We are a country divided — this is no secret — and one of the more troubling divisions lies in the level of our tolerance for unkindness. As if in direct response to Michelle Obama’s assertion that “when they go low, we go high,” cruelty and derision have become trademarks of certain right-wing media personalities and their followers.
It’s no wonder that this demographic latched on to Trumpism so heartily; as writer Adam Serwer pointed out about Trump and his supporters, “the cruelty is the point,” and the same can easily be said of conservative heroes like Ben Shapiro and Tucker Carlson.
For years, right-wing media’s reigning voices have decried what they see as weakness and fragility, raging against snowflakes and wokeness and trigger warnings, all while delighting in their own perceived courage and power. Like the weak but beguiling kids who win over the bullies by providing witty insults to complement their fists, these media stars have gained a following by lashing out at society’s most vulnerable members.
When faced with a world in which we refer to people by their chosen pronouns, for example, Ben Shapiro sniped that we would all have to “bow before the subjective wants, needs, and desires of people who require special protection from life’s realities. We must reeducate generations of people to ignore science in favor of feelings. We must strong-arm individuals into abandoning central planks of their morality in the name of sensitivity.”
On growing trends like art therapy, safe spaces, and therapy animals at schools, developed to help young people deal with trauma, Jeff Sessions warned of the”coddling” of young people that prevents them from “scrutinizing the validity of their beliefs on the issue of the day.”
When the military announced efforts to promote inclusivity and diversity within its ranks, Tucker Carlson declared that the “cringing, the self-hatred, the hair-on-fire hysteria, the total obliviousness to historical reality… like an adolescent rage fit that goes on forever” was creeping from college campuses and public radio shows into our military, putting us all in danger.
This behavior was on display most recently with the conservative media’s response to Simone Biles pulling out of competition at the Olympics. “We are raising a generation of weak people like Simone Biles,” said Charlie Kirk. Piers Morgan opined that it’s not “remotely courageous, heroic or inspiring to quit.”
Dismissive? Absolutely. Overwrought? Of course, all of it. But that is, after all, the point, to dive into fear-mongering, hackles-raising, dare I say “hair-on-fire hysteria” so as to convince the audience that they are being threatened, every day and in every way, by “the left.” These media personalities don’t consider themselves mean but rather fancy themselves arbiters of the unpalatable realities their fans need to hear. Without them, they suggest, we will turn into hordes of weak-minded fools chasing wokeness while antifa takes over this nation, and so they deliver the harsh truths that will save us from this dire fate. Their cruelty is necessary, they have maintained, and their critics should stop being so sensitive.
Nothing about these tactics is noble, honest, or rational, but they are admittedly strategic and effective. Fox News has a large audience, most of whom believe in their hearts that transgender pronouns, emotional support systems at schools, military inclusivity, and even acknowledging mental health pose a direct threat to their traditional white Christian way of life.
Meanwhile, of course, the world is fighting a persistent pandemic. Not in small part because of Trump’s unfortunate response and subsequent downplaying of its severity, many more people have died than should have — and continue to die, despite the ready availability of an effective vaccine.
It just so happens that there’s a substantial overlap between people who live in Trump-voting counties and those with low vaccination rates. A July poll by the Associated Press and NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that refusal to get vaccinated against Covid-19 is closely tied to political views. Vaccination holdouts tend to be white, Republican-leaning Christians living in rural areas; the same group of people who voted overwhelmingly for Trump and who get their news from right-wing sources such as Fox.
So, with this information in mind, here’s an idea:
How about we abandon all this tactful and empathetic advice we’ve gotten on encouraging Covid vaccine holdouts to get the shot? Let’s forget about listening and trying to understand and providing facts and data showing the vaccine’s efficacy and safety; these strategies might work on certain populations, but they’re not working here.
Conservatives have clearly stated that they don’t want to be coddled. Let’s instead adopt the tone that these communities find effective and convincing. Let’s imagine what right-wing media personalities, in all their bluster and insensitivity and blunt cruelty, might say if they weren’t committed to maintaining a culture war around Covid-19. Something like this:
“I don’t care if you’re nervous or worried. I don’t care if you have doubts about this or other vaccines. I’m not interested in your whining or protesting, and I’m certainly not interested in this sudden idea that other people advising you on what to do with your own body is abuse. No one wants to tiptoe around your feelings or your fears. Your country has asked something of you and a real American would do it, no questions asked. Man up.”
This statement is insensitive, unempathetic, simplistic, appeals to patriotism, and even sneaks in a little sexism. In other words, it checks all the boxes of a right-wing media rant. Who knows? It might work.
Because let’s face it: at this point, anything’s worth a try.
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