Todd L. Pittinsky, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Technology and Society at Stony Brook University and the author of “Us Plus Them: Tapping the Positive Power of Difference” (Harvard Business Press).
Once the election was over, Trump, Clinton and Obama — joined by many university campus administrators across the country — began calling for healing. I suppose that many were thinking, “Yeah — fat chance.”
What exactly is healing? It is common to talk about empathizing, but I think there’s a more basic step that has to come first: understanding. The most dazed, of course, are the Clinton supporters who not only saw imminent victory, but in
many cases report being baffled at how Trump’s followers could, well, follow Trump at all, given all those things he’s said and, by his admission, done.
But one of the keys to understanding political others lies in the fact that we are prone to seeing members of another group as more like each other than members of our own group are like each other. We are diverse, they are all alike. This well-studied, well-documented phenomenon is called the “outgroup homogeneity effect.”
To understand political others requires pushing past the outgroup homogeneity effect in order to see the diversity of their motivations and wishes. An example of the outgroup homogeneity effect is to assume that Trump supporters are, as a whole, motivated by the worst of Trump’s speech and behavior. Many Clinton supporters have wondered, how could all those Trump supporters be even remotely inspired by that name-calling, bullying, xenophobic, adulterous you-know-what-grabber? But that’s no more legitimate — or helpful — than assuming that Clinton’s supporters were so thrilled with her precisely because she set up a private server and then “lost” over 30,000 emails and some expensive smartphones. It’s unlikely that many Clinton supporters supported her for doing that, and there are quite a few reasons why different supporters did support her. Trump supporters, too, had a variety of reasons for supporting him despite — not because of — his worst traits. Perhaps some Clinton voters “held their noses” and voted for her and some Trump supporters held their noses and voted for him.
Barring a mass emigration, Clinton supporters and Trump supporters are going to share our campus and indeed our country for the next four years. It is unfortunate — and I would say dangerous — that we will spend less and less time together as we continue our “great sort” of where we live and where we gather online. What can help is an honest effort to understand what really does motivate the “other” side, because both sides see legitimate problems, whether or not we agree with the proposed solutions. To take just one example, whatever benefits free trade does bring, it remains the case that the elites have spent decades talking about job retraining, but have never pulled it off with much success. Workers today are increasingly fungible — a worker here can be replaced with a worker somewhere else, just like oil from Saudi Arabia can be replaced with oil from Nigeria, depending on whichever is cheaper. Building a wall along the Mexican border may be crazy, but not wanting to be fungible is not so crazy.
It follows that in order to heal, perhaps we shouldn’t be too quick to empathize. Why not? Because it can be counterproductive to try to empathize with the other side without first learning enough to really understand their positions. It runs the risk of offering pity and condescension. Trump supporters likely don’t want sympathy and pity any more than Clinton supporters do. In some sense, they want what feminists want and what Black Lives Matter wants. That is, they want you to understand that what they are concerned about is real. When you find out what the other side identifies as an underlying problem, you are likely to at least agree that it is a problem. But, like any other intellectual effort, this requires temporarily ignoring personalities (especially Trump’s), personal failings (no shortage for either Trump or Clinton) and whatever creeps and crazies may be along for the political ride.
We believe in the idea and practice of the university, right? We are here to train our own minds and to help the next generation to seek accurate understanding first and then move on, if appropriate, to the stages of empathizing emotionally and bestowing approval or disapproval. An election as contentious as this one and an outcome as surprising as this one gives us a beautiful, indeed “yuuge,” major-league opportunity to prove it.