Pathologizing Half the Country

This article started with a simple plea on Facebook the morning after the election: “As we watch the results of pathologizing half the country roll in, can we please not double down on that?”

A friend didn’t understand what I meant and asked for an explanation. I made my initial try at explaining it in that Facebook conversation, and I’m trying to expand a little on that here. 

I learned this particular leadership lesson at the micro level, serving in a small church. In church leadership, you lead most of the time by taking the best direction that the convictions of your people will allow — which often means putting off (what you believe to be) the actual best choice for a more opportune time. You settle for second best, or third, or a distant fourth best option, because it’s the best option that your people can support right now. 

Sometimes you’re right about what’s best. Sometimes you’re dead wrong, and your people know better than you do. But in the moment it doesn’t really matter who’s right; what matters is the best option that you can agree on together.

Since that’s the case, most of your leadership comes from persuasion, changing the culture first and then making policy changes when people are ready — in other words, reformation rather than revolution. That takes a lot of patience. It always feels glacially slow, but it produces healthy, lasting change. And crucially, you don’t have to blow up your relationships in the process. (Or shoot anyone. Actual revolutions suck, guys. Stop wishing for one.)

Patience. Policy follows persuasion; it doesn’t lead it. 

Now if you’ve earned the trust of your people, then every once in a great while you can make an executive decision in policy that’s decidedly outside their comfort and convictions. You can get away with that every once in a while because while they don’t agree with you, they trust your judgment in the short term. If it works out well, then maybe you can do it again. If it doesn’t work out well, then they trust your judgment less the next time. 

The problem is, every leader is tempted to haste, to just make policies without persuading. It’s so much easier. And if you got away with the policy-first approach last time, the temptation becomes exponentially more powerful.You begin to think about how hard it will be to change your people’s convictions, and how long it’s going to take, and how much quicker and easier it will be to just change the policy and enforce it. You have the reins of power, don’t you? Why not just do it? They went along with it last time, didn’t they? Why work so much harder to change their minds first? Surely they’ll fall into line once they see the results of the good decision…. But they don’t. Not if you make a habit of it.

If you give in to the temptation, people may not leave, but they will stop volunteering, stop donating, stop participating. They may show up, but they’re not really part of the movement anymore. And you can tell the difference. First the energy goes away, then you have trouble getting things done, then they get sullen on you. So then you get mad at them for not going along with “the best option.” You resent them, and you do your best to make them feel that they’re bad people if they don’t get on board with whatever the worthy cause du jour happens to be. And again, it doesn’t really matter how worthy the cause is at this point. Your people may be totally wrong, or they may have well-founded objections you haven’t thought about. At this point, it makes no difference — they’re going to resent you. And they should, because you’ve quit serving and gone full church-lady on them. 

You’re no longer trying to engage their hearts and minds and persuade them; you’re just trying to club them into line. You’re abusing your power instead of serving them, and they aren’t going to stand for it forever. 

Trump’s constituency is a coalition of people who have been ignored, dictated to, and clubbed into line by the ruling class for a couple of decades. Their leaders made trade deals that made their lives objectively worse, the the ruling class simply didn’t care. Any objections were written off as so much xenophobic raving.

The same thing happened with every change. Anytime they objected to whatever the “best thinking” handed down from on high, they were mocked, vilified, called racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic, transphobic, and so on. It’s gotten to where there is literally no way they can even say their reservations out loud without being roasted alive for their “hurtful” language — and the substance of their reservations is simply ignored. It is simply assumed that they can have no meaningful objections to “progress,” that all their reservations arise as a result of shameful psychological disorders. That they are, in short, horrible human beings who need to just shut the hell up and do what they are told. 

And you know what? Some of them are. Many of them are not. All of them resent being denied the simple human dignity of being heard and included in the conversation — and why shouldn’t they? Do you want to be treated that way?

(And let’s face it, it’s not like Trump fans have a monopoly on being deplorable. Watch some YouTube videos of gangs of thugs beating down a guy in a Trump hat. Or vandalizing Trump’s star on the Hollywood walk of fame, and beating the homeless black woman who tried to stop them. We all have it in us to be deplorable — let’s not yield to the impulse, ok?)

So if we now respond to the election with, “OMG, I had no idea so many Americans were… [*ist, *phobic, fill in your pathologizing epithet of choice] — we are doubling down on the church-lady behavior that incited the Trump revolt to start with. There were more reasonable options for president. But if we refuse to reason with half the country, they are going to stop trying to reason with us. Trump is not a reasoned argument, he’s a bulldozer, sent to Washington by people who are tired of being bulldozed by the ruling class.

If the Trump voters think they can simply relax because their bulldozer won, they’re making the same mistake. If you’re on either side of the line, guys, half the country does not agree with you. You need to understand and appreciate them, or we just keep fighting over the reins instead of finding common ground. We can’t just keep fighting over who’s going to dictate terms, and who will be vilified, bullied, and ignored. Let me tell you, that doesn’t end well for anyone. We have to have an actual conversation. On all sides.

And we can. 

Christians have every reason to be leading the conversation. We are all united by the same Spirit, commanded to come in peace to the same Table. We are called to be of one mind. We aren’t, but we know how to get there. Sit. Tell the truth about what’s in your heart. Stay at the table to hear the response — no parting shots allowed. Expect to discover a need to repent. About what? I don’t know, but I know there will be something. There always is. When you reach a good stopping point, give everybody a hug, go home, and pray for each other. Repeat. Again. Keep repeating, until heaven comes to earth.


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