensemble: dark heels with painted, parted lips adorning the toe and pink flowers up the side; a beige skirt with burnt orange trapezoids flowing in front and in back; and a white blouse with criss-crossing strips. Adichie, who frequently hails the potent symbolism of black female hair, wore hers this day in two twists, looped loosely by her temples, the rest gathered neatly behind. The effect on nearly anyone else might evoke a ram sitting on a mermaid. On Adichie, it completes the picture of sophistication and grace.

Can I speak for women who neither look or live like me? The answer on the other side of Adichie’s pause is candid. “I don’t know.” For Adichie, the business of one’s identity granting permission to speak is complicated. “We on the left often tie ourselves in knots. If you are not this, or not that, you can’t speak.” Chuckling, Adichie confesses she’s been feeling sympathy for straight white men recently, observing that in some spaces, the very fact of their straight-white-man-ness has become a reason to silence them.

Adichie can think of a better way to deal with some people who happen to be straight white men: Show them their bullshit. Recently on the Middlebury College campus, controversial author Charles Murray was invited to talk, which spawned protests and some violence. Adichie has actually read The Bell Curve, Murray’s most controversial book, which has been interpreted by some to suggest that different races have different inherent cognitive abilities. She says, frankly, that it is not a very good book and laments that the reaction wasn’t a meticulous, academic, public undressing of this stupid book. “If you silence them, you cannot show them their bullshit.”

On this, she and Slaughter agree that “silencing” is dangerous business indeed. Slaughter is quick to note that the university is not a public square, that you can perfectly well deny some speech. Adichie agrees, noting firmly that for certain people, she will not fight for their right to speak, but adds, “I’m uncomfortable with the idea that unless you agree with us, you cannot be among us.”

***

Fear, and the processing of the pain it often produces, seem to be the urgent business of the day. On all sides, it must be true that having pain does not necessarily make you right. This is remarkably simple to grasp, especially when observing an ideological opponent. Take two Americans. We’ll call them Sam and Sayre.

Sam worked for years for a manufacturing company that recently closed the local branch and relocated overseas. Sam is reeling from the economic devastation of his hometown. Sam is in pain. We can see Sam’s pain. Sam’s pain is real. Sam voted for Donald Trump. Can it be emotionally and logically inconsistent to see and believe in Sam’s pain, and also believe that does not make it right to vote for Donald Trump?

Sayre is a college student, and a woman of color. Sayre’s school has invited a speaker who espouses views that imply that Sayre is an inherently inferior person. Sayre is in pain. We can see Sayre’s pain. Sayre’s pain is real. Sayre fights vigorously to prevent the speaker from speaking at her school. Can it be emotionally and logically inconsistent to see and believe in Sayre’s pain, and also believe that does not make it right to prevent speakers from speaking?

Sam and Sayre aren’t real, except, of course, that they are. Laying the two side by side in caricatured lens is not done here to trigger that Pavlovian set of calculations; about whose pain is more real, about whose methods and actions are justified, about the impact of their decisions. Rather, it is to highlight, through whichever story makes it clearer, that pain can be, and indeed often is, not necessarily connected to rightness.

So, what are the properties of pain? Does it sit, heavy in the guts of those who bear it? What determines whether it forms the bedrock for bigotry, for bravery, for brilliance? Can it be treated to spark a civil rights revolution, or to spread hateful ideology? Is pain solid, is it soluble? Can it be dissolved, in attention, in compassion, in time? When pain becomes the currency of politics or persuasion, what can you afford? What can I? What can America?

As a novelist, Adichie’s task is to preserve full, flawed humans between her pages. Her skill at this makes for rich, unpredictable stories of people we feel we know. She tells us theory does not interest her. She cares for the texture of human lives. What to do with pain? Before all else, care for its texture, as Adichie does. Hover in the space before pain becomes politics. Even—especially—in the fog of fear. It’s the only way we’ll see ourselves out.

Author:

Emefa Addo Agawu is a Program Associate in the Cybersecurity Initiative.