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A look at Amazon’s web site reveals many self-help books with titles like Beyond the Comfort Zone: A Complete Guide to Authentic Management and The Science of Breaking Out of Your Comfort Zone: How to Live Fearlessly, Seize Opportunity, and Make Each Day Memorable. On the Psychology Today web site psychotherapist Barry Michels writes of the “huge price” you pay refusing to leave your comfort zone.

But my concern here is more specific, and it is related to the racism, nationalism, and intolerance I often see on the far Right, for example from those Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol building on 6 January, 2021. Their collective mindset seems indicative of individuals who feel uncomfortable going beyond their cocooned existence, i. e., comfort zone. Such people can be Whites uneasy around Blacks, Christians who distrust Muslims, straights who dislike gays, Americans who look down on foreigners, blue-collar workers who consider professors “eggheads,” or all sorts of other variations.

In mid 2016 author George Saunders described a similar mentality among many Trump supporters. They suffered from what he called “usurpation anxiety syndrome,” which he defined as “the feeling that one is, or is about to be, scooped, overrun, or taken advantage of by some Other with questionable intentions.” We now know that a significant percentage of Trump voters, both in 2016 and 2020, were non-college educated whites, especially older males, who came from smaller towns and rural areas.

In an essay in LA Progressive four years ago, I wrote that “the more educated one is, in the best sense of the word, the less likely one is to be racist and support Trump. What education should do for us is broaden our horizons and make us less narrow, provincial, and biased. Humanities disciplines like literature, history, and anthropology should do so partly by increasing our empathy for other people in other places, circumstances, and times. Studying philosophy and religion should lead us to more ethical inquiries. If we appreciate the sciences, we are more likely to respect facts (like those related to climate change) and be truth-seekers. Travel can also be educative and make us less provincial.”

In one sense Trump supporters reminded me of many of the students I taught during four decades in a Basic Studies history course. Usually it was 20th-Century Civilization, and I used a text that I co-wrote along with other Eastern Michigan University historians, called (in its later editions) The Twentieth Century and Beyond: A Global History.

What many of the Trump voters and many of my students had in common was their provincialism, their discomfort with anything outside their comfort zone. What I hoped to do with my students—and what I hope will some day occur with many who once supported Trump—is witness the overcoming of their limited horizons.

I did not look down on my students partly because many of them came from families just like mine—white working-class families, where they were the first ones to go to college. For me going to Xavier University in Cincinnati was a tremendously liberating experience, as were the two years that followed it as a lieutenant in the U. S. Army, six months of which were spent in France. The classes that I took at Xavier, especially in literature, history, philosophy, and foreign languages, taught me that there was a much larger physical and mental world out there than I had ever realized in my first eighteen years of life. Meeting new people from different ethnic groups and beliefs from all over the United States (while stationed in Oklahoma) and from Europe (while stationed in France and visiting various cities not only there, but also in Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Belgium, and Luxembourg) further broadened my horizons. The gratitude I felt for those six years of mind expansion has never left me and became the foundation for a lifetime of continued learning—through travel, books, and increasingly other media.

Progressivism, at least to my mind, implies open-mindedness, tolerance, a willingness to appreciate other cultures and races, even other points of view.

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Thus, in my 20th century world civilization class I tried to help my students appreciate how big and varied the world was beyond the Michigan communities in which they grew up. Our textbook dealt with developments not only in the USA, but also Latin America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. In addition, I usually had them read some supplemental paperbacks that I hoped would further broaden their minds. One I often used was Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1959). I hoped it would help my students to comprehend and feel what it might have been like to be an older or younger African around 1900 who has to grapple with white imperialism—in this case British, but French, German, or U. S. imperialism was not that different.

I defined it as a country’s extension of rule or authority by force or the threat of its use over a foreign territory. In discussing it with my students, I indicated that it often manifested racist and nationalistic symptoms. The last two manifestations are often complex phenomena, and in a later book, An Age of Progress? Clashing Twentieth-Century Global Forces, I devoted a chapter to imperialism, racism, nationalism, and globalization. There I indicated their complexity and provided historic examples. I also mentioned that the “Indian-born economist Amartya Sen was correct in noting that twentieth-century violence was often encouraged by rigidly classifying people according to a single classification, such as race, ethnicity, nationality, or religion, and forgetting that all humans have multiple identities and share common numerous human qualities.” I had quoted him earlier in the same book as saying that much twentieth-century violence flowed from “the illusion of a unique and choiceless identity”—for example, that of nationality, race, or class—and that “the art of constructing hatred takes the form of invoking the magical power of some allegedly predominant identity that drowns other affiliations and in a conveniently bellicose form can also overpower any human sympathy or natural kindness that we may normally have.”

I also quoted his fellow Indian-born writer Salman Rushdie, who once captured well the evil flowing from close-mindedness and intolerance: In India “from time to time they slit their neighbor’s throats. . . . They killed you for being circumcised and they killed you because your foreskins had been left on. Long hair got you murdered and haircuts too; light skin flayed dark skin and if you spoke the wrong language you could lose your twisted tongue.”

Increasingly in recent years I have become distrustful of dogmatism, of people whether on the Right or Left, who are too sure they’re right. I have no problem with patriotism—rightly understood, love, including love of country, is always good. But when we go beyond patriotism to a nationalist belief that our country is superior to others or that other peoples are inferior to us, I detect the cocoon mentality. It reminds me of the response of a fellow soldier about the townspeople in the small French town near where we were stationed in 1961-1962. He complained, “None of those damn frogs can speak English.” Later on when I frequently took students in the summer to the Soviet Union, some of them (thankfully, not most of them) made derogatory remarks about Russian customs, faulting Russians for not acting more like Americans.

Progressivism, at least to my mind, implies open-mindedness, tolerance, a willingness to appreciate other cultures and races, even other points of view. One of the best speeches President Obama ever gave was his 2010 University of Michigan Commencement Address. Here are a few of the things he said: “We can’t expect to solve our problems if all we do is tear each other down. You can disagree with a certain policy without demonizing the person who espouses it. You can question somebody’s views and their judgment without questioning their motives or their patriotism.” He stated that demonizing others “closes the door to the possibility of compromise. It undermines democratic deliberation. It prevents learning. . . . If we choose only to expose ourselves to opinions and viewpoints that are in line with our own, [if we choose to only remain within our comfort zone,] studies suggest that we become more polarized, more set in our ways. That will only reinforce and even deepen the political divides in this country. But if we choose to actively seek out information that challenges our assumptions and our beliefs, perhaps we can begin to understand where the people who disagree with us are coming from.”

“If you’re somebody,” he continued, “who only reads the editorial page of The New York Times, try glancing at the page of The Wall Street Journal once in a while. If you’re a fan of Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh, try reading a few columns on the Huffington Post website. It may make your blood boil; your mind may not be changed. But the practice of listening to opposing views is essential for effective citizenship. It is essential for our democracy."

In his speech, Obama quoted Benjamin Franklin at the Constitutional Convention, but he did not mention these Franklin words to it: “For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information, or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise.”

walter moss

Walter Moss

More than most presidents, however, Obama welcomed diversified views that might challenge his own. In his pre-presidential The Audacity of Hope he wrote that President Lincoln demonstrated that “we must talk and reach for common understandings, precisely because all of us are imperfect and can never act with the certainty that God is on our side.” One of the great tragedies of the Obama presidency was that so few Republicans shared his willingness to go beyond their comfort zones, or narrow “self-interest,” in order to forward the common good.

Walter G. Moss