The Lip­stick Ef­fect

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - By Alexan­dra Oliver

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.

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