How do you teach youth about tolerance in the age of Trumpism?
Four weeks ago I talked to my father-in-law on the phone about overzealous sports parents in Northern Virginia. The dad on my 13-year-old daughter’s soccer team who feels compelled to whistle multiple times per game whenever his kid is not running fast enough for him. The dad who rings a metallic cowbell every time his kid’s team scores (oblivious to the goalie who buries her face in shame every time the sound blasts through the arena). We sifted through a website of awful parents in youth sports. Shock. Intrigue. Laughter. Indignation. We discussed the best and worst ways to intervene (are you breaking the “snitches get stitches” code by avoiding a confrontation and telling the coach?). Just a typical random conversation out of thousands over the past 17 years. That was four weeks ago. Days later, my father-in-law contracted COVID-19. Three weeks later he died.
My father-in-law was a physically and mentally healthy 75-year old. Father of three. Grandfather of seven. He had another 10 healthy years, easy. He died because of a virus. He died in Florida, the state infamous for ill-preparedness and inadequate responses to the virus. He died in the United States, infamous for a lack of leadership through the pandemic:
January 24, 2020 — Trump proclaims, “China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency. It will all work out well. In particular, on behalf of the American People, I want to thank President Xi!”
February 24, 2020 — Trump announces, “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA Stock Market starting to look very good to me!”
February 26, 2020 — Trump claims confidently, “The 15 (cases in the US) within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero.”
March 26, 2020 — Trump expresses surprise, “I don’t believe you need 40,000 or 30,000 ventilators. You go into major hospitals sometimes, and they’ll have two ventilators. And now all of a sudden they’re saying, ‘Can we order 30,000 ventilators?’”
April 6, 2020 — Deaths in the United States passes 10,000
April 11, 2020 — Deaths in the United States passes 20,000
April 15, 2020 — Deaths in the United States passes 30,000
April 24, 2020 — Deaths in the United States passes 50,000
May 3, 2020 — Trump offers a worst case scenario, “Look, we’re going to lose anywhere from 75,000, 80,000 to 100,000 people,”
June 6, 2020 — Deaths in the United States passes 110,000
June 20, 2020 — Trump argues, “Testing is a double-edged sword,…When you do testing to that extent, you’re going to find more people, you’re going to find more cases, so I said to my people, ‘Slow the testing down, please.’”
July 19, 2020 —Trump brags, “I think we have one of the lowest mortality rates in the world”
July 28, 2020 — Deaths in the United States passes 150,000
August 31, 2020 —a mystified Trump says, “We’ve done a great job in Covid but we don’t get the credit.”
September 19, 2020 — Deaths in the United States passes 200,000
September 21, 2020 — Trump brags once again, “We’re rounding the corner,” “With or without a vaccine. They hate when I say that but that’s the way it is. … We’ve done a phenomenal job. Not just a good job, a phenomenal job. Other than public relations, but that’s because I have fake news. On public relations, I give myself a D. On the job itself, we take an A+.”
October 19, 2020 — Deaths in the United States passes 220,000
A non-trivial amount of responsibility for my father-in-law’s death on October 12, 2020 and the death of 225,000 others from the coronavirus lies at the hands of President Trump. If a leader is highly paid, possesses high quality talent, receives adequate resources, and the organization fails to live up to clearly defined expectations, you consider termination. When 225,000 deaths occur on your watch, with your taxpayer supported coronavirus task force, with concrete evidence of egregious, irresponsible behaviors, you should be terminated from the job. People should vote for the presidential election with these data points. People should vote with full knowledge that other public health catastrophes will emerge in the next four to eight years. You must determine who has your best interest for the next earthquake, hurricane, wildfire, and biological pathogen. None of these events will be altered by living in a blue or red state, political affiliation, or who you voted for. Think of your personal welfare and that of fellow citizens.
My three kids are emotionally distraught about the loss of their grandfather. It is amplified by the preventable nature of his death. It is amplified by the presence of a concrete person partially responsible for his death that as of this writing, shows no signs of responsibility nor remorse.
Unsurprisingly, my children despise Trump and by default, his entire political party. They cannot understand how anyone can vote for Trump. I validate them. I understand them. I grieve with them. And yet, part of my role is to teach them to think in nuanced ways. Some of their closest friends are conservative. Some of their beloved teachers, neighbors, and family members are conservative. A large portion of them despise Trump. A large portion of them will vote Republican despite the existence of Trump.
I spent the last week explaining the large number of issues where the two political parties in the United States diverge. Abortion. Guns. Environment. Taxes. Budget. Welfare. Minimum wage. Healthcare. Capital punishment. Immigration. National defense. Human beings differ in their jagged profiles of strengths, weaknesses, and personality traits. In a similar vein, citizens differ in political preferences for a large number of reasons. We should appreciate individual differences. We should resist the temptation to demonize individuals without insight into motives behind decisions. For the past few decades, we continuously rallied against discriminating against someone because of their race, sex, sexual orientation, or physical appearance. We gain little by reducing the complex, multifaceted people in our lives to a singular dimension whether it be demographics (such as race), personality (such as shyness), or political affiliation. You might be surprised by the first generation, small business owner as to why he/she is conservative (perhaps despising Trump). Leave the comforts of similar minded folks and grasp the moral decision making patterns of parents with more than five children. You might understand why they vote conservative (perhaps despising Trump). Discuss what patriotism means to a few combat veterans and you might reach radical acceptance of voting patterns that diverge from your own.
Why do we assume that people who differ from us are any less sophisticated in their values, beliefs, intentions, and decision-making? The fundamental attribution error plagues judgments of members of the other political party. There is an issue of moral contamination in our judgments in the political sphere. I don’t assume the motivations behind people’s voting decisions. I don’t automatically attribute every horrible thing Trump says or does to conservatives, especially those that don’t even like Trump. Imagine if moral contamination became the landscape of how we judged everyone. Are black rap fans misogynists because the lyrics of many rap songs are misogynistic? What about young fans that don’t even register or know the lyrics and just enjoy the rhythm and beat? Is every soldier a baby killer because of collateral damage during war? What about soldiers that never used their weapons? It is the seed of every -ism that exists in humanity. That is — you are not a person, you are an official representative of your group and its failings. I do not see your uniqueness or humanity.
We operate better as a collective when people from different vantage points work together. Yet, when threatened, the beloved concept of diversity flips from aspirational goal to source of loathing. I train my children to recognize the limits of their own knowledge, even in the midst of grieving. I train my children to understand our human tendency to make automatic (often harsh) judgments when little is known about someone else’s character. I train myself to do the same. And it is hard. Very hard.
One of the markers of maturity is the ability to hold more than one perspective simultaneously. One of the markers of wisdom is the ability to reconcile seemingly contradictory ideas. A wise person is able to mentally juggle the multiple bits and pieces of what constitutes a person. This mental juggling act offers a portal to improving the quality of our relationships. Even if that means after careful deliberation, choosing to change the nature of our relationships.
We live in an era of outrage industries, designed to mobilize fear and rage for financial gain. An increasingly valuable antidote is maturity and wisdom. We are capable of great wisdom, even during difficult times. Teach youth how to think not what to think. Be the psychologically strong and flexible model of what you teach.
Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a public speaker, psychologist, professor of psychology at George Mason University. His latest book is The upside of your dark side: Why being your whole self — not just your “good” self — drives success and fulfillment. For more, visit: toddkashdan.com