Solipsism and the Riot

I was on  my way to Costco when I got news of the revolution. I started the day with the news that in response to some local politics, someone tried to throw a brick with the N word on it into the window of a local Black-owned coffee shop. It seemed like a big deal. Here in Oak Park, the most common response to the brick was that it must have come from somewhere else, that there simply aren’t people in Oak Park, the suburb so liberal even the expressway exits are on the left, who might throw a brick with the N word through a window.

The debates about where the brick came from started online. A rally and vigil were planned for the next day. It was big news. But then, in the afternoon, people tried to storm the Capitol.

The hot takes on what happened in DC and why came fast and furious, and continue to arrive now, three days later. My guess is we’ll be reading think pieces on what caused this breakdown and insurrection for a couple of weeks, and then again, four years from now when there’s a new transition of power. Maybe also any time something similar happens in another country. Our news cycle, our attention spans, our addiction to outrage and surprise won’t allow us to keep talking about it for long.

So, allow me to get my think piece in now, while it’s still relevant. The two most common explanations I’ve heard are “Trump incited it” and “There’s a lack of education and critical thinking skills.” Both of these are certainly true, but I think there’s a deeper reason. I think this Coup Clutz Clan is born out of a commitment to a kind of solipsism.

In philosophy, solipsism is the theory that the only thing we know for sure that exists is our own brain, our own thoughts. But we’re all familiar with it on a less theoretical level. Even if you haven’t read Piaget, you probably know that kids go through a self-centered stage, a stage where they really can’t think about anyone else’s needs. For the most part, they come out of it around 8 or 9. But, it doesn’t disappear. Anyone with teenagers or even those in their 20s will recognize some trouble in getting their child to notice what’s going on around them.

We also know it about ourselves. The times when what our spouse or partner needs or wants just doesn’t make sense. The times when we just can’t believe that someone who throws a brick at a window, or uses the N word, or commits some other crime, lives in our neighborhood.

Although we have probably only talked about it when stoned,  many of us spent at least a little time in our lives wondering if it’s possible that we are the only person who exists. If it’s possible that everyone else is a robot. Most of us can remember a childish or mushroom-induced moment when we wondered if others ceased to exist when we left the room.

For the most part, we move past these thoughts and stages. Most of us know that we are not alone in this world, that we aren’t the center of the world, but do we truly believe it?

Before the election my 14-year-old would often inform me that Biden would probably lose because “No one is interested in him. He’s boring.” I kept informing him that, in fact, many, many people were very interested in having a very boring president. When pressed to name who he meant by “no one” was, my son would say, his friends and “political tik tok.” When pressed to name what I meant by “many, many people,” I said “my friends and other middle age people.” Many of you are smiling and agreeing as you read this, but look what I did. I put “political tik tok” in quotes, as though it weren’t a real thing, as though it wasn’t comprised of real people, real people who by virtue of age and who knows what else have different beliefs and wants than I do. Back at the beginning, did you giggle at “Coup Clutz Clan” as though these weren’t real people with thoughts and feelings who attempted what they believed was a righteous rebellion, but rather characters in a Hee Haw skit?

In news story after news story at polling places before and after the election you heard people on both sides being confident that their candidate would win because (gestures widely) look around. The people who believe Trump won the election can’t fathom that their corner of the world, of the Internet, isn’t the only corner of the world and the Internet. That there are other, real people in the world who believe, think, and vote differently than they do.

Those of us against Trump are no better. How surprised were you when Trump was elected in 2016? Not the next day, when you had time to think about it and realize that “Yeah, that tracks,” but when watching the votes come in. Did you truly believe that there were that many people who could be so devoted to being anti-abortion, or pro-gun, or just wanting something different, that they would vote for a racist, sexist, molester? Or did you assume that most people think like you do. That most people wouldn’t vote for a man so clearly unqualified in experience and temperament?

Many people talk about the need for greater empathy, greater understanding, greater caring for each other. Our politicians, especially President-elect Biden, talk about the need to unify to realize that “more unites us than divides us.” I am not asking for that. I am not asking for unity or understanding.

I think we need to get more basic. Before we can understand others, before we can look at what we have in common, we need to first admit that other people exist.





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