Objectification In Political Discourse In Social Media
In a debate, you don’t get time to hang your sign on me.
From time to time, I engage in political debate with others in social media. I’m primarily on Facebook and Twitter because I’m old school, I guess. Anyway, in recent days, someone called me a “lefty”. While it is true that I tend towards the liberal side of the political spectrum, I am not a “lefty”. I am still and will continue to be, a human being.
In American culture, when we see the word “objectification”, it is usually in the context of discussions about how men treat women, or how men see women. But here, I want to use the term in a broader sense because I see that objectification is rampant throughout American culture.
In American politics, we engage in identity politics. We call ourselves “Republicans” and “Democrats”. We call ourselves “liberal” or “conservative”. I know this may sound like an unusual use of the word, but this name-calling is a form of objectification. I’m a member of a group, and I identify with that group as a part of that group. If you are not in that group, then you are less than me. This seems to be the logic implied in discussions of political identity.
So when someone calls me a lefty, and the term is used in a derogatory sense, I see that as an act of objectification. That happened just the other day on Twitter, and I called that other person out, to point out that as soon as you objectify me, then empathy is no longer required. That would be like me assuming that every Trump supporter is a liar, like Trump. Or that every Trump supporter is a racist, like Trump. Clearly, that’s not true. And even those terms, “liar” and “racist” can be used to dehumanize other people, which we have been known to do.
But once we devolve into a habit of putting people into buckets, calling them “conservatives”, “liberals” or god forbid, “libertarians”, as if somehow that’s a bad thing, we have fallen into objectification.
I think it’s worth taking the time to clarify what I mean here. When people use a label and attach it to someone in a derogatory sense, we have a problem. If I call someone a “selfish conservative”, then the implication is that all conservatives are selfish, and I can disregard all of them for their feelings. Even if I don’t really know what they’re thinking. And as far as I know, humans are terrible mind readers. The point of objectification is to remove empathy from the discussion.
Empathy leaves the room as soon as I begin to believe that just because someone is not like me, doesn’t think like me, or doesn’t have the same color of skin as me, he or she is less than me. That is the point of objectification. We objectify others so that in our minds, they’re less than ourselves and so that we can “manage” them. We use objectification to make others more acceptable.
We also use objectification as if it were punishment. And punishment is used to change the behavior of other people, as if we really had the power to change other people. The last time I asked for change for a $20 bill, the Buddhist on the mountain top told me that change comes from within.
And this objectification is happening all the time. Democrats dislike Republicans. Republicans dislike Democrats. Liberals dislike conservatives, and it’s mutual. So they call each other names. But the naming of others with labels as pejoratives and insults, that’s objectification. Objectification in political discourse is often used as an insult. It’s used as if the insult trumps all rational debate. “Look, he’s a lefty, so we can disregard anything he has to say.” Or, “Look, he’s just a Trump Supporter glued to FOX News — he’s not grounded in facts.” Either way, it’s objectification.
When I enter a debate with anyone, anywhere, I am mindful. I am mindful that I’m speaking with someone who has feelings, memories, and standards of conduct in his or her head. I am mindful that the goal of political discourse is not to win the argument. The goal is to win their hearts.
On a personal level, I don’t believe it is possible to win an argument with a relative. I’ve never ever “won” an argument with my wife. And the moment I think I’ve “won” an argument, is a moment I no longer have a need for empathy for the other person. But empathy is what makes us human. Empathy is what makes humanity tick. Empathy is how we relieve the suffering of another. And I think that the purpose of politics is to live together in peace and to lessen our suffering together. Or maybe I missed something.
So if we engage in a debate with the assumption that the other person isn’t like me, and we use a label in a derogatory fashion in order to “win” the argument, we’re heading down a road that has no empathy.
When I have a disagreement with anyone, I am mindful of these things. I don’t want to win the debate, I want to just place a polite notice of disagreement in the debate. I want to say, “here’s a fact that contradicts your statement”, rather than to hang a label on someone else that means, “Look, he’s a lefty, so you can disregard anything he has to say, and his feelings, and his experience. It’s OK. We can wink and nod that I won, right?”
Objectification doesn’t win any hearts. It won’t win adherents or followers. It won’t lessen the pain of anyone seeking a solution to their problem. And as far as I can tell, all problems are mutual. Problems don’t exist in a vacuum. There is a cause and a solution, and most of the time, there are humans at both ends.