Lately, I have been doing some volunteer phone banking, encouraging voters to participate in the November midterm elections. Given my expertise lies in writing, this has been a sea change for me. I can happily talk to a large crowd gathered to explore books and sundry related topics, or have fun debating the true meaning of words, or argue the origin of dialects and how language has changed the world. But I am nonplussed — bewildered — by what I encounter when I make calls as a volunteer for a local political candidate.
I’ve tried to nail what is going on. Is it that no one wants to talk politics anymore? Is it that it’s supper time and people have just come home from work and talking on the phone is the last thing they want to do? I can relate to those things. If they answer, very few stay on more than thirty seconds, as a rule, but they do at least accept my call. I never get to describe my candidate, but I can mark the person as receptive for a call back, maybe.
Most calls go unanswered — people are either not at home or prefer to check voicemail. I tick the relevant boxes.
Sometimes, though, I do get someone who wants to talk — not with me — they want to talk AT me. I’m a stranger to them, a nice (I am) volunteer asking for an opinion, speaking politely. Apparently that is a RED FLAG. I am their avenue of vengeance, somehow signaling that venting their POV on me is okay — no one will ever know — after all, I am a stranger. What they then deliver is a brief diatribe on why they would rather be in hell than vote for my party affiliation. They are not averse to serious vulgarity. They condemn policies I haven’t had time to even mention. Then they slam the phone down.
I might have tried to interrupt, but I don’t want to respond with belligerence, though being “nice” obviously isn’t cutting it. Some comments on trigger issues like gun control, pro-choice (or not), and immigrant populations are given to me with a take-no-prisoners series of invectives. Some use their version of humor, stating they would take any candidate from my party “out in the back yard and shoot him.” (I assume they’d shoot “her,” too.) Then THEY slam the phone down.
I’d have to be bereft of my senses to miss the point — they think it is okay not to listen, to castigate an unsuspecting stranger, to require agreement at all cost. No dialogue, thank you. No right to dissent (though the Constitution describes dissent as the last and final defense against a dictator). It is the expression of absolutism in its purest form.
I am inclined to sigh a lot while doing phone banking — before I dial the next number, that is. Then I gear up, feel energy, believe reaching people matters. I actually do believe that.
Still, it is a bit like banging my head against a wall, or a table (which I’ve done, once, after an especially vicious caller let loose in ten seconds with a venom that exceeded all the others). What possesses people to speak that way, with such venom, with such — and this what it is — HATRED? For a political party? Like, where does that fit in the scheme of things in the Universe? When they meet St. Peter at the Pearly Gates, or whoever they expect to meet when they cross over, I am pretty sure they aren’t going to be asked what party they belonged to during their earthly existence. More likely they’ll be asked, “How did you treat other human beings during your lifetime? What did you say and do to or for them — or not?”
I was talking about this with a friend today and asked him what he thought was going on. He smiled and said “Tsk, tsk, you’re reacting to the Trumpkins.” He said he had invented the word to describe people who believe in Trump like he was a god, who believe if you oppose Trump’s agenda, you belong to the devil. And since my party is not Trump’s party, that was what opened up the river of expletives the callers felt (feel) free to use.
I think he may have nailed it. The people who speak so rudely on the phone have all — so far — been Trump supporters. Since I do not for a moment believe that most people are naturally uncivil, I believe now that somehow the meanness and venom expressed consistently by Trump in his random and not so random tweets and speeches has given some people who consider him as their divine leader the feeling they are free to release their frustration and hatred by emulating his example — no matter who they choose as a target. Anyone will do — including an unsuspecting volunteer at a phone bank.
I am not the same person I was months ago when I began as a volunteer, starry-eyed about assisting the political process. But I was born an optimist. I still am one.
Only now, I am a whole lot more savvy about what is going on out there. And to my mind this is a good thing. We can be naive, in a good way. But we must use discernment, too. We must be aware that the presence of so much hatred is a signpost for us — not into The Twilight Zone (I don’t think) — but into facing the truth.
It is too easy to yield to vengeance and anger and hatred. It is far more difficult to be willing to act with civility, with integrity, and with compassion. Yet the payoff for choosing the high road is infinitely more desirable.
This is what phone banking has shown me (the hard way).