Yesterday, the Washington Post published an article about a vulnerable woman from Pennsylvania. She was subjected to severe sexual harassment and discrimination in a male dominated workplace. Successfully suing her employer, she was awarded $450,000 in damages, to then have the “verdict overturned by a federal judge who did not question the facts of the case but decided that the matter had been handled appropriately”.
She continued working in an environment where she explains that men were abusive to her every single day. Her sister became seriously ill and died of cancer. She was sacked from her job after making a dangerous decision in the midst of severe anxiety and has been left with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression.
Yet, the article was not about the appalling injustices the woman, Melanie Austin, has faced or the ways she has suffered. Written by Stephanie McCrummen, THE ARTICLE focusses on Melanie as a passionate Donald Trump supporter. It is brilliantly written and powerfully shows how Trump’s political success and approach to campaigning validates dangerous and ludicrous ideologies; views more at home on conspiracy theory websites than in a presidential campaign. Reading it, I variously laughed aloud, made shocked faces and loudly exclaimed “WHAAAAAT?” to myself.
Melanie Austin believes President Obama is gay, that Michelle Obama is a man and that their children have been kidnapped, possibly from a family in Mexico. She was involuntarily hospitalised after stating online that “Obama should be hanged and the White House fumigated and burned to the ground”. The fact that Donald Trump’s campaign (and the people who support it) has validated and normalised her views is one of the most shocking things about the article.
Usually my empathy levels are extremely high when I encounter women who have been sexually harassed, emotionally undermined and/or dominated in ways that leave them anxious, their confidence decimated and their lives in tatters. I feel their pain, I feel anger and outrage at what they have been put through and the ways structures and systems have damaged them even further. However, as I read the Washington Post’s article I did not feel much empathy for Melanie Austin. I was incredulous of her views, horrified by her politics and disgusted by Donald Trump’s political campaign.
The empathy deficit that occurred as I read was because the narrative caricatured her rather than focusing on her as a multifaceted human being. Just as a cartoonist may enlarge their subject’s facial features to create an exaggerated likeness, so this article enlarged and attended to Melanie’s offensive political views, without really examining the system in which those views have been cultivated. And I became complicit as I read openmouthed about her. Her views reduced my capacity to see her as a human being. To conclude that I (a passionate supporter of women, particularly women who have been broken by male abuse and by patriarchal institutions) had dehumanised this woman who had been damaged so badly, shocked me almost as much as Melanie’s views about the Obamas.
As we navigate this complex and extremely stormy political waters, we can become fixated on the extraordinary views of individual people, unable to step back and see that their views have grown to fruition in a soil of lies sold to them by large media corporations, politicians, multinational companies and also (much to our shame) faith leaders. We of the “educated class”, look at the likes of Melanie Austin and, alongside our horror, we feel relieved that we are not so stupid, so ignorant, so disgusting as to believe such utterly vile lies. And in so doing we dehumanise Melanie as stupid, ignorant and disgusting. We are enlightened and we can be sure that only stupid, ignorant or disgusting people would vote for Donald Trump. We are, of course, the superior class.
And yet, Melanie has been subjected to abuse, systemic injustice and is living with the consequences of that. She looked for answers and found them in the conspiracy pages, in right wing politics, in televangelists and in Donald Trump. She views herself as a Christian. She prays daily, sings hymns and says she feels, “happy and blessed.”
I write this article from the UK where the threat of Donald Trump (and his most passionate supporters) are a whole ocean away. Yet Brexit may be perceived in similar ways to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. The demonising of immigrants and false and misinformation abound. Whether intentionally or unintentionally Brexit has validated racist and xenophobic ideologies and people are divided, not along traditional political lines, but by deep values that are hard to even recognise, never mind articulate.
Stephanie McCrummen’s article expertly enables us to see the danger of Donald Trump, but at the expense of the humanity of a vulnerable woman with a long history of trauma and hurt. She becomes a parody, no longer a person, but a spectacle for those of us with more progressive views to stare at. Her humanity is lost as she becomes a vehicle for demonstrating the danger of Trump.
It is in our realising Melanie Austin’s humanity that we have some hope of changing the narrative. Rather than dehumanising her and seeing her as the enemy, we could seek to find ways to relate with her and offer alternative answers to her struggles. Jerry Falwell has told her that September 11th was the fault of the “the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians.” Instead of feminism giving her an analysis of the violence perpetrated against her, she sees it as causing a terrorist attack.
We must make visible the systems and structures that created Trump supporters, just as we must find ways to demonstrate how Brexit is the result of political decisions (by both the Labour and Conservative parties), a lack of political education, class inequality, long-term biased media reporting and the capitalising of the injustices facing the least powerful in society.
As Christians, this mandate is clearly laid out by Paul in his letter to the Ephesians, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Ephesians 6:12).
And Jesus taught us how to behave in these situations, “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:44-48)
“If you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others?”
As Christians we may be fighting for our voice to be heard above “Christian” extremists like Jerry Falwell and John Hagee, but we must choose not to ridicule or dehumanise Donald Trump’s supporters, for what reward will we get for that?