This past November, millions of Americans heaved a collective sigh of relief. They were joined by many, many citizens and governments of other countries, who depend on an alliance with or support from the United States. The presidential election was as far from ordinary as possible and most certainly the beginning of the end of a four-year coup attempt by one Donald Trump, who had captured the White House in 2016 by dubious and likely nefarious means.
Trump used that unexpected power to wage war against the American people, to dismantle democratic institutions and to fill his own personal coffers through illegitimate and largely illegal means. No-one stopped him. No one seemed able to stop him and those who might have been able instead enabled his unleashed spree of destruction.
Finally, there came the last resort, the 2020 elections. This was probably the last chance for the people to do what none of our elected officials could or would do. And the people prevailed. Voters came out in unprecedented numbers and were finally able to put a stop to the Trumpian coup d’état.
Or did we? Trump has been on a rampage in which he depicts himself as the world’s biggest victim, while simultaneously victimizing everyone that he can and leaving carnage and destruction in his wake everywhere he turns. Additionally, he continues to promote what is likely his biggest failure, promiscuously and intentionally unleashing the Covid virus on his supporters and detractors alike. The simple use of masks could have made a serious dent in the deaths from this pandemic, but Trump, for reasons known only to himself, decided to sell to his followers, already precariously masculine, the idea that the use of masks signaled a lack of mask-u-linity.
Let’s dig a little deeper into the purported victory over those who wished to destroy our democracy and the still remaining dangers. I’m referring here to the 74,000,000. Yes, this is the number of adult citizens who voted for Donald Trump and for what he does and what he represents to them.
While Trump may eventually exit stage left kicking and screaming all the way, pardoning himself and his children as a final act, these 74,000,000 are still with us and still a significant part of the citizenry of the non-United States. What will become of them after their current hero is gone, if he indeed is even gone and does not set up a government in exile in Mar-A-Lago?
Can President-elect Biden or anyone reunite these warring factions? He seems well-meaning and kind, certainly not with a diagnosable mental illness like his predecessor, but it is going to take more than one mild-mannered and well-meaning executive to accomplish any sort of rapprochement. I speak here as a psychologist and social justice advocate of some experience, having given classes on just this issue for years at the United Nations University for Peace in Costa Rica.
It is not so simple to reconcile warring factions of the government, much less of the populace at large. It takes work, it takes patience, it takes special skills and it takes time.
On the deepest level, we are facing a crisis of epistemology. Epistemology is not as complicated as the word sounds. Is the study of how we know what we know. What is the deepest source of our differing beliefs? Only once having identified the problem can an effective solution be offered.
I often look first to technology, which, as it changes, provides the foundation for political and ethical values to change and morph. There is no question that the invention of the wheel, the bow and arrow, the railroad, automobiles, telephones and airplanes have led to social changes in society. These changes may appear to have sprung from people’s ideas, but I maintain that they were preceded by technology making possible these very ideas.
As a more contemporary example, there is little doubt that the introduction of effective birth control helped fuel the second wave of the women’s liberation movement. And there is even less doubt that the ubiquitous internet has been a complete game-changer, separating us just as it connects us across the globe. Those of us on the planet who still do not have online access soon will as entire towns and cities invest in public Internet accessible to all takers. It is perhaps the major way that we will communicate with each other in the future, having grown so dependent on our Zoom screens during this lengthy pandemic.
Such universal access introduces a new version of democracy. Everyone has a voice and even our elected officials now communicate with their constituents more easily via Facebook, Twitter or other platforms. We no longer have to move our bodies in space, courtesy of earlier technological inventions, in order to communicate with each other. Zoom will gladly oblige as a substitute.
However, any solution always contains the seeds of the next problems and of the largely unintended consequences. In this very attempt at democratization of opinion lie the problems. Everyone having a voice tends to make everyone feel that they have equal expertise. In fact, those claiming actual expertise, perhaps years of study of an issue, are often derided for just that quality by those who also claim to have “done their research.” The very term “research,” in this way, has come to mean “I googled it before talking with you”. Or to take even another dive into the web, “I am googling it right now while talking with you”.
The second issue I want to mention here is even more pernicious. With the proliferation of websites and Internet locations secret and not so secret, there has developed an epistemological divide. “How we know what we know” no longer refers to a commonly shared and validated source(s). Each calls the others’ sources fake and indeed many of them are entirely fake, but how to determine which is which and perhaps more importantly, how to convince each other?
Still others peddle surprisingly successful conspiracy theories by catering to the American cultural paranoia which is more and more rampant as we lose control of the epistemology of our own senses, of seeing with our own eyes. Whose eyes can we trust?
It may be said that, in this country, we are suffering from a highly contagious STD (Socially Transmitted Disease) that also must be treated if we are to prevail. I suggest that an internal Peace Corps, trained in psychology and peace-making methods, maybe a beginning of tackling this epistemological divide effectively.