NVC, the Election, and Me
Like so many of you, I’m stirred up about the upcoming election. I have felt anxious, afraid, sad, hurt. I have been seeking sources of guidance wherever I can. As a Jew, I look to Judaism, particularly what I take as its central message: love the stranger. I’ve looked to my elders for insight, as I’ll mention, below. And as someone who tries to “live NVC,” I have looked to Nonviolent Communication.
I’m glad to say that my NVC practice is helping me cope, process my emotions, and live in line with my values. Not that I think I’m doing a stellar job at any of it. But in the midst of what I experience as a huge mess, and given my own resources and limitations, I’m somehow finding my way. So I want to write about NVC, me, and the current political context, to share some of what I believe NVC can offer all of us at this time.
Drawn to share, I also feel awkward and torn, because to write about NVC, me, and the election, I need to share my political views. At the same time, I want NVC spaces to feel welcoming and comfortable to people of all political persuasions. If I write what is true for me, do I inevitably bring up a sense of alienation for people who differ from me? That would be sad for me, given that NVC is precisely about engaging across difference — not about alienating each other.
It’s a conundrum.
Here’s how I’m balancing this conundrum, with as much clarity about my purposes as I can muster: I write this piece to share how I’m coping with this election and how NVC is helping to guide me. I do not write to convince you that my way is the way or should be your way, though I’d be happy if someone reading this finds some inspiration here. I do not write to convince you of my particular political persuasions or strategies. I do not write in the name of anybody else at BayNVC; not to represent what Marshall Rosenberg, may his memory be a blessing, might have said at this moment. I do not write in the name of “NVC people” more generally. I write to share how I personally am leaning into NVC at this moment.
So here goes.
At this time, the uppermost set of observations, feelings, and needs for me are these, in a nutshell: When I hear Donald Trump say things that I shudder to repeat about Muslims, Mexicans, and women, to name just three examples, I feel deep pain, and I yearn for dignity for all people.
I’ll pause here to say that many Americans, maybe including you, have different orientations from mine. One point of view, translated into NVC lingo, might go like this: “When I hear Donald Trump say that he will make America great again, I feel relieved and excited, because my sense is that there are many, many things that need fixing, and his clarity on this point gives me energy and hope.” For others, a set of observations about Hillary Clinton might be the focus, engendering feelings of despair or enthusiasm, and bringing up needs like peace, authenticity, competence and many more. For still others, the most salient observations might be connected to the role of third-parties in our system, and feelings and needs that arise around that. Our core values inescapably orient us. Perhaps it would be interesting for you to take a moment and see what values or needs are at the core for you right now.
Given my core value of dignity for all people, how can NVC help me? What are my requests to self and others?
As always in NVC, I see three main pillars: empowerment, empathy, and self-connection.
1. Looking for Empowerment
This election has brought up a sense of powerlessness for me. I don’t like it. I have struggled to know what to do, to discern what actions could be meaningful. I have spent far more hours than nourish me in the vortex of Facebook and reading the news; far more hours than I would like in a kind of frozen inaction, clicking links, looking for solace, looking for companionship, looking for hope.
But I long to be unfrozen — to stand strong and empowered, to take action. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words speak to me:
Nonviolent resistance does resist. It is not a method of stagnant passivity.
Nonviolence is not a method of stagnant passivity. This is my watchword. I am trying to avoid stagnant passivity.
For me, the most crucial thing in the short term, connected to my need for human dignity, is to take the steps I can to help make sure that Trump does not gain more political power, that he is not elected, so he does not have the power to take action on the views he has expressed regarding Mexicans, Muslims, women, and others. Simple, small steps, within my reach. I’ll share a few, to give you a flavor.
Back last summer, I started writing to Republican leaders, asking them to denounce him. In late July, I wrote respectfully to Meg Whitman, one of the most prominent Republicans in California, someone I had voted against in a previous election. Three days later, she came out against Trump. I do not credit my email with her decision. But I imagine that she was at least a tiny bit buoyed by my email, as I was by her personal response to my email and by her decision. This is part of nonviolence, as I see it; finding alliances even among people who are not easy for me to recognize as potential partners.
I am fortunate to have some flexibility with my time and some resources for travel. So last week, in another action, I carpooled to Reno, Nevada, a “swing state,” to register voters. I was happy to be sent to a mostly Latino neighborhood. It would be a triumph of nonviolence for me, if Trump’s proposed policies regarding Mexicans and Mexican-Americans is decisively dismantled by new Mexican-American voters. For me, this is a way of enacting King’s words, that “nonviolent resistance does resist.” I was also delighted to spread the word about the potential first Latina Senator, Catherine Cortez Masto, who is running for Senate in Nevada.
In a couple of weeks, I’ll travel to Florida during the week of the election, to drive people to the polls. I’m lucky to have another excuse to travel to Florida. I’ll visit my 89 year-old dad and step-mother, who winter there. My dad, at age 17 in 1944, lied about his age so that he could enlist in the military and go fight fascism. As an adult, he has mostly voted Republican. When I checked in with him many months ago about this election, I was a little worried; it would be hard to be on different sides on this one. “Trump reminds me of Hitler,” he said. My dad remembers Hitler. It’s not a comparison Jews tend to make lightly. It’s not a comparison I have heard from him in any other context. So again, it will be a particular triumph of nonviolence for me — a powerful resistance — if people in their 80s and 90s, who know what totalitarianism looks like, quietly and decisively dismantle this particular threat. What a thrill for me to have the chance to drive even one of them to the polls.
These are some of my particular actions, the results of my request-to-self not to be passive. I write about them hoping that they might stir something in you about empowerment, about your own power. I am sure your steps will be different ones — ones that make sense based on the deepest values that move you in this moment and the resources you have to act. There is so much that can be done.
2. Looking to Empathize
I am so devastated by words and actions I have seen from Trump and his supporters. And yet I want to treat every human being with dignity — including Trump and his supporters. Michelle Obama has talked about “going high,” and I understand this to mean the attempt to stand genuinely for love and empathy, even when others are speaking hatefully.
It’s not easy, this standing-for-dignity-and-love thing. I’ve blown off steam by laughing with comedians who parody Trump and his supporters. Samantha Bee is a new favorite of mine. I’m grateful for those laughs; they help with my fear and anxiety. As much as I appreciate the laughs, though, it is not ultimately satisfying to me to write off groups of people as stupid or clueless or cruel; this, indeed, is the very tactic that is at the core of what I find objectionable in Trump; the willingness to write others off. The opposite of writing others off, as I understand it, is having empathy.
I have not yet plumbed the depth of possibilities of empathy for Trump supporters. Indeed, I haven’t yet had a real conversation with a Trump supporter, face-to-face. It’s one of the tragedies of our society, as I see it, that so many of us live in bubbles of like-minded people. These physical and social separations are a perfect petri-dish for the kind of dehumanization that we are seeing.
Without yet having had these conversations (I imagine that I might, in Florida), I still can do my best to empathize, in my heart and mind. As I attempt to empathize, I want to remember not to generalize about Trump supporters, any more than I like to be generalized about, as a woman or a Jew. I want to see the deep humanity in each person who is making this choice.
Here is one window I have. I remember studying French in college and learning that there is a French Academy, the official authority in France about the French language. The French Academy has existed for hundreds of years to try to limit the flow of foreign words into French, as a way of holding on to both language and culture. In recent times, for example, the Academy has recommended against adopting hundreds of English words, including ones like “computer,” and “software.” Instead, the Academy has coined new French terms; “ordinateur” and “logiciel,” which are now commonly used in France.
I can feel for this impulse on the part of the French Academy. They want to keep French sounding French. They would feel a loss if French became interspersed with obviously English-sounding words. Keeping French sounding French gives them, I’m guessing, a sense of connectedness to the past, of belonging, of continuity. I get that. It never occurred to me, at least on first glance, that this effort might be thought of as xenophobic or disturbing in any way. “Ordinateur.” It has such a French ring to it.
I guess that for some Trump supporters, the idea that the U.S. will continue to take on more immigrants, particularly immigrants whom they believe want to preserve their own cultures rather than to assimilate, there is a similar sense of loss. They like American English as they have known it; they like their sense of American culture to stay as they have known it, for a sense of connectedness to the past, for continuity and predictability. Taking in lots of new immigrants seems like it shakes all of this up. Building a wall makes sense, from this perspective, just as it makes sense to the French Academy to build a metaphoric wall around the French language. Why open the doors to people who aren’t “real Americans?”
In a different vein, I also understand that for some Trump supporters, things are bad — they struggle with unemployment, poverty, or have a very real fear of those things, and they lack trust that anyone in the national government cares. This lack of trust extends to lots of politicians, and certainly to Hillary Clinton, for all kinds of reasons. So Trump comes from outside of politics, and he seems to share the view that things are in bad shape. He says he can fix them. Why not give this new guy a try? My guess is that many people are supporting Trump out of their need for stability, for financial well-being, and more broadly, for hope in the future.
While voting for Trump is not my strategy — to put it mildly — I relate deeply to a need for stability, financial well-being, and hope.
I imagine that another group of Trump supporters has their eyes fixed on the Supreme Court because, for example, they believe deeply that abortion is murder. I can see that if I believed that, I would tolerate a lot of what I might see as foolishness on the part of a presidential candidate, if at least I could trust that he’d appoint justices who were with me on the abortion issue. I have thought, myself, that a particular choice for president is in some ways overshadowed by the implications for the Supreme Court. With one vote for a person I might not be enthusiastic about, I would get maybe three justices whom I could be enthusiastic about, around a deeply cherished value. I can understand this line of thinking.
My final empathic musings for this round have to do with Donald Trump’s repeated talk of “winners” and “losers” in this election. Trump’s temperament, as he has put it, is that “of a winner.”
I am painfully aware that the only world any of us has lived in is one where some groups of people have power over other groups of people. If one sees this reality and believes that the world inevitably has winners and losers, haves and have nots, it makes sense that one might prefer to be on the side of the “winners.” To put it differently, if you’ve been “the majority,” it’s scary to think of becoming a minority — especially if you know very well how minorities have been treated. So I can see the appeal of allying oneself with a “winner,” if you think you might otherwise be pushed to the bottom of the heap (or you believe you already have been). Aligning with a “winner” could meet needs for security and peace of mind. Again — I can understand the thought that there are “winners” and “losers” in the world — that is, sadly, the world we know. If there have to be winners and losers — I can understand wanting to be a “winner.”
What has this exercise in empathy gotten me? Uppermost for me is the idea that the way out of this violence and turmoil is to create a world where there are not winners and losers. I want to shift the dialogue and the reality. I want to build a world where the phrase “winners and losers” doesn’t even make sense.
It’s strange, but this exercise in empathy also helps me feel a little less hopeless, a little more clear that I could connect, on a human level, with Trump supporters. And that makes me more hopeful about the project of nonviolence.
3. Looking for self-empathy and self-connection.
As much as I hope that everything will feel better on November 9, I know that that day will just be one milestone, and that really, the important work lies ahead. While we share our underlying humanity, the political chasms are breathtakingly wide.
Given this, stamina — a surprising issue in this campaign — is very much the question. How will those of us who are interested in creating a more just, healthy, thriving world tend to our own well-being, so that we can hang in for a long-term project?
I invite you to explore this, as I am. Along with food, rest, exercise and that sort of thing, I’m clear that one key to building stamina is through building connections among people who have the skills of acting both powerfully and empathically, toward a world where we see, value, and celebrate each other’s humanity.
This comes with love,