How we frame things matters. The words we choose matter. Especially if we claim to want a more just and liberated world. We can choose language that interrogates the status quo, or we can choose language that supports it. I’m seeing a lot of people doing the latter in response to the recent white supremacist thuggery carried out by Trump supporters, and I think it’s my purpose as a coach to call this kind of thinking into question where I see it, whether in individuals or in systems. I’m going to go over a couple of thought errors and blind spots that have been prevalent in the mainstream media and on social media. I’m absolutely not alone in saying these things, but I want to add my voice to the chorus, because I believe that it is only by calling attention to our underlying patterning and beliefs that we stand a chance of changing them.
Let’s start with the many people -including President-Elect Biden- who have said things along the lines of “this is not America” in response to the behaviour of Trump supporters (Boris Johnson went so far as to say that “America is a shining example of democracy”). This category of thought error glosses over and ignores the long history of white supremacist violence in the United States, as well as the involvement of elected representatives in spreading baseless claims of election fraud and encouraging mob violence. Nearly 75 million Americans voted for Trump in 2020. That’s more than the population of the UK. That’s not an anomaly. Turning to nearly half of American voters and saying “this is not us” ignores the reality that the United States was founded as a white supremacist, settler-colonial project.
I’m seeing people calling the white supremacist thugs who stormed the US Capitol terrorists. Again, calling them terrorists frames their behaviour as an anomaly and implies that they were attacking the government and the status quo. They were not. This was state-sanctioned thuggery. President Trump and his allies rallied and encouraged their supporters until doing so became too costly for them. The Republican Party chose Trump as its candidate twice (presumably because they believed he would win votes for them). Republican representatives did not vote to remove Trump when he was impeached or speak out against him. Social media companies gave him a platform until it was prudent for their bottom lines not to. Police and Capitol security guards acted with the lightest of touches towards Trump supporters. Some police opened barricades to let them inside or took selfies with them. It is possible to condemn the actions and ideologies of Trump and his supporters while recognising that white supremacist violence is more American than apple pie (as much as we would like it not to be).
We can attempt to understand what motivates Trump and his supporters without condoning their behaviour or without resorting to the knee-jerk desires to punish or banish them (I get the impulse to distance oneself from these people or to wish retribution on them, I totally do – I’m Jewish and seeing literal Nazi flags and slogans is terrifying– I just don’t think it is helpful in terms of dismantling the ideologies that empower them). People have ideas about how the world works. For many white Americans, it is clear that –whether consciously or subconsciously– their mental models of the world involve the erroneous idea that white people are inherently more deserving than everybody else. So, when they see anybody else (Black and brown folks, immigrants, queer and trans folks, women) gaining jobs or wealth or power, they assume that this is happening at their expense. Of course, this is not at all what is happening, but on some level, it feels very real to brains and bodies that have been conditioned for generations to believe in the ideology of white supremacy (and this ideology is reinforced over and over again by politicians, institutions and the media).
In her book Down Girl, Kate Manne likens this to someone going to a restaurant, seeing a server in uniform and expecting that server to serve them. If, instead, that server serves herself a plate of food, the customer may react with shock and anger (even if the server is on her lunch break and there are ten more servers who are waiting to attend to customers). The mental models of white supremacy are similar. The success of people of colour or queer and trans folks or women violates the rules of this manual for how the world works. Shock and anger result and the result is violence. Of course, this is a gross abstraction. But I suspect it goes some way towards explaining current manifestations of white rage and violence.
I also think that in our reactions to violence we can slip easily into our default patterning. One example of that I’ve seen this week is people saying that the police should have been more violent towards the Trump supporters because the police are routinely violent against Black folks. No. Police should be held to the standards by which they treat the most privileged in society. When you say that police should be violent against some people and not others, you’re supporting state violence and police brutality. If we want to abolish state and police violence we ought instead to point to instances where police are not brutalising people and hold them accountable to this standard of behaviour always. Damage against property is repairable. Lives are not. These impulses towards demanding punishment come easily because we live in a carceral society, but I think they are thought errors. We’re conditioned to accept narratives around the value of police and punishment and incarceration.
The beliefs I’ve talked about here are deeply rooted in our nervous systems and societies. Uncovering and divesting from them is far from straightforward and I don’t pretend to have solutions. It is the role of everyone to unearth and unpack white supremacist ideologies, in ourselves, in our families and in society, both individually and collectively. It is a very human impulse to want to turn away from and distance ourselves from violence and from people whose values we don’t share, but I think it is one we must resist if we want anything to change. Where does the impulse to prove ourselves “good” come from? When this happens to me, it’s from a place of wanting to please, of wanting to prove my own ideological purity, or wanting to be one of the good ones. That impulse to perfection and desire to be a rational authority is rooted in the ideology of whiteness. It’s an impulse I recognise in myself, even as I write this. I am a committed abolitionist and I, too, felt a knee-jerk urge towards mocking or calling for retribution against Trump supporters. It’s not rational, but if I’ve learned one thing as a coach, it is that human brains are far less rational than we would like to imagine they are, and that certainly includes my own.