Americans know the feeling: It’s hard to believe the sight of your capital vandalized by a mob of people who won’t accept the result of an election because their side didn’t win. It’s our country — our democracy, ourselves — under attack.
It’s as though the rioters come from another planet.
But that oversimplification hurts us. Many of those involved in the attacks on democracy in the United States and Brazil were led to believe that their elections were stolen. That they were standing up for freedom. That we are the aliens. We shouldn’t ignore them. Brazil and the United States are still democracies — the people who hold these beliefs have the right to vote, too.
Besides, who among us these days doesn’t have an acquaintance, a sibling, a cousin or an otherwise lovely whatever-in-law who fell for the conspiracy theories?
They are decent people (mostly). People we love (mostly). Maybe people who have become so detached from reality that we prefer to just avoid them.
I have plenty of them in my own family. Days after Brazil’s extreme right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro, lost his bid for reelection, one of my brothers changed his WhatsApp picture to a logo that read: “I support military intervention.” Meaning: a coup.
My own blood.
We don’t choose our relatives. Among my friends, it was different — not one supported Bolsonaro. But this is another sign of trouble: the information bubbles we live in.
We need to pop these bubbles.
It is only because I know and love many of those inside the other bubbles that I can make the effort to understand them. I invite you to do the same.
Maybe you think this is in vain, because you know you won’t change their minds. That might be true. But that’s not the only good thing that can happen.
After the attacks in Brasília, I contacted a sister-in-law in Rio de Janeiro. She’s a lovely person who took care of my dad when he was dying, and she also is a fervent Bolsonaro supporter. She was appalled by the attacks, but she was confident they were the work of leftists. Likewise, several other relatives believe that the election of the leftist Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was an attempt to bring communism to Brazil.
My sister-in-law told me that her blood pressure spiked during the attacks. But she said, too, that had she been in Brasília at the time, she might have set the place on fire herself. “On one hand, I don’t approve of it,” she said. “But on the other hand, I’m filled with hatred. And it makes me feel terrible to carry so much hatred toward anyone or anything.”
Then she broke down in tears.
It is not new for voters to feel anger, sadness, disillusion, confusion. Nor are these emotions unique to Brazil or the United States. But it has become so easy to spread lies to take advantage of the people who feel these things.
It is natural to want to brush off those who fall for the kind of lies spread by the Jair Bolsonaros and Donald Trumps of the world. It’s an understandable defense, but it won’t make the problem go away.
What if, instead, we pull them in closer?
Draw them to us. Look them in eye.
My sister-in-law’s wish for a better country is real. Her pain is real.
I tried to comfort my sister-in-law by saying that I don’t see any chance that Brazil will be overtaken by communists. That, in four years, she would be able to vote again for whoever she likes.
And I told her that I love her.
“Te amo,” she replied.