Donald Trump uses every opportunity to accuse the media of spreading fake news, which is typical behavior for a person with destructive political ideas. The GDR, the Nazis, and every other destructive political government made war with the free press. With the right tools, we can recognize this dynamic and prevent it from creating disastrous results before it is too late.
What can Sartre tell us about hate?
French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre best helps us understand why those with destructive political ideas hate the free press. In his book Being and Nothingness, Sartre writes about the importance of the Other in our lives. The Other can be any person or even simply a mental image of someone else.
Sartre argues that the Other is necessary to understand who we are. When we interact with another person, we see a reflection of ourselves which helps us understand who we are. Others see things about us that are hidden to us, which is why we need them to gain a better understanding of who we are. Without the Other, according to Sartre, we cannot truly know who we are.
For example, without the Other, we could never evaluate our skills. We would never know whether we are good or bad writers, athletes, or people because there would be nobody to say whether they like our writing and nobody to compare ourselves with. Other people are the mirrors that help us understand whether we can write well and behave in socially acceptable ways. Without Others, we are unable to know whether we are good people.
Sartre argues that Others are important to us – but also dangerous. When they reveal something about us that contradicts our beliefs we feel shame, especially if they contradict the belief that we are good people.
Shame is a tricky feeling. Every feeling is tied to an action tendency. For example, when we feel cold, the action tendency is to get warm. The action tendency of shame is to get rid of the shame. When someone else mirrors us in a way we don’t like, we can eliminate the resulting shame in two ways:
- We can try to find a compromise. The best way of reacting to shame is to eliminate the conflict between ourselves and the Other. We can change, we can agree to disagree, or we can try to explain ourselves, hoping that the Other will understand our position. All three options harmonize our self-image with the Other’s image of us and free us from the need to feel shame.
- We can devalue the opinion of the Other. The easiest but also most destructive way of reacting to shame is by devaluing the Other. When we deny Others the right to mirror us, we relieve our shame. According to Sartre, this is why we hate. Hate is the human way of avoiding unwanted mirror images.
Sartre argues that the first of these two options is constructive. When we compromise with Others, even if we only agree to disagree, we maintain the humanity of all involved. When we hate, we create problems. Hate is one form of pretending that the Other does not exist – it is a form of mentally destroying them by denying them their innate human quality of mirroring us.
How do Sartre’s ideas apply to politics?
Destructive ideas often originate in closed environments. Because the inherent dynamic of destructive ideas leads them to divide the world into us and them, those who believe in destructive ideas usually form a closed circle. We are in; they are out.
In online forums, internet news outlets, and TV shows believers in destructive ideas constantly receive the same biased information based on the same ideological narrative. There is no real mirroring because there are only people who agree and nobody who disagrees. Donald Trump has received most of his political education in this manner.
When members of these closed circles read other media outlets, the media mirrors them in unwanted ways. By reporting different stories from different angles, the media implies three things:
- Everything you believe is wrong.
- Your white knight is evil.
- Your infinitely evil threat is an illusion.
Believers in destructive ideas can react to these negative mirror images in two ways:
- They can find a compromise. They can realize that the world is not as black and white as they believed and arrive at a more balanced opinion.
- They can hate the press. They can think the media is stupid, uninformed, or evil.
Many initial believers in destructive ideas choose the first option and de-radicalize. Some also choose the second option and start hating the media. Donald Trump’s core supporters are among them, as are all long-term supporters of destructive ideas.
When we subscribe to destructive ideas, we no longer see others as they are. We force them into prejudiced pictures that no longer reflect reality but only to confirm our self-images and distract from who we truly are. When we only rarely interact with people of different beliefs we are quick to react with anger.
Why do some people attack media members?
Hating the press is just the beginning of a dangerous spiral. As with any destructive idea, the fake-news narrative is unable to create the intended result. This is why some Trump supporters attack media members and people with a different political opinion.
The purpose of hate is avoiding mirror images. In our daily lives, this strategy can work. When we believe that our neighbors are idiots, we must not concern ourselves with their opinions. Also, our neighbors will leave us alone when they realize that we hate them. Hate can prevent unwanted mirror images. On the scale of a society, the same reasoning is futile.
In society, there are so many Others with conflicting political ideas that it is impossible to escape all mirror images or to find legitimate reasons why they are all unimportant. We constantly face negative mirror images by people who are just as intelligent as us and have all the relevant information.
For believers in destructive ideas, the press is the Other who is mirroring them in unwanted and unpreventable ways. But when they start hating the press, the unwanted mirror images will remain. There will be new newspapers and TV shows every day, and regardless of how much we hate them, they will keep mirroring us in unwanted ways.
On the macro level, hate loses its power to shield us from unwanted mirror images. Without the ability to destroy Others mentally, we must do it physically. The only way of stopping them from mirroring us is through violence.
In the GDR, the socialist leaders wanted to avoid being mirrored by the economically more prosperous West by fortifying the border, building a wall, and shooting everyone who tried to cross it. While the West’s economic success was motivated by more important reasons than proving the GDR’s inadequacy, East German leaders were so determined to avoid the unwanted mirror image that they shot their own people.
Even more cynically, East German leaders avoided direct interactions with other East Germans. The GDR’s party elite lived in closed off settlements under significantly better conditions than everyone else, just like most dictators. Their palaces were ways of avoiding the unwanted mirror images of a suffering population – a cynical but logical phenomenon, as Sartre helps us to understand.
How can we do it better?
Sartre’s ideas help us understand that it takes two steps to create more constructive societies:
Step 1: We have to maintain a constructive way of receiving our mirror images from the Others
The first step to improving the world is to start with ourselves. We all face unwanted mirror images every day. To create constructive societies, we must learn to constructively deal with these images. The most important tool for this task is tolerance. When we can agree to disagree with those of other political opinions, we have accomplished the most important step towards a peaceful society.
Donald Trump is a great proving ground for this ability. He, too, is an unwanted mirror image for his opponents. We must avoid considering him an infinitely evil threat. We should ask ourselves why people in rural areas and from disenfranchised groups supported him. Because his supporters believe in destructive ideas that position him as the white knight, Donald Trump will outlive all attacks on his person. But he is infinitely vulnerable to a society that takes the concerns of his supporters seriously.
Step 2: We have to avoid forcing others to hate us.
The world constantly changes. This change creates winners and losers without personal fault. Sometimes, the winners make the mistake of ignoring the losers by pushing them to different parts of the city and into different schools.
While the losers will react to their exclusion with hate in the way we described it, this hate is only the reaction to a previous, more subtle form of hate: the winners’ hate of the losers by ignoring their problems. The winners forced the loser to hate them. In the 2016 U.S. presidential election, this was why the support of coal miners for Trump remained strong. The coal industry is in decline because of a changing world and through no fault of the miners.
To create constructive societies, we must avoid forcing the victims of change to hate the Others. Social security programs and affordable education help to provide all members of society with a perspective for themselves and their children and guarantees the safety of their lives. Without such programs, the rise of destructive political ideas and the hatred towards a free media are inevitable.
- Donald Trump’s hate towards the free press is neither new nor unique. All destructive political ideas encourage the hate of free speech and a free press.
- Being mirrored by Others is an essential aspect of knowing ourselves. But when we receive unwanted mirrored images, we make the mistake of reacting with hate.
- On the macro level, hate is unable to free us from unwanted mirror images. Destructive political ideas motivate some of their proponents to take the next step and violently fight unwanted mirror images