I almost got kicked out of a bar last week. There I was sitting on the bar stool, stone cold sober, silence suddenly blaring down, and a dozen pairs of eyes glaring at me. The bartender was frozen still, mid pouring out a drink. The security guard stepped towards the scene, ready to do whatever was necessary. My friend sitting next to me gave a nervous chuckle, a knee-jerk reaction signaling that he wasn’t sure whether or not I was being my usual sarcastic self (what he hoped) or actually being serious (what he feared).
What had I done that was so unfathomable, or said that was so incendiary? Had I punched someone? Insulted somebody’s mother? Unleashed the truth about my New York ‘hating’, ISIS ‘supporting’ nature? (Cue the sarcasm.) Close, but far worse. Instead I loudly interjected a heated discussion with:
“Y’know what guys, I can kind of understand where Trump’s supporters are coming from.”
Yes, me – a black, as liberal as they could possibly come, female, Kenyan/New Yorker – was proclaiming empathy towards the supporters of probably the world’s most despised, definitely most talked about, politician?
Let me first be clear on a couple of things:
1. I’m not about to give a diatribe on politics.
2. This is not about Donald Trump, the [insert whichever adjectives you desire to describe him] man.
3. I hope you understand the difference between ‘understanding’ and ‘agreeing’. To confirm, I’m not stating the latter, merely suggesting the former.
As everyone around the world is well aware, things are getting crazy out here in the US of A. At first, the political landscape was at the very least entertaining, if, shamefully, enjoyable. But as the months have tumbled by, things have drastically morphed from a farce into a sinister possibility of reality. The Donald Trump reality show getting real! While the drama continues to unveil itself as each day passes, everyone and their dogs have, and will, continue to debate the how’s and why’s, with no single answer being complete enough to satisfy all. Such is politics, no?
But if you can, for a few minutes, take a leap with me here. Forget the politics, the media, the personalities, the rhetoric, the pundits, the theories, the polls, the headlines, and all the terrifying drama. Even forget the hate, the anger, the violence, the racism, the bigotry and downright stupidity. And if you can, forget what you think, feel or believe, your fears and desires.
Actually, hold onto your fears and desires, and ask yourself this:
1. What are you really scared of? Perhaps your fears include: Threats to your personal security, getting sick, losing loved ones, harm brought upon your children, losing your source of income, unexpected adverse events, being alone, or dying.
2. What do you truly desire? Perhaps: Finding true love, raising healthy, happy children, living in a comfortable home, having a secure job that you enjoy, cultivating strong, supportive friendships, experiencing joy through traveling, shopping, eating, laughter, excitement, so on and so forth.
And so to avoid experiencing what you fear most, or attempt to achieve your deepest desires, you stay in the office late for the chance of being rewarded with a pay raise, or the negative consequences of missing a deadline. You move to far out locations for the chance of a secure job. You sacrifice a night of hunger so your children are fully fed. You pay your bills on time to keep the lights on and avoid any penalties. You take your medication to relieve the physical pain.
Or you put money into a savings account because you’re planning for a secure, enjoyable retirement. You have a glass of wine to enjoy how it tastes and it’s relaxing effects. You indulge in a new pair of shoes because they bring a smile to your face, or alleviate the pain of emotional distress you may be going through. You splurge on a gift for your partner, because the smile on their face makes you happy. You hug, kiss, comfort, coddle and live for your children because you love them so dearly – the purest form of pleasure.
Basically all the things that make you, and I, and all seven billion of us, human beings. Whoever you are, whatever you’re doing, wherever you live, however you live, your life unfolds; what motivates you to behave the way you do is absolutely NOT unique. For some, this may be disconcerting; there’s no way [insert name of person you most dislike] is just like me! For others, myself included, it’s comforting. Either way, its neither a good or bad thing; it just is.
It is known as the pain vs. pleasure principle. The notion that at the very basic level, the decisions we make as human beings are motivated by an avoidance of pain or the attainment of pleasure. It gets a little complicated because firstly, we’re not very good at distinguishing between what will really cause us pain/pleasure and what we think will do so (think about your reaction to that itsy, bitsy, completely harmless, little spider).
Secondly, in our brains, it actually doesn’t matter that much whether pain/pleasure is real or imaginary; anticipating future emotional pain can be just as motivating as experiencing current physical pain. Hence, within each decision we’re trying to balance short vs. long term pain or pleasure, and how we evaluate and balance each factor is often far from rational. Thirdly, the threat or feeling of pain is more immediate than the promise or experience of pleasure, leading us to care and pay more attention to avoiding pain. Which makes evolutionary sense because avoiding pain (running away from a predator) was far more critical to survival than experiencing pleasure (continuing to eat your meal).
For example, the short-term pain of having less money to spend today seems worth the long-term pleasure of being able to send your children to college 10 years from now, correct? But, if you’re currently experiencing a vast amount of distress, for example, going through a divorce or in the midst of gambling addiction, the intensity of this pain may lead you to gamble away your money, despite the sincere value you have for your child’s future. Rational? No. Human? Yes.
Put simply, if I currently feel or perceive pain in any form, be it feeling scared, threatened, insecure or dejected, rest assured I’ll be motivated to do everything I can to alleviate the discomfort, likely devaluing future pleasure and irrationally evaluating my current situation because of the pain I feel. Likewise, if I feel confident about experiencing future pleasure (some call that hope), or avoiding future pain, I’ll be motivated to achieving this reality even if it means experiencing short-term adverse effects, or acting out of my comfort zone (just think of how far you’d go to secure your child’s future).
Which is really what Trump has tapped into. The existing pain amongst millions of lower class, rural, less-educated (predominantly white) Americans. And the promise of a more pleasurable, less painful, or at the very least different, future. Is that really so hard to understand? It may seem woefully simplistic to explain the
Basically all the things that make you, and I, and all seven billion of us, human beings. Whoever you are,
whatever you’re doing, wherever you live, however you live, your life unfolds; what motivates you to behave the way you do is absolutely NOT unique…
complexities of group think, politics, and all the socio-economic aspects of this, or any, political landscape, but I’m not trying to explain, theorize or justify. I’m simply trying to empathize with those at the center of the flame.
The pain they’ve been feeling, whether real or not, matters because it matters to them. Feeling disenfranchised and threatened by the growing minority communities around them, the lack of jobs available for their less-educated friends and family, feeling unsupported, powerless and forgotten by their own government. And the pleasure ignited upon listening to, or simply being surrounded by the energy Trump inspires. His authenticity and defiance arouses pleasure, in the form of hope, excitement, or mere novelty.
More importantly, Trump didn’t create the source of pain that sparked the flame. Trump is a symptom, not the disease. The sucker punching supporters existed before he came along; the surprising number of racist Americans didn’t appear out of nowhere; the anger, which inevitably translates to fear, has been simmering for a long, long time. We’re just witnessing the viscous, pungent stew that’s been sitting there all along finally getting enough heat to come to a boil.
Where does this leave us, or why should you and I care? Well, when we continue to forget or ignore the humanity that surrounds us, we’re all just adding more ingredients to the stew. It’s so easy to laugh at the ignorance and insanity shown by ‘those’ people who support Trump. The intuitive reaction is to condemn their actions because of the horrendous intent, beliefs or desires behind them. Why would anyone want to try to understand them?
Because at the end of the day, all of us are simply trying to avoid pain and experience pleasure. In fact, for some of us, life is only about avoiding enough pain each day to continue surviving. If you think you’re different because of your intellect, beliefs or values, you’re not. Being a more respectful, educated, rational, informed and compassionate individual is a wonderful thing, but unless it somehow reduces my pain or gives me pleasure, why should I care? That is, why should ‘they’ care?
Again, I don’t think the difference between how each of us evaluates what brings us pain and pleasure is a bad thing. I also don’t think it’s a good thing. I do think it is a human thing. Hence, watching the most powerful country in the world ignite from it’s very own humanity is, well I’m not quite sure what it is, but it is certainly no longer a joke and very, very real.
Which is what landed me in that very, very real situation of almost getting kicked out of a bar. Thankfully I managed to mitigate the tension with a quick-witted remark. No punches thrown, bottles broken, just the continued condemnation of ‘those’ crazy humans following that [again, insert chosen adjectives] politician.
Published April 2016