Why We Need to ‘Politicize’ Tragedy: It’s How People Change Their Minds

In one of the best posts about the fundamentalist resistance to change (really, take the time and read the whole thing), Sara Robinson (herself from that background) writes (boldface mine):

Two or three times a week, we find new members on our doorstep. Safe in the anonymity of the Internet (and often under cover of night — these missives are typically time-stamped in the wee hours of the morning, usually posted furtively after weeks or months of lurking) we’re often the first people they’ve ever whispered their doubts out loud to. Their introductions are often heartbreakingly miserable: “I can’t believe this any more — but my husband will leave me if he knows.” “My whole family is fundie. I can’t tell my parents I’ve stopped going to church — it will kill them if they ever find out.” “I’m a deacon at my church. If I start asking these questions, I’ll lose my whole community.”

These people know that the tiny flicker of enlightenment kindling in their minds is about to set their entire lives ablaze. And yet — with a courage that I always find astonishing — almost all of them forge ahead anyway. Some race for the wall. Others pace back and forth for months, planning their escape. A few disappear for a while, but return again a year later, having put their lives in order and ready to go at last.

We must never, ever underestimate what it costs these people to let go of the beliefs that have sustained them. Leaving the safety of the authoritarian belief system is a three-to-five year process. Externally, it always means the loss of your community; and often the loss of jobs, homes, marriages, and blood relatives as well. Internally, it requires sifting through every assumption you’ve ever made about how the world works, and your place within it; and demands that you finally take the very emotional and intellectual risks that the entire edifice was designed to protect you from. You have to learn, maybe for the first time, to face down fear and live with ambiguity. On the scale of relative trauma, it’s right up there with a divorce after a long marriage; and it requires about the same amount and kind of grieving.

One reason people are willing to make that break (boldface mine):

They believe outrageous lies, and forgive all manner of sins. Democratic strategists keep trying to run campaigns that will reach these people on the basis of evidence and fact — and are perplexed to find their attempts at education totally rebuffed. George Bush may have lied us into a war, wrecked our economy, saddled our great-grandchildren with debt, savaged the poor, and alienated the entire world; but he is Our Leader, and we will always take his word over anyone else’s. We do not accept you as a legitimate authority. We don’t care what you have to say, because you have no standing at all in our little world.

Mere political or cultural betrayal, no matter how destructive, does not cut through this piece of the wall. The guilt-evaporation process applies to both followers and leaders: you must forgive all wrongs committed by someone inside the fold. Our leader didn’t lie; he was misunderstood, his words distorted by our enemies. Besides, he would never lie to us. Besides, he is just following orders — or God’s will, which is beyond our understanding. Besides, our own forgiveness depends on our ability to forgive, and so we will — never mind the contradictions.

And yet, even so: There is one — and only one — sin so heinous that it cannot be rationalized away by the authoritarian thought process. It is this: the leader’s main job is to protect his abused and terrified horde from personal harm (or, for that matter, any sudden negative change to their immediate status quo). A leader who wantonly allows one of his followers to intimately experience such harm breaks that contract. It is in that moment of betrayal that some followers come to their senses, and start looking for a reckoning.

It’s important to note: the betrayal must be an intensely personal breach that has a deep, immediate, life-changing impact on the individual follower. Fundies don’t think in abstracts. Big national debts, epic political prevarications, and other people’s suffering (even on a global scale) do not impress them. But there are plenty of authoritarian parents across the country who proudly sent a son or daughter off to war — and later received that precious child home under cover of darkness, in a wooden box, with minimal explanation. That’s the kind of personal and profound loss I’m talking about. For many of these patriotic parents, it was also the searing moment of deep betrayal that broke the spell and shoved them off in the direction of the Wall.

So consider this explanation by South Carolina Republican Rep. Norman “Doug” Brannon for why he, to his credit, is introducing a bill to remove the Confederate flag from display on the State House grounds (boldface mine):

South Carolina state Rep. Norman “Doug” Brannon, who is proposing legislation to remove the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds in Columbia, said he is ashamed for not proposing the legislation sooner.

“All I can do is apologize,” the Republican state lawmaker told CNN “New Day” host Chris Cuomo on Monday. He further said that it should not have take the murders of nine people at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church for the legislation to be presented.

“Obviously, the event, the death of my friend [State Sen. Clementa Pinckney] and his eight parishioners” led to the decision to introduce legislation, said Brannon, who represents a conservative district in his state. “It’s tragic. [But] it shouldn’t have taken that, and again, I apologize.”

It’s interesting that the only news source I’ve come across that has mentioned this sense of personal failure–that is, it would resonate with their readers–is a conservative-leaning outlet. Like it or not, as Robinson notes, often the only way a worldview is blasted apart is a personal tragedy or trauma. As bad as I think some writers are (including me), it doesn’t reach the level (or depths) of traumatizing. Given the resistance to change, when the opportunity presents itself to right a wrong–and that’s what we’re talking about here–’politicizing’ a tragedy is the right thing to do (though probably not at the funeral–don’t be a fucking ghoul). It’s how people actually evaluate and reconsider what they believe.

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