Language, Policy, Politics, Race

The But/And Politics of “Moving Forward”

Image credit: Ben Wikler

I deeply admire you, Senator Elizabeth Warren, which is why I was looking to you for answers last week.

“Donald Trump ran a campaign that started with racial attacks and then rode the escalator down. Millions of Americans – African-Americans, Latinos, Muslims, LGBT Americans, women – have every right to be deeply worried. But there are many millions of people who did not vote for Donald Trump because of the bigotry and hate that fueled his campaign rallies…. They voted for him out of frustration and anger—and also out of hope that he would bring change to an economy and a government that doesn’t work for them.”

What you said is true. We know all Trump supporters aren’t necessarily hateful. We also know that many other voters are rightfully afraid. However, it was your use of one word that makes this such a disappointment.

You said “but.”

Yes, Senator Warren, millions of Americans—particularly minoritized populations—do have every right to be deeply worried.

Full stop.

It’s just that you didn’t stop there. You didn’t legitimize that truth by letting it stand.

You said “but.”

The word “but” is used to pivot a sentence away from one idea and onto another. The word functions to contradict, qualify, or lessen the clause that precedes it. 

So your sentence took the focus off of the fear, worry, and physical danger that faces so many right now, and put it elsewhere.

That focus, Senator Warren, needed to stay right where it was.

Now is not the time for the word “but.” It’s time to realize we can hold two ideas in our head at the same time.

It’s a time for the word AND.

The But/And Paradox

I’m already surprised at how quickly some are trying to make this election seem normal—to “move forward” or give a “clean slate.” Pay attention to who is trying hardest; you’ll find they have a few things in common.

It’s not just that the “move forward” messages come largely from populations that don’t need to fear for their immediate safety right now—in little danger of being deported, targeted by hate groups, or grabbed by various body parts. They’re also those with most to lose in any actual disruption of the system that made this possible.

They’re not Trump supporters, but they want you to quiet down. 

Now – notice how the word “but” functioned in that sentence. I said they didn’t support Trump, then the word “but” left a hint of doubt about that, didn’t it? It told you to look elsewhere, to redirect your attention, to “move forward.”

So what changes when we use the word AND instead?

1. This is terrible, but we need to move forward.

No, this is terrible, AND we need to move forward.

The way we move forward needs to be informed, not by ignoring how terrible this is, or pretending that it’s not. The way we move forward needs to address that terribleness, that terror, stare it in the face, and pull it out by its roots.

This is terrible. 

We need to move forward.

These are both true statements. You don’t need a “but” that shifts attention to one while reducing the other. We can and must focus on both at the same time—particularly when one of the statements involves people’s lives.

2. Some of Trump’s supporters are racist, but not all of them are. 

No, some of his supporters are racist, AND not all of them are.

This means two things: First, those who say they oppose racism, sexism, homophobia, or any of the ideologies Trump and his supporters have actively endorsed, need to speak up and decry the hate crimes taking place explicitly in the name of the man they voted for. They also have an obligation, as we all do, to physically, ideologically, and financially support legislation and organizations protecting those who are endangered as a result of this election. Worried that the rest of the country seems to think your voting block is racist, sexist, or homophobic? Prove them wrong.

“But” statements are syntactic smoke-and-mirrors to obscure the fact that “some are racist” and “not all of them are” draw breath from one another. Using AND obligates them to each other, because only the second half of the sentence can stop the first.

Secondly, the fact that anyone is even using “but not all of them are racist” as if it added any useful information (dude, literally everyone knows this) reveals a fundamental misunderstanding in how we talk about racism, sexism, and homophobia in our country. As Howard University professor, Greg Carr, put it:

People saying “every white person who voted for Trump isn’t a racist” don’t understand racism. It involves enabling known racists too. 

The fact that some Trump voters are not individually “racist” does not change the reality that racism was bolstered by the result of this election. See the difference? You don’t need to be a “racist” to enable racism, “sexist” to enable sexism, or “homophobic” to endanger the LGBTQ community.

AND that’s exactly what Americans did in this election. No buts.

3. A lot of people voted for Trump, but many did so because they felt frustrated, ignored, and economically marginalized.  

No, they voted for Trump AND those are the reasons they did it.

Which should set off resounding alarm bells about our current system.

Look, it’s true that many people voted out of frustration and financial concern, some even from desperate situations. What this means is that a large segment of our population just put their fellow citizens at increased danger in the name of possible personal financial benefit. What kind of system encourages, or even allows this to be an option? If so many voters were willing to endanger others in the name of personal financial security, we need to realize that “frustration” with a broken system is an understatement—it’s fundamentally flawed at its core. We need to ask how our financial, political, and education systems make this possible. We need to discuss how this is all linked to unfettered capitalism putting people in situations where they will prioritize financial security over human security.

Using “but” lets the justification negate the action. This election happened, AND we have to see what our social structures do to attenuate our individual and collective humanity.

4. Trump is dreadful, but he’s our president.

No, Trump is dreadful, AND he’s our president.

Which means we’ve got to fight like hell. There will be no “blank slate” when he enters office. There will be no waiting for him to cross some line before we hold him accountable. Stand up ON the line right now and do not let him cross it.

Stand with (and donate to) the ACLU, who have already demanded Trump reverse course on his unconstitutional campaign promises. As they wrote in an open letter to Trump last week, “One thing is certain: We will be vigilant every day of your tenure as president.”

Be vigilant. Now is not a time for “but.”

This is particularly true for those of us who didn’t vote for Trump, but occupy places of privilege. Listen, in the coming months, for the word “but” trying to creep into your vocabulary. Listen to your hope that the country will “come together” and realize where that urge comes from. Ask who does and does not stand to benefit from that outcome.

Most of all, listen to those who are most afraid right now and ask how you can help. Resist, at all costs, those who will try to normalize all of this in the coming months with the word “but,” especially if you find you’re the one saying it.

Feel free to comment below or on the blog’s Facebook Page.

Follow on Twitter @ChrisKBacon

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