We have trained ourselves far more in the art of vilification than communication.
Devin Poore grew up near the northeast corner of Washington State. Ferry County is one of the poorest in the state, with a median household income of 41,000 (contrasted with a state median of 66,000), and one of the most Republican. Sixty-one percent of those voting in 2016 cast their ballots for Donald Trump, compared to 38 percent statewide.
A mountain pass divides the county into two regions: to the south, a reservation that is home to remnants of the Colville tribe, and to the north, a sparsely populated landscape that is home to remnants of communities centered on logging, mining and ranching. Curlew, where Poore attended high school, boasted a population of 150.
Poore moved to Seattle for college seven years ago and stayed. He describes himself as a progressive humanist. He loathes Donald Trump. But he also increasingly loathes the way that some fellow progressives talk about the Trump voters he grew up with. I asked him about that.
Tarico: You say your heart is still in Ferry County—that you have dreams of moving back and working in some way on economic renewal in the area. Why?
Poore: This seems cliché, but the sense of community there is deeply woven. Your home doesn’t end at your front door. It’s rare to go anywhere, whether it’s paying your utility bill or going to the drug store, without stopping and having a conversation. It’s rejuvenating to run into people that you care about—friends, coworkers—whoever. In Seattle I could run errands for a whole day with my head down and headphones in.
The fact that it’s such a small area motivates people to get along. I never experienced vicious hatreds or bad blood. It’s a peaceful, gentle corner of the world, and the people are good people. They are like hobbits in the Shire—committed to and focused on the people and things that are close to them. They take care of their neighbors.
Tarico: But, but the Trump voters. Given what Trump is doing to our country—and our world—wouldn’t you find it hard to look people in the eye and know they are OK with that?
Poore: It’s definitely tough to stomach the thought that folks I grew up around—the same people who would come cheer for me at basketball games in high school—supported Trump in the 2016 election and likely continue to do so. To my eye, Trump is a morally desolate man who’s content to use any and all channels available to him, regardless of the consequences, to increase his personal wealth and power. It makes the ardent support he receives from his base enormously troubling and, in that sense, I absolutely understand and empathize with the frustration of progressives. But the level of vitriol directed at that base of support by the left . . . that just makes me sad.
I don’t think progressives are truly reckoning with what crafts a human identity. People become the totality of their experiences and actions over time. In a place like Ferry County, the majority of the inputs are conservative. When I first came to Seattle, I was certainly saddled with some beliefs that I’ve ultimately come to reject (to my great relief) as a result of my rural upbringing. I’m not saying it’s right, but we human don’t have an inborn disinformation filter that sets off an internal alarm system whenever we encounter questionable beliefs. If nothing or nobody is there to challenge those beliefs, then we roll with them 99% of the time.
To enter into a dialogue with people you disagree with, you have to be painstakingly honest about how people form their identities. It’s true that there’s not a loud diversity of opinions in a place like Ferry County. But the same could be said of Seattle—for similar reasons. Someone who grew up with a liberal family amidst liberal values might say, “This is absolutely true”, but it’s potentially just as much an unexamined belief as those held by conservative voters.
You can’t teach something that you don’t understand yourself. Critical examination of your own beliefs is crucial to understanding how to best communicate those beliefs to someone who may have been raised with an opposing view.
Tarico: You’ve said before that progressives talk about and to people like the Ferry County folks in the worst possible way if what we are after is to change hearts and minds.
Poore: At an emotional level what they hear from us is disdain and some level of contempt – when has that ever been an effective way to change minds? It puts people on the defensive. If you just assume that everyone in my town is a bigot and that’s the deepest level of analysis that you are willing to go to . . . as soon as it becomes clear that your arguments are formed upon that basis, then they become null and void in the minds of the people who you are hoping to change or draw to your cause.
Tarico: “You’re an idiot so you should join us” doesn’t work too well?
Poore: You really couldn’t come up with a worse way to cultivate good will and trust.
Look, I get it. The Trump machine is ramped up all day every day. It’s horrifying. Some of the damage is irreparable. So left wingers are like Fuck these people. I don’t want to hear anyone even try to make a defensible case for why someone would have voted for Donald Trump. If you voted for Trump, I don’t have any interest in trying to understand your thinking. You are just a piece of shit. You are a terrible human being.
If someone even cares to try to understand these people, they are stepping into morally suspect territory in the eyes of some progressives.
I look at the vitriol and hate directed at people like the folks I grew up with and I honestly think less of our movement. Progressives are taking the emotionally gratifying path, rather than the effective one. We have trained ourselves far more in the art of vilification than communication.
We should be good stewards of our society and good neighbors to our neighbors, even if we disagree with them. To not do that is a failure of compassion and a violation of what it means to be progressive. When we say fuck that person rather than I want to have a conversation, it leaves too much on the table in the service of anger, fear, hatred, and feeling superior.
Tarico: What are urban progressives missing when they look at the people of Ferry County?
Poore: I see people who, to the best of their information, are attempting to act in the best interest of themselves and their families and their community. I also see people who feel very pushed aside, like they don’t count and their voices aren’t heard.
For example, there are ranchers in the area having livestock killed by wolves, and people in Seattle rooting for the wolves in the name of conservation. These families live close to the bone. Financially, the loss of a cow is a big deal. It’s also brutal emotionally. So, wolves get culled and some environmentalists freak out. And the ranchers feel like there are these people on the other side of the state who have no clue. And then they parlay this frustration into their own overgeneralizations: This wolf recovery is a liberal hippy pipe dream, and my family is paying the price.
They feel like an afterthought, if they feel thought of at all.
Back in 2008 when Dino Rossi and Christine Gregoire were competing for governor, Dino, the Republican, came to town. At the time, I didn’t know anything about him or Gregoire or even what the difference was between a Republican and Democrat. But he came and walked around and shook hands, and people were avidly pro-Dino after that. Even my mom who is a Democrat was pro-Dino, just because he showed up. It’s sad that such a small thing could bring such support.
In a more somber way, I look at the 2016 election and the places that Trump showed up where Hillary didn’t. Is he a con man? Yes, and many people who voted for him likely suspected that. But he showed up. Maybe they only put 10 percent faith in him, but that’s better than the 0 percent faith they had in the candidate who didn’t even come to town.
I remember what that felt like, being pro-Dino simply because he took the time to stop in. Years later I was working as a valet in Seattle, and Dino came to the restaurant where I worked. I mentioned meeting him at the fair in Republic, and we chatted briefly. By then I knew I wasn’t a Republican and I knew he was, but it still brought back a feel-good moment – a moment when my community felt like anyone at all was looking in our direction.
Tarico: But are rural Trump voters really capable of changing their minds?
Poore: That is the wrong question. Some are, some aren’t. But as a matter of principle, if you believe in the things we progressives say we believe—you are cherry picking this one situation where you are allowing yourself to be a total asshole. When we look at other marginalized groups, even some that are similarly culturally conservative, like some Muslim immigrants, we are happy to be the bastion of kindness and compassion. But in this case, we convince ourselves that our contempt is justified and righteous because we want to believe it’s impossible to make any progress with conservative voters. And that kind of attitude does make progress harder because it reinforces and exacerbates the current adversarial relationship between the left and the right.
For me, the point of being a progressive is to be better – to strive to be better people, to build a better world. If we say we’ll cut this corner here, we’ll cut that one, if we say these people don’t count, how does that square with our values? This is a marginalized group—rural Americans—certainly marginalized economically and infrastructure-wise, and in many places victimized by conservative policy and ignorant of the ways they’ve been victimized. These are people who have been sold a raw deal by some very sophisticated, well-funded salesmen. We progressives tell ourselves that we are moral, compassionate beings. Then we look at these folks and the best we can come up with is Fuck them!? It’s tragic.
Tarico: Are you angry at fellow progressives?
Poore: Not really. I’m just disappointed.
Do we want to live in a society that is less thoughtful and less empathetic? Are we going to pick and choose where we cut corners morally—where we cut some people out? We chase simple answers because they feel good emotionally. We give in to that without actually thinking about what, in the long run, will yield the most positive results in the society that we claim to care about building.
Tarico: When you say, “the most positive results in society we claim to care about,” what do you mean?
Poore: The greatest reduction of suffering possible; but change is such a slow process, and meaningful change is an even slower process.
There is no good faith left at a national level, and so the way you have to establish that good faith is through cooperative efforts. If we can agree on one issue and get it done, it builds trust; and then over time you work on more things and eventually progress—that is the dream.
Tarico: I recently met a group of Montana progressives and conservatives who seem to be living that dream, through a process and organization called the Blackfoot Challenge that they’ve spent 25 years building together to protect their watershed, way of life, and ability to live in community with each other. It can be done.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including The Huffington Post, Salon, The Independent, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, AlterNet, Raw Story, Grist, Jezebel, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.