Popular daytime talk show host Ellen DeGeneres recently made headlines when she and wife were snapped sitting alongside former President George W. Bush at a Dallas Cowboys football game.
The apparent contrast between DeGeneres’ political leanings and pro-LGBTQ stances, and Bush’s conservative ideals – including a push to restrict marriage to the “union of a man and woman” during his presidency – caused a backlash.
DeGeneres responded by explaining herself in a monologue on her show. “I’m friends with George Bush,” she said. “In fact, I’m friends with a lot of people who don’t share the same beliefs that I have. We’re all different, and I think that we’ve forgotten that that’s okay.”
Yes, that was me at the Cowboys game with George W. Bush over the weekend. Here’s the whole story. pic.twitter.com/AYiwY5gTIS
— Ellen DeGeneres (@TheEllenShow) October 8, 2019
DeGeneres’ action touched the mainstream media insofar that Democratic Presidential Candidates were asked about their acts of kindness during the last presidential debate. This theatrical performance took time away from far more pressing issues like climate change, immigration, and white supremacy.
Many proponents of DeGeneres’ “kind gesture” emphasized the need to show more empathy and kindness towards each other in today’s polarized America. Some condemned the “Leftist Elites” for chastising DeGeneres for “merely” hanging out with Bush.
Us versus Them
The dual manifestation of the notions of “tribalism” and “othering” stood out through this episodic outburst of bipartisanship.
In a 2017 Guardian article, Professor John A. Powell explained that when societies experience big and rapid change, people frequently narrowly define who qualifies as a full member of society. Powell calls this process “othering,” and said it is “based on the conscious or unconscious assumption that a certain identified group poses a threat to the favored group.”
On the flip side, we are more accepting and forgiving towards people who we recognize as full members of the community based on their cultural, religious, and ethnic proximities to us.
DeGeneres’ explanation about why she chose to show kindness towards a war criminal is emblematic of tribalism. It indicates how conveniently our political consciousness allows us to forgive the crimes of those whom we can identify with while crucifying the “other” for similar offenses.
From DeGeneres’ privileged point, her disagreements with Bush may seem minor. However, given the extent of his abuses, which include war crimes during the Iraq war and his administration’s despicable treatment of victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, it is hard to reconcile with the idea of unfettered kindness. To make things worse, Bush has never tried to show any remorse or regret for his actions.
The question that we should then ask ourselves is whether or not supporters of DeGeneres would have extended the same degree of empathy if she was sharing space with the likes of convicted Bosnian Serb war criminal Ratko Mladić, former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussain, or former Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi who are not part of “the tribe.”
We can all agree that under no circumstances can we show any degree of kindness or compassion towards these individuals. The entire nation would be up in arms against any such action. In all seriousness though, how is Bush any different other than the fact that he is a former American president?
Today’s Polarized America
As a Muslim woman who has been targeted and marginalized for the crimes of those who claim to be part of my religious identity, I find it extremely hypocritical how selective our society is in not only being generous towards a few chosen ones but also vehemently justifying their stance.
While as a nation we continue to ignore the war crimes of Bush, we support draconian measures under the guise of “national security” that target Muslims and other minorities, wars in the Middle East, indiscriminate mass incarceration, gun violence, caged children, and the constant dehumanization of minorities. Ironically, we regularly condemn Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib for merely asserting their point of view on specific issues, two women of color who are visibly different.
Yet, as soon as a public figure justifies their friendship with a war criminal who belongs to a dominant group, gatekeepers of society not only cheer her but also shame others for rightfully pointing to his criminal record. People on both sides of the political divide are complicit in such behavior. Democrats are no better than Republicans.
Setting Aside Differences
The idyllic notion that in today’s divisive America we should reach out across the political aisle and engage in meaningful dialogue is plausible to some degree but not necessarily practical. I am expected to reach out to people who deny my right to exist in this country and who voted for a president who has time and again targeted people like me.
Nevertheless, we should set our differences aside and have the capacity to share space with those who have different political affiliations. We must rely on our collective human experiences to relate to each other.
The idea of empathy should be contextualized within the realm of right and wrong and must not be based on whether or not the perpetrator belongs to our tribe. In the case of Bush, selective empathy is far worse than no empathy at all.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.