In Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” a hobgoblin creates a mirror that shows the worst of everyone: moles overwhelm otherwise normal faces and items of beauty resemble boiled spinach. The mirror shatters and shards of it enter peoples’ eyes, which leaves them unable to see good in anyone. This mirror and its shards might be real, for their existence would explain much of our politics.
If there is bipartisan agreement on anything, it is that our side is on the side of angels and the other guys are on Satan’s payroll. The Democrats are out to swindle the public for government bureaucrats, while Republicans are puppets of Wall Street and big business. Gay people are out to destroy the family, while straight people are hypocrites who love marriage’s benefits more than their freshly divorced spouses.
When we view politics through the hobgoblin’s mirror, we see only caricatures, sort of like the ugly litany in the previous paragraph (for the record, the authors would like to state that some of their best friends happen to be straight). Caricatures exist because they’re a tempting shortcut: instead of doing the difficult work of trying to understand people who think differently, we make it easy on ourselves and set up a straw man whose evil justifies knocking him down—if not burning him at the stake.
When TV becomes a screaming match, remember that the people aren’t yelling at each other. They’re yelling at a caricature. The screaming heads on TV are putting on a show; the other guy didn’t take an oath saying, “evil, be thou my good,” but he looked at facts and drew a different conclusion. His conclusion might be wrong, but it was probably arrived at honestly, and screaming at him is unlikely to change his mind and likely to harden his heart. Worse, anger grows when we feed it, so screaming leads to more screaming.
It would be lovely, yet naive, to say that all we need to do to stop the screaming is to stop screaming. This simple solution doesn’t work because an underlying cause of anger is the reliance on the caricature. We do not rid ourselves of caricatures by holding hands and singing Kumbaya. Caricatures are created in part because we look at others through the hobgoblin’s mirror; ironically enough, we can rid ourselves of them when we use that mirror on ourselves.
Looking at ourselves thus is unpleasant. Do our most bitter critics have valid points? If they do, we must overcome them. Self-criticism is painful, and less fun than criticizing others, but if we do the latter without the former, we too become the caricatures. We hate it when others make uninformed, unthinking judgments of us, but we easily do it to others—just because it’s easy.
When we assume the worst about people with whom we disagree, we caricature ourselves. With our friends and people we love, we are quick to attempt to try to see how they might see the world when they do things we don’t understand. We are usually less understanding with political adversaries. As soon as we begin to hurl accusations of bad faith around, we stop ourselves from understanding others and make it harder for them to care enough to understand us. People with different opinions from us are not caricatures, and should not be treated as such.
In a strange sense, we become invisible when we’re caricatured. Someone looks at a person and based on a caricature makes a series of assumptions: if gay, then promiscuous and liberal and flighty; if conservative, then stodgy and rich and straight; and so on. These caricatures are usually of us at our worst.
The first step to stopping the politics of caricature is not to become horrible caricatures ourselves. It’s hard work and less rewarding than a gig as a screaming head — but whoever said that being gay or political was going to be a lucrative cinch? Others will treat us badly, but when we overcome the temptation to caricature others, we make it harder to be ourselves caricatured. And when others stop seeing caricatures and start seeing us at our best, we might even change minds and hearts.
Robert Turner is president of the D.C. chapter of Log Cabin Republicans. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @DCBigPappa on Twitter. Mike Hubbard is a board member of the D.C. chapter of Log Cabin. Reach him at email@example.com or @mikeahub on Twitter.