My great-grandmother has a saying: “If people’s brains were to be sold in the market, everyone would still buy their own brain.”
Especially after the U.S. Capitol attack, I found myself thinking about this saying a lot as I tried to understand those rioters’ reasons and motives. It is very easy to say that they are out of their minds. But if my great-grandmother’s saying has any shred of truth in it, then there must be a reason why these people would still buy their own brains, listen to their own minds despite their ignorance and zealotry.
Right after the attack, the first thing to blame was all social media platforms. I am not forgetting Donald Trump, but I no longer consider him a worthy variable in our equation. He is instead a lunatic who will instigate and worsen any state of chaos and madness — the ones we should blame are those who let him abuse his power in the first place. Despite warnings from New York Times reporters, Facebook was too late to stop the extremist Trump supporters who organized these riots right before everyone’s eyes. How and why Trump was allowed to have a social media platform especially on Twitter for such a long time is again a wonder to me. Yet I also believe that there is one other to blame: ourselves.
The existence of such extremist groups is no surprise, but their size, the amount of power they hold and the support they receive certainly are. But after witnessing the absurdity of “All Lives Matter” backlash against BLM movements, very close election results in many states and numerous claims of voter fraud, should these still come as a surprise?
I have become aware of this especially during the election night. I was sad and frustrated as my hopes for a landslide victory in a lot of states were shattered. How could people still vote for Trump despite losing their loved ones, jobs, insurance and so much more? And I am not even a stranger to such nights as I have spent countless elections in Turkey during which my confidence in democracy just melted away. The issue was that I had created myself a bubble with people who shared my political and social views. Let’s admit, it is very easy to do so at Yale. This blinded me to the extent that extremist groups could appeal even to people who might not characterize themselves as far-right — after all, 42% of college-educated people still voted for Trump.
There is no guarantee that in four years, another attack like this won’t happen. There is no guarantee that these extremist groups will cease to exist. There is no guarantee that there won’t be another presidential candidate who will repeat Trump’s rhetoric. But will these extremist groups or candidates be heard? If so, how loud will their voices be? How much will they be able to appeal to an average person?
The answers to these questions depend on how well we will actually listen this time. Why did people vote for Trump both in 2016 and in 2020? Was it because of a dogmatic commitment to the Republican Party or to the values he seemed to embody? Why do a lot of people oppose, for instance, Democrats’ tax reforms even though it will in fact benefit them? We need to understand the source of this stubbornness to change one’s views. Casting all these away as unreasonable and ignorant is not the solution to our current state of polarization.
I am not overly optimistic to suggest that if we listen, we will immediately find the common ground and live in peace. But perhaps we will learn how to most effectively communicate all these progressive policies to a wide range of voters. Perhaps in our conversations, instead of directly judging each other, we will start to ask, “Why do you think so?” Most importantly, perhaps this time we will predict and prevent extremist movements or candidates from gaining national popularity and power.
This is not an easy effort. We will hear a lot of things that we don’t want to hear. It is like phone-banking. The person you call may start shouting at you for no reason. Or they could choose not to answer at all. But one in a hundred calls is usually a very polite and respectful one even if that person is not voting for your candidate. They listen to you and offer counter-arguments without being hurtful. I personally learn a lot during those phone calls and that is why I believe these are the types of conversations that we should all aspire to have in our daily lives.
As for us, Yale students, we have the opportunity to work at political organizations, to contact constituents and to even work on bills. But even before that, reading or listening to opposing views is a very simple start. Our student profile is largely liberal, yet this doesn’t mean that everyone holds the same views. In fact, such diversity of opinions is what we need and what we should encourage in our classes and school organizations.
We cannot really stop people from buying their own brains. But we can make sure that those brains are attentive to various perspectives and willing to deliberate and make informed decisions instead of blindly following and accepting. Let’s first start with yours. “Why do you think so?”
SUDE YENILMEZ is a first year in Berkeley college. Her column, titled “Piecing together,” runs every other Thursday. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.