I’ve been passionate about women’s equality since I was a teenager. Of all the social justice issues in this world, women’s rights is the one I most identify with, and it’s why this election’s results effected me in a more personal way than I expected. When Donald Trump won the election I felt angry, hopeless, confused, and disheartened. I felt like the country stood up in one force and said, “you (and your rights) don’t matter.” I felt personally wronged.
(Note: it is not lost on me that millions of people all over the country and the world have dealt with feelings like this their whole lives. That’s another blog for another day.)
I admit I imagined at first that “they” were all sick, twisted individuals. I assumed they are uneducated. I assumed they were selfish and misogynistic. I assumed they were the results of a social norm surrounding masculinity and patriarchy, and that this was a clear sign it was winning.
I assumed a lot about a lot of people I have never met.
In the days following the election, I realized that those assumptions were exactly what drove the election in this direction. Assumptions.
Assumptions are a wide-reaching, vague conclusion made about a complex, multifaceted subject. We make assumptions all the time, and that’s a subject I’m going to explore in a future post.
In this context, though, I’m most interested in how assumptions create antithetical viewpoints. I’m interested in how making assumptions turns a large, diverse group of people into two parties; us and them.
The us vs. them mentality is strong in some pockets of the feminism movement. Fierce, sometimes radical feminism has a long history of being anti-men. While I understand why women are less than enthused to allow men to join their fight for equality, I also believe this reluctance is why feminist progress has been relatively slow. The anti-men sentiment is why so many people – men and women – refuse to use the term “feminism” to describe their (fundamentally feminist) beliefs.
When women exclude men from their cause, feminist men get shut out of the effort, and that makes the process of change more difficult. Exclusivity breeds resentment from those men who should be on the feminist side, and supports the stereotype that women are men-hating in general.
The root of each of these perceptions – the anti-men sentiment, the refusal to acknowledge feminism, and the resentment of feminists altogether – is assumption. Feminists assume all men are oppressors of women’s equality. Men assume that all feminists are man-haters. Society in general assumes feminists are a little too radical to endorse.
Assumptions make issues turn complicated problems into black-and-white issues. They boil down all of the considerations into a few polarized arguments, and everyone has to pick a side. Naturally, such one-track thinking slows progress.
Lately I’ve been thinking of this idea in terms of tension between major American subgroups. Democrat vs. Republican, white vs. minority, straight vs LGBT. Each of these conflicts appears to be an Us vs. Them battle, but it doesn’t have to be. In fact, it shouldn’t be. Making it an Us vs. Them situation promotes the illusion that there is a right answer, when in fact, there isn’t.
When it comes to the major conflicting groups, the only way to make progress is to let each other in. To open our doors to conversation, to arm ourselves with thoughtful arguments and questions, and prepare to disagree on some points.
The backlash from the 2016 election – from both sides – has been exclusive, and in many cases combative. People are furious with the results of this election, and those who aren’t furious are unleashing their frustrations from the past eight years. The result of such hopeless frustration is a generalization of “the other side”. It’s this Us vs. Them mentality that is toxic to any progress at all, because it involves assumptions in the place of open-mindedness, and the hurling of arguments instead of mindful discussion.
When we assume that all _____ are _____, we throw away any hope that there is an alternative, when in fact there usually is. Some men are pro-feminism. Some men are misogynistic. Assuming that all men are the same slows progress by burning bridges rather than forming connections.
Those valuable members of “the other side” that can understand and respect your mission? Those are the ones to welcome with open arms. The men who believe equal pay and reproductive rights are essentials to a woman’s experience in America, or the conservative who believes all people have a right to marriage, despite his own religious beliefs – those are the people we need to be embracing. But generalizing entire groups of people based on a single trait isn’t the answer; that’s how we got into this mess to begin with.