It's a coffee shop in Charlottesville Virginia. Winter is here. The temperature outside is just around 25 Deg F (-8 Deg C). The hot coffee with some cinnamon feels like it's sent from heaven.
A couple of tables across a small group is in a hot political debate. Charlottesville has seen some dark days recently and it's on everyone's mind. The coffee shop is about a mile or so from newly named Heather Heyer street. She was killed there. A small makeshift memorial marks the spot. Some flowers, signs and stuffed animals.
Heated voices from the table break my spell of daydreaming. "Trump", "Tax returns", "Nazis", "Narcissist", "Conflict of interest", "Love vs hate".
The last phrase bothers me. It always does.
I am an atheist, tree-hugger. I support gay marriage and drive a Prius.
So I am liberal? Right? Well, it's complicated.
I am a transplant from India. Because of my upbringing and social status, I am very much a conservative when it comes to Indian affairs. I am the equivalent of a well-to-do Christian white man there.
Step foot in the US and it changes. I am a first generation immigrant. I feel the typical immigrant insecurity. I am more sensitive to the plight of people who do not have the establishment advantage. Women, blacks, immigrants, religious minorities.
This is why I have a unique perspective on US politics that most liberals don't. I have been on both sides of the spectrum. I may disagree with the other side, but understand where they are coming from.
So every time I hear "love vs hate", I want to yell "No, it's not. It's more like fear vs fear."
Say you and I are sitting next to each other in a bar. Then I turn around and suddenly punch you. Without provocation, without warning, just BAM! What do you think you will do? Unless you are a saint, you are going to explode with anger and hit me back.
You will not hit me back because my behaviour was disrespectful or illegal. You will hit me back to teach me a lesson so that I will never hit you again. You will hit back to assert control over the situation. Because you fear that if you don't, then I will feel empowered to hit you again and again.
In a nutshell, your response has less to do with what happened and more to do with your perception of what might happen - your risk perception. If you were to find out that your risk perception is invalid, say by noticing that I had a prosthetic arm that accidentally came loose and hit you, your response would be very different.
In most political debates, there is a lack of understanding of the other person's risk perception. If you don't understand their fear, you are only left with character flaws, like hate, as the only explanation of their actions.
When a black person reads about the police shooting a black man, he extrapolates it to more and more police shootings in the future and someday he or his son being shot. When a white person sees a black football player kneeling while the national anthem is playing, he extrapolates it to more and more acts of disrespecting the flag, national anthem, eventually, everyone lacking patriotism and the nation getting divided and defeated.
The white person does not hate the kneeling black football player nor does the black player hate the nation. Each one is afraid of different things.
This differential risk perception results in differential sensitivity, and differential empathy. On the face, it looks like hate. Underneath, it's just that we love one cause less than the other.
Allowing fear to our opponent allows us to humanize them, relate to them and open up opportunities to build bridges. Otherwise, we end up looking at them as an evil that can never be made peace with, can never be empathized with. The depictions like "love vs hate" are giving people license to do exactly that, to show less and less empathy. And empathy is what liberalism is all about.