On Trump, tolerance and stepping stones to peace

Today is the International Day of Tolerance, a good day to reflect on opportunities for peace and tolerance around the world.

Yet, as an American living in the UK, I am finding this a pretty difficult task. The recent US presidential election has challenged me to my core – not because I’ve ever thought that I, or the US, was better than anyone or any other country per se, or because I assumed I had answers that others didn’t have about the world and humanity. But perhaps because I expected more from the country where I grew up. In complete honesty, like many people that I know, I felt such disbelief and disappointment at the result of the election, on so many levels, that I wept.

However, a week on, the events do give us a chance to pause and reflect on the state of our societies today, and to look at things from various angles and possibilities, especially from the teachings of tolerance and compassion.

Considering the Brexit vote in the UK, and given the discussions and tensions in Europe more broadly, it is clear that what is happening in the US must be taken in the global context – looking at issues of migration, unemployment, exploitation, climate change, inequality and a rising sense of fear across the globe.

As in the Brexit context, the US election highlighted issues which already existed, such as societal divisions. It also highlighted how social media can create a bubble around those who are most in agreement with our own beliefs and values. Donald Trump didn’t create the divisions in the US; he deepened and widened them, seeing and seizing the political opportunity in them. The grievances he seemed to be addressing, such as poverty and inequality, have been long-standing. He legitimised the most extreme versions of these grievances, and intermeshed them with extreme views.

For us as ‘peacebuilders’, it is important that we examine both the individual contexts and the global dynamics that are driving tensions and divisions, not only in countries ‘out there’, but here at home too – such as the rising gap between rich and poor, the disillusionment with current power and governance structures, and the rise in divisive narratives that play out in politics, the media and online.

As citizens, regardless if one is a peacebuilder or not, as in the context of Brexit, just because someone voted for Trump does not necessarily make them a bigot or a person who agrees with violence. There are many different sides to every story. Some people may have voted in support of changing the political, social or economic systems; some may have voted to overturn what was perceived as the ‘status quo’.

There may indeed be those who now feel justified in their hate and fear with the Trump victory because they assume that everyone voted for Trump for the sa­­­me reason as they did. This is problematic, as well as dangerous. Over the past week, we have witnessed over 300 incidents classified by law enforcement as ‘hate crimes'. Therefore, we need to understand why some groups may act like that, but also not to gloss over that some of the rhetoric that came out of the election gave a sense of legitimacy to the scapegoating that created hateful, and even violent, backlashes against ‘the other’.

The challenge – and opportunity – here is to understand and address the issues that brought about these divisions in the first place. Across the US and in Europe, there is a need for leaders at all levels to tackle the issues of anti-establishment, political culture and institutions in which far too many citizens appear to have lost faith – as shown by the low voter turnout in the US, apathy is perhaps one of the saddest results, which points towards a system in need of repair.

It is important that we, each one of us, support ‘local-level’ initiatives that will help bridge divides across the country, to encourage dialogue and to create spaces for people who feel ‘left out’ by the system to voice their grievances about genuine issues, such as the economy, without discussions being hijacked for political purposes.

Quite personally, the election ‘brought home’ just how difficult it is to practise what I preach – to talk to those we consider the ‘other’. How many of us have attempted to talk to those who voted differently than ourselves – in this election or in others – without anger or assumptions about the person we are speaking with? I’ve tried to do this with my family members who voted for Trump in a way that is respectful and allows me to still love them – even if I completely disagree with them. And it is really hard.

Yet, this is often what I ask others to do across the globe, in countries affected by violent conflict. To be brave, to open up to try to understand ‘the other’. Open, moderate discussions must always be the first step to resolving our differences. We also need to feel strong enough to stand up against hate in all forms and promote peace and humanity. Only then will we be able to begin to repair some of the fractures in the world.

This election was incredibly divisive. As a society we now need to exercise humility, regardless of whom one voted for, as people come to terms with what has happened. Some people saw their fundamental beliefs being challenged or undermined, and that is not something people can simply get over in a timeframe that others find appropriate. In the same way that if Hillary Clinton had won, the other half would have felt the same.

If we break down peace and peacebuilding to the very basics, regardless of who we are and where we come from, our fears are pretty similar and our desire to be happy equally so: a better, safer present and future for ourselves and our loved ones. It is also important to remember that we are all part of the system, and so we need to stand strong and stay focused on the goal of a more peaceful society – locally and globally.

And perhaps the biggest opportunity, like with Brexit, is that once a system has been cracked open to reveal much that needs repair, that is where our work begins. It will take us being more vocal in a way that shows humility, compassion, knowledge of our experiences and an openness to talking to and understanding those who are different from ourselves.

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Thumbnail photo: Darron Birgenheier (Creative Commons)