Losing a Loved One to Whataboutism
This morning I shared something rare with my Trump-supporting Mexican American mother: a political bit of news that Laura Bush rebuked the Trump administration's practice of separating children from their families at the U.S. border. I was hoping we could come together, agree that this is inhumane, and show instances where both left and right decry the inhumanity.
The response was not a favorable, "I read it, but I disagree with...," or, "I don't know, I've never heard of this...," or even, "Wow, that's interesting, but I don't care." Instead, it was an immediate, knee-jerk reply: a misleading meme about why liberals loved this when Clinton and Obama did it, followed by a conspiracy theory about mistrust of the Bush's and Clintons as the same beast working toward the New World Order.
I teach basic critical thinking to my Intro Psych students at a university, and this demonstrates exactly why I do. It's beyond the pale.
What is also beyond the pale is the practice of ripping children as young as infants and toddlers from their parents' arms at the border and detaining them in concentration camps, even among those who comply with the law and seek asylum at a checkpoint legally. I had hoped that at least we could come together and agree that this was an egregious unfolding that we should do something about. I even mentioned a few Ohio Republican lawmakers, like Governor John Kasich and Senator Rob Portman, who've been vocal against separating immigrant children from their families.
No such agreement came.
Instead, I received incessant, repetitive soundbites about how this is the fault of Obama, the Democrats 8 years ago, and the Clintons. I tried to reason that I'd be equally outraged even if Obama were the current president and this were happening under his watch now, and agreed that the Obama administration's deportation practices were also horrendous. But to no avail.
The lack of critical thinking in these responses is compounded when unquestioning beliefs in conspiracy theories take hold. At this point, we're no longer debating facts but beliefs now, which are held in a realm beyond debate: "I don't want to hear your facts because I just don't believe any of it," or the ironic, "You're brainwashed by propaganda and you just don't see the truth [of this conspiracy] that I see. You don't have a clue." It becomes very difficult if not impossible to get through to anyone consumed by such beliefs. The combination of incessant finger pointing and staunchly held beliefs on paper thin, loosely connected conspiracies means that they become conversationally impenetrable--a lost cause.
My friend D. Phillips captured it: "One of the many diseases infecting the right wing is whataboutism," which is the attempt to discredit charges against you by pointing out unrelated areas of hypocrisy in the accuser. I see it in a particular category of Trump supporters who lack critical thinking and are thus more inclined to repeat the soundbites given by this administration, who perfects the fallacy. For example, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders recently failed to take responsibility and blamed the democrats for separating children at the border. The childish "well they started it" retorts are heard from the very top of command, so it's no surprise that these are echoed down the chambers where our vulnerable grandparents, parents, spouses, uncles, aunts, cousins, and friends eat and sleep.
Phillips' characterization of it as a disease is spot on. It does feel like an epidemic. I don't know a single person who is not affected by a parent, a spouse, a close family member, a relative, a friend's friend or spouse, or a personal friend who is lost to the infection of whataboutism, often combined with belief in vague conspiracies.
The loss of my mother to this did not occur overnight during the election, but in the two years preceding as the extreme news took hold of her. The heartbreaking detail is that she was swept by alt-right fake news sites as a result of her isolation and loneliness as a hard-working truck driver. She had nothing else to do, and having lacked critical thinking skills (because she did not have the basic education that she worked tirelessly to pay for mine--did I mention that it's heartbreaking?), she became swallowed whole. At family gatherings, she shared alt-right conspiracy theories as though they were stories of her own grandchildren, and she sadly cannot share any stories of her grandchildren because she doesn't have any: whatever comfort, excitement, sense of belonging, or sense of aroused fear Breitbart and Infowars have given her, they have been exchanged for increased paranoia and isolation from her children and grandchildren.
Years ago, after telling people that my mother voted for Trump, friends would joke, "I'm sorry for your loss." After witnessing the degradation in her communication, increased negativity, increased fear energy, intolerance for any countering facts, and isolation, I realized that it was not just a joke. I've also witnessed the denial, excuses, refusal to listen, and accusations that I'm lying or clueless every time I confront her with these observations or with a piece of information that runs counter to her new beliefs. The administration has taken hold of her not unlike a religion might, and that is a scary prospect as it echoes the cult successes of past dictatorships.
Culture adds another impenetrable layer to these conversations. Coming from an Asian and Mexican American household, anything said that even remotely paints the parent in a bad light is brushed off as mere insolence or disrespect from the child. It is easy to sweep away any criticism using this spear of disrespect, and it's no different in my mother's case. In this way, elders often position themselves as static and untouchable. For this reason, caring family members often refrain from saying anything or making any waves. It does not matter if it comes from a caring, concerned space: "It is not your job to teach me about my errors." But this is not about the mere teaching of errors for the sake of correction, like folding sheets the wrong way--this is about mental and behavioral observations that are having a major impact.
From my clinical training, I also see the rash responses--denial, high irritability, impulsive accusations and behaviors--as eerily similar to those of an addict when confronted with their addiction, and I am treating it as such. The drug (in this case, alt-right conspiracy theories) that was initially intended for feelings of comfort and belonging only end up isolating these individuals, as they cut themselves off from family and begin to exclusively associate with fellow addicts. Any notion that their drug-related behaviors are hurting you is met with intense backlash. As with quitting any drug, addicts have autonomy of course, and they must quit when they are fully ready to commit. My mother can choose to come to terms with the observations I've been persistently sharing for years, but until then, I have decided that I will no longer support or enable this seeming addiction.
In the meantime, I've been writing children's books and stories about an abuelita who is present, caring, focused, and magical. I realize that this is a form of grieving about the abuelita that my daughter and I no longer have.
6/19/2018 03:52:15 pm
It's heartbreaking...we treat our ANIMALS with more respect. What's worse is, I believe we are breeding future sleeper cells. These children will grow up resenting the US for ripping their families apart. I know I would! Well-written, Dixie.
6/19/2018 04:06:45 pm
Maria, the degradation of humanity our country is displaying at this time is alarming and sad. About the children growing up to resent the U.S.--isn't this precisely how to foment enemies who want to destroy your nation? It's a recipe for disaster: mentally, emotionally, physically, spiritually, and societally. I cry for the children. I hope our legislators come to their senses quickly and work together to make this practice illegal asap. Thank you for chiming in! <3
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