“It’s time for unity.” “We need to listen to each other more.” “Now that it’s over, things can get back to normal.” “Who knows, maybe he won’t do all that stuff.” “Let’s give him a chance.”
This is what it often looks like when liberals and moderates who didn’t support Trump try to come to terms with his election. To quell their own fears. To quell the fears of others. To tamp down the vitriol and partisanship of a long, ugly campaign. To make amends with the relatives on Facebook whom they all-caps yelled at, to signal to their Twitter followers that they are folding themselves into the new normal, and to atone for being blindsided by an election result that many had already predicted—primarily those most effected by a Trump presidency: immigrants and people of color.
Calls for unity and prayers that his campaign was mere showmanship are not only a coping mechanism, but a performance as well. It’s trite to say that any post on social media is a performance, though that does not make it less true. And politics itself is a performance. But I believe the performance of reasonability in this particular climate has important, perhaps dire, repercussions for all of us, and more so for the most vulnerable and disenfranchised among us.
In the days after the election, we were all surrounded by calls to unity. High profile members of the Democratic Party (warning: autoplay) raced each other to say how willing they were to work with the Republican Congress and Trump Administration. Major media outlets began reporting that Trump was backing off many of his most disturbing policy positions, mostly by citing his inconsistencies rather than any explicit, promised changes to his policies. And users all across Facebook and Twitter put out carefully crafted status updates explaining that now that the election was decided, we all needed to come together as Americans and embrace our new president. Listen to each other. Have compassion for each other. Understand the other side. And hey, it’s possible he’ll be a totally normal president. Right? Right?
What are these statements and pleas for reasonability meant to accomplish? Who exactly is expected to unite under a President Trump, or try to better understand their racist uncle Jerry, or have faith that Trump will not deport millions of people, as he has promised? Who are they trying to convince?
Sociologist Erving Goffman argued that human interaction is an exercise in presenting a certain version of one’s self with the goal of changing another’s actions or behavior. He used what is called a “dramaturgical” approach to interaction, framing it as a stage performance in which we are all the actors. He defined performance as “all the activity of a given participant on a given occasion which serves to influence in any way any of the other participants.” Often, this performance draws on a pre-established routine—a part or a script—that one puts on for their audience. The performance may vary from sincere to cynical, successful to ineffective, but it is almost always meticulous, much of it taking place even below the surface of conscious thought.
But the setting or “stage” determines a great deal of our performance. The call to your mother the morning after the election is likely to be quite different than the afternoon meeting with your boss and your evening chat with your neighbor. There are various back stages and front stages, levels of intimacy in which we can comfortably perform at the “sincere” pole of the script and where we have to be more cynical—not in the sense of pessimism, but insofar as we do not completely believe our script.
An example: when I am working behind the bar and a customer mentions the election, a million things pour into my mind. How well do I know this person? Do I know their politics? Do they come on often? Are they likely to take offense to disagreement? Do they enjoy a good debate on friendly terms? I have customers of all types. I alter my performance accordingly. That is my job as a hospitality worker because my livelihood depends on it, even after a fraught election cycle when tensions are running high. (Rest assured, I never express support for Trump; I don’t care who you are I ain’t doin that.) You do it too. You don’t talk to your racist uncle Jerry the way you talk to your closest friend. And you determine the terms of that interaction, that performance, based on your knowledge of these people and based on how you want them to act in the world.
Facebook is arguably the most complex front stage in most of our daily lives. It is filled with friends and family, people you haven’t spoken to in 15 years, political allies and enemies (some friendly, some not), and perhaps even people you met that one time at a party but you don’t really remember, yet for some reason they like all of your selfies. It is difficult to get a sense of your audience on Facebook. It is vast, and there are so many different types of people. And unlike some other social media with vast audiences, you are fully nonymous (named in a way that indicates your offline identity). It’s you, in a way that is not necessarily true in pseudononymous or anonymous spaces. Of course, you are always you, but a different type of you.
In their work on Identity construction on Facebook (academic pay wall), Shanyang Zhao, Sherri Grasmuch, and Jason Martin call this nonymous you the “real” you, as opposed to a fully anonymous “true” you who can perform for an audience in a way that you aren’t as accountable for while still trying to change their behavior. We may debate these terms—real vs. true—but the undeniable fact is that we do perform versions of ourselves for different online environments. All of them are “us” to some extent. But which “us” we present and where is revealing.
Zhao et. al. call the nonymous “real” self a “hoped for” or “possible” self—the one you project that is most in tune with who you want to be. For the authors, these distinctions are intended to challenge, not substantiate, the false notion that we have real offline identities and false online identities. Your most hoped-for self is you, and when you perform that type of you, you are attempting to elicit behavior from your audience that your hoped-for self would want.
As such, a call to unity on Facebook reveals a specific vision of yourself: perhaps it is “the moderate person” or “the practical person” or, most likely, “the reasonable person.” Let’s get along. Both sides have good points. Generally, most people are acting in good faith. As Obama said, we are now on the same team, and that team is America.
Who gets to be reasonable at a time like this? Who can afford it? And what kinds of motivations exist to make a person perform a hoped-for reasonability?
Certainly major news outlets have a stake in being reasonable. New is wrapped up in the discourse of objectivity at a time when the most wide-spread criticism of the media is that it is biased. For decades news reporters have been in a crisis of respectability. Only 4 in 10 Americans trust the media. In that context, the media can’t afford to not be reasonable. The purpose of their performance is to increase readership and revenue. Similarly, the Democratic Party has a long haul to becoming successful again and, for better or for worse, many of its leaders have chosen the “reasonable” path. Even Trump is beginning to perform a bizarre sort of reasonability, even as his appointments and policy proposals continue to shock and terrify vast swaths of the country.
But what about the Facebook post that tells us all to calm down and come together? There too is a search for legitimacy. Rather than trying to convince a paying readership or a fractured and dissatisfied electoral base, they are trying to convince their “friends,” whatever that term means on Facebook. Though trying to convince them of what is ambiguous.
These performative posts may be prompted by those of leftist friends calling for resistance at any cost, for protest and organizing and continued opposition to Trump, regardless of his new position of authority. It may be a response to the continued comparisons to Hitler, or it may even be a fear response to an uncertain future.
It may also be a performance for Trump-supporting friends who are gloating, writing threatening messages about the coming deportations, or denigrating liberals in the same ways that liberals love to denigrate conservatives.
But who does the “be reasonable” post convince? Are leftists going to read these statuses and say “wow, you’re right. Let’s cancel that rally, tune into Trump’s 60 Minutes interview, and give him a chance?” Are Trump’s supporters going to say “Good point, maybe liberals aren’t so bad after all?”
These posts are undoubtedly part of the rapid process of normalizing Trump, but they are also the construction of an identity intended to change the behavior or actions of their audience. But posters likely know that this performance will not change a left ardently opposed to Trump, nor a right that thinks liberals and leftists want nothing more than the destruction of the country.
They are intended to show fellow reasonable people that they too are reasonable. We’re all reasonably in this together.
And if everyone at every interaction in their life is performing a self with the purpose of affecting another person, this holds true for left, right, and center. But for moderates, for white people, for the “reasonables,” there is little cost. Of all of the people I’ve seen calling for us to be reasonable, they are those least likely to be affected by a Trump administration. I have yet to see an immigrant, a person of color, a gay or trans person make this kind of call, though I am sure there are exceptions. But based on what I have seen, disenfranchised and targeted populations are calling for resistance, not unity.
It is telling that the “real” hoped-for selves of many (though not all) of those unlikely to be in danger under a President Trump might call for moderation. They have little to lose if we “give him a chance,” and social capital to be gained among their agreeing social circle. Meanwhile, the “real” hoped-for selves that are likely to be targeted by Trump are calling for massive resistance. Because their hoped-for self is a person who is alive, who can crawl out of poverty and oppression, who can topple the regimes that dehumanize them. Their performance is a call to arms, because their survival will depend on changing the behaviors of their audience such they take action to aid in that survival.
In other words, some people can’t afford to be reasonable.
Britney is on Twitter.