The Lipstick Effect
You know you need a new one when you’re bored or overcome or underwhelmed, or sad, when you can feel the jangles of your age; when you have matters weighing on your mind (the news, your kids, the heft of your behind)— or change arrives, the flipping of a page: you lose a job, move house, cremate your dad, then add another colour to the hoard
amassed in your boudoir. Their names alone inspire revolution at some level, assuring you there’s Fire Down Below
(your husband says it’s snuffed), a latent Vamp, a Dolce Vita waiting where you camp and, on the prairie, Cherries in the Snow. Beneath the paint, you’re neither sleek nor evil. It’s just the tubes, the hollow names, you own. yourself, are by-enlarge [ sic] rabid lefties,” he writes in an email. “It is the only way to advance your careers, it seems.”
Burns sends me another link, this one to a Fox News story. It discusses how a hoax, which involved a woman who claimed that she was attacked and had her hijab ripped off her head, was widely reported in the media. I start investigating other examples of fake news that have circulated on the left. Snopes reported that a frequently shared image of the KKK marching in North Carolina — one that I’d seen previously on Facebook — was false. Another picture that I recognize, of a Nazi flag flying on someone’s property, turned out to be not the work of a fascist but someone’s opaque critical comment on Trump. But even though mainstream media have reported some inaccuracies and hoaxes about discriminatory acts that had been attributed to Trump supporters, it’s a fact that, overall, hate crimes in the US are on the rise. The FBI reported that there were 6,121 reported hate crimes in 2016, and those numbers were up 5 percent from the year prior.
In my email response to Burns, I tell him that I can see the point he was trying to make. But, rather than using the moment to be conciliatory, Burns keeps pushing. “In terms of race, do you consider yourself Jewish rather than white?” he writes in a long email to me. “Is that why it is so easy for you to demonize white people?”
After a week of back and forth, Burns tells me that I have to show him concrete proof of how Trump supporters promote violence or else he’ll terminate our dialogue. “Should be a piece of cake for a crack reporter like you,” he challenges. I take my time and find three videos. The first, from CNN, shows middle-school children shouting “build a wall” in the presence of Latino kids. Burns responds: “Children chanting is not violence. Plus, sorry, this is CNN, the Clinton News Network.” Another video depicts a white driver hurling racist abuse at a person of colour. “Road rage comes in many forms,” Burns said. “But again, this wasn’t violence.” The third is of an older white man punching a black protester at a Trump rally. “Many of the agitators at Trump rallies were paid agitators wearing Bernie shirts to discredit both Trump and Bernie. They went there to provoke,” Burns retorts, offering an explanation that has been thoroughly debunked.
I feel as though I am up against an insurmountable wall — Burns has his facts, I have mine. What’s more, while I recognize
that mainstream media might not be correct all of the time, it is, by and large, concerned with the truth. The same cannot be said about Burns’s oft-cited media organizations, which include biased far-right websites and publications that veer into the realm of conspiracy theories.
Jayson Harsin, a professor in global communications at the American University in Paris, is researching the phenomenon of “post-truth politics,” which describes how media is causing our democratic polarization. He says that many people no longer believe politicians, experts, journalists, or each other, and amidst all this cynicism, they instead are more likely to believe whatever is “emotional, out of control, angry, and highly uncivil.” In other words, “the truth” is whatever causes them rage. Harsin adds that compounding this is the dissolution of the old media ecosystem, where most people read, watched, and listened to the same sources. Now media has fragmented into hundreds of channels and created disparate audiences that receive different information. My feeling that Burns and I live in separate realities is underscored by the fact that, in a way, we do.
When I ask Burns how we might bridge the gap between our media echo chambers, his answer surprises me. “Empathy. If you truly want to understand where I am coming from, you will listen honestly and put yourself in my shoes,” he says. “If you are so locked into your position that you cannot listen and reply honestly, we can’t get anywhere.” Burns then brings up what seems to be his main concern: “The current mainstream tone leaves me feeling that the world seems to think it is okay to commit violence against whites,” he tells me. But rather than heed his advice, I remain irritated — how could he ask for an empathetic ear when he doesn’t listen to proof of how violence is routinely being committed against racialized people and other minorities? I ask Burns if he has personally experienced any kind of violence on account of his being white. He dodges the question and instead responds with a link to a video that shows people harming a Trump supporter. Burns’s battles, and his wounds, appear to exist only online.
I decide to visit Burns in his home province. A 2017 study from the University of California at Berkeley reported that encountering different ideas through text makes people more prone to “dehumanize” the communicator and view them as “having a diminished capacity to either think or feel.” I hope that an in-person interaction might help us understand one another.
Before I can book my flight, though, my tenuous relationship with Burns falls apart. It starts when I weigh in on a friend’s Facebook debate on whether punching neo-nazis is defensible. Burns jumps in with a long stream of comments, accusing left wingers of justifying their violence by calling everyone they disagree with “Nazis.” He posts a link to a website where I find a claim that Jews invented communism and murdered 60 million Russian Christians. When I point out to Burns that this is false and anti-semitic, he has none of it: “When you cry Hitler all the time, eventually it has no impact.” On my own page, Burns suggests that I should get my testosterone checked. One comment says, “I’ll be the first to cheer when the police kick your ass.” I can’t help but chuckle: the governmenthating conservative wants to outsource his beating of me to the state. But I stop laughing when he writes about “poor migrants” raping my daughter.
The ordeal leaves me furious. I fantasize about flying to Calgary, meeting Burns in a bar, and punching him in the face. It feels like that is the only way left to communicate. But the rage passes — and I’m not particularly tough — so, instead, I cut off all contact with him. (Burns later told my editors that he stopped using Facebook because he found it a poor platform for sharing ideas. He also said that he found my online attitude toward Trump supporters to have been “hostile.”)
After my break with Burns, I feel a mixture of relief and despair. The experience offers me justification that my original paranoia concerning the right was warranted: Burns appears to be proof that the people on the other side are, in fact, my enemies. But time passes, and I cool off and come to another conclusion: self-righteous rage — on the left as much as the right — is only fuelling polarization. Besides, Burns doesn’t represent the whole right — he only speaks for himself. I’ll never find out why he’s at war, but despising him can’t be my way forward. I spent the year following Donald Trump’s inauguration talking to men on the right, reading their websites, and watching their Youtube videos. After immersing
myself in their world, I feel as though I can finally see society from their point of view. Yes, some people are fuelled by hate, but the values that others act on are often not that different from my own. Some are against economic disparity; others want to repair a sense of community that feels diminished. What stands out to me, though, is how much these white, middle-class men feel threatened by others. These feelings do not always appear to be justified, though, occasionally, they do. I think about the times I’ve disparaged and mocked people on the right, often without knowing anything of their motivations or experiences. I’ve realized that I am often selective about who I listen to and with whom I empathize. I still disagree with their social politics, but I can see how I’ve turned right wingers into bogeymen — created to affirm that my ideological allies and I are the good guys.
One night, out at a bar with two friends, I try to explain my changing views. I talk about how I think that people on the left have to stop demonizing the right and instead start acknowledging when comments or criticisms from right wingers are valid. As an example, I bring up a current debate on gender. A common belief on the left is that gender is a social construct — in other words, differences between men and women are entirely determined by their social conditioning. While I still mostly agree, I mention that there might be some truth to the argument favoured by the right, which says that behaviour is a product of biology. When my friends try to argue with me, I feel judged and get irrationally frustrated. I want to yell, Why won’t you listen to me? I’m a good person!
I go outside for a quick walk to calm down. Out of nowhere, a thought pops into my head: What if I’ve spent too much time on the other side and have become one of them? People on the far right have a term for this moment: taking the red pill. The phrase, which comes from the first Matrix film, describes the moment a person “wakes up” and finally sees our society for how it really is — supposedly full of incorrect liberal ideologies that we aren’t allowed to question. I feel a new sense of self-righteous anger: I am the lone truth teller, beset by groupthink. I can feel the appeal of this rebel identity.
This feeling of understanding my political doppelgängers was what I wanted when I started this experiment. But rather than feeling enlightened, I feel alone. I can no longer hate right wingers as a hard-and-fast practice, and because of that, I worry that I’ll no longer fit in with my left-wing team. I’ve pulled back the curtain, and instead of seeing enemies motivated purely by hatred and bigotry, I see scared people trying to convince themselves that they are good. Now when I look at left wingers, I believe that what drives us isn’t so different. The flaws that I’d previously attributed to the right, such as self-righteousness and nonempathetic judgmentalism, aren’t inherent to a particular ideology. They are traits that come with being human. I n August, I fly to Kelowna, where forest fires rage, to see Curtis Stone one final time. I walk into his backyard and am greeted by radishes, basil, and the best cherry tomatoes I’ve eaten all summer. I am on this trip with a specific purpose: I am under the impression that anger is fuelling Stone’s rants, and I want to find out where that emotion is coming from. If I understand that, maybe I can convince him to step away from his brand of antagonistic politics and bring his thinking in line with my own.
When we were together in Montreal, Stone had rambled about a bad breakup and his ex’s “feminist lawyer.” When I bring the conversation around to gender this time, Stone tells me that though he now identifies as an “alpha male,” this hasn’t always been the case. “I had always been a self-hating male,” he confesses. Self-hatred comes pretty naturally to me too — as does questioning my own masculinity — and I wonder how dealing with the same problems has led us to such different politics.
I decide to ask him outright where he thinks his anger comes from. “I was bullied by white feminists in university,” is his response. Stone says that, when living in Montreal, some feminists responded to his opinions by telling him to check his white male privilege. “What do I do with that? Don’t talk?” he asks me. He says that he kept quiet for a bit but eventually rejected political correctness outright. “That’s the whole birth of the alt-right!” he exclaims. “People have had enough of being told to shut up because they’re white men.” I try to explain to Stone that those women might have just been asking him to start listening to them and their perspective (in my experience, listening is not his strength). I’m not sure that he hears my point.
I move the conversation along and ask Stone about his infant daughter. When we discuss our shared love of parenting, Stone shifts the conversation to his own father. “All the things I critique myself for are things I saw in my dad and thought, Okay, I’ve got to change that,” he tells me. Stone describes his dad as a hard-ass — arrogant, hard to talk to, terrible at listening. His grandfather was the same way. “My family kind of had this no-love thing,” he says. Stone tells me that he was always a contrarian — he sees his switch from punk and anti-capitalism to the libertarian right as a continuation of his counter-cultural roots. I admit that I, too, had a difficult relationship with my father, and that’s what predisposed me to anti-authoritarianism.
These parallels don’t go unnoticed for Stone either. He tells me that he finds us to be similar — not just in regards to our lives but also in our politics. “You’re a classical liberal like me,” he says. “You believe in free speech, individual rights.” This leaves me deflated. I like Stone, and I’ve come to understand his positions, but it seems like he is no closer to comprehending mine. He doesn’t seem to get why I find his beliefs so concerning. We may be two oppositional white guys with buried anger, but that’s where the similarities end. Maybe, if a few things had happened differently, he’d have had my politics, or I his. But even so, there remains a gulf between us that understanding can’t bridge.
On our final night together, we attach Stone’s canoe to the back of his bike and cycle down to Okanagan Lake. The sun is beginning to set, a deep, smoky red caused by the nearby fires. It feels apocalyptic. It looks gorgeous. We canoe through glasslike water for forty-five minutes until we reach a small beach. We get out and smoke a joint, drink local cider, and jump into the lake as the sun drops behind a mountain.
We canoe back when the sky turns purple. “So in order to write your article,” Stone says between strokes, “to make it a good story, I guess you have to find something about me — some detail or secret — that explains why I’m wrong and you’re right.” I pause for a minute and think about what he said. Then the wind picks up and the water becomes choppy. We paddle on, and dusk turns to darkness just as we reach shore.