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The Importance of Tolerating the ‘Deplorable’

What is tolerance if not the patience to accept that there may be some people whose views deserve criticism by our standards but whom we do not give up on and regard as evil?

Where was the outrage of those who pen daily screeds now against half the country, when for years they calmly faced the massive obscenity of the growing ranks of disabled veterans and the mentally ill and the otherwise unfortunate who slept on our cold and rainy sidewalks as we hopped over them to get into our taxis after drinks in the bar of some chic and trendy hotel? Credit: Fraser Mummery/Flickr CC BY 2.0

Where was the collective progressive outrage when for years they calmly faced the massive obscenity of the growing ranks of disabled veterans and the mentally ill and the otherwise unfortunate who slept on our cold and rainy sidewalks as we hopped over them to get into our taxis after drinks in the bar of some chic and trendy hotel? Credit: Fraser Mummery/Flickr CC BY 2.0

“You don’t get people to see things your way by calling them idiots and racists, or sorting them into baskets of deplorables and pitiables (deserving of sympathy for their moral and intellectual failings). If you can’t manage genuine respect for the people whose votes you want, at least try to fake it.”

∼ Clive Crook

Just to put my cards on the table: I am a dual citizen of the US and of Pakistan, the country of my birth and of my childhood. I am also a Muslim, at least when that label is sometimes thrust upon me in various cultural contexts, even though I am not religious. I live in a small alpine city near the border of Italy and Austria, and so my sense of the mood in the US is necessarily gleaned at a comfortable distance from the recent turmoil, mainly by reading newspapers and magazines, blogs, posts on Facebook, as well as more direct interactions with friends and family in the US and elsewhere.

I am writing this today to dissociate myself from the rage many of my friends have been expressing toward those who supported the “wrong” candidate in the recent presidential election in the US. I know that this will not make me popular with anyone; in fact, I am certain that at least some will take offence. But I still want to say some things I believe and which I don’t see enough other people saying.

I grew up in a society (Pakistan in the 1970s) where some of the moral attitudes that were prevalent (and to some degree remain so) are now largely unacceptable in the West. These include but are not limited to religious intolerance, homophobia, sexism, anti-Semitism and ethnic bigotry of various sorts. They are unacceptable in the West at least in the sense that almost no one would be willing to openly claim, for instance, that men are superior to women. Good for the West. I, however, owe much to teachers, friends and other benefactors in Pakistan who held just these kinds of contemptible views. Some still do. And I am simply unable to disown and label as evil all the people whose many kindnesses and love allowed me to grow up happily, get a decent education in most respects, move to the US and eventually attend two of the best universities there, and then live a reasonably comfortable life thus far. In this, I am no different than Barack Obama, who in a speech – A More Perfect Union – delivered as a presidential candidate in 2008 said of the fiery and controversial preacher of his church, Jeremiah Wright (of “God damn America” fame):

“I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.

These people are a part of me.”

Amen. What is tolerance if not the patience to accept that there may be some people whose views (formed by their own immediate cultural environments and their own experiences) deserve criticism by our standards but whom we do not give up on and regard as evil? Individuals cannot be so easily judged. Suppose I told you of a philanthropist who devoted his life to helping millions of the poorest citizens of a poor Muslim country; a man who lived his whole life simply in a tiny apartment, owned no more than two outfits of clothing at a time, made massive sacrifices and was an exemplar of integrity, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize multiple times for his work, but who also disapproved of homosexuality because that was a tenet of his religion. Shall we condemn him as irredeemably evil? If yes, then I am afraid few in this world would escape our condemnation.

Most leftists and liberals in the West generally correctly resist the temptation to paint whole societies in the developing world as backward and contemptible because their belief systems are at odds with the ethical norms of industrialised democracies. They realise that these societies must be given time to develop economically and also given the respect and dignity that allows them to perhaps eventually choose different attitudes for themselves, attitudes more in keeping with our own, we hope. These liberals have even, to some degree, accepted the West’s own role in the economic backwardness of these societies because of the violence and harm done to them by colonialism and imperialism, which continues, of course, in various forms. But when it comes to the disadvantaged victims of a predatory capitalism in the US – the working class Americans whose economic conditions have been steadily worsening for more than four decades under every single administration – these progressives find it hard to show any real sympathy.

The US really has become two countries: the rich and everyone else. The rich have their world-class private schools, the rest have their shoddy public ones; the rich have their gated communities, the rest have their ghettos and trailer parks; the rich have fancy private doctors, the rest can always just go to hospital emergency rooms that bankrupt them; the rich eat in restaurants where the kitchen help works 12-hour days, six days a week, doing back-breaking labour for less than minimum wage and without health insurance or job security of any kind. Where was the outrage of those who pen daily screeds now against half the country, when for years they calmly faced the massive obscenity of the growing ranks of disabled veterans and the mentally ill and the otherwise unfortunate who slept on our cold and rainy sidewalks as we hopped over them to get into our taxis after drinks in the bar of some chic and trendy hotel? The lack of safety nets for the unfortunate, the already shocking but still growing levels of inequality of wealth and income – as well as the inequality of opportunity – of American society is the real obscenity and sickness, worthy of ten times more shame for every American than the recent election of an unqualified retrograde to the highest office in the land. Where has the outrage about that been?

Of course, there have been people like Noam Chomsky, Robert Reich, Bernie Sanders and many other decent folk warning us for a long time. But who listens? People have their lives to live. And now they are desperately looking for something or someone to blame. (The FBI caused all this!) And the people they like to blame most, of course, are those who have been deprived of everything while being subjected to the daily lies of the corporate and political elites bombarding them with propaganda through every possible medium.

I agree with those who are urging that we vigorously oppose every attempt to turn back progress on issues such as LGBTQ rights, healthcare, environmental issues and especially efforts to fight climate change (the most dangerous of all threats to our future) in every way possible, as well as continue to fight for the things on which we have not made progress, such as prison reform, police racism, universal healthcare, high-quality free education for all and so on. But we must keep in mind that the highest priority must be to help the working class out of its miserable state and reach a more equitable distribution of resources overall. There is no other way to address the US’s increasingly dysfunctional state. After all, plenty of other developed countries have managed to do this much better than the US, so we know that it is possible. This is going to require speaking to the half of the US that disagrees with us and convincing them to join us in bringing back and strengthening labour unions, pushing for more progressive taxation (the only real way to reshape the distribution of wealth in the long run), getting money out of politics and doing whatever else it takes. We might even learn something from such conversation.

S. Abbas Raza holds degrees in electrical engineering and computer science from Johns Hopkins University and a graduate degree in philosophy from Columbia University. He is the founding editor of 3 Quarks Daily.