Sappy, Symbolic Gestures Matter a Lot Today

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Photo: Philippe Lissac/Getty Images

Like a large swath of the country, I’m in shock at the moment. I barely slept last night, and I spent a good chunk of this morning listlessly clicking around the internet, trying and failing to make some sense of the wreckage.

Then, this tweet from a colleague made me smile a little:

It’s sappy, but for today, at least, these sorts of gestures are really, really important.

There is no way to undo what happened last night. There is also no way to overstate how scary and uncertain things are right now. But in the immediate aftermath, those of us who value certain norms — empathy, multiculturalism, tolerance — can push back just a little bit against the storm that is coming by broadcasting those norms to the world. This is who we are, this is what we value, and no lying, bigoted demagogue can change that.

There is a real chance that Donald Trump’s election will increase the danger various marginalized groups face. This is not an overstatement — Trump has been open about the fact that he is hoping to deport a lot of people, and that he doesn’t trust Muslims, as a group, all 1.6 billion of them. When a president-elect has said things like that, people who share these fears and resentments may well decide to lash out at the minority groups who are, in their eyes, responsible for a host of problems and frustrations.

But one of the ways individuals decide which acts to commit, good or bad, is by taking the pulse of the social norms around them. Between what we think we want to do and what we actually do is a vitally important mediating step: what we think other people expect us to do, and how we anticipate they will respond to our actions. That’s why bolstering anti-bullying social norms directly seems to help reduce bullying in middle schools; in schools with highly salient anti-bullying norms, bullies realize they can’t get away with acting on their impulses.

Patrick Datila, a Christian, stands with Muslim people in front of a mosque in the Central African Republic, in an area where members of the two religions decided to unite to protect their own churches and mosques, on December 16, 2013.Photo: Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images
A Syrian woman waves to the crowd to say thank you to the German public who welcomes them on September 09, 2015 in Munich, Germany.Photo: Geovien So/Barcroft Media/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

So all that sappy stuff matters today — those visible displays of intergroup solidarity, Jews going to mosques or Muslims going to synagogues or all the other stuff that’s so easy to write off as saccharine theater. Those gestures matter today, when the uncertainty and the anger and the hurt are boiling over. They won’t fix everything, and won’t heal the world — but still, today, they matter.