What Does It All Mean? The Symbolism In The Bus Ride Story

In my previous post “How I Lost My Mind - The Long Bus Ride To The 2016 Election” I used a lot of symbolism and metaphors. In this post I’m going to explain what those things were and what they meant.

What Is The Bus

Being on the bus represents living in America. 

What does the bus trip represent?

The bus trip represents our life in America over time. Thus, we cannot get off (unless we move), and we cannot go backwards.

Who is the bus driver?

The bus driver, mandated by his employer to follow the path that the majority picks, is representative of how our democracy works (present debate over the electoral college notwithstanding).

Why are only my friends and family on the bus?

Because those are the people we interact with the most. Those are the people we have the most potential influence over.

What is the destination?

A life where the most amount of people are doing well, a goal that I suspect most people on both sides share.

What do the sides of the bus represent?

The sides of the bus represent your worldview. They are not strictly Democratic or Republican, but loosely representative of liberal and conservative. They don’t necessarily align with your political party either, because in this election there were definitely Republicans sitting on the left side of the bus, probably in an aisle seat.

What's the difference between a window and an aisle seat?

People sitting in the window seats aren't interested in compromise or understanding. They cling to conspiracy theories and factually inaccurate stories to support their worldview. The only care about winning, and winning at any cost. Incidentally, these window seat riders are often the loudest, most corrosive voices. 

Reasonable people are sitting in the aisle. Their experiences have shaped their worldview, placing them on a side, but they realize that good ideas don't come from just one worldview. 

What are the signs?

This one is more complicated. Some people assume that the signs are a metaphor for the media we consume. But it’s not that simple. 

A sign represents the message AND our interpretation.

Put another way, a sign is a metaphor for the media you consume AND your personal worldview that shapes how you consume it. When the story describes someone on the left side of the bus reading a sign, that's a metaphor for someone with a liberal-leaning worldview watching a news story AND interpreting the message of the story. It’s not entirely the source of the news, it’s not entirely the bias of the news, it’s all of that plus the interpretation of the viewer/reader.

For example, I don’t just watch liberal media. I do, on occasion, watch Fox News. But when I do, even though I'll likely see a more conservative presentation (bias) on a story, my worldview affects how I interpret that. So, since my worldview leans to the left, I can hear a story about an event and interpret it as a warning in big red letters. Someone else may hear that same story, and hear that warning in tiny fine print.

What does shouting at people across the aisle (while reading signs) represent?

This is the kind of thing I did often during this election. I presented facts, I posted links to stories. I tried to convince people without talking to them. I was shouting warnings about what I was seeing without actually talking to someone to find out if they were seeing the warnings the same way I was, if they were seeing them at all.

Shouting across the aisle represents trying to change someone's mind without trying to understand them first.

What does talking to people across the aisle represent?

It represents talking to someone who interprets news differently than you, and trying to understand why before trying to change their mind.

For example, many people on the left (like me), heard Donald Trump talk about “restoring law and order” and interpreted it as a racist dog-whistle, i.e. appealing to people with racist feelings about black people, without coming right out and saying it. When I heard those statements, what I heard Trump saying was “WE ARE GOING TO CRACK DOWN ON BLACK PEOPLE PROTESTING BECAUSE THEY CAN’T HELP THEMSELVES FROM LOOTING AND RIOTING.”

If you think that sounds crazy, you don’t understand my worldview. Because of the strange twists my life has taken, most of my friends in the last 20 years have been black. I’ve listened to their stories a LOT. My interpretation of what Trump meant with statements like that is a combination of growing up in a small town with almost no diversity, crossed with my 20 years of adult life with mostly black friends. 

On the other hand, I have a friend (white/hispanic) who grew up in a diverse neighborhood where racism was not perceived as a big part of everyday life. Today, he still has some diversity in his work life. But when he heard those same statements, the only thing he could think of was his uncle who is a police officer. When he sees 1000 people protesting, and 10 people getting into altercations with police, all he can think about is what those 10 people would do to his uncle. His worldview makes it more likely that he’ll hear a message about “restoring law and order” and interpret it as support of the police officers’ safety.

We both saw the same story. I took away a message that Donald Trump was appealing to racists who believe that black people are inherently violent, he took away from it that Trump was the only candidate willing to stand up for cops doing a hard job.

Which one of us is right?

That’s not the point. The point is that my friend is nice guy, and I demonized Trump voters because I thought everyone was hearing “racism” in those statements and voting for him anyway. But the truth is, a lot of people heard those statements and completely missed any racist undertones because their life has not positioned them in a way to see those undertones when they’re present. And I don’t know any police officers personally. So it’s very possible for me to hear those statements and ONLY hear the racist undertones.

When the two of us talk, he can explain to me the fear he hears when he watches a story about protests, because of his relationship with his uncle. Once he feels understood, then I can explain how I watch that same story and get scared for my friends. I’ve got friends that grew up during the civil rights era, and their generation experienced “restoring law and order” in a violent, horrific way.

After the conversation, we both have an expanded worldview. And it changes how we talk about voting. Knowing what matters to each other, knowing how each other interprets messages, it allows us to have a much more productive conversation.

One of us may convince the other to vote a different way, or we might not. Either way, we'll both be better, more rational people for having learned the "why" behind a vote.